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Thursday, March 26, 2015

On Agency: Strong Female Characters, the Myth of Non-Action, and Jupiter Ascending

By now you'll have heard the "Jupiter Jones doesn't have agency" criticism of Jupiter Ascending (dirs. the Wachowskis; 2015).[1]  The gist of the argument, as far as I can tell, is that Jupiter doesn't have agency (or enough agency) because she does not become a "strong female character" until the last possible second.  Andrew O'Hehir, for example, wrote in his review that
Jupiter has less female agency than any character ever played by Doris Day. Compared to this movie, the Disneyfied feminism of “Frozen” and “Brave” and “Maleficent” feels like Valerie Solanas’ "SCUM Manifesto."
Peter Debruge wrote in Variety that
[although] clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another, whether that’s being nearly assassinated during an egg-donating operation or pushed into a marriage with a two-faced Abraxas prince.
Sam Maggs wrote in The Mary Sue:
When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.
The most damning claim about Jupiter's agency, however, comes from Tim Martain's review for The Mercury:
There’s a little test I like to apply, where you try to describe a character without reference to their physical appearance or occupation. If you can come up with three clear character traits, then you may have a well-crafted character. If not, well, you have a cardboard cutout. 
Jupiter is a big ol’ flat piece of nothing. 
She is a name and a device, nothing more. Her character is not developed in any way beyond “special girl who everyone is fighting over”. She is Cinderella with even less motivation or personality.
In other words, Jupiter isn't even a person.  She's a thing.  Because she is passive.  Because she doesn't fight (until the very end).  Because she is manipulated by others.  Because she is a toilet cleaner.  Because she is everything other than a "strong female character."  One must ask:  why does Jupiter need to take names?  Why can't she just be a space princess?  Why can't she simply get sucked into a world where space princesses are real and people like her (like us) have to learn to navigate the absurd bureaucracy of space royalty?  Why can't she be a confused, naive person like, well, a real person might be?  Why isn't that enough for her to have agency or for her to escape the charge that her agency is nearly absent?  Why can't this also be a story about someone discovering or developing a different kind of agency?  Isn't that enough?

Frankly, I'm not sure these individuals understand what "agency" means.  At its most basic, "agency" refers to one's ability to take action to affect their own lives; as such, agency exists on a continuum that is affected by social status, culture, upbringing, economics, and so on and so forth.  The degree to which we all have agency, in other words, depends on how well equipped we are to affect our daily lives.  Agency can be individual, collective, immersed within or isolated from a specific dominant culture, and so on.  In other words:  agency is pretty damn complicated, as is clear when you start to look into the sociological, psychological, and feminist struggles to adequately define the concept in a way that incorporates the full range of social interactions.  For women, agency has been a key component of the feminist fight for equality.  Since the world has historically (and still is to a large degree) favored men in nearly every avenue, women's access to "choice" in its broadest conception has always been curtailed.  Worldbank notes that "across all countries women and men differ in their ability to make effective choices in a range of spheres, with women typically at a disadvantage" in the avenues of control over resources, free movement, decisions about family formation, freedom from violence, and freedom to have a voice in society and politics.

Oppression does not necessarily mean that one loses all agency, though.  Indeed, how one exerts influence can take myriad forms, including subversive actions within an oppressive situation.  Women in violent, patriarchal societies do not lose agency simply by being oppressed; their abilities to affect their own lives, however, do change, limiting the degree of agency they might have, or, in some cases, simply changing how agency is perceived.  Lest you think only overt oppression can steal one's agency, remember that we are all to varying degrees limited by social, economic, and other factors.  Some of us, such as myself, just have more advantages -- in my case because I am white, male, American, and educated.[2]

But in a world where pop criticism often stands in for professional criticism, the buzzword definitions are replicated ad naseum.  Women who punch bad guys or take direct action against oppression or in some way "act" in a manner that makes them visibly opposed to a system or individual or in a position to "make things happen" are women who have "agency."  Every other woman?  Well, she might have "agency," but not enough that her agency is worth talking about, except to note that she doesn't have any (or very little).  If she subverts the system, her agency is only valued if her subversion is aggressive.  Passive subversion won't make her "strong."  If anything, "passive" is just another word for "worthless" or "oppressed."

These limitations on "agency" are so pervasive that they affect how we even talk about female characters, particularly when the term "strong female character" crops up.  Sophia McDougall's essay in the New Statesman ("I Hate Strong Female Characters") points out that the phenomenon of the "strong female character" seems particular to women:
No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that. 
The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” 
Women, in other words, are the only ones who can be erased by a stereotype of strength.  Whereas men can be kung-fu masters, brilliant scientists, sensitive piano players, or chess players without losing their status as "strong characters," women who do not fit the mold assigned to "strong female characters" are rejected -- if not outright, then by implication.  Since "strong female character" is often synonymous with "woman with agency," it's no wonder that female characters who do not fall into that rigid definition of either term are also erased as women who do things.

This is part of the problem with the way critics (and even some proponents) have discussed Jupiter Ascending.  Because Jupiter does not "take action" (i.e., punch someone) until the end of the movie, she is a passive character, one with little to no agency because of her position as a member of the servant class and then as someone who has all the power in the universe but appears to do almost nothing with it for much of the movie.  She just doesn't move the plot.  Alternatively, as some fans have argued, Jupiter has agency only because she stops being a servant and eventually becomes a princess.  Power, in other words, is agency.
All of this is absolutely wrong.  Jupiter always had agency.  Jupiter's mother always had agency.  Being a servant does not mean you sacrifice your agency.  Becoming a princess doesn't mean an agency fairy drops out of the sky and anoints you with agency oils, as the film inconsistently demonstrates.  Agency is a complicated monstrosity because it is a reflection of an individual's interactions with a given culture.  How Jupiter interacts with her culture(s) is certainly passive for most of the movie, but that does not make her absent of agency.  In fact, quite the opposite.  From the moment Jupiter discovers she is a space princess, she must rely on the knowledge of others to help her through the process.  If, as one definition would hold, we define agency by the ability for one to take actions which are in their own interests, then it is certainly true that Jupiter's reliance, while passive, is a choice that is made for herself.  Because she does choose.  Her actions may not involve flying mecha spacejets or running away on hovering rollerblades, but they are actions -- and like normal people, her actions sometimes come with negative consequences.  Even her reluctance about the degree to which she wants to participate in the interstellar culture of the film indicates a character who has agency, since she not only struggles with this decision but also has the ability to make that decision.  And the film's progression, however inconsistent, is entirely about the process of shifting degrees of agency:  Jupiter begins the film with limited but apparent agency and ends the film with as much agency as the villains.  That she chooses to make limited use of her new-found power should be the real discussion point here, not the question of Jupiter's agency.
The erasure of the complexity of agency isn't isolated to Jupiter Ascending; it is just such a strong component of the criticism of the film that it's hard to ignore.  This erasure, however, occurs in other sf/f franchises, too.  In the case of The Hunger Games (the first two films/books, at least), the focus on Katniss as a "strong female character" often means that we forget Prim or her mother, who are not-quite-passive in the film, but certainly more passive than Katniss.  Unlike Katniss, however, Prim and their mother are healers, and, as far as we can tell, by choice.  They may all live in an oppressive society, but Prim, Katniss, and their mother each make their own choices within it, the consequences for which are varied.  We hail Katniss because she sacrifices in an overt manner, but we don't talk about Prim's sacrifices and struggles as a young girl learning to heal the wounds of an oppressed people.  The narrative does enough erasing by necessity, since it cannot cover everything, but the rigid definitions of "agency" and "strong female character" mean that we do a fair bit of erasing, too.
Another example of this can be found in the figure of Peggy Carter from Agent Carter.  As a character, Carter is on the surface a stereotypical "strong female character."  Despite living in the sexist culture of the 1940s (a complex one, we should note), Carter almost always acts of her own accord, often by fighting against the system in which she exists through feats of strength or intelligence.  She punches bad guys.  She tells people off.  She holds her own or plays up her "female-ness" when it serves her agenda.  She is, in other words, an active agent in almost every sense.  However, using Carter as the definition of a "strong female character" means that the agency of other women around her is effectively erased.  Angie, Carter's delightful neighbor, is unlike Carter because her actions are either that of conformity or subversion.  We should remember here, too, that the reason Angie is so different from Carter has to do with their relative power:  Carter is just in a better position to exercise her agency in active ways.  If we talk about Angie's difference as being a negative rather than a particular cultural position within a male-dominant society, then we are effectively making it possible to erase Angie's agency.  Carter's actions are the right actions; Angie's are not.  This comparison model, one which equally affects Jupiter since she is by default compared to female characters that "got it right," does a disservice to the women whose day-to-day lives may be infinitely more complex than films can ever show.

All of these women represent the myriad ways in which agency manifests.  Trying to compare them to one another as if some forms of agency are better than others is at best absurd and at worst downright unethical.  Unethical because it is a fantasy which erases, intentionally or otherwise, the gritty work of women around the globe who aren't bow-toting superheroines.  Women who are like Jupiter.  Women who are servants, prostitutes, soldiers, cooks, mothers, doctors, poker players, yoga instructors, fishers, housekeepers, CEOs, etc.  Women of all types.  Women living in all manner of social conditions.  By saying only some of them are really "strong" or "have agency (enough that it is worth noting)," we erase all those who exert their agency and strength in other ways.  Personally, I think women have been erased enough...


[1]:  This post is obviously a defense of Jupiter Ascending.  However, I hope it's clear that I am defending the film in a specific way.  The quality of the film as a whole is a separate issue.

[2]:  This is obviously a rough definition so I can get to my point.

P.S.:  There are also other issues with the criticisms of Jupiter Ascending.  One that particularly irritates me is the attack on the film's representation of servant-class labor.  Setting aside the mass exploitation of immigrants, the attack on Jupiter's job as a toilet cleaner is part of a wider American (and probably elsewhere) assault on the value of labor in general.  While working at McDonald's or as a housekeeper has never been a particularly glamorous job, it has only become synonymous with "the garbage of society" over the course of decades of wage deflation, whereby minimum wage jobs are increasingly less valued because they are increasingly less able to facilitate the basics of American life.  As far as I'm concerned, the continued peddling of this narrative does a disservice to those who work in those less-valued industries, as it makes it far more difficult for them to lobby for better working conditions, etc.  But I digress...

P.S.S.:  Olivia Waite has a similar take on all of this in her post entitled "Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency."  I recommend reading it.

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