Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fringe and The Exceptional Female

I have an odd relationship with the show Fringe; I don't find it to be particularly good - or compelling. I have no real reason to like it, having never seen a full episode of either Felicity or Alias. I never watched much Dawson's Creek, so Joshua Jackson isn't as big a draw as it is for others. The dialogue is, at times, painful. The names given to the various nefarious institutions and individuals by the FBI ("The Pattern", "The Observer") are often unimaginative - and also painful. And yet, something keeps pulling me back in. I actually want to see the new episode. Not live, of course; but via Hulu, the show is palatable. It is my new guilty pleasure (my last one was Bedford Diaries, but that was pretty much summed up by the name Milo Ventimiglia). And when the main character, Olivia Dunham, was captured after a rather poor escape/fight attempt, I was prepared for it to become my former guilty pleasure. I anticipated an episode of Olivia in captivity and enduring valiantly various procedures, with her friends and colleagues desperately trying to track her down to save her at some point later on in the episode. But the show - and Olivia - surprised me. She escaped; and not far into the episode, but before the end of the teaser. She escaped, and she had the foresight to grab some evidence from the facility and bury it as well. She orchestrated her own rescue, before many people even knew anything was wrong in the first place.

That was pretty amazing to see; and the show does manage to have aspects that make it pretty good, from the "woman as main character" part of it. Olivia is confident; she is good at her job; she doesn't allow any negative perceptions of her devotion, her skill, or her person to go unchallenged. And she frequently proves that no matter what aspect of her the person in question deems unlikable or unprofessional, her methods work. She works. And she is tough; unlike the eponymous character Sarah Connor of The Sarah Connor Chronicles (played by Lena Headey), Anna Torv actually looks tough. She's still a twig, but she is intense; she looks like she could take anyone down that tried to stand in her way. She had a relationship with her partner, but that does not detract from her good standing in the FBI. And her closest companion even in the period of time before we are shown is a man. And there seems to be no sexual component to their relationship.

And yet, I am still hesitant to place Fringe as a show in the "feminist friendly" airspace of television. I wish that I could. There are so few shows and movies that actually qualify. And the show does manage to pass that famous Rule; Olivia speaks to Astrid and Nina really only about the cases in question and rarely even touches upon her personal life with anyone except her friend Charlie. But here is really one of the places this show utterly fails. There are only two other women present in the show who are even recurring characters. This last episode introduced us to Olivia's sister (who will presumably be staying for longer than the one episode); but in the whole of the FBI, in the lab scenes, on the ground, everywhere, there is a dearth of women. Forget women of adequate roles, but women in general are scarce in the various institutions. And with Astrid being relegated to the lab even though she is a federal agent and Olivia's assistant, we are left with only Olivia as a dynamic and (semi) three-dimensional character. Nina, the shadowy woman in a seat of power in a suspicious organization, is also relegated to scenes primarily taking place in her office. Which lends to the reading of Olivia as the exceptional female character.

In Olivia, we have a full character; a character with wants and desires and strengths and weaknesses. She's not a particularly compelling, but most of the characters - by virtue of the writing - have more in common with cardboard than humanity in general (I should point out that this aspect seems to be evolving, but whether the writing is actually getting better or I'm just getting more used to it is up in the air). However, with no other woman characters around her she ends up looking more like an exception to the rule rather than an example of one. Instead of showing that women are capable, we see that Olivia is capable. Instead of really recognizing that women have a place in these different, historically male-dominated, fields, we only see that Olivia has a place in these fields. Olivia and her place on television is not truly all that progressive or awe inspiring. After all, we've had Julie Barnes from The Mod Squad and Emma Peel from The Avengers. And it is somewhat frustrating that there is only one bright woman in the presence of men who are more than bright, who are by any conceivable test intellectual giants. That juxtaposition only further highlights Olivia's exceptional femaleness, and how even being an exceptional female does not place her in the upper tiers of empirical greatness. And if Olivia looks like an idiot savant next to Walter and Peter Bishop, Astrid disappears entirely due to being merely a "just a". Walter betrays her trust and doses her against her will and without her knowledge? She is back in the lab acting buddy-buddy again over the course of the next episode, her trauma and her story ignored in order to further examine Walter and Walter's motivations. Because while Astrid is just a woman and Olivia is the exceptional female, Walter is unequivocally exceptional.

Contrast this show to Bones, another Fox show not truly rooted in the reality of science, and the difference is incredible. There is a truly exceptional character on Bones, who happens  to be female. And she is in the presence of other brilliant minds, several of them also female. She interacts with them, and their stories are also highlighted. Angela is an expert in her own right, and exists separate from the other characters as well as in conjunction with them. Cam's addition is a comparable achievement. There are other women who are studying to do what Brennan does. There are women present in the FBI; there are women present in almost every arena the show traverses, from the lab to the people investigating the crimes scenes to the prosecution. Brennan travels in a world replete with women - and men. There is a healthy mix not present in Fringe. And Fringe is less for it. All of this lends itself to one conclusion: Olivia Dunham may be in the running toward becoming someone we can look to as a feminist icon, but Fringe itself is not a feminist enterprise. Its lack of women amid a plethora of men is a detraction from the show it could be. And that, the conventional invisibility of women, is upsetting.


John said...

So what's your opinion of House, M.D.? Cuddy, Cameron and Hadley (better known as Thirteen)all seem to be positive role models in terms of their professional careers, at least. Heck, didn't they say Cuddy set a new world record for youngest Chief of Medicine?! Then again, for all I know there are teams of writers waiting for their chance to write a by-the-numbers pregnancy and/or rape and/or tragic death story (in other words, get the comic book superheroine treatment.)

John said...

*tragic death story about each one of them (in other words, give them the comic book superheroine treatment.)

petpluto said...

I like House, a lot. But the characterization of women on the show leaves a lot to be desired, and has for quite a while. MizBitca writes a compelling piece about 13 and Forman at What A Crazy Random Happenstance that would be worth checking out.