Friday, October 9, 2015

Strong Female Character Friday: Astrid Farnsworth (Fringe)

So, here's a question that needs answering: does a character count as a "strong female character" even when she is deeply underserved by her story? Can a character still be a strong female character even if there's really not much she's given to do and the narrative never rests on her for more than a moment but you just look in her eyes and see so much damn potential?

I mean, I guess that by choosing Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole*) for this week's Strong Female Character Friday I'm answering that question for myself, but I still want to talk about this idea. Because in a lot of ways, Astrid really isn't a strong female character on Fringe. And that's not her fault or the fault of her actress. It's just that the story never does anything with her, never explores her as a character, never even gives her much screentime. I love Astrid, but I don't feel like I ever really got to know her, and that's a damn shame.

If I had to explain this week's offering, I guess it's an ode to a character who might have been, who almost was. A character we saw glimpses of and who I fervently hope gets her own dang show in some other parallel universe. Somewhere Astrid Farnsworth takes center stage as she rightly deserves, and somewhere Jasika Nicole has won a handful of Emmys for her role as this complex and intriguing woman. A girl can dream. 

Here in reality, though, this is the situation: Astrid Farnsworth is/was a perpetual background character on the show Fringe. The show, which we've talked about before on here, is a science fiction show that ran from 2008 to 2013. Created and run by JJ Abrams and Kurtzman and Orci, the show is in a lot of ways an example of the best of their work. Following FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, the show explores "fringe science", or the idea that once we reach the singularity, science spins out of control and everything goes wonky.

The first few seasons are heavily episodic, with each new week bringing a new mystery and weird science happening to the team to solve. The later seasons, though, become strongly serialized, with the "plot of the week" utterly abandoned in favor of deep themes and long arcs on issues of global domination and the fight against our own exploitative future.

In all of this we had our leads - Olivia, Peter, and Walter - and we had our secondary characters. Those secondary characters were Broyles and Nina and William Bell and Olivia's sister and Lincoln Lee and a couple of other people throughout the years. But in between both groups, we've got Astrid. Neither one of the cool kids nor exactly a secondary character, Astrid goes through the entire series in limbo. And it's hard to actually say why that is.

Astrid comes into the series early in season one, brought along to act as an assistant to Olivia as she sets up her own secret branch of the FBI. She's supposed to be a sort of secretary, but Astrid quickly becomes more of a babysitter, taking care of Walter and helping around the lab and just doing general fetching stuff. 

Sure, it makes sense why a junior agent with her skills - Astrid is fluent in several languages, a skilled computer programmer, and solves complex puzzles and encryptions for fun - would be useful on this team, but none of those things are what she spends her time doing. 

Instead, Astrid spends the bulk majority of her time on the show, and I really do mean the vast overwhelming majority, rolling her eyes at something Walter said. Reacting to him. Making him strawberry milkshakes and taffy and helping him dissect bodies. Astrid doesn't get the chance to be her own person unless the plot demands her skills. The rest of the time she just plays the straight man to Walter's wackiness, freeing up Peter and Olivia to have complex character development and interesting scenes.

I find this immensely frustrating.

Now, admittedly, Nicole is a really talented actress and found a way to shine through this. Even in the first few seasons where her role is almost entirely relegated to background drudgery, Nicole still makes you care about Astrid and like her. In seasons three and four, which are absolutely the best seasons for Astrid fans, we get to see both our Astrid growing and maturing in her position as well as meeting her "alternate". By which I mean that we get to meet Astrid in another universe, an experiment which sheds a lot of light on the Astrid from our world.

Sure, this is never a real highlight of the show - except for the one episode where Astrid takes center stage for a while, and that episode is glorious - but by giving us two different iterations of the same woman, we are shown a slightly more complex version of who she is. And it's freaking fascinating.

Cinnamon roll.
See, our Astrid, the one from the show's main universe, is funny and sweet and charming and extremely intelligent but also very caring and nurturing. It's unclear how much of this is her inherent personality and how much is the fact that we only know her in the context of her work with the team and Walter, but that doesn't matter. Our Astrid is, for lack of a better term, normal. Or, at the very least, seemingly neurotypical.

Other Astrid, however, (or alternate!Astrid as she's more commonly known) is not neurotypical. It's never stated explicitly, but the show heavily implies that Other Astrid is probably autistic, and not particularly high functioning. Her developmental delay was apparently such that her father signed her up for an experimental program when she was young. She now works for the Alternate Fringe division as an analyst, and, well, the other agents treat her mostly as a robot. She gives them statistics and does calculations and never talks about personal things or exists outside of work.

Only, that's not really all there is about her at all. Other Astrid is different in some really compelling ways. Like she has these streaks of pink in her hair which are never mentioned or addressed but seem to bely her "all rules all the time" behavior. She never makes eye contact or speaks directly to another agent - preferring to address her remarks about six inches to their lefts - but Other Astrid clearly cares about her coworkers. 

She is devastated by the realization that someone on her team might not be who they say they are. She's deeply worried about them when they're in dangerous situations. She's a little different than we expect, but she's still the Astrid we know. And that's really interesting.

It suggests, for one thing, that Our Astrid might not be entirely neurotypical herself. Yeah, she has a lot of high level social skills, but those could be learned. And social functioning really doesn't mean she isn't neurodivergent. Her skill set even seems to suggest she might be. In other words, Our Astrid very well might be on the autistic spectrum and just high functioning enough to hide it. Unfortunately, this is never addressed by the narrative, so we never find out.

And then there's the hints we get about Astrid's relationship with her family. In one episode in season four, "Making Angels", Other Astrid comes to visit Our Astrid because her father has died. She wants to know if Our Astrid's father has died too, but more than that, she wants to know if Our Astrid has the same strained and complicated relationship with her father that Other Astrid does.

They spend an entire day circling each other on the issue, but eventually Our Astrid tells Other Astrid that she does. Other Astrid is immensely comforted by this, by the idea that her father didn't not love her because she was "broken", but because he never would have no matter what.

The thing is, at the end of the episode, Our Astrid goes to see her father and, well, they don't have a bad relationship. Not at all. Instead, they are close and warm and loving. It's not hard to see why Our Astrid lied, but it raises so many questions. Like, does Our Astrid now wonder if her father might only love her because she's normal? Does Our Astrid sometimes feel guilty for lying and for never introducing Other Astrid to the warm loving father she never knew?

I don't know. I wish I knew how Astrid felt about all this, but I don't because the show never bothered to explore anything related to Astrid at all.

If I'm sounding a little peeved right now, it's because I am. Seriously, the further you get into the show, the more frustrating it gets. All we ever get are breadcrumbs. A comment about Astrid going on a yearly trip with her father. A vague mention that she used to solve encryptions for fun. She collects butterflies. But for the most part, we don't ever get to know Astrid as a person. We certainly don't get to know her outside of her work with the team.

And this seems (is) really truly unfair. Not only is Astrid treated like a second class citizen by the narrative, she's treated like one by the actual characters in the show. There's a running joke about how Walter can never get her name right, or never bothers to get her name right, that's honestly pretty insulting. When Walter imagines a world of pure fantasy, he puts Astrid in it as a secretary who just wants a job. She's always fetching things and doing favors and never falters. Always smiles.

The other character seem to take it as a given that Astrid's life revolves around them. This becomes really really apparent in the fifth season when the four of them - Olivia, Peter, Walter, and Astrid - are transported to the future. While Olivia and Peter and Walter all ruminate on the tragedy of the time they've lost, contemplate how their lives have been impacted by this jump, Astrid just...does the dirty work. Seriously. She never gets a single line to talk about how she feels about being twenty one years in the future.

Her father is almost certainly dead, but didn't she have any other friends or family she wants to look up? The show suggests that Astrid's entire life, her existence, is subsumed in being a background character for Olivia and the people who matter in the story.

This is compounded and made even more appalling when you factor in race. See, Astrid is African-American. If we count the main cast as being those characters who appeared in almost every episode, then she is the only person of color. If we count Broyles, then she's still the only woman of color. And not just in the main cast. Pretty much in the entire show.

So, to make sure you're following me, the only woman of color in the whole show is a glorified babysitter for a doddering old white man who can't even bother to call her by the right name despite having been with her over forty hours a week for five years. Does that about sum it up?

The worst bit is that all of these problems, these grievances, wouldn't seem so bad if the show just freaking acknowledged them. If they stopped and said, hey, here's what Astrid is thinking in all of this. If they gave her a voice. But that never happens. Even in "Making Angels", the episode that is supposed to be all about Astrid, she's actually not in that much of it. A huge amount of the episode follows Other Astrid bonding with Walter while Our Astrid has work to do.

I mean, come on.

It doesn't just border on insulting, it is insulting. That the writers of this show went through a hundred episodes and it never occurred to them to give Astrid her own storyline or voice baffles and enrages me. How could they do that? I mean, she doesn't even get a side romance or anything. Not one in one hundred episodes. How.

It makes me angry because it's a waste. It's a waste of a character who is everything I actually want a female character to be. She's complex and kind and loving but keenly analytical and sometimes she has a short temper and she gets frustrated but she's so brilliant. She's a woman I have deeply wanted to see on my screen, and so it drives me nuts that she's never given anything to do. Literally in season five we have whole episodes where OliviaPeterWalter are off having adventures and Astrid is unquestioningly left behind in the lab to keep doing drudge work.

To be completely honest, I find the treatment of Astrid to be racist. Intentionality is not my place to judge, but the effect is clear. Fringe wanted to be progressive and feature a woman of color in a genre not known for embracing diversity (ironically), but they failed. By refusing to ever give Astrid her own voice, they didn't make a character, they made a plot device. 

And in so doing they perpetuated racist stereotypes that black women, or any women of color, cannot be the leads in their own stories. That women of color exist only to prop others up. That women of color are the background players of life, only suitable for boring work no one else wants to bother with. And that women of color will do all of this without a single complaint because they're not really human anyway.

Like I said at the beginning, I firmly believe that in another universe there's a version of Fringe where Astrid Farnsworth gets her due. But it sure as hell isn't this one.

*Jasika Nicole is an amazing fantastic actress who has actually been featured in a SFC Friday before. Previously we discussed her voice work on Welcome to Night Vale as Dana Carmichael. Check it out!