Friday, January 22, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Olivia Dunham (Fringe)

I haven't been super subtle about my appreciation for the show Fringe on here. Having finished a rewatch of the entire thing (all five seasons) a few months ago, I've written articles on the awesomeness of Astrid and how she totally deserved more screentime and on how Peter and Walter Bishop's relationship redefines how we talk about masculinity and parenthood. But now the time has come to tackle the big one, to talk about the real hero of this show, the one, the only, Olivia Dunham!

If you think that intro was a little over-dramatic, then I have to say that you might not like Fringe as a show. While Peter gets a lot more time as the prophesied "chosen one", Olivia is the character who best fits the archetype of being "the hero". She's the one in law enforcement, she's the physically gifted badass, she's the one who develops super special powers that no one else in any universe can handle, she's the one that every bad guy is trying to get his hands on. Olivia Dunham is a full on mythical hero in a way that very few female characters get to be. And she gets all the horrible crap piled on that goes with it.

See, what makes Fringe really stand out as a show is how it subverts our gendered expectations for its main characters. Peter and Olivia are, from the very first episode, clearly our two main heroes, so we're expecting them to fall into simplistic tropes. Peter will be an ass-kicking renegade with no regard for the rules and Olivia will follow after him with a chagrined look and fix his messes, right? Well, sort of. I mean, that's not completely inaccurate, but it's also not actually accurate either. 

Peter is a renegade with a lot of extra-legal connections, that's for sure, but Olivia is a hell of a lot more than a wet-blanket with a gun. She is, much to the surprise of most of us watching the show when it came out, one of the most complex and fully realized female characters I have ever seen in film or television. Ever. And I hope you understand how big a statement that is for me to make. I mean, I've seen a lot of film and television.

Why is Olivia such a big deal? Well, first let me explain to you what the show is so that I can tell you how she fits into it.

Fringe - one of JJ Abrams' lesser known and better plotted works - is a sort of update of The X-Files. Not really, but basically. It follows the operations of "Fringe Division", an interdepartmental task force working with the FBI and Homeland Security to investigate fringe events. Fringe events are basically weird science. In the world of Fringe, science and technology have now reached the singularity, where science is advancing faster than human understanding, creating terrifying repercussions and creating the need for a task force just to keep track and try to stop more disasters.

Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is an FBI agent who accidentally helps found Fringe Division while trying to investigate the death of her partner and secret boyfriend. In looking into his mysterious and gross death, Olivia unearths the work of Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a very literally mad scientist who might be able to figure out what's going on. 

Only, Walter is actually a mental patient who can only be released into the custody of a relative, and his only living relative, his son Peter (Joshua Jackson), hates him. So the pilot episode is about Olivia corralling two wayward geniuses into a lab underneath Harvard and making them work together to solve a mystery.

They solve the mystery so well that Olivia and her boys are turned into their own unit, Fringe Division, working under Agent Broyles (Lance Reddick). And along the way they pick up Agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole) to help Walter in the lab and keep them all from going nuts. The basic premise of the show for the first few seasons at least has these four working together to solve weird freaky science mysteries and save the world.

But the real story of the show, the one that gets going in season three and never calms back down again, is about Olivia Dunham and how she is the most special person in the whole wide world. I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist. As early as the first season, we come to find out that Olivia's incredible talents for solving cases aren't her only unusual skills. She also has some level of telekinesis and it freaks her the hell out. As time goes on, we discover that Olivia gained these powers as a result of being a test subject in her childhood. Walter and his partner, William Bell (Leonard Nimoy - yup) experimented on her in an effort to create child psychic supersoldiers to fight in a war against our parallel universe.

Well I never said this wasn't a weird show.

Olivia's powers, introduced easily enough in the first season, continue to grow, eventually leading her to become the only person capable of jumping between universes by thinking about it. But they also force her to deal with the other "cortexiphan children", the other test subjects who have, to a one, been a lot worse at dealing with their traumatic pasts than she has.

And make no mistake, even without the being a childhood lab rat thing, Olivia has a harsh backstory. Her father died at a young age, so Olivia's mother remarried, only her new husband was physically abusive to little "Olive". Olivia grew up protecting her mother and sister from the abuse, only to eventually shoot her stepfather at the age of nine. 

Then when she was a teenager her mother died, leaving Olivia and her sister in the system and forcing Olivia to grow up even faster than she already had. It's no surprise that Olivia goes into law enforcement in the end, because she needs to feel some control over her life and surroundings and she's obsessed with protecting people.

If all of this sounds like the kind of backstory and character development you've heard before, well, it is. It's just that usually when we talk about the character with the epic powers and abilities, the tragic backstory, and the heroic calling to save people, we're talking about a man. Olivia has the sort of character sheet that is almost exclusively reserved for male characters. 

In addition to all of this, she's a no-nonsense FBI agent who doesn't really wear makeup or trade on her sexuality and keeps her nondescript hair in a ponytail. She has love interests, sure, but she's unfailingly professional and more than a little emotionally stunted. The people she loves keep dying on her. She's always second-guessing her own feelings and prefers cold reason to any intuitive sense. Oh, and did I mention that she's a genius with an eidetic memory?

Seriously, Olivia Dunham is a hero like only men usually get to be heroes. Damaged but sexy, learning to love again with her manic pixie dream guy, committed to protecting and serving the people around her. It's a complete subversion of the usual character we find on a show like this, and i love it so much.

Maybe I shouldn't. Maybe I should be more annoyed that Olivia and Peter are essentially just genderswaps of the usual character tropes. I mean, I don't usually like characters who can be described as "a dude in a dress" - as in, a conventionally written male character changed to female when the screenwriter changed said character's name in the script. I tend to want my female characters to own their femininity a bit more, to give credence to the fact that men and women are not, culturally at least, interchangeable. But, well, Olivia and Peter are great. I have trouble finding fault with this.

Probably the reason it works here where it never does anywhere else is because once we get past Olivia's basic character arctype, she's incredibly fully realized. I mean, Olivia feels like a person you could know. Everything in her life down to the reading material on her bedside table informs the kind of person she is. We spend five seasons in her life watching her go about her job and her personal relationships - sometimes making a complete mess out of all of them - and by the end we feel like we know Olivia Dunham. She is a person to us. She's real in a way very few characters ever are.

Like, I can name Olivia's immediate family and I know her childhood nickname and I know what food she likes and what she does after a long day. But it's also deeper than that. The show gives us this complicated woman and then shows her growing and changing into a person better able to handle the heroic call she's been given. Not only that, but we see her change into a woman capable of embracing love and choosing to be happy. That's a big deal, especially considering that all of this development is handled sensitively and without changing who Olivia fundamentally is.

I guess when you get down to it, Olivia is the kind of hero we actually want when we say "strong female characters". Yes, she's a physically and emotionally strong female character, but that's not really what I mean. I mean that Olivia is written for her story in a way that never apologizes for her gender but also never makes it a big deal. 

There's no sneering villain going, "But you're just a girl!" Everyone in this universe is perfectly capable of understanding how badass Olivia is and no one underestimates her for sexist reasons. At times they dislike her for sexist reasons - there's a season one storyline about her and Broyles conflicting because she investigated one of his friends for sexual assault - but even this is not so much about Olivia as it is about the other people in her life.

Olivia is strong in that she's strongly written. She has a moral code, a background, and skills that make her perfectly suited to the story she's in. She's the hero in this, not because she's the prettiest girl in the room but because she's the most qualified person. It doesn't hurt that she's literally magic, but it's also never the reason she's so cool. Olivia is cool because she knows her own value and she refuses to let anyone else define it. She's a strong female character because when I look at her I see a woman I could actually know, and even better, I see a woman I want to know.

JJ Abrams has done a lot of things that annoy me over the years - mostly his misinterpretations of Star Trek - but I can't hate the man because he did give us this show and this character. Fringe is seriously a show that ought to be a sci-fi classic by more people's estimations than just mine, and Olivia Dunham should go down in history as a ground-breaking subversion of tropes about women and heroism.

But maybe I'll just settle for more people watching this show and seeing how it doesn't have to be a zero sum game. We can have female characters who are just as mythic and heroic as the guys, without making the male characters any less. It's completely possible, and there's no excuse for saying it isn't. There's a lot more I could say, but I'll leave you there. We don't deserve Olivia Dunham but we have her anyway, and I'm grateful for that.

Also there's a retro-futuristic musical episode. Just saying. Watch the show.


  1. I mean, I don't usually like characters who can be described as "a dude in a dress" - as in, a conventionally written male character changed to female when the screenwriter changed said character's name in the script.

    Execution can make or break almost anything, and Olivia's execution was brilliant.

    She has love interests, sure, but she's unfailingly professional and more than a little emotionally stunted.

    I got the impression that at least some of the stunting was deliberate. Mostly because she was completely different with her sister and (especially) niece - open in a way it took her a long long time to be with Peter or Walter.

    You concentrated on the writing, but I can't let an article on Olivia Dunham pass without giving mad props to Anna Torv for a masterpiece of acting. It took a lot of people until season 3 to see it - trying to spoilervoid, let's just say season 3 gives her talents a good exercise - but it was there from the start.

    (Fringe is the reason why Anna Torv is my first choice for Carol Danvers in the MCU).

    1. Olivia's execution was the kind of execution that makes me want to shake people when they claim that there's no such thing as a bad trope done well.

      Interesting point. I think you're right that the Olivia we see with her family, and also with Astrid to an extent, is different than the one she shows to the people in her more professional life. Possible aftereffect of the whole thing with John? Or do you think it's a conscious choice based around working against the stereotype of emotional women in the workplace?

      Personally, I read Olivia's stuntedness as a function of her never feeling safe as a child. She knows she's safe with her sister and niece, so she can be open with them, but with everyone else she is hyper-vigilant and constantly on guard. We can see that in how she starts to warm up around Peter but the instant he betrays her trust she clams up for the next season. It also explains why season five Olivia and Fauxlivia are so much more open. They have more people to trust and feel more emotionally safe.

      Hell yes Anna Torv is amazing. You're right, I ought to have mentioned that more. She's so good. I have to admit that I don't actually want her for Carol Danvers, though. I want her to dye her hair and play She-Hulk.

    2. Yeah, safety vs guard sounds like a good call. John can only have exacerbated it. While Fauxlivia lives in the kind of world where you hold your connections as close as you can.

  2. she is an alpha woman!i adore her!as a man i respect her and fear her!i even wrote an article about these type of women enjoy!

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