This academic paper is with the objective of investigating how representation of female homosexuality and femininity occurs of the character Cosima Niehaus from the television series Orphan Black. A character and relationship analysis of the lesbian Cosima will show the presentation of these two topics. The impact on the spectators of the series in this field and the use of stereotyping will be examined. Also it will be demonstrated how the impersonators Tatiana Maslany and Kathryn Alexandre (acting double) experience Cosima, which contributes representation. Up-to-date literature and internet sources, plus a survey and an interview conducted by the author enables this investigation. It will lead to the importance of medial representation of female homosexuality (thus including the topic femininity) and therefore also the importance of LGBTQIA+ topics for our whole society, to communicate an understanding of tolerance, one's own identity, the identity of others and the perception of reality. Consequently Orphan Black will be illuminated as pioneer in exemplary LGBTQIA+ representation.
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Deutsch: Original Titel als wissenschaftliche Arbeit und Informationen:
Analyse der Fernsehserie am Beispiel der Repräsentation von weiblicher Homosexualität und Weiblichkeit des Charakters „Cosima Niehaus“ und die Bedeutsamkeit der Serie für die LGBTQIA+ Gemeinschaft
Frau JJ Herdegen
Film und Fernsehen
Prof. Peter Gottschalk
Carolin Otterbach (B.A.)
Einreichung: Nürnberg, 19. Mai 2017
English: Original title as academic paper and information:
Faculty of Media
Analysing the television series by the example of the representation of female homosexuality and feminity from the character “Cosima Niehaus” and the series’ significance to the LGBTQIA+ community
Ms. JJ Herdegen
course of studies:
Film and Television
Prof. Peter Gottschalk
Carolin Otterbach (B.A)
submission: Nuernberg, 19th May 2017
Bibliographic original data
109 pages, Bachelor thesis, written 2017, published 2020
This academic paper is with the objective of investigating how representation of female homosexuality and femininity occurs of the character Cosima Niehaus from the television series Orphan Black. A character and relationship analysis of the lesbian Cosima will show the presentation of these two topics. The impact on the spectators of the series in this field and the use of stereotyping will be examined. Also it will be demonstrated how the impersonators Tatiana Maslany and Kathryn Alexandre (acting double) experience Cosima, which contributes representation. Up-to-date literature and internet sources, plus a survey and an interview conducted by the author enables this investigation. It will lead to the importance of medial representation of female homosexuality (thus including the topic femininity) and therefore also the importance of LGBTQIA+ topics for our whole society, to communicate an understanding of tolerance, one’s own identity, the identity of others and the perception of reality. Consequently Orphan Black will be illuminated as pioneer in exemplary LGBTQIA+ representation.
This academic paper was written as examination to pass the Bachelor studies program. It was evaluated with the top mark due to its academic validity, topicality and its relevance of content.
This thesis was translated into English by the author herself from the original German version. German quotations are still part of the thesis but are noted with an English translation.
lectured and edited by:
Prof. Emeritus of Languages
Colorado Mesa University
Grand Junction, Colorado, U.S.A.
Thank you for your support, Gabriele.
The fifth and last season of the series Orphan Black was not released during the writing of this academic paper for which reason it is not part of the analysis even though it unfolds many more factors of representing (queer) women.
Attempts were made to word the constant and important change of representing and phrasing queer content. Therefore e.g. the initialism “LGBTQ” was broadened to “LGBTQIA+” in 2019.
Although this thesis has been written in 2017 its relevance is still up-to-date as queer representation and representation of women are both still in development and still have to increase due to the actual numbers of earth’s population.
The publication of this thesis has been postponed due to personal reasons, but still had find its way as it is a meaningful work for the LGBTQIA+ community and female representation.
The author likes to add that the lesbian representation of Orphan Black’s character Cosima Niehaus is one selected example and therefore portrays one option. There is room and need for different representation of different age, skin colours, ethnicities, abilities, body shapes, gender (beyond the constructed binary understanding), romantic and sexual orientation (including the asexual/aromantic spectrum), beliefs, social, financial and professional backgrounds.
My personal gratitude is addressed to the two women, who portray Cosima. Thanks to their tolerance, intelligence, creativity and talent Orphan Black experiences its profundity, which made this thesis possible.
Heartfelt thanks, Tatiana Maslany and Kathryn Alexandre for your exemplary and inspiring openheartedness and open-mindedness.
And I am deeply grateful for everything Cophine brought into my life including embracing myself, daring to stand up for what matters to my heart and people I’ve met along this journey. I am grateful for the support and help of many people to realise this.
This thesis is published to set an example for the importance of queer female representation in media and shall inspire others – queer or not; media producers or not – to be aware of their own representation and the responsibility that comes with it to this world beyond media as well.
List of abbreviations
Register of Illustrations
1.1 Approaching the subject
1.2 Formulation of the question
1.3 Constructing the thesis and used sources
Queer cinema and problematic presentation of lesbian themes
Executive summary of the series
Cosima Niehaus: Analysis and realisation of the character
4.2 Living with the “clone disease”
4.3 Profession and education
4.6.1 Leda, the clone sisters
4.6.2 Other family members and friends
4.7 Cosima’s relationship with her great love Delphine Cormier
4.7.1 Love at first sight
4.7.2 Cosima’s feelings for Delphine
4.7.3 Delphine’s feelings for Cosima
4.7.4 Flirting women
4.7.5 Physical contact between the women
4.7.6 True love
4.7.7 Conflicts in the relationship and separation
4.7.8 Cosima’s lovesickness
4.7.9 Shared love for science
4.7.10 Delphine as monitor and protector of Leda
Representation and significance
5.1 Female homosexuality in Orphan Black: Presentation and its consequences
5.1.1 Cosima: A self-confident, lesbian woman
5.1.2 Positive example of lesbian relationships: Love between Cosima and Delphine
5.2 Femininity in Orphan Black: Presentation and its consequences
5.3 Orphan Black playing with stereotypes in femininity and homosexuality
Survey results: Female homosexuality and femininity in Orphan Black and its impact on the audience
7.1 Tatiana Maslany
7.2 Kathryn Alexandre
Results and consequences
Conclusion and outlook
List of sources
Transcript: Interview Kathryn Alexandre
1 Cf. URL: http://www.hrc.org/blog/how-to-be-an-lgbt-ally [Date: 11.04.2017]
2 Cf. URL: http://queer-at-school.de/?page_id=88 [Date: 20.04.2017]
3 Cf. Orphan Black: Season 1, “Natural Selection“, 2013, TC: 00:01:03 – 00:04:45
4 Cf. Orphan Black: Season 2, Extras, “A Look Inside”, TC: 00:11:01 - 00:11:27
5 Cf. URL: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=cophine [Date: 11.04.2017]
6 Cf. Hollows, Joanne: Media Studiep. A Complete Introduction, Teach Yourself Books, London, 2016, p. 264 (Method of citation: Media Studies)
7 Cf. Media Studies, p. 197
8 Media Studies, p. 181
9 Cf. Media Studies, p. 181f
10 Cf. URL: http://www.liberateyourself.co.uk/lgbtq/what-is-lgbtq/ [Date: 11.04.2017]
11 Cf. URL: http://www.liberateyourself.co.uk/lgbtq/what-is-lgbtq/ [Date: 11.04.2017]
12 Cf. URL: http://queer-lexikon.net/doku.php?id=queer:queer&do= [Date: 11.04.2017]
13 Cf. Media Studies, p. 124f
14 Cf. Media Studies, p. 178
15 Cf. Media Studies, p. 183f
Illustration 1 Cosima’s first appearance in Orphan Black (on the right). She introduces herself. (On the left: Cosima‘s clone sister Alison)
Illustration 2 Cosima’s beauty in her humanity
Illustration 3 Cosima is touched by Delphine during her near-death experience
Illustration 4 Cosima breaks down
Illustration 5 Delphine sits next to Cosima, who aggressively dashes paper sheets off the table
Illustration 6 The Leda-sisters from the left to the right: Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel, Helena (all portrayed by Tatiana Maslany)
Illustration 7 Cosima watches as Delphine leaves and realises her feelings for her
Illustration 8 Delphine confesses Cosima that she is in love with her
Illustration 9 Delphine and Cosima kiss each other passionately
Illustration 10 Delphine tells Cosima that she loves her
Illustration 11 Delphine and Cosima are reunited
Illustration 12 As protector of Leda Delphine is serious, strict and worried.
Illustration 13 Cosima says an important sentence for the queer community
Illustration 14 Cosima is kissed by Delphine. True love is reunited
Illustration 15 (from the left to the right) Helena, Sarah, Felix, Alison (in the back) und Cosima dance together
Illustration 16 Tatiana takes a stand for the LGBTQIA+ community: “I’m Tatiana Maslany and I got your back.“
Illustration 17 Kathryn Alexandre (foreground) as acting double for the character Rachel Duncan.
Illustration 18 Cosima and Delphine kiss each other in a preview of season 5 of Orphan Black
“Aktuell leben homosexuelle Frauen […] in einer Gesellschaft, die immer noch von Spuren aus der Vergangenheit gezeichnet ist, in welcher weibliche Homosexualität ignoriert oder abgelehnt wurde. Es gibt allerdings eine Tendenz zur zunehmenden Gleichberechtigung, sowohl auf rechtlicher, als auch auf lebensqualitativer Ebene. Der signifikante Mangel an Quellen über das Thema Homosexualität lässt sich einerseits mit Desinteresse in der Gesellschaft erklären und andererseits mit öffentlicher Ablehnung, die zur Folge hat, dass homosexuelle Frauen sich bevorzugt im Verborgenen aufhalten.“16
(Translation: “Currently homosexual women live in a society, which is still marked by the past, in which female homosexuality was ignored and refused. However, there is a tendency of increasing equality in law and quality of life. The significant lack of sources about homosexuality is caused by disinterest in society on the one hand and by public rejection on the other hand, which results in homosexual women preferring to live in secrecy.”)
Female homosexuality is still ignored and refused in society - even if there are increasing changes - as illustrated in the previous quote. The subject “homosexual women” also includes the subject “femininity”. In order to explain the problematic representation in film of female homosexuality it is important to clarify that cinematic portrayal of female characters is extremely low.17 Therefore it also reduces the possibility to represent homosexuality and femininity in combination.
Open-mindedness about own sexual and gender identity grew increasingly in the last few years.18 This provides a much greater audience for cinematic queerness. Medial representation provides an opportunity to educate queer as well as non-queer people and expand their awareness and understanding of reality. (cf. term definition “Representation“). The LGBTQIA+ community suffers from lacking portrayal or rather less divers and qualitatively negative cinematic representation of LGBTQIA+ characters including whitewashing (rare to none portrayal of BIPoC). “Leaving LGBT[QIA+] people out of the picture — or including them only as a punchline — keeps old prejudices alive and creates an unsafe environment, not only […] in America, but around the world where most audiences see these depictions.”19 Therefore influence on the LGBTQIA+ community and their reputation is intensively dependent on medial representation and affected by influence and significance. This significance for the LGBTQIA+ community with prior analysis of female homosexuality and femininity in the television series Orphan Black with special attention to the lesbian character Cosima Niehaus, should lead to knowledge and expansion of consciousness for queer representation.
16 Tröstl, Stefanie: Femmes fatales und Kesse Väter. Über weibliche Homosexualität im Spielfilm, Diplomica Verlag GmbH, Hamburg, 2012, p.30f (Method of citation: Femmes fatales)
17 Cf. URL: http://www.indiewire.com/2015/02/sorry-ladies-study-on-women-in-film-and-television-confirms-the-worst-65220/ [Date: 20.04.2017]
18 Cf. URL: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/teens-these-days-are-queer-af-new-study-says [Date: 20.04.2017]
19 URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/glaad-studio-responsibility-index_us_572772dce4b0b49df6abc868 [Date: 20.04.2017]
As queer people are part of the society and therefore are eligible for or rather are entitled to receive representation, this thesis will study the Canadian television series Orphan Black and its portrayal of the lesbian leading role Cosima Niehaus. In doing so it shall shed light on lesbian representation and compare it to failings and defects in reflection and presentation up to now. Representation of lesbian characters requires a multifaceted representation of femininity in order to realistically portray a woman as homosexual. So the female-lead series Orphan Black will be analysed in its portrayal of femininity, too. The significance of the series to the LGBTQIA+ community will also be examined to determine its impact on the audience and the whole society.
In order to be able to answer this research question, this thesis first needs to shed light on the problematic portrayal of queer and female topics in the media. An executive summary of the previously aired four seasons of Orphan Black is needed to analyse the character Cosima. Further a characterisation of Cosima with special view of her relationship to her great love Delphine Cormier will show the explicit representation of female homosexuality and femininity in the series. The analysis of Cosima and the way her lesbian relationship is depicted in the series will be a large part of this paper, as the series with four seasons at ten each episodes of circa 45 minutes accompanies Cosima and her relationship through different circumstances of her life. To detect the result of representation of female homosexuality and femininity, the analysed presentation will be compared with previous prejudices of women and lesbians in filmic media. Stereotyping, which social and gender groups suffer from and how Orphan Black works with it, will be examined, too. To discover the significance of the series to the LGBTQIA+ community, a survey in the fandom was taken by the author, which will explain its influence on spectators in relation to female homosexuality and femininity. The completion of the analysis of Cosima’s character and her influences on femininity and female homosexuality is given by summing up statements about these topics by the two impersonators of the character: Tatiana Maslany and acting-double Kathryn Alexandre. For Kathryn Alexandre’s exemplification she was specifically interviewed by the author.
The series and the issue representation are currently very important and much discussed. As the quote in the beginning describes, a significant lack of sources about homosexuality exists. Therefore the main source of representation and character analysis for this thesis will be the series itself as well as recent articles from the internet. All used literature about female homosexuality, medial representation and Orphan Black date back to 2007, which therefore provides a wide-ranging and currently realistic examination possibility for the topic. Other sources to appoint are the specially conducted questionnaire in the fandom of the series and the interview with Kathryn Alexandre. These special sources are used to understand the influence the series has had on the audience.
“’It is difficult enough to be queer, but to be queer in the cinema is almost impossible. Heterosexuals have fucked up the screen so completely that there’s hardly room for us to kiss there.’ – Derek Jarman, filmmaker”20
Derek Jarman’s statement describes how there is a lack of space in filmic media for other sexualities because of heteronormativity. But representation is essential to enlighten people, irrespective of their own sexual orientation, and to shape their own identity as well as to comprehend the identities of others. Filmic portrayals inspire and encourage believing in one’s self and cause change. Presentation of queer characters helps and supports queer people in outing themselves and in understanding that they are not alone: “[A film] encouraged me as a young kid that coming out was all right, and that these folks are walking around my streets and in my neighbourhood. Film can cause those kinds of spiritual, emotional shifts. I don’t think it’s too far off to suggest that film effects change.21 Indeed portraying queer topics is very complicated as it includes political and religious aspects, education and other themes and claims to examine these themes22. But representation of queer characters addresses humans and especially teenagers, who struggle with their sexual identity. Obvious medial expressions of these topics also cause conversations about acceptance and tolerance.23 The significance of representing queer themes exists because many people long for truthful presentation, especially if they are stereotyped or demonized24, which means presented in a negative way to society.
Non-heterosexuals and trans*genders [and other non cis-genders] often suffer from anxieties to be different or to be marginalised in society when they discover their sexual or gender identity.25 Queer teenagers frequently resist their diversity from the dominant cisheterosexual cultural norm. But “[t]heir mental health depends on accepting their orientation, owning it, and being proud of it.”26 Therefore it is even more important that media exert a positive influence on society if it concerns queer characters.
This thesis refers to female homosexuality. But it is not possible to just focus on the “L” of LGBTQIA+; as “queer characters” include lesbian characters, “queer” is commonly used instead of “lesbian”. The series Orphan Black portrays several queer characters, which stands for the representation of queer characters. This analysis will be mainly concerned with the representation of the lesbian character Cosima Niehaus.
Director Rose Troche says that filmic representation of female homosexuality is not positive. There are increases, she says, but in her fundamental statement, it is too little and not positive enough.27 Stefanie Troestl’s investigations verify this. Filmic lesbian relationships often end because one woman turns towards a man and therefore emerges as a heterosexual woman, while the other woman is not emotionally important anymore.28 Respectful interaction with lesbian love is not granted because it conveys that a woman is actually waiting for the right man and cannot be fulfilled in a homosexual relationship. Even sexual fulfilment in female homosexual relationships is portrayed as ridiculous as it is considered to be nothing more than an experiment or gimmick until a man comes and brings “real” sexuality in a woman’s life. 29
“Die meisten Frauen werden […] nicht als homosexuell betrachtet […]. Auch damit wird weibliche Homosexualität negiert oder zumindest abgeschwächt. […] [J]eglicher Umgang mit weiblicher Homosexualität [führt] zu dem Ergebnis […], dass sie so gut wie unsichtbar ist. Sie lässt sich weder historisch, noch kulturell, noch psychologisch, noch soziologisch hinreichend erörtern. Obwohl sie erwiesenermaßen vorhanden ist, sind evidente Lücken […] vorhanden […]. Dieses Defizit an medialer und öffentlicher Präsenz kann mitunter ein Grund dafür sein, warum [in] Inszenierungsmethoden […] lesbische Figuren […] immer als Außenseiter konzipiert [sind], die von der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft abgelehnt werden.“30
(Translation: “Most women are not considered to be homosexual. […] That is how female homosexuality is negated or at least weakened. […] It appears that any handling of female homosexuality is virtually invisible. It is not adequately arguable historically, or culturally, or psychologically, or sociologically. Even though it evidentially exists, there are obvious lacks. This deficiency in medial and public presence can be a reason why in staging […] lesbian characters, they are always conceptualized as outsiders, who are rejected by civil society.”)
On the contrary Orphan Black is working directly with representation of queer characters, which causes lots of positive feedback: “Orphan Black is celebrated for its inclusion of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) characters whose story lines do not depend on their sexuality […].”31
In order to more thoroughly analyse representation of individuality in female homosexuality and femininity of the main character Cosima Niehaus from the series Orphan Black, the content of the series; Cosima’s characterisation and her love relationship to Delphine Cormier will be covered in the next chapters.
20 Hays, Matthew: The View from Here. Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2007, p. 11 (Method of citation: The View from Here)
21 The View from Here, p. 80
22 Cf. The View from Here, p. 80
23 Cf. The View from Here, p. 96
24 Cf. The View from Here, p. 115
25 Cf. Pence, Gregory E.: What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club, BenBella Books, Dallas, 2016, p.16 (Method of citation: Talk about Clone Club)
26 Talk about Clone Club, p. 155
27 Cf. The View from Here, p. 324f
28 Cf. Femmes fatales, p. 105
29 Cf. Femmes fatales, p. 107
30 Femmes fatales, p. 119f
31 Talk about Clone Club, p.146
„Clones are the central subject matter of Orphan Black. The term “Orphan Black” refers to orphans (clones) being “in the black”, or hidden […].”32
(Note: The following information was collected by screening the following sources: Orphan Black: Season 1, Episodes 1-10, 2013; Orphan Black: Season 2, Episodes 1-10, 2014; Orphan Black: Season 3, Episodes 1-10, 2015; Orphan Black: Season 4, Episodes 1-10, 2016. More precise references cf. ”List of sources, DVDs”. Since the content of the series is only apparent through the screening of the given sources this point is not complemented by further footnotes.)
After a long time of disappearance, protagonist Sarah (portrayed by Tatiana Maslany), a punk-styled outlier, returns to end her rebellious life and to prepare a new beginning with her daughter Kira (portrayed by Skyler Wexler) and her foster brother Felix (portrayed by Jordan Gavaris). While trying to obtain money for her plan, she discovers that she is a clone. Primarily she rejects her fate, before she connects with further clones. All together Alison, a suburban “soccer-mum”, Cosima, a highly intelligent and scientifically talented PhD student of evolutionary development of biology (both also portrayed by Tatiana Maslany) and Sarah want to find out where they come from and why another clone, Helena (also portrayed by Tatiana Maslany), wants to kill them. Helena was trained by religious fanatics to kill her own sisters, as she was told her sisters are not creations of god and that is why they have to die. However after some time Helena learns that the women act in love and connection with each other, like real sisters do. That is why she joins them and uses her abilities for their benefit.
The sisters come to know that they were observed by monitors their whole life. The monitors are organised by the Dyad Institute, to control health conditions of the clones. Dyad was part of generating the clones and patented their DNA and therefore the women themselves as intellectual property. This robs the sisters from any possibility to live a self-determined life, which they want to fight for. Dyad is connected to Neolution. Cosima connects with the evolutional sect Neolution by the use of her scientific skills. Neolution declares for an evolution which is only created by humans. The clone-sisters discover their project name: “Leda”. Furthermore a group of male clones appears. They were created for the military at the same time as the sisters. Their project name is “Castor.”
The “clone disease“ breaks out with Cosima. It is an autoimmune disease, which can cause polyps in lungs and uterus. Because of this disease, Cosima coughs up blood and has difficulty breathing. The reason for this illness was an intervention by the creators of the clones, to make them infertile in order to control reproduction. This intervention failed however with the identical twins Sarah and Helena, which makes them immune to the disease. The sisters’ immune system was manipulated negatively and weakened. Consequently it reacts with systematic destruction of the body. If no cure is developed, the disease can lead to death. As the clones are the first experiment like this, there is no healing method developed yet. To save the sisters’ lives they work together to generate a cure. This task pushes them to their limits. It requires much scientific character, mental and physical strength and solidarity. They are supported by different people.
Their supporters are amongst others Sarah’s foster brother Felix, Sarah’s foster mother Siobhan Sadler – short “Mrs. S” – (portrayed by Maria Doyle Kennedy), police officer and friend Arthur Bell (portrayed by Kevin Hanchard), Cosima’s great love and laboratory partner Dr Delphine Cormier (portrayed by Évelyne Brochu), Cosima’s laboratory partner Scott Smith (portrayed by Josh Vokey) and Alison’s husband Donnie Hendrix (portrayed by Kristian Bruun). This community – the sisters and their supporters – call themselves “Clone Club”. Members know about the women being clones and fight for the sisters, their health and their self-determination.
The sisters and their supporters conduct several attempts to develop a cure. More help comes from one of the creators: Ethan Duncan (portrayed by Andrew Gillies). He is a senile scientist, who cannot cope with the intrigues of Dyad. Especially as his daughter – another clone sister, who he chose to raise as his own child – Rachel Duncan (also portrayed by Tatiana Maslany) is one of them. He commits suicide. After her parents went into hiding, Rachel was raised as the only self-aware clone. This caused her to be extremely narcissistic as she thinks of herself to be the one and only perfection of a clone. She turns against the union of sisters.
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