Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fringe: The Tragedy of Agent Farnsworth

Last night's Fringe reminded me of how little the show views Astrid not only as a character, but as a person.

Astrid has always been one of my favorite characters, and I hate how she is often delegated to the role of Walter's caretaker. This is always niggling at me -- for example, in a past episode when Walter is beginning to realize that the fabric of the universe is beginning to unravel on Our Side, he asks why people aren't fetching the stuff that he requires. Peter and Olivia are both there, but it's Astrid who must go and fetch it.

It's Astrid who has to cater to Walter's (very adorkable, mind you) whims. It's Astrid who has to clean up the messes.

It's Astrid who's delegated to doing every Uncool Thing in the Fringe Division.

And that's just sad.

In this latest episode ("Stowaway"), Bellivia nicely illustrates how insignificant the scientific patriarchs view Astrid, despite her oft-stated intellect (particularly her linguistic abilities).

Bellivia hits on Astrid so often that she's forced to button the top of her blouse to alleviate the discomfort of his advances. And though it's clearly shown as (humorously) inappropriate, I feel that it opened larger issues that the show must at some point address because the exchanges between Bellivia and Walter demonstrate not only why but how the show needs to revise the way it is currently portraying Astrid.

I don't mind that William Bell is a misogynist asshole. Flaws assist in making characters three dimensional after all. On a character level, I didn't even mind when Walter and Bellie were considering putting Bell's consciousness in the cow and William says, "But I'd have to milk you." And Bell returns with the idea of assigning Astrid to do it.

First, it shows an anxiety on the males' side about same-sex touching in a sexualized context (because I doubt most people would view milking a cow as sexual if the breasts/nipples weren't involved in the context of body-hopping). This actually reminds me how few heterosexual men consider their own breasts as erotic, and how homosexual male couples are more likely to foreplay with each other's breasts than straight couples are -- possibly because heterosexual males find it to be effeminate (this from my human sexuality course).

This sexual-orientation anxiety is combined with the long history of milkmaids, which is of course (obviously) usually seen as a female occupation.

So in that brief exchange, there's anxiety regarding both gender and sexuality.

But this is okay - it's human to be anxious about such things.

What is not okay is that the show has not provided the same privilege to Astrid. If they were to assign her to milk Gene-as-Bellie, I can't imagine her saying no -- because she has never been given the opportunity to assert her agency and say no to being Walter's caretaker -- even when it has caused her physical harm as it did in Season 2.

That's all she /is/ in the show: Walter's babysitter. The show never shows any other side to her -- leaving such character developments to the imagination of disgruntled viewers.

Simply put, her agency is in question because she's never been allowed to express it.

So, when you have an exchange like the one between William Bell and Walter, it frustrates me not because they're being assholes, but because the show is not actively rebutting them by showing the audience that Astrid is more than how they are denigrating her.

If anything, the show is reinforcing the way these men view Astrid by only showing her in that minimizing, de-personifying context.

And that I find inexcusable.

I had hopes that the Alternate Universe would provide a more complex, nuanced view of Astrid, but so far, I am still disappointed. Instead of a handmaid, Astrid serves the role of a biological computer (though I do treasure moments when the show allows glimpses of her that reveal her to be more -- such as when she suggested the Fringe Division put out a request for people to call regarding information about a certain something or other -- but even that was more in her facial expression and tone than by the dialogue itself -- and that is a testament to Jasika Nicole's sorely underused acting abilities).

I know that part of the reason Alternate Astrid is so detached and distant is because in that universe she has aspurgers -- but even people who have autism are still complex individuals. I desperately desire that the show will portray either Astrids' complexities in a meaningful, significant fashion.

I think an opportunity was lost when Fauxlivia was posing as Olivia on Our Side. She's meets Our Astrid, who is so different from the Other Astrid -- and yet, the show doesn't even explore how Fauxlivia would react to that. Instead, we get a typical male-female romance between the leads complete with a plot deviced pregnancy instead an exploration of female-female friendship in a context that would have been amazing and significant.

How would have Fauxlivia reacted to our Astrid? How would Astrid react to the possibility of a reaction with Whom-She-Thinks-Is-Olivia-But-Is-Actually-Fauxlivia? How would she have reacted when this Olivia, whom is so much friendlier and open than the Olivia once knew, turned out to Feauxlivia? How would that have affected her friendship with Olivia when Olivia returned? Does Astrid prefer to Olivia or Fauxlivia?

The viewers don't know -- it's almost as if Astrid's relationship with Dunham doesn't matter if it's Fauxlivia or Olivia -- and that is unrealistic! It just is.

A wonderful, unique opportunity that lost out to the typical triangular romance that viewers have already seen a thousand other times and that I of which am most heartily weary.

I heard rumors that there is an upcoming episode that will be Astrid-centric: basically, everyone else is otherwise incapacitated, and she will save the day.

I hope these rumors are true, and I look forward to that episode because seriously. It's been three seasons. And she's the only main character who has not had any character growth.

It's a travesty, is what it is.

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