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.