Hey, see that somber lady looking at herself in the mirror? That’s FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham. Well, actually, it’s actress Anna Torv, who plays FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham on TV. But that’s beside the point. The point is that, in my eyes, Fringe is the best science fiction on television today (no offense, Whovians), and that Olivia Dunham is a grade-A, textbook example of how to create a well-rounded female protagonist.
In case you’ve never seen Fringe (which is tragic), let me get you up to speed. The mutant brain child of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, Fringe serves up a twisted, poignant brand of mad science that falls somewhere between The X-Files, The Twilight Zone and Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein. The show’s got everything a sci-fi buff could love: intricate conspiracies, squicky transformations, soul-wrenching guilt over possibly destroying the universe. All that good stuff. The science itself is often absurd, but it’s always done with a dose of self-awareness, as if the writers are winking at you through the TV, saying, “Yes, this is ridiculous…but isn’t it fun?”
I could babble on for hours about the epic themes and tangled relationships that make Fringe so compelling, but for now I’m just going to focus on its remarkable leading lady. Olivia is out to unravel the mysteries of “the Pattern” – a blanket term given to a worldwide occurrence of general weirdness. As her boss, Phillip Broyles, puts it, “It’s as if someone out there is experimenting, only the whole world is a lab.” On her quest to save the world from science – excuse me, I meant SCIENCE! – Olivia chases clues, solves puzzles, busts heads, fights creepy things, protects the innocent, saves her friends, and makes daring escapes. In short, she’s everything you could want in a good guy.
What makes Olivia particularly special is that she is undeniably female, and I don’t mean because she has breasts and a lady name. Let me bring to the table two of geek culture’s most revered heroines: Ripley and Starbuck. We admire them because it is still the exception, rather than the rule, to see women portrayed with such strength and tenacity – and to have such characters be well-written to boot. However, if we distill the core elements of their personalities, the primary traits we find are gender-neutral (and I do mean neutral, which does not equate to being a male character in a woman’s body). This isn’t surprising, as Ripley was originally written to be played by either gender, and Starbuck was adapted from a male character. Olivia Dunham, on the other hand, is inextricable from her gender. While you could assign some of Olivia’s personality traits to a male character, there is something esoterically female about the entire package.
Part of it, I believe, is that Olivia does not separate herself from her emotions. A lot of women – myself included – balk at the idea of being defined primarily by our feelings, as it brings up connotations of wandering uteri. But if we’re talking purely in terms of brain function, women do process emotions differently than men. On paper, that’s just a biological difference – it doesn’t make us any better or worse. But as far as society at large is concerned, it makes us weak. In movies and on TV, a man being encouraged to talk about his feelings is often done for comedic effect, especially if the encouragement is coming from another man. Emotions are seen as a female trait, and female traits, we are taught, sap a man of his strength. Aside from the fact that this is insulting to women, unfair to men, and just plain wrong, this bizarre aversion to emotional openness also has created that oft-seen breed of Strong Female Character: the Ice Queen. If emotions make us weak, and female characters need to be stronger, then all we need is to remove their weird, girly emotions entirely, right?
Olivia Dunham disagrees. Check out what she says to Broyles in the season one episode “The Cure.”
I understand that you think I acted too emotionally. And putting aside the fact that men always say that about women they work with, I’ll get straight to the point. I am emotional. I do bring it into my work. It’s what motivates me. It helps me to get into the headspace of our victims. See what they’ve seen. Even if I don’t want to, even if it horrifies me. I think it makes me a better agent. If you have a problem with that, sorry. You can fire me. But I hope you don’t.
That, right there, is a sci-fi/action heroine publicly owning her emotions as a source of strength, rather than some sort of chromosomal disorder. I’m not sure that’s something I’ve ever seen before this show. See, Olivia may be guarded, but she still feels stuff. She’s efficient without being cruel. She’s driven without being haughty. She’s not a prude, but she isn’t defined by her sexuality, either. For a woman who is never far from a gun and has to deal with impending doom 24-7, she is kind, considerate, and downright nurturing. She is not the Ice Queen. Neither is she “one of the boys.” She’s just a tough, smart woman with a mind-bendingly difficult job. When we see her cry – which we do – it does not make her appear weak. It just makes her look like a person who is having a really bad day.
What makes that emotional honesty ironic is that Olivia is rather repressed when it comes to her personal life – so much so that early in the series, some viewers criticized Anna Torv for being a one-dimensional, wooden performer (this changed once we met a brasher, more irreverent version of Olivia from a parallel universe; it seems that Torv is just really good at playing a character who keeps her cards close to the chest). The hard-nosed pragmatism that makes Olivia such a good agent also makes it difficult for her to let her guard down with the people she cares about. But when she does let her guard down, her vulnerability has nothing to do with being a woman. It’s just because all people are vulnerable sometimes. As with any good character, her flaws are what make her human.
This brings me to the shining example of what makes Olivia stand out: how she handles fear. To explain in a way that is as non-spoilery as possible, we discover in season two that Olivia can turn her brain up to eleven, due to some early childhood SCIENCE!. But her extraordinary abilities are latent, and can only be triggered by a deep emotional response. In Olivia’s case, the trigger is fear. Once she figures that out, the first thing she does is tell her companions what’s up.
Now, think about that for a moment. Heroes of any gender don’t generally admit to being afraid. That’s a sign of weakness across the board. But not for Olivia. Not only does she own up to being afraid, but she makes it work for her. She accepts her fear and uses it to her advantage.
I find that awesome. Why? Because so many shows and stories are so damn scared of making their Strong Female Characters look weak that they rob them of any nuance in the process. Olivia Dunham manages to be a female character who, at times, is blatantly scared or vulnerable, and yet appears all the stronger for it. That is a type of characterization that is both rare and brave.
And yes, as some of you may have noted, there have been a few less-than-awesome grabs for ratings. Olivia is shown at length in her underwear during the pilot (sure, she’s in a sensory deprivation tank, but I didn’t see co-star Joshua Jackson strip down to his skivvies within the first hour of the series). There’s a Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss in the first season that they could have done without. But those minor hiccups come across as the doings of the network, not the writers. Olivia is so dynamic throughout the series as a whole that those moments are worth an eye-roll, not an out-right condemnation. After all, we don’t think any less of Ripley for the infamous changing room scene in Alien. In the specific context of this story, I see such scenes as a sign of the times, not as a mark of bad storytelling.
The icing on the cake is that Olivia is not the only character of her kind within the Fringe universe (or universes, I suppose). She is constantly surrounded by strong, capable women. There’s Junior Agent Astrid Farnsworth, Olivia’s research assistant. She’s the loving heart of the lab, quick-witted and loyal to the end. There’s Nina Sharp, the smooth-talking, morally ambiguous head of the omnipresent technology corporation Massive Dynamic. Nina’s one of those characters who makes you go to yellow alert any time she enters a scene. And of course, there’s parallel universe Olivia (better known as “Fauxlivia”), who is far more complicated than your average goatee-wearing villain.
The bad news here is that Fringe still needs viewers. Season four started up on September 23, and though it’s stubbornly holding on, its Friday night death slot hasn’t done it any favors (neither has skipping over John Noble for an Emmy nod yet again, but I digress). Shows like Fringe need more of an audience, and not just because I selfishly need this series to be on the air forever. When we talk about the portrayal of women in pop and geek culture, it’s easy to focus on the negative. It’s so important that we acknowledge the good female characters that do exist. And it’s important, too, that we actually watch them. We have to raise up our remotes and cheer for the good stuff out there.
So, kudos, Fringe. Thanks for getting it right.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.