Saturday, March 15, 2014

Feminism Friday: Paying Attention to Agency

Today's Feminism Friday (it may or may night be past midnight here oops...just roll with it) is a challenge from me to you. I challenge you to read through your stories paying close attention to the agency of your characters, particularly your female characters. Not sure exactly what agency is? Allow me to explain.

Agency is defined as a person's ability to act and speak for themselves.You can also think of it as the direction of action in reference to a given person: is the person acting or being acted upon?

Lets look at Disney, for example.

On one side we have Princess Aurora aka Sleeping Beauty. She spends a good portion of her story asleep waiting for a prince to come and kiss her awake. She is about as close to a 0 on the agency spectrum as you can get. She is incapable of acting for herself and relies entirely on the actions of the prince. There is also the creepiness of being kissed by a complete stranger and having absolutely no choice in the matter.

On the other side we have Mulan. Mulan makes the decision to disguise herself as a man and runaway to join the army to save her father. She is repeatedly encouraged to give up by the male protagonist, and repeatedly refuses to give in. Over and over again she uses her own strengths, namely her intelligence and quick thinking, to save both herself and her companions. Even more interesting is that it can be argued that she has very little agency in the beginning of the movie; she goes with the flow and does as she is told without argument. In this way Mulan is a particularly excellent character in terms of agency because we as viewers get to watch her claim it.

Now that you have at least a basic idea of what character agency is, I challenge all of you to consider you're characters and what type of agency you have given them. It is exceedingly common for women, real and fictional, to be denied agency; female characters are very often acted upon by their male counterparts and used to further the plot of the man's story rather than being an active participant in their own stories. This is very problematic and it needs to change. And the first step to changing it is to become aware of it.

One way to do this is to consider the type of verbs commonly used with your characters. Are there any patterns of certain types of characters having more action verbs than others? Are certain characters always doing the action and others always receiving it?

I hope you will accept my challenge and please share your results in the comments! Did you notice any characters lacking agency and if so what might you do about it?


  1. Thinking on what you have written here, the main character in Sorcery (which feels like I've been writing, forever), does have agency over what she is doing. She has reluctantly agreed to help one last time, but she is the one taking care of herself, and doing things her own that what you meant?

    1. Yes exactly :) A character who has agency makes decisions for themself rather than basing them around whatever will further the plot of someone else's story.
      And of course I should say that a character who needs help/ receives help from others can still have agency. Its not about going it all on your own and not needing anybody else. Its just about the capability to think, speak, and act for themselves.

      Sounds like you have a pretty good character in the works! And I know what you mean about feeling like you've been writing it forever, haha.

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  3. I haven't written a fictional story in quite a long while, but this is a really great way to think about my characters from now on. I will take this on in any future writing I do, thank you!
    p.s. This is my first comment on your blog! Although I do read your posts often :D