I’ve just finished re-watching Orphan Black Season 2, Episode 8. The single episode in all five seasons which features trans character, Tony Sawicki.
Disclaimer: obviously there may be spoilers, also I will be discussing the ‘problematic’ elements of Tony’s character towards the end so please read (or, at least, skim) the whole thing.
Trans representation in popular media was, and is, rare. When trans men are represented there is often a lot of sadness, torture, death and toxic masculinity (not to mention copious amounts of unsafe binding). Tony appears, on the surface level, as a hyper-masculine, occasionally over-compensating, cliche guy. However, in the shots, dialogue and backstory, Orphan Black creates a character who is more developed than he appears on surface level. When we see Tony on his own, that’s when we see who he truly is: a skeptical person, street-smart and cunning, afraid of being around people who don’t tell him the whole truth.
To tackle some of the issues which people had with Tony’s character I’m going to reference this article as it’s the first one which appears when you Google search Tony Sawicki. Article writer, Tariq, (who is, notably, a cis man) feels that the portrayal of Tony is unrealistic in almost every aspect. In the article, he critiques Tony’s ‘stereotypical’ traits (he doesn’t explain which stereotype he is referring to, though I presume he simply means conventional masculinity), the use of facial hair, issues with costume design and over-sexualisation. I’d like to address my views on these criticisms so here goes.
Stereotypes: I feel that Tony is fairly well-rounded considering that his screen time is so limited; he is queer, overtly tough, vulnerable with a facade of confidence. What I hear people saying when they say ‘Tony is too masculine, it’s like they tried too hard’ is ‘Trans men are inherently more feminine than cis men and any other representation makes me uncomfortable’. Facial hair: Tony’s facial hair resembles that of someone who takes testosterone. It isn’t completely even and it is thicker in certain areas than others. For me, this was actually great attention to detail, rather than an oversight. Costume design: Tony’s large, layered clothing is typical of many trans men and his binder is a great example of safe binding (it’s also nice to see a trans male character shown as comfortable in fewer clothes in his more casual scenes). Over sexualisation: When Tariq discussed the ‘over-sexualisation’ of Tony and the ‘unnecessary’ make-out scene with Felix, to me it screamed, ‘I am uncomfortable with trans men and queer sexuality!’. At no point in the episode is Tony fetishised for his trans-ness and he owns his sexuality (plus, in a show where we frequently see naked butts, I think we should expect some level of sexual content). The make-out scene with Felix is no more than a few seconds in which we see Tony’s confident facade be overcome by his deep vulnerability; he goes from self-assured to self-conscious in around two seconds. It’s a complex and deeply affecting moment for me every time I watch this scene and I think it’s entirely necessary.
Outside of this article the main complaint has been that there should have been a trans male actor playing this character. As he’s a clone, this is impossible in context; however, perhaps a better representative character would have been a non-clone, played by a trans actor. The only issue I can find with this theory is that there would have been no opportunity to witness the complexity of Felix’s relationship with his sister in comparison to her male counterpart. I think that the cast, Tatiana Maslany especially, were sensitive and aware of this issue.
This is a case of a forgotten, neglected trans character; only included for a single episode as it was deemed ‘enough’ representation. Part of me is concerned that the reason we never got to see Tony’s character again was due to the perceived ‘backlash’ from those who, in my personal opinion, didn’t fully analyse the subtext of his episode. Either way, the loss of Tony in the subsequent seasons of the show was nothing short of a tragedy.
Tell me about the best example of queer or trans representation you’ve seen in comments. If you’re familiar with Orphan Black let me know if you agree with my views about Tony.- AB
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