‘I went to Quantico for this?’: On Astrid Farnsworth and Black (Queer) Nerddom [TV Correspondent Tryout]

By Guest Contributor Alea Adigweme

When we first meet her on the show Fringe, Junior FBI Agent Astrid Farnsworth is a glorified babysitter encumbered with the task of minding her team’s resident, freshly-released-from-a-mental-hospital mad scientist, Walter Bishop. As the series begins, her functions seem to be 1) asking questions that provide convenient opportunities for exposition and 2) sighing in exasperation.

Over the past three seasons, however, Astrid has developed — albeit at an almost glacial pace — into more than the stereotypical super genius’ assistant. She is not only a genius in her own right, but she also acts as the empathic center of the Fringe Division. Compare Exhibit A with Exhibit B with Exhibit C.

Astrid is a lifelong computer geek with a B.A. in Music who speaks five languages and bakes up a storm when she’s stressed out. She is also, seemingly — we know very little about her background — the most emotionally intact character on the show. In a contrast to the lead characters, Walter, Peter, and Olivia, whose relationships were, until relatively recently in Season 3, always on the edge of implosion, Astrid’s genius doesn’t get in the way of her ability to interact empathetically with the world. Her sparkling emotional intelligence is a welcome change from Magical Negresses who solve white people’s problems with folksy wisdom and a hug to the bosom. It is rare for the Math/Science Nerd trope to be deployed subtly and it is almost never embodied by a women of color. Astrid is essentially a unicorn. A really, really good-looking unicorn.

I was late to the party, so I didn’t start watching Fringe until a good friend talked me into it last autumn. While I trust his taste in media and am genetically programmed to be a complete nerd for speculative fiction, something about the idea of a sci-fi show on Fox was a little too close to the network attempting to replace The X-Files [“Too soon!,” shouted my brain]. And it has Pacey in it, for which I mocked my familiar mercilessly. Nevertheless, with some coaxing, I watched the fourth episode of Season Three and was grudgingly hooked by the knotty storyline, Lance Reddick (he’s so great in everything!), and, most powerfully, by Jasika Nicole’s portrayal of Astrid. A black woman with curly hair who has serious scientific and technological skill, real hobbies, and the ability to be assertive without being “sassy” or “angry?” Sign me up.

But first, allow me a brief digression. Excluding “reality,” documentary, and news programming, there are 84 television shows on the 2010-2011 primetime network schedule. In those 84 shows, there are twenty-nine women who publicly identify as having African ancestry. That’s twenty-nine (29!) black or multiracial actors in eighty-four television shows that, combined, employ hundreds of actors. If I were only to consider women who had non-recurring or non-supporting roles, we wouldn’t have anyone at all to talk about, but let’s go ahead and subtract actors on canceled shows [I’m looking at you, Undercovers]. That leaves us with Twenty-seven.

The number is small, but perhaps these roles are substantial, realistic portrayals of the manifold varieties of black womanhood that exist in the United States. Eh, yes, but mostly no. The characters that these twenty-seven women play include everything from brassy, plus-sized, head-swerving best friends to hard-charging attorneys/doctors/medical examiners to socially-awkward, Ph.D.-holding geek wranglers. In this sample group, the only [imperfect] analogue for Astrid that I can find is Tamara Taylor’s Camille Saroyan on Bones, but, as a viewer, I feel like I don’t have a complete picture of who Saroyan actually is. She fulfills the role of schoolmarm without being able to develop into something more three-dimensional. So, what makes Astrid stand out for me, despite her being kind of hamstrung in the first couple of seasons, is the complexity with which the character is constructed and how much of her subjectivity we’ve been able to see. She’s not only a novel character, but she’s also fully formed, a trick that most shows cannot seem to pull off.

Despite all this goodness, Astrid is still a bit of a sidekick. She’s not a doormat, though evidence gained by superficial analysis would say otherwise. For instance, Walter Bishop rarely calls her by her real name. Aspirin, Asterisk(s), Astra, Asteroid, Astro, Astringent, and Ostrich, but rarely Astrid. He regularly orders her around, condescends to her, and makes her do menial tasks. In Season One, he even stabs her in the neck with a syringe(!).

Over the course of the series, however, the relationship between Astrid and Walter has developed not only into that of mentor/mentee, but, I would argue, almost parent/child, with both characters playing each role. She introduces him to SpongeBob SquarePants and regularly chastens him as though he were a naughty, too-smart-for-his-own-good man-child. He often treats her like a serf, but when he finds her in their lab after she’s been attacked — one of the most moving scenes in the series — he calls her by her real name, and the words, the tears, the non-verbal communication that they share are all overflowing with emotions that surpass those typically felt by people who are merely acquainted by virtue of working in the same place.

There is, as much as Walter is capable of it, a real and imperfect love there. It’s not predatory or lecherous; it’s borne of a mutual respect for one another’s strengths and weaknesses (but, yes, Walter/Astrid shippers do exist, and the fan fiction’s out there to prove it).

Thanks to the show’s dynamics, Nicole actually gets to play two Astrid Farnsworths — “Our” Astrid and “Alter Astrid,” or Altrid, also known as Agent Farnsworth. This is common within the Fringe universe, as most of the main characters in “our” universe have doubles in the parallel world. For example, Our Walter is a scientist who was locked in a mental hospital for seventeen years; Alternate Walter is a scientist who is the Secretary of Defense. Doubles are usually genetically identical, so most changes in characteristics are due to the differences between the two universes. In the parallel universe, the Twin Towers are still standing; people get around using zeppelins because the Hindenburg disaster never happened; and JFK, MLK, and John Lennon are still alive. That is the world in which Altrid, who was introduced earlier this season, exists.

Here, Nicole portrays a very different, though no less overlooked, aspect of black femininity. The public sphere is almost completely devoid of portrayals of people on the autism spectrum. It is even more rare for these portrayals to depict valued, functional members of contemporary U.S. society. In view of the fact that whenever we do see people with autism, they’re almost always men and they’re almost always white, Nicole’s portrayal of Altrid not only highlights the very existence of women of color with autism, but it also challenges the way that dominant U.S. culture sees this group. Grounding her performance in her experiences with her own sister, who has autism, Nicole plays Altrid with a compassion and subtlety that are often lacking in portrayals of both women of color and people with autism. Of this, the actress has said:

There are certainly autistic people in this universe, but they’re treated one way here and they’re heralded in that universe. What they do with autistic kids who happen to be really, really good with numbers and data and mathematics, is they educate them and they teach them how to use their skills so that they can be contributing members to this division [...] it’s a really cool idea to take kind of a disenfranchised group in one area and then say, “These are the same group of people, look at how differently they can be treated. Look at how we can appreciate them in a different way here.

As a queer woman of color, Nicole tackles the intersections between marginalized identities off-screen as well. Her webcomic, High Yella Magic, found at the “Artwork” section of her website, often touches upon the sticky spaces that manifest when one identifies as black, queer, and female and is in an interracial relationship. My personal favorite story of hers is “808 at 212,” in which Nicole invites Kanye West over to her apartment for movie night because “[she] thought [he] might need a friend.” “A friend?,” West asks, shoulders slumped and surrounded by gyrating women. “Or two,” Nicole replies in the next panel, “I have a blond dyke you can hang with, so don’t bring yours.” (I lol’d.) He comes over, drinks riesling out of a coffee cup, borrows a set of “comfy clothes,” and the trio settle in to watch Freaks and Geeks on a laptop. The sense of humor, the intellectual awareness, and the sportively critical intentionality that Nicole brings to her performances in Fringe are echoed in this graphic essay, which playfully straddles the border between verifiable fact and fantasy.

In her characterizations of Astrid and Altrid Farnsworth — though neither have self-identified as queer — Nicole can be said to be queering the representations of black womanhood that one usually gets from mass media in the United States. An emotionally grounded liberal arts grad who has an affinity for disparate academic disciplines, has Erykah Badu albums laying around her apartment, and possesses the ability to handle her maddening boss with aplomb and compassion — this is a human being to whom I can relate. I was entirely skeptical about Fringe until a few months ago, but Farnsworth, among other things, has made me a believer.

  • Sus

    The bizarre lack of development of Astrid in season one was one of my big complaints about early Fringe. It’s amazing how far she’s come since the days when she felt like nothing more than a walking plot device, and I look forward to seeing her character explored even more.

    I think part of the reason that many of us seem to feel a much stronger connection to Astrid than to Camille Saroyan (I think it’s telling, btw, that most of the comments refer to Cam by her last name and Astrid by her first) simply comes down to Jasika Nicole’s talent. She’s just got that nebulous, sparkling quality that all actors hope to capture, that ability to connect with an audience even when she doesn’t have much to work with on paper. When Astrid shoots a sideways glance across the lab on Fringe, you can read the complexity of emotions and intelligence on Jasika’s face in a way that draws you in and creates a feeling of connection with the character. She makes you feel whatever her character is feeling, and she doesn’t need a lot of dialogue or character development to do it. When Cam shoots a glance across the lab on Bones I don’t feel much more than the sense that Tamara Taylor is trying to convey her character’s approval or disapproval of what the other characters are doing.

    Jasika has It, whatever It is, and I hope the Fringe writers appreciate that and show us even more of her next season.

  • http://mclicious.wordpress.com/ McLicious

    I have to agree with the commenters down there. I love that Astrid is, in general, a smart, not overly sexed/on welfare/caricatured woman of color. But I hate how she is constantly being called a genius at one point and asking asinine questions at one point, and the fact that she knows a little about everything but isn’t actually treated like a human computer makes me think that the writers can’t remember (or never decided) what kind of character she is or what her background is. She mentions a different major every time she talks about college. She might be really good at computers, but she asks dumb questions. And she has no personal life. It’s very frustrating, like they forgot to fully develop her and use her to satisfy a million roles that could be filled by extras or a silly, bumbling lab assistant. I’m glad to see her alternate get a little more respect, but it’s not enough.

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  • Liz

    My husband and I love Fringe but we constantly cringe by the condescension exhibited towards Astrid and what can only be described as her character’s naivete. Not only is her character not developed (in either worlds), I resent the fact that she is used to ask the “dumb” questions that Walter exasperately answers so that we (the audience) understands. She follows directions to the tee but I’m annoyed by how she passively accepts rude and dismissive comments from others (never defending herself). We perceive she is intelligent, but in the show her intelligence is undermined because she often simply carries out what Walter asks her to do (little independent thinking) and she is most valued for her emotional contribution, which to me is simply a reformulation of the “hug to the bosom” trope (love that line, too!). She can be smart so long as she makes the white people feel comfortable and be their caregiver (particularly Walter’s). To me, she is so painfully one dimensional and servile that its painful and frustrating to watch. I have to say I love the show DESPITE Astrid’s portrayal not because of it …

    Notwithstanding, I partially agree that her character is a different type of character for black women and that’s exciting. However, I’m surprised you didn’t mention how skin color functions in this portrayal. Astrid, the sweet, meek, empathetic, and smart black woman is portrayed by a women who arguably is not easily read as black … either to blacks or non-blacks. In some scenes she even looks lighter than the white characters! Black comes in a variety of colors, but I often wonder if a dark-skinned actress … or heck a brown-skinned actress that did not have naturally curly/”good” hair be similarly cast in the role? There’s more to talk about here, but I think your article is provocative and gets the conversation moving in the right direction.

    Thanks for your article!

  • Pixyre82

    I only read this blog because I saw Astrid’s face below the title. Funny enough like everyone else, I’m a Fringe Fanatic Too! Im glad I read this blog because it was well written with so much details and passion about the actress and appreciation of her success in show-biz and for being a black women. I’ve seen this show since day one and never saw Astrid in the kind of light this writer gives Nicole. I am glad she has gotten the credit and praise she deserves for her role on this show.

  • alea adigweme

    [i'm posting one big new comment to avoid posting a bunch of little ones.]

    thank you all for your feedback on this essay!

    dustdaughter and morpho: thank you and i concur!

    logoskaieros: that’s a keen reading of saroyan’s place in the <> universe. you have the benefit of recent rewatching, so i appreciate the comprehensive nature of your analysis. i’ve wanted to like saroyan so, so hard over the years, and i don’t dislike her, but she’s never felt like a real person to me. even though i, ostensibly, know more about her than i do about farnsworth, there just seems to be, i don’t know, more human-meatiness to the latter’s character?

    saynay: i would love to see an episode focused on astrid or altrid, and i agree that jasika nicole is still not getting the type of screen time that she her talent merits. still, i think it was important for me to interrogate why i felt more kinship with astrid than i did with saroyan or pretty much any other brown woman that i’ve seen on television in the past couple of years. my reading of the character may not be the average viewer’s reading, but having the average reader’s reading is not my objective. making my reading accessible to the average viewer is.

    erica and meg m.: i think that astrid is an amazing character who’s slowly gotten more fleshed out over the course of the series, but, like y’all, i would still love to see her have a multi-episode story arc. meg, i heart that comic! and, yeah, bell was all up on astrid, but he’s dead now [for real this time], and not walter, so i left him out of it.

  • treeofjessie

    I LOVE THIS POST SSSSOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH!!

  • Morpho

    I’m a Fringe fan, and I definitely appreciated your reading of Astrid/Altrid as well as learning more about Jasika Nicole. I definitely would love to see more character development of her, as well as giving her a pivotal role in saving the universe next season.

    “Her sparkling emotional intelligence is a welcome change from Magical Negresses who solve white people’s problems with folksy wisdom and a hug to the bosom.” LOVE THIS LINE!

  • Meg M

    I straight up love Jasika Nicole. Her comics are amazing, this is a favorite of mine:

    http://jasikanicole.com/stuff/J+C_web.jpg

    And while I lovelovelove me some Fringe (the myth arcs oh the myth arcs!) I’m still less than thrilled with what they’ve been giving Astrid to do. And while I really like the perspective you’ve brought to the character, I still think the show has a bit more to do till we can say she’s fully formed. She’s been a series regular since the beginning and she’s still the character we know the least about. We don’t know her family, her friends, she has no real backstory to speak of, we barely know what she does outside of the FBI, heck we barely know what she does WITH the FBI aside from buying Walter his pudding snacks, making sure he’s okay and giving him side-eye when he comes up with some dubious sounding experiment.

    Also, Walter may not be perving on Astrid but Bell most definitely was ugggggh.

    And I think that if someone who hadn’t seen the show, read this and then started watching it looking for this great fully formed black character they would be like….huh? That’s it? She’s there for five-ten minutes an ep and mostly just helping with experiments or relaying information?

    There’s so much potential there, and I really hope the show writers run with it. And even if she doesn’t end up getting more screen time I’d love to see something like an Astrid-centric episode a la Zander in The Zeppo episode from BtVS.

  • Anonymous

    I am a Fringe fanatic, but Astrid is one of my major gripes about the show. While your reading of Astrid is great, it’s probably too generous for what the “average” viewer experiences of Fringe. We know more about Broyles (the other black character) than we do about Astrid. And while JJ and the crew have definitely teased out some complexity in her relationship with Walter and the Fringe team, the depth of her character really stops there. Most of what we know about Astrid seems to be an afterthought , and I would challenge any of the hardcore Fringe fans to name 5 things about her that don’t relate to Walter, Peter or Olivia. There’s been maybe 1 or 2 episodes in the entire series where Astrid was a significant driver in the storyline. I sincerely hope that next season we’ll see more of Astrid as a full(er) human being.

  • http://twitter.com/brooklynerica Erica

    I really love this analysis of Astrid/Altrid, but I remain disappointed that she hasn’t had an episode dedicated to her character. It has become increasingly clear that this show is about the three main white characters (and their alternates), Olivia, Peter, and Walter. Walter caused the worlds to fall apart and Olivia and Peter’s relationship could repair them. I was really pleased when Broyles got an interesting, smart, and multi-episode arc that delved more deeply into his characters. I wish they would do the same for Astrid. Then, I may be able to forgive the writers for relegating her to (awesome) sidekick status.

  • Logoskaieros

    Thanks for this great post! Now I want to watch Fringe.

    I want to comment on Camille Saroyan since I just watched all 6 seasons on Bones in the past 3 months.

    At first I was going to argue that Camille’s a very fleshed out character, but now the more I think about it, the more I agree that we see snippets of her personality, but we don’t see all the parts being fused together, like we do with Bones and Booth and others.

    I really thought her daughter Michelle was going to be a bigger part of the show, esp. considering how Camille comes to take care of her.

    I was excited to see Camille be a continuously kick-ass character, standing up to Bones when she’s stubborn, and being completely unapologetic and not awkward about her past relationship with Booth. (Although I wonder if there’s the issue of her falling into a black-woman-with-wild-sexuality stereotype.) As a viewer, I feel like I know a lot about Camille, but it does bug me that I don’t understand how all the different parts of her personality fit together. I don’t know how she views her career in relation to her life with Michelle. I don’t know what she think her long term plans are for her current boyfriend. I don’t even know really how she views Bones–as a peer? As a true underling?

    It’s funny that Bones is the center of the show, because Camille is someone who’s already done what Bones is trying to do: mesh her science with the ‘messier’ parts of life. We just don’t really get to see how she does it, which sucks.

    • Anonymous

      Honestly it is okay to argue that Camille Saroyan is a fleshed out character. Actually by comparison to Astrid she is. You know about her past and current relationships. And while the relationship with her daughter may not be front-burner on the show, there is some depth there in the love/tension they have with each other, which drives some of Camille’s actions i.e. the school apps thing. It would be nice to see more on her working relationship with Brennan, but given that the writing is tedious with the Brennan character at best, I don’t know that we can really hope for more than that.

  • http://iamdustdaughter.wordpress.org Dustdaughter

    This article makes me so happy. I love the show but have been frustrated by the lack of development for Astrid. She is my favorite character. Thank you for helping me see some things that I missed.

    Jasika Nicole is brilliant and still underused, though.