Agency is the one who does. Agency is the ability of a person, a character, or a people to determine their own destiny. To deny a people agency is to relegate them to helpless victimhood. For example, to describe the Jews who died in the Holocaust, or the Native Americans who died in the Columbian Exchange, as simple victims is to deny their agency. The Jews fought back, ran away, broke through barbed wire, hid, led armed uprisings and, in some cases, acted as police for the Nazis and became some of the most vicious and brutal oppressors of their own people. But whatever they chose, they chose; they were not wholly at the mercy of the Nazis. Various tribes of Native Americans fought, made peace, allied with the U.S. and with its enemies, signed treaties, led an anti-white American religious awakening, formed political entities and unions and resisted American attempts to eject them from their land. Often unsuccessfully, yes, but they chose. They were not wholly at the mercy of their tormentors to the east.*^*
To put this in terms of fictional characters, which is where we will be for most of this post, Tony Stark has agency and Pepper Potts does not.* Stark is a billionaire genius playboy inventor who, when he needs to make a major change in his life, designs an invincible crime-fighting suit and flies halfway around the globe to save helpless souls in Afghanistan. Potts is Tony's secretary. She is intelligent, beautiful, charming and indispensable to Tony, and she also has very few choices in the Iron Man movies about what she does, where she goes or the direction her life will take. She follows Tony. Yes, she occupies a different socioeconomic class than Tony, and thus has less choice over her life's direction; yes, she is a supporting character in a movie, and supporting characters are called that because they don't have a lot of agency. But that's what a character without agency looks like, and in a disturbing number of my favorite movies, women generally have far less agency than men.**
You've heard of gender-swapping, right?*** Where you take a work of fiction and swap the men for women, and vice versa? Well, I had the idea earlier today of keeping the genders the same, but changing which characters have agency. Male characters would be relegated to relatively submissive roles, when they had previously assumed dominant ones, and females would emerge from the shadows to dominate the plot.****
Take one of my favorite movies and one that I recently watched, Ridley Scott's highly decorated Gladiator. There is only one female character worth noting in that movie, and a minute ago, I honestly had to go to the Wikipedia page to look up her name. It's Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), by the way. She spends most of the movie "living in a prison of fear", with mad emperor and brother Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) constantly either trying to seduce her or threatening to harm her son. When exiled ex-general Maximus (Russell Crowe) returns to Rome as a gladiator, she brokers a meeting between him and a sympathetic senator, Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). Other than that, she doesn't do anything worth noting in the movie. The story is about Maximus, not her.
Look at the character of Lucilla, though. Look at the way she acts. When Commodus attempts to seduce her, pressing her down on a bed, her face is impassive, stony. She doesn't say anything. When she finally gets up and walks away, leaving him crumpled on the bed, it feels like a release from prison... but she has to walk back into prison sooner or later, every time she enters his presence in truth. When Commodus obliquely threatens her son and slowly, menacingly explains to Lucilla how her son will die if she doesn't reveal her part in the conspiracy against Commodus, she can only stand there and cry. She doesn't argue back, deny her part or anything similar. When Commodus grandly lays out his vision for the future, which includes marrying and raping Lucilla, she can only sit there and not utter a word. Even when she brings Gracchus and Maximus together to plot against Commodus, she barely says a thing after the introductions; the point is to bring the powerful men together, not for her to speak (even though she's the Emperor's sister and theoretically holds some power herself).
Lucilla completely lacks agency. She would never have worked against Commodus if Maximus had not returned from the dead and given her a champion. And although both Commodus and the former Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) praise her ruthlessness and leadership ability, the praise is a hollow echo given her actual role in the film. All of her decisions are based off of Maximus's deeds or centered on fending off Commodus's advances; she has few emotions save for a desire to protect her son and some affection for Maximus, plus fear of her brother. She is not a mover and shaker; that is for the men.
Now consider what an agency-swapped version of Gladiator would look like, even if we left the story intact. Imagine Lucilla taking an active hand in government, arguing with Commodus about the best policies to pursue as Emperor. Imagine her as the center of the conspiracy against Commodus instead of merely its facilitator, reaching out to bring Gracchus and Maximus together and planning their moves against Commodus; imagine her standing up to Commodus, or even fighting him in the arena. (If that's too strong, perhaps assassinating him in one of the MANY OPPORTUNITIES SHE HAS TO DO SO--we see Commodus willingly drinking a sleeping potion that she mixes and hands to him, for example, and barely even asking what it is.) Imagine her taking charge, becoming a political force, the plot of the movie centered around her. That is agency.
I know I have a long way to go when it comes to both writing female characters and thinking about women's and gender studies (WGS) issues, but it seems to me like we have far fewer female characters with agency than we do male characters with agency, both in Gladiator and outside it. A comprehensive evaluation of everything in culture is beyond my abilies, but if anyone can point me towards media in which female characters have the kind of agency I'm looking for--actively driving the plot, not depending on male characters for everything--I would be very interested to see it.
*^*It didn't really fit anywhere in this post, but consider Avatar. That is a perfect example of a movie with an agency-less indigenous population. The Na'vi aren't entirely victims--they end up winning the war, after all--but they only fight back and win because Jake Sully organizes them and gets them to do so. Imagine a movie depicting a helpless, primitive, frightened tribe of Cherokee who is at the mercy of the U.S. Army until Daniel Boone swoops in and saves them, and how that would play in the current politically correct environment. For an encore lesson in how cultural values change over time, imagine the version of Avatar that would've been made 200-ish years ago, when Andrew Jackson was warring against the Seminoles in Florida and kicking the Cherokee out of Georgia. That Avatar would most likely have celebrated the virtues of white expansion and lionized Jackson fighting against the savages. Now one of the most ballyhooed movies of the 2000s depicts a native tribe successfully defeating white oppressors, with white leadership no less. Man, cultures change a lot over time.
*Disclaimer: I haven't seen Iron Man 3, so take this paragraph as applying to Iron Man 1, 2 and The Avengers only.
***This wasn't what I was looking for definition-wise, but it's really interesting, if a bit
****Yes, I get that not all movies feature men alone determining the action, and that to say so is as sexist as if it were actually a thing. It just occurred to me recently, though, that in The Prestige, Gladiator, Collateral and several others of my absolute favorite movies--which tend to be about guys, for guys--female characters are side characters while men drive the plot. That's where this post is coming from, and what this paragraph refers to. It doesn't mean they aren't fantastic movies that I love; it means, though, that they have hidden flaws in spite of that.