Fringe: Fringe vs Consent

[Content Note: Fringe spoilers, Abuse, Non-Consensual Bodily Autonomy Issues, Misogyny. Seriously, this is a massively triggery/spoilery post.]

I mentioned in an earlier post that Husband and I have been watching Fringe and that I have mixed feelings about it. Those mixed feelings have only gotten more mixed: it's deeply frustrating to watch something that had so much potential in terms of plot and yet which has horribly monstrous people for protagonists while doggedly trying to backpedal so as to insist that, no really, they aren't that monstrous after all and that the whole foreshadowed redemptive path turned out to be hard and so we're not going to do that after all. 

This is Olivia Dunham:


Olivia Dunham is the pseudo-protagonist of Fringe, by which I mean she was the protagonist at the very beginning of the show before the writers eventually came around to the decision that the Straight White Men who surround her as part of her daily job were clearly way more interesting than her. (Spoiler warning: They're not.) This decision to downgrade Olivia from protagonist to supporting character also came around the time they dumped her sister and her niece -- both of whom lived with Olivia and provided plenty of Bechdel-passing moments -- as an interesting side-plot in their own right. Chicks, who needs them, amiright?

Anyway. Olivia has "trust issues" and gets to be chided for that once every couple of episodes, because paranoid chicks, amiright? (And this is especially amusing because the pilot episode had her choosing to trust a recently-hospitalized-for-mental-insanity scientist to shoot her full of illegal drugs and perform an experimental brain procedure on her so that she could Solve The Case and Save Her Partner. So obviously, she totally has a hard time trusting people, lol-forever.)

It's not like she has a reason to have trust issues. Her step-father beat her as a child, and the scientist she's working with now -- Walter Bishop -- knew that, but only intervened because she was important to him, and only then in the ineffectual "don't hurt her or I'll see that you're hurt" way that doesn't cause abusers to stop abusing, only to make their abuse less obvious and/or escalate it in other ways. And the reason she was important to her sorta-savior Walter was because he was illegally experimenting on her at the time -- he ran a "daycare" where he secretly pumped children's brains full of experimental chemicals and routinely terrorized them in order to spike their fear levels. In fact, a major plot-point in Fringe has been the ruination of the lives of pretty much all of the children Walter experimented on, usually featured alongside their ugly and painful deaths. Olivia, just by virtue of being alive, is a rare exception among her daycare peers.

After growing up and overcoming the fact that the major two father-figures in her life abused her in horrific ways -- oh, by the way, Walter emotionally abused her so badly that Olivia is no longer capable of feeling fear except in rare instances where the plot demands it -- Olivia's fiance turned out to be leading an entirely separate secret life wherein he was either a government assassin or a terrorist, and in either case he genuinely tried to run her off the road, which would have seriously harmed and/or killed her. Meanwhile, Olivia's male mentor has lied to her about his essential being (he's really an immortal space alien or some such shit), while her own government once "restrained" her after she escaped a botched kidnapping attempt by tasering the shit out of her and letting a convicted rapist handcuff her to a bed. No one got in trouble for that, by the way, because that's totally how the U.S. government rolls in Fringe

Also, Olivia was once held captive, tortured, brainwashed, and almost dissected because her current boyfriend -- straight man and author-pet Peter Bishop -- couldn't tell the difference between Olivia and an imposter. A reasonable mistake to make, except that they live in a universe where they encounter literal shapeshifters every other episode. You would think they'd have a weekly "gotcha" question-and-answer protocols to deal with this exact thing. You would be wrong.

So: Olivia has "trust issues". I cannot imagine why, since it's not like her entire life has been one big painful object lesson in the fact that she is On Her Own because the men in her life sure as fuck aren't going to be helpful and most of them are going to be actively harmful. (And this includes, in a very meta-sense, the probably-mostly-male writers who determine what will happen to her.)

And the thing that pisses me off is not that this stuff happens -- I can deal with triggery shit like this if it's in service to a deconstruction about why all this is super-problematic. And way back in Season 1, it seemed like Fringe was going to go there: the point was regularly made, if not entirely forcefully enough, that no matter how wounded and congenial Walter is now, it is So Very Much Not Okay that he was experimenting on children back in the day. And, no, not even if he Meant Well because Intent Isn't Magic and Informed Consent Matters. And while the point wasn't made often enough for my tastes, it was made and I thought the writers were trying.

But somewhere along the way, I think the writers started empathizing more with funny-and-wounded Walter* and sweet-and-nice-guy Peter and starting seeing Olivia as less of a person and more of a thing. The few times she's been allowed to directly express her anger over being experimented on as a child by someone she trusted has been characterized by other characters as "attacks" on Walter. Her unwillingness to dive into bed with Peter after he slept with her imposter while she languished in torture-brainwash-prisonland were blamed on her trust issues and fear of relationships and he outright told her that it was Olivia who was preventing herself from being happy -- essentially blaming her for an uncontrollable emotional response to what she reasonably perceives as an emotional betrayal: his inability or unwillingness to do a basic identity check in a world where shapeshifters are a Known Thing. (Shapeshifters who are known to be on a mission to infiltrate the team, no less. There was a whole episode about a fucking U.S. Senator being compromised entirely in order to get information on the Fringe team. Expecting Peter to be aware of this thing they are All Very Much Aware Of is not "Frigid Bitch Putting Nice Guy In Friend Zone", no matter how much the writers would like us to see it that way.)

All this brings me to the episode we watched tonight where it was revealed that a second scientist by the name of William Bell -- Walter's colleague who either* helped or condoned the childhood experimentation on Olivia -- previously dosed adult!Olivia with experimental drugs without her consent, and is now using her body as a receptacle for his soul until such time as they can find a replacement body for him. Olivia's consciousness has been shut down in the interim while Bell -- who is repeatedly characterized as a good, kind, moral guy who likes to talk about finding Meaning and God in his science -- uses her body to flirt with Olivia's obviously-uncomfortable-with-this female colleague, Astrid.** And while Peter is pissed off about this arrangement because he's been putting his dick in Olivia lately and isn't happy to suddenly have to yield his place to a dead scientist who is putting his consciousness in her instead, neither he nor anyone else yells:


That does not get said. Instead, Walter gets to laugh and play chummy with his dead scientist friend -- while they use recreational drugs that Olivia hasn't consented to have in her body -- and Peter passive-aggressively frowns a lot while the whole plot acts like he's such a bore and a prude to be so uptight about this, and isn't this important Because Science and Because Plot and Because Armageddon. And we get a brief moment of Olivia reasserting her consciousness for a moment, scared and confused, and then William Bell is back and whooooops, it's going to be harder than he thought to leave her body because he never beta-tested this shit and this is one of many reasons why informed consent is kind of an important thing for fuck's sake.

And while I'm confident that Olivia will be "saved" -- probably by funny-and-wounded Walter and sweet-and-nice-guy Peter and probably with us in the audience being expected to appreciate their saving her rather than being pissed off at them taking so bloody long to even try (and note that this is now the second time they have taken Way Too Long to identify and correct a body-snatch / body-steal scenario with Olivia as the victim) -- I'm less confident that anyone on the writing team will ultimately underline the point that all this persistent and continued overriding of Olivia's consent under the guise of supposed-necessity is totally fucking wrong. The writers would have us condone her being repeatedly abused by these men because if they sought her consent, she might refuse, and then the universe -- the one she lives in, the one she knows is in danger, and the one she has risked her life for numerous times -- would be doomed. And so therefore the needs of the many outweigh the illegal experimentation on the few.

We're not supposed to notice that the universe is supposedly-doomed because these same men, these same abusers, fucked it up in the first place. We're not supposed to notice that for all that the plot insists that they are Learning Lessons and Earning Redemption, they're continuing to do the same immoral bullshit that fucked up the world in the first place. (And no retcon in the world can undo that, no matter how much the writers try.) We're just supposed to accept that these immoral scientists are the only ones who can save the world, and therefore whatever they do to Olivia's body without her consent may not be pretty for the audience to watch, but it is ultimately justified. And I utterly disagree with that premise, and could not reject it more forcefully.

It's a false premise, but a convenient one, to say that consent must be overridden because if Olivia has the choice to say no, then she might exercise it, and the world would therefore be doomed forever. The writers never try to take a third way out, because then we might have a solution wherein consent was gotten (either from Olivia or from someone else willing to volunteer for the situation), and obviously that's not "dramatic" enough. I see, looking ahead to late Season 4 spoilers, that a certain character does eventually take a supposed third-way-out, which would indicate that the writers are at least familiar with the concept, but again this seems to be played more for drama (and because otherwise there wouldn't be a show anymore) than for morality.

And this is a shame, the willingness to sacrifice actual interesting moral questions and conundrums -- the same ones I thought the show was dedicated to exploring, back in the beginning -- in favor of an actiony plot. Because there are about a billion action shows out there, but very few that realistically and reasonably try to examine redemptive restoring of consent and agency after realizing how wrong it was to take it away in the first place. And because they abandoned that message before it could even really get off the ground, I can honestly say that Fringe is the most disappointed I've been in a television show in a long time.

I'll keep watching, but now I'm just killing time until the end.

* One problem with talking about Fringe is that the backstory has been retconned about 20 times already, each time less in an attempt to tie plot elements together and more in an attempt to further absolve Walter of immoral behavior. Originally, his experimentation on Olivia was seen as a Bad Thing that he shouldn't have done, but he was ambitious and glossed over his unethical behavior under a film of "it'll be good for the children". The show seemed to be indicating, at least initially, that this was nothing more than an excuse and that he needed to genuinely repent of what he'd done.

Then about twenty retcons occurred, each one making Walter more and more innocent and pure-minded, recently culminating in him "saving" Olivia from her previously-established-as-abusive step-father by threatening the man. There was much swearing on my part, both because (a) the show expected me to see this as Heroic rather than Expedient (both in the meta-sense of absolving Walter further and in the in-universe sense that Walter still wants Olivia to stay with her abuser so that she doesn't move away and become unavailable for experimenting on) and because (b) threatening abusers is not an effective way to stop abuse and is in fact an effective way to escalate abuse.

The fact that Nice Guy Peter was characterized early on as "saving" an ex-girlfriend of abuse by beating up her current boyfriend and threatening him did not help my mood. This is a really vile trope and needs to stop. It elides the fact that threatening an abuser with violence puts the victim in more danger. And it effectively uses women as objects so as to paste shiny gold stars on the records of the Virtuous Men: *bing* Stopped Abuse via Manly Fists!! It needs to be said yet again: you cannot use violence to stop a culture of violence, and you cannot stop the objectification of women by using women as narrative objects.

** Astrid is a woman of color who works for the FBI in her own right and is a goddamn genius. Her job on Fringe is to assist Walter on the job (and the nature of that assistance means that she has to be a genius in multiple fields of study), and to effectively babysit him off of it whenever his son Peter isn't around. Walter -- who is white and male -- never gets Astrid's name right, repeatedly calling her "Asterisk", even though he has this problem with no one else. Just with the woman of color that he works with nearly 24 hours a day. A major "emotional moment" in an earlier episode was when he called her by the correct name and she nearly teared up with gratitude.

I have so many issues with this characterization that it's not even funny -- the writers of Fringe seem not to notice or care that they have written a woman of color who gets zero respect from her white colleague and who is moved with gratitude when he bothers to remember her name for once. The longer I watch Fringe, the more I dream that Astrid will find a better job, and that we will be allowed to leave with her.

And then we'll come back to rescue Olivia.


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