Thursday, February 11, 2016

Agency in Fiction

I listen to several Doctor Who podcasts, including Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who. In recent episodes of both podcasts, I heard discussion of how different female characters lacked “agency” and that this created anger among, inter alia, female fans of the feminist persuasion. Female characters who lack “agency” are evidence of bad male writers, or something like that. Let me present their case and my rebuttal.

Example one was from Verity!, on the topic of Donna Noble’s departure from the TARDIS in “Journey’s End.” In brief, Donna gets zapped with Time Lord knowledge, which allows her to help defeat the Daleks, but her mind can’t cope. To save her life, the Doctor wipes from her mind all knowledge of the Doctor or her time with him. Apparently this is a Bad Thing because the Doctor takes choice away from Donna, denying her “agency.” The Verity! ladies contrast the Doctor’s treatment of Donna with his treatment of Clara in “Hell Bent."

Example two was from Lazy Doctor Who, in a discussion of Susan’s departure from the TARDIS in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” (Yes, fine, these are spoilers, but come on, the first example is from 2008 and the second is from 1964. Live with it.) Susan falls in love with a human, David Campbell, and is torn between staying on Earth with him and continuing to travel with the Doctor. Knowing that she would never leave the TARDIS and the Doctor despite the desire of her heart to stay with David, the Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS and dematerializes, making the decision for her. Bad Doctor.
One writer describes agency as
Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
At the two points in the stories described above, Donna and Susan both lack agency. Is that a bad thing from either the point of view of the story or on the part of the author? In the example of Donna, it’s hard to see how the Doctor’s actions were in any way unjustified. His friend was in trouble, and his choices were (a) let her die or (b) save her by wiping certain memories. Suppose he had given her the opportunity to choose. If she said, “No, let me die, I’d rather die now with the memories of our travels together intact than live without them,” would he have agreed? Really? How about someone who sees a friend about to jump off a ledge to her death? Would that be a good time to inquire how sincere was her desire to commit suicide, or would a responsible friend take the opportunity to save a life? In short, denying a fellow character agency may well be the best course of action.

In the example of Susan, one could certainly argue that the Doctor was being unfair/irresponsible/just plain not nice in taking the decision out of her hands. On the other hand, he seemed to be acting out of a sincere and selfless desire to ensure that she got what she wanted, rather than staying with him out of a sense of duty. I’d argue that the character was right to deny her agency.

More to the point, however, in both cases the authors of those episodes made a reasonable artistic choice. Not everyone has agency in all circumstances. Prisoners in jail cells, victims of crimes, passengers on doomed airliners - all have limited or no ability to "make decisions and affect” outcomes at those moments. Perhaps a prisoner has agency to the extent of making an escape attempt, fighting with a fellow prisoner or a guard, or even choosing to serve his time with a minimum of fuss. Similarly, a crime victim can, after the fact, call the police, ignore the whole thing, or turn into a Death Wish-style vigilante, but at the moment of the crime she is more reactive than active. When an author creates characters and places those characters into a situation - the plot - those characters often choose actions that propel the plot. At other times, however, one or more characters may find themselves passive players in the unfolding drama. To suggest that it’s somehow sexist to have this happen to female characters is absurd.

I’ve spent over 700 words venting on a subject that deserves far fewer words, but the mere word “agency” in this context, on these podcasts, hits me like nails on a chalkboard. Life provides many opportunities to be offended. Feminists, such as those on Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who,* might pick their targets with a little more care.

* In fairness, I might not have two independent observations, as Erika Ensign participates in both podcasts. Discussion in one podcast might spill over into thoughts on another.

No comments: