A Tale of Two Olivias: Fringe and Feminism

This post will include significant spoilers for Fringe, through the latest season—but let’s face it, even the show’s Wikipedia entry is a spoiler-bomb!

So I’ve gotten into Fringe. Very into Fringe. Over the past three weeks, Jordan and I have watched two and a half day’s worth of freaky, nausea-inducing, dimension-hopping television.

(Thank you, underemployment!)

I was skeptical at first. JJ Abrams has burned me before, and I worried that I’d find another shallow, secretly SF-hating show filled with Kates or Claires—you know, women who are either hypersexualized ciphers, or whining, perpetually victimized Mama bears.

But instead, I found Olivia Dunham. Wonderful, blonde, tough and passionate Olivia Dunham.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever identified with a television character quite so thoroughly, or found one that so perfectly personified the qualities I admire: hard work, dedication, loyalty, persistence.

Olivia defends passion in the workplace.

In some ways, through both the way she’s written and the way she’s performed (by Anna Torv, who I love, but apparently people think she’s a bit wooden? Whatever!), Oliva reads like a textbook example at how to personify certain feminist ideals. Oliva works, and works incredibly hard, in a traditionally male world. And yet—though she has formed her identity partially as a response to painful and traumatic childhood experiences—she’s not hardened. She has uncanny chemistry with children. She’s nurturing. As you can see from the clip above, she refuses to limit herself to the expedient, emotionless communication most valued in the male work-world. We meet her as she’s about to embark on her married life, but though that’s cut short through the untimely murder of her boyfriend, it’s easy to see how Olivia could live the life of a second-wave feminist superwoman: happily running herself ragged as both a parent and a career woman.

Late in the show’s second season, the writers enable us to take a look at another side of Olivia—or, rather, another Olivia altogether. We visit a parallel universe, and meet a version of Olivia (with bangs!) who was never experimented upon, who hasn’t lost her nearly-fiance (she is, in fact, in an apparently-happy relationship; they have matching tribal tattoos), who doesn’t have universe-shattering superpowers. Via some stellar performances by Torv, we’re able to see an Olivia that could have been. She’s happy, irreverent, not a drinker, promiscuous, sarcastic—and seems to speak with a slight Brooklyn accent.

This fan vid sums up the differences pretty well.

And then the writers make things interesting: they have Fauxlivia take our Olivia’s place and she proceeds to take over her life—slipping into her job and her relationships, and all as part of an evil plot, too.

My first reaction was to twitch and wince through these scenes—this isn’t Olivia, my Olivia, who I’ve grown to love and with whom I identify. This is some hussy imposter! And then I stopped myself, and started thinking, “If Olivia might represent second-wave feminist values, then what’s Fauxlivia?”

This might be reductive of me, but it’s easy for me to see how she might represent women who think themselves living in a post-feminist world, women with whom I’ve never been able to whole-heartedly identify. For the teenage girls and young women who in many ways espouse feminist values but refuse to take on the name, the struggles and pain and goals of second-wave feminist women are somewhat baffling. What need is there to push women’s voices particularly if they’ve never lived in a world where those voices have never been wholly silenced? What’s wrong with, say, defining oneself as the girl who hangs with the boys but hates other girls? Why should I want a career and a family life, anyway? That really does sound exhausting.

I think it’s easy, too, for women who identify more strongly with feminist struggles—or who have struggled with certain types of pain or violation in their lives, and so must rebuild their lives from there, rather than a place of happy ignorance—to look at these girls wistfully. They’re able to have fun, with sex and love and friendships and their careers, in an uncomplicated way. As Olivia herself put it in the last episode, “Concentrate and Ask Again”: “She’s like me but better. . . She can laugh. She has friends. She even wears a dress once in awhile.”

I have to admit, though, that for all my fondness for Olivia, I almost wish the writers had treated Fauxlivia with a bit more even-handedness—perhaps making her an icon of third-wave feminist ideals than seemingly post-feminist ones. How about a woman who isn’t damaged, and who likes having sex, but not because she’s an evil seductress with a vagenda?

I’m not sure, though, that I would find that quite so compelling a narrative personally—and perhaps this reveals my own feminist limits (or perhaps it merely exposes just how deeply gone I am with my Peter/Olivia shipping!). It’s almost easier, in a way, to see women who are carefree and uncomplicated as being evil than it is to see them as, you know, people.