Fringe and Astrid as a Disposable Mammy

Photo of Astrid

This is a guest post by Paul and Renee. Paul and Renee blog and review at Fangs for the Fantasy. We’re great lovers of the genre and consume it in all its forms – but as marginalised people we also analyse critically through a social justice lens.

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.

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.
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.


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19 Responses to Fringe and Astrid as a Disposable Mammy

  1. karak says:

    I sometimes wonder whether it’s worse to watch a sci-fi show with no characters of color or watch one with a character of color and watch the character be completely sidelined.

    Both are so… nasty. And now you’re reminding me of Buffy and Angel and Stargate and the total lack of color on that screen.

  2. chava says:

    Reading this made me realize just how much I had projected who I WANTED Astrid to be as a character onto the hollow character she’s become in order to be able to tolerate that aspect of the show.

    She had such potential to be kickass, too. I had a lot of hope after Making Angels, but they never followed up on it–and it was too little, too late, anyway.

    • Brandy says:

      Yeah. I love the *idea* of Astrid as a fully-developed character but they’ve never given her a chance. It became even more obvious in that Making Angels episode, which treated the interaction between Astrid & Alt. Astrid more like a digression than part of the show’s story.

  3. Jadey says:

    I can’t stand anymore hearing Walter call her after an object (“Astroturf” is particularly fitting/horrifying). At least at the beginning it seemed to show her sympathetically, having to put up with an unpleasant old man, but as Walter has been redeemed, so have his eccentricities, and now she is just an outlet for his oddness. His ability to call the alternate Astrid by her name was just a further insult because it showed how unnecessary the abuse is.

    My only hope left is that Jasika can leverage this role into something better after Fringe ends.

  4. seisy says:

    I think there are some repeated paragraphs.

  5. seisy says:

    Also, I think I read that Alt!Astrid being autistic was something Jasika Nicole came up with for the character? As a kind of tribute to her sister?

  6. Bethany says:

    I totally agree with this assessment of Astrid and have felt it for some time to be a thorn in the side of my enjoyment of Fringe. I still enjoy the show, but I accept and understand its faults and wish it could be better. I’d hoped that in the last season, she’d have a more integral role but without some major plot twist, it doesn’t look like that will happen.

  7. amblingalong says:

    I think you have a couple good points here, but I basically think you’ve drastically overreached with sections like

    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.

    Sure, this is an essay about race, but this is a damn silly statement; you’ve been watching Fringe for this long and you can’t think of a single reason Broyles has a different relationship with Olivia than Astrid, aside from race? Please.

    The treatment of Astrid is basically the same as the treatment of supporting characters usually is (in Fringe and elsewhere). There’s a genuine point to be made regarding casting POC in supporting roles and white people in lead roles, but that is the nexus of unequal treatment, not the lack of attention paid to Astrid post-casting, which is comparable in tone and depth to many of the other second-tier Fringe characters.

    Incidentally, alt-Astrid is not the only PWD on the show; so is Walter. For fuck’s sake, he spent years in an asylum. Let’s not overlook that, hmm?

  8. A4 says:

    The other day i was watching Alias, another five season long show by J.J Abrams about White people saving the World. The black characters on that show follow a strikingly similar pattern. Dixon, who starts as Sydney Bristow’s partner and then in season 3 becomes her boss, is a black male character who we learn very much about and who is very invested in the white female protagonist. His wife is one of 3 characters who are black women, the other two being Sydney’s friend Francie and Sydney’s spy-rival, Anna Espinosa.

    Francie is turned into an evil double agent when Allison Dorin is morphed using technology to look exactly like her. Allison, wearing Francie’s body, kills her and assumes her place, therefore turning Francie into a villain to counterpoint Sydney’s Goodness. Bad-Francie kills Dixon’s wife with a car-bomb.

    Sydney kills Bad-Francie at the end of season 2, but we find out that Bad-Francie is still alive in Season 3. At one point during the episode where Bad-Francie returns, Sydney’s boss, Dixon, tells her that the order is to kill Bad-Francie because she killed his wife, and with great fervor he informs her “I want that bitch dead”.

    The other black woman on the show, Anna Espinosa, Sydney’s other spy-rival, is morphed using the same technology to look like Sydney, which really brings home the idea that these women were simply used to counterpoint the good Sydney Bristow with their eeeevilness.

    J.J Abrams seems to have a strangely specific pattern going on, and this is a good example of how racism and sexism against black women can be its own particular harmful brand of bigotry not visited upon either white women or black men. The two major spy characters played by black women are the ones who are painted as particularly soulless and evil, deserving of great punishment for their misdeeds but as far as I can remember, their motivations for such evilness are never explained.

  9. Dana says:

    Also, I think I read that Alt!Astrid being autistic was something Jasika Nicole came up with for the character? As a kind of tribute to her sister?

    Apparently not…according to this interview the writers didn’t know it when they originally conceived of the alt version.

    Also appropriate for this topic. (Link to Jasika Nicole’s tumblr page.) I am not usually a fan of celebrities/actors/performers in real life (as opposed to being a fan of their work), but Jasika is awesome.

    • seisy says:

      Oh, thanks. I must have gotten it mixed up in my head. And she is totally awesome.

    • Jadey says:

      Thank you so much for linking to Jasika’s tumblr – I love her acting, but I had no idea how awesome she is just as herself! Now I’m even more irritated about how under-used her character is and even more hopeful that she will get picked up for a project where they will appreciate all her talents.

    • carol says:

      her reblog just makes it all worse :(

  10. carol says:

    the fact that they created this super smart and interesting female black character and then just made her the barely there sidekick (especially this season) is beyond disappointing.

  11. j_bird says:

    Ugh… Paul and Renee, I had many of the same thoughts you did while watching Fringe. Thanks for articulating them. I too was irritated when it became clear that we were supposed to find Walter’s insulting treatment of Astrid just another cute old-man quirk. I enjoy seeing dark, unlikeable characters and antiheroes, but only when the writers have the guts to leave off pretending that the characters are cute.

    This reminds me a bit of Uhura in the last Star Trek movie. She’s supposed to be very smart and talented, but aside from providing a bit of useful information and telling Spock she’s there to support him right before they kiss, we don’t see much about how she feels, what she thinks, or how she came to love Spock. Of course, the thinness here may be due to time constraints and a decision to make Spock the focus of the movie, but Fringe really has no excuse.

  12. Codi Johnson says:

    Once again, someone takes something good, dissects the crap out of it, and turns it into “an issue.” This is the United States. Three quarters of its people are white. The creator of the show is white. Do the math. Let’s say we make all the lead characters non white and do the exact same show. Would any of you be lamenting the lone white girl and how her role was not nearly what it could have been? No. In fact, in all likelihood, you wouldn’t be discussing it at all because it would probably been canceled after the first half season.

    The fact is, the main TV audience is white; hence, most of the characters in TV shows are white. It doesn’t make anything inherently racist. Stop finding trouble where there isn’t any.

    • Rhoanna says:

      The issue isn’t that the majority of the characters are white. The problem is that far less than 1/4 of main characters (across all American television) are non-white, and that non-white characters aren’t treated the same. They aren’t as important, they aren’t as well developed, and they often fill certain stereotypical roles. Like this post explains.

      • matlun says:

        Why are you using the figure 1/4 above?
        Considering the US demographics, wouldn’t that proportion actually mean a numerical over representation?

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