Orphan Black’s Delphine and the Dangers of the Bisexual Femme Fatale

[WARNING: this post contains spoilers up to the current episode]

The character of Delphine on the TV show Orphan Black is one of the most high-profile depictions of bisexual women in current popular media. In fact, it’s one of very few media texts in which a bisexual woman character actually uses the word “bisexuality” in order to describe herself (a rare occasion indeed!). But while it’s incredibly exciting to see this kind of depiction, we should also be aware of the role that Delphine’s bisexuality plays in the plot.

As a general rule in popular media, bisexuality is never depicted for its own sake or for the sake of the character. More often than not, it’s there as a trope, as shorthand for something else, a hint to help us understand something entirely different about the character. In short: it’s a form of stereotyping. For example, we can often find bisexuality as a way to emphasize a character’s “wild” or “exotic” nature, to underline lack of commitment, or point to immaturity. While Orphan Black seems to be above using such blatant stereotypes, it is however not above using one particular trope: the bisexual femme fatale.

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The bisexual femme fatale, first identified by film scholar Katherine Farrimond, is a seductive, but dangerous, bisexual woman. Appearing in many films and TV shows, she often becomes a source of tension and danger for the plot and its protagonist(s). One of the reasons this character is perceived as so dangerous is that we don’t know where her loyalties lie. In plots where she appears, she must make a choice between a man and a woman in a way that creates the conflicts, mysteries, and riddles that are at the base of her plot. Since whatever choice she makes determines the outcome, we find ourselves constantly wondering whether or not we can truly trust her.

Delphine is such a character. The first time we meet her, we see her flirting and trying to make friends with Cosima, the quirky, queer, science geek clone. From the very outset, we know that she can’t be trusted—we know she’s a monitor, an agent sent to spy on Cosima by hostile elements. Indeed, by the end of two episodes, we not only discover the identity of those hostile elements (the Dyad Institute, headed by Dr. Aldous Leekie), but also that Delphine is romantically/sexually involved with Leekie himself.

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As the plot goes on, Delphine’s loyalties become more ambiguous. She becomes an ally to Cosima, helping her attain and decipher secret information about the clones, as well as covering for Sarah (the main protagonist of the show) when she sneaks into the Dyad Institute dressed as Cosima. However, the show also puts up many question marks about her loyalty to Cosima and the clones. For example, she convinces Cosima to take a job at the (still hostile) Dyad Institute as a scientist. Later on, she brings a blood sample of Cosima to Leekie after promising her not to do so.

For the duration of the plot so far, Delphine’s bisexuality is the premise for the moral tension that she causes, and a key to the danger that she poses to Cosima. Her choosing between Leekie and Cosima is one of the things that will determine the fate of Cosima’s engagement with the Dyad Institute, for better or worse. This choice will also mark her as either an enemy to Cosima and the clones, or as an ally to them. The reason why we don’t know whether we can trust her is that we don’t know who she will choose.

While I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic depiction, I also don’t want to be too hasty about throwing Delphine (or any bi femme fatale) away. As bi women, we mostly have to live on scraps, scavenging on leftovers from queer representation and innuendo. For this reason, explicitly bisexual characters are precious. And very often, can also give way to wonderful counter-readings, disregarding the original intention of the text and instead giving it an interpretation that’s helpful for us.

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I like to think that bisexual femmes fatale represent the threat that bisexuality poses to clear cut boundaries, and to the hierarchies that these boundaries create. Significantly, their function in plots represents an anxiety from breaching the boundary between heterosexuality and homosexuality, and the hierarchy that follows with it. As dangerous women, they also represent a threat to patriarchy—they have the ability to choose, and their choice has the power to change reality for the other characters. At the very least, that makes them women with agency, a characteristic widely associated with dangerousness when it comes to fictional women. And since they can choose, the femmes fatale are as dangerous to men as they might be to women. In fact, in many plots we might find them posing danger to men (for example, as in Basic Instinct).

Though Delphine’s bisexuality exists not in its own right, but as a (problematic) function in the plot, I’d still like us to appreciate her as an agent of chaos, a woman with power, and a destabilizer of boundaries. I hope that sometime in the future we wouldn’t have to do with scraps and scavenging. For now, while we scrape and scavenge, we should be aware both of the problems with these depictions, and of what we can get from them.


In order to make sure that the comments section on this article is a healthy and welcoming place for our bisexual readers, please note that any comments that question the validity of bisexuality or sexual fluidity as a sexual orientation, question Autostraddle’s decision to publish pieces discussing bisexuality, or make essentialist claims about bisexual people (ex. bisexuals are cheaters, bisexuals turn out to be gay) will be swiftly deleted.

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31 Comments

    • Thumb up 4

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      I believe writers have talked about her being bisexual in interviews, but within the world of the show itself I think she’s only been referred to as gay, and has never called herself bisexual that I know of!

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        I don’t think she has ever labelled herself on the show. The only instances I can think of in which her sexuality is discussed with labels is Felix talking about “lesbian sex” in his bed when Delphine is over, and Rachel saying “You’re gay?” to which she responds “My sexuality isn’t the most interesting thing about me.” That’s been one of my favorite exchanges on the show so far.

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      As far as I know I think we’ve gotten conflicting stuff in terms of gay or bi from interviews and such but I don’t think the actual show’s ever stated it. Even when Rachel explicitly asks “So, you’re gay” it’s brushed off without a definitive answer.

      In terms of gay or bi representation either is good, of course, but I’d have to agree with you that it’d be more balanced and less trope-y if she were bisexual as well. If they’re gonna have a bi femme fatale in Delphine, it’d be great to have a bisexual female character who ISN’T that type at all but rather a clear protagonist.

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      the writers & Tatiana did previously speak about Cosima being bi, but apparently, they recently said that they want the character to explore homosexuality a bit more. I don’t know how true this is, just saw a fan speaking about it, but I did notice in interviews they have been using gay & homosexual to describe Cosima & not bisexual.

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      Cosima has never actually stated her sexuality, whereas Delphine has. I think their use of “queer” as a descriptor for Cosima is very accurate. When Rachel asks her directly “So, you’re gay?” Cosima responds with “My sexuality is not the most interesting thing about me.” It kind of puts Delphine’s role as a bisexual femme fatale in a sort of limbo, at least the way I see it.

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      Yes, she is! But I didn’t actually know that when I wrote that post. I think that fact certainly complicates things, but I’d say that it doesn’t really change the trope and the premise. I mean, Cosima still fills the role of the bi femme fatale.

      Further, in plots where there’s more than one bisexual character, there’s a tendency to depict one as the “bad bisexual” (who’s more explicitly sexual, poly, and involved with people of more than one gender) and the other as the “good bisexual” (who’s behaviourally monosexual/monogamous). So Cosima is definitely the “good bisexual” here while Delphine is arguably the “bad bisexual”.

      Also, there’s the whole thing about how Cosima is only acknowledged as bisexual off the show, which is hella bisexual erasure. Kind of like what JK Rowling did with Dumbledore on Harry Potter?

      I could probably write a whole other post about the problematic treatment of Cosima’s bisexuality in the show.

  1. Thumb up 4

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    Great article!

    My girlfriend and I were just watching “Sexy Evil Genius” on Netflix last night, and it’s the same archetype. 100% of the plot revolved around trying to figure out the bisexual character’s motivations/loyalties. I actually enjoyed the movie, but as this article points out — the trope of ‘bisexual people as a threat’ is problematic.

  2. Thumb up 3

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    Shiri Eisner though! And yeah, hearing Delphine consider bisexuality for herself was a relief, because most of the shows I want to watch for representation avoid using the b word, refer to a character as sometimes-lesbian, or just have awful representation of bi women (cheaters, used to deliver a straight man’s fantasy, queer baiting that go back to heterosexual once plot moves on).

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      I find that the scene is much more complicated and intense than that, though. It is not only Delphine confessing her love and considering bisexuality for herself but also about VALIDATION of Cosima’s identity. Delphine is a monitor, so she knows that Cosima is bi; she basically says that she knows bisexuality is real (science and spectrum and stuff) and that she is not going to be an ass about it, which is incredibly rare and amazing to hear. And Cosima replies: “That is … oddly romantic. And totally encouraging.”

      Just look at her facial expression:
      It clearly get’s to her.

      Never not cry when I watch that part.

  3. Thumb up 14

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    While I am a bi woman who is generally frustrated with bisexual representation in the media, I actually don’t mind the portrayal of Delphine. Many of the characters, and just about everyone’s romantic partners, clearly have divided loyalties. This is a significant aspect of the show. If Delphine were singed out as the only one with this attribute I would find it much more problematic, but within the context of the show it doesn’t bother me.

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      I think this is a great point; duality is an aspect of all the significant others/monitors, however, Delphine has acknowledged it more than any of the others. Even if she isn’t being 100% honest about her loyalties, she certainly seems more genuine in her interest in Cosima than any other the other SO/monitors.

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      I feel the same, and while I understand the issue with bisexual characters being used as tropes, but I don’t think this applies to Delphine – or Orphan Black, at all. Soon we are going to be saying that a bisexual/lesbian character must pass all ten commandments plus a series of tests approved by the lesbian community before being allowed on television. IMO this character is not harming our image nor the community at large, so I don’t know why we need to pick apart and analyze EVERYTHING LGBTQI* related. Sometimes it’s just entertainment! It doesn’t always have to be made into an issue.

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      I agree completely. EVERY romantic interest on this show is a potential threat/danger to a clone, so basically if any clone is dating any woman, that woman is going to be a threat. So she’ll either be a dangerous bisexual or a dangerous lesbian, there’s no avoiding it.

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      I was just coming here to say exactly this. While the trope of the bisexual femme fatale is indeed problematic, I really don’t think that’s whats happening here. If Delphine were the only person who’s loyalties were unclear, or if she was the only character with ties to the Dyad, or the only character who’d lied to one of the clones, maybe that would be different. But instead, Delphine is treated exactly like every other non-clone character on this show – we don’t know if the clones can trust her, her loyalty is unclear, and her motivations are unknown. Paul, Donnie, and even this new guy Cal, and Jennifer Fitzsimmons’ boyfriend are all in the same situation – All of them are romantic partners of one of the clones, specifically recruited by the Dyad to monitor their clone.

      I really think that Cosima and Delphine’s portrayal of queer female characters on this show has been fantastic. It’s never been played for laughs, or for gratuitous sex, they are both wonderful, fleshed-out well-rounded characters who are both so much more than just their sexuality – As Cosima puts it so well, their sexualities are not the most interesting thing about them. The show treats them exactly the same way it treats all it’s other romantic pairings, and that is refreshing indeed.

  4. Thumb up 10

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    Shiri Eisner on Autostraddle, oh my gosh! I absolutely adore your blog and your book, and I enjoyed this article despite not watching this show very often. I hope to see more of you on here.

    It seems like AS has had more bi-specific content lately, please keep it up. It’s great.

  5. Thumb up 2

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    But is Delphine bisexual? She’s never referred to herself as such and Cosima is her first, I just remember her saying that she believes “we’re all a bit bisexual but we’re biased because of social norms” but she said she had never been interested in women before. And I still can’t trust her because of the freaky Leaky situation lol. I wouldn’t call her bisexual though (since she hasn’t called herself that either), I still see her as straight but flexible for the hotness of Cosima and crazy science.

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      That is the part: http://felison.tumblr.com/post/71038124302

      She haven’t thought about being bi before, but she can’t stop thinking about it now (because of the kiss they shared? But even if you think, she needs to explicitly state it in some specific way, flexibility in itself is on the very same spectrum anyways = being able to fall for the hotness of people of multiple genders. So it’s just splitting hairs over words and meanings.

      Also with bi characters in popular media there is a broad (and very problematic) pattern of AVOIDING the B-word. It is usually some wishy-washy thing of “I like people” etc., so Orphan Black gave bi folks more than most shows/books do.

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    I think in a show where every other character is a double agent, I am really not bothered that the bisexual character also happens to be stuck between two worlds. You could easily read it as indicative of the lack of space that bisexuals have between the straight and gay communities, you know, if you wanna make something of it :p

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    Orphan Black AND Shiri Eisner in one article?! Interests converging! As a bi gal and a TV fanatic, I think that Orphan Black does a great job of showcasing its queer characters in a non-exploitative or queer-baiting way. Sure, we may not know Delphine’s motives, but this show is a sci-fi conspiracy thriller…we don’t know anyone’s motives. I also think it’s interesting that we see so much of Delphine’s life aside from Cosima; compare that to how much we see Donnie or Paul as independent agents.

    Another thing I really enjoy about OB is its unabashed depiction of female sexuality across the board. Despite being pawns in a larger conspiracy, the clones each have a strong sexual agency that they exercise as they see fit. More of this in everything all the time.

    Sidebar; I know we all love Cosima and Delphine, but does anyone else have a total lady boner for Alison? Maybe I just like Type A women in puffy vests.

  8. Thumb up 5

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    I have a hard time seeing Delphine as a “femme fatale.” If she wasn’t so tall and elegant, she’d be just as bumbling as Allison’s husband. She’s a far cry from the seductresses of film noir. And I think she genuinely cares for Cosima and believes she’s doing the right thing for her, even when she gives Leekie her blood sample against Cosima’s wishes. The duplicity of her character is born less of split loyalty and more from a decision between what’s right and what’s wrong. I could probably go on for days about the morally gray area that Cosima and Delphine are planted in.

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    I think Delphine is a pretty good representation of bisexuality for some people (though not myself, personally). As she already has a graduate degree, she is likely in her late 20’s or early 30’s, and many women come out after their teen or college years. She has sexual agency (as Chelsea mentioned), but she is far from being objectified or a “token bi” character. They balance her not being defined by her sexuality or neglecting it well– the word “bisexuality” has actually been used in the little screen time she’s had (hoping for more in later season two).

    It also doesn’t seem fair to create a parallel with being bisexual and wanting to help both Cosima and Dyad. Perhaps it went over my head, but Leekie’s comment seemed like a joke, not a stab at a pre-existing theme. From that short scene in season one, she seemed uncomfortable sleeping with him. Though she is attracted to men, I don’t think there was ever an issue of being torn between Cosima and Leekie. Delphine “playing for both teams” in two senses feels like more of a coincidence than a metaphor.

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    “As bi women, we mostly have to live on scraps, scavenging on leftovers from queer representation and innuendo.” This line made me laugh with sadness because it is so, so true.

    Delphine has been very interesting to watch! I like the idea that bisexual femme fatals are threatening because they cross boundaries and break down hierarchies; Delphine’s relationship Cosima also breaks the power that Leekie holds over her, because it threatens her sexual (romantic?) relationship with Leekie. I’ve really enjoyed her storyline, although it helps that the actresses portraying Delphine & Cosima/Sara/Allison/Everyone else are really attractive.

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