Friday, November 16, 2012

Fringe and Astrid as a Disposable Mammy

Five years ago when Fringe first appeared on television, there was absolutely nothing like it on the air. Since then, we have seen alternate universes, fantastic events and now finally a dystopian world.  With it’s final season, Fringe is taking the opportunity to wrap up storylines and bring closure to the world that they have created.

When I learned that the fifth season would be the final season of Fringe, one of the things I had hoped for was the redemption of the character of Astrid.  Astrid, played by Jasika Nicole, has the distinction of not only being the only recurring African-American woman, but fifty percent of the cast of colour.  Clearly, from the beginning, racial inclusion has not been a high priority for Fringe.

Astrid is a trained agent and the person the team falls back on for much of its technological questions. The problem is that after five years, I don’t feel like I really know a lot about her.  I know that she has an ailing father, speaks five languages, studied cryptology before joining the FBI and is obsessed with butterflies, but I don’t know much about her personal aspirations or desires.  At best, she has never been more than a side character, whose role has primarily been to be Walter’s caretaker, despite appearing in every single episode to date. When there is an important mission, Astrid is continually left behind in the lab, to keep and eye on Walter, help with his experiments and deal with his various fetishes.  

For all of the help that Astrid gives Walter, he never calls her by her name.  He has called her “Asterisk, Astro, Asteroid, Astringent, Aspirin, Ashram, Ostrich, Clare, Athos, Alex, Afro and Abner.”  Some would excuse this because Walter’s brain has been altered, but the fact remains that Walter is able to evaluate and comprehend difficult information, remember old cases, think rationally and remember the name every character but Astrid’s, though she works the closest with him. Over the years, Walter has proven that he does indeed care about Astrid; however, he simply does not care enough to remember her name.  When Walter does speak to Astrid, he does not say please or thank you and simply orders her around.  Walter is also not afraid to scream her name, if she doesn’t respond quickly enough to suit his desires. Walter does care about Astrid in a paternalistic fashion, but he certainly does not see her as the equal of any other character, based in his treatment of her.  Essentially, for Walter, Astrid is little more than a servant and the fact that the other characters never intervene on Astrid’s behalf, affirms his assessment of her role on the Fringe team.

We never see Astrid having any downtime; she is always servicing the team, or Walter personally. Like Mammy, Astrid is always on call and expected to serve without complaint.  We can tell occasionally that she is frustrated by Walter’s  treatment of her by her tone of voice, but since the first season, Astrid has not been given the opportunity to explicitly say that how she is being treated is unacceptable.  If anything, over time, Astrid has become more accepting of her secondary role.

To date, Broyles, also an African American and the leader of the Fringe team has appeared in ninety-six episodes.  He has always been vital to the progression of the story and in the show’s many alternate universes we have learned much about his character.  In season five, the team has shifted into the future and though Broyles is still with the Fringe division, it is now under the control of the Observers.  We have not seen much of Broyles in season five nor have we been told how he has been able to survive.  When Broyles finally does meet up with Olivia, Peter and Walter again, he is thrilled to see them.  In fact, he risked his position to be able to see them one last time.  In this exchange, though Broyles knows that Astrid is alive, he never asks about her, or acknowledges her importance to the team.  This is particularly disturbing, as Broyles hugs Olivia and seems grateful that she has survived.  What makes Olivia’s survival more important than Astrid’s?  The only thing that separates the two women is race.  The blond-haired Olivia is deemed essential, while Astrid is understood to be disposable. So in essence, we have the only Black male character thankful that a White woman survived and not giving a damn about the only Black woman on the Fringe team.

In the alternate universe that figured in several seasons of the show, Astrid is still with the Fringe team but her alter ego is an autistic, computer and statistics specialist.  This Astrid represents the only disabled character on the show.  Disabled people are highly erased from the media; however, I don’t believe that the idea behind an autistic Astrid was to add diversity to Fringe, given the treatment of the neuro-typical Astrid.  All of the other alter characters are different; however, they have all been given equal relevance and abilities, except Astrid. Autistic Astrid doesn't interact with her peers and exists only to spit out facts and figures when needed.  Just like neuro-typical Astrid, she never leaves the lab and is simply expected to perform. Unlike neuro-typical Astrid, Autistic Astrid is at least called by her correct name, by “Walternate” - Walter’s alternate persona.  In Making Angels, season four, episode 11, the two Astrids meet because of the death of Autistic Astrid’s father. The team is too busy to deal with either Astrid and neuro-typical Astrid is left to help Autistic Astrid deal with the loss and pain that she can barely begin to comprehend. The interaction is touching and is perhaps the most attention that either Astrid has gotten to date. 

With seven episodes of Fringe left to air in the final season, it is fair to say that the storyline is wrapped around White people saving the world. In separate but equally definitive ways, we have been informed of the importance that Olivia, Walter and Peter each has to play in upcoming events, with Astrid being framed as simply being along for the ride.

Though Astrid is vital to the mission of ending the rule of the observers, she has been given nothing active to do in the field. Astrid continues to accept orders from Walter, work on the team’s technological needs and comfort Olivia in her time of loss.  Because we have learned so little about Astrid over the years, we don’t know what the personal cost has been to her of shifting so far into the future or about anyone she may be concerned about.  We know that she had a strong relationship with her father and yet, to date, this has not been mentioned and instead we have been forced to deal with the discovery and loss of Etta - a character who despite her short tenure, we know more about than Astrid.

From start to finish, the character of Astrid has been a complete disappointment.  There is most certainly a disconnect when it comes to characters of colour in science fiction and perhaps no character on a televised show has better illustrated this than Astrid.  At this point, I daresay it is far too late for Fringe to give the character of Astrid the treatment that she deserves and she will forever be thought of as little more than a servant, whose only motivation seemed to be keeping her White co-workers content.