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. Continue reading