Character. Agency. We’ve heard these two words used in tandem one after the other very often, lately. Mostly in a negative fashion, used to attack or vilify cultural products. “How dare you give that character sexy clothes! Won’t you think about her agency?!”
“How dare you have enemies force this situation on this character?! Won’t you think of her agency?!”
“How dare you have this character be able to die in gruesome ways while attempting incredibly dangerous stunts! Will SOMEONE think of the AGENCY?!”
The last one is theatrically exaggerated and none of the three are direct quotes -lest I invoke someone’s unjustified ire, like poor Chris Mancil- but the basic concept comes through: some people have been complaining about things happening to characters in videogames, comics and more, denouncing how they happen against their will.
First, let’s add ‘supposedly’ between ‘they’ and ‘happen’ because some of these accusations don’t hold up to scrutiny. The most prominent example on my mind is one motioned against Bayonetta from the omonimous series. One of the most entertaining and fun spectacle fighters I’ve ever played, especially the second installment. Some people have complained about her outfit citing character agency, which translates to: Bayonetta wouldn’t want to wear such an outfit.
Your honour, I bring to the court’s attention exhibit A. We know from playing the two games in the series that Bayonetta’s outfit is of her own creation, made out of her own hair, magically enhanced and lengthened. The same hair which she uses to summon and bind demons from hell. If Bayonetta doesn’t want to wear such clothes, why doesn’t she make her hair into some nice khakis and a hoodie? I doubt that’s outside the power of a witch who can kill gods by crafting that same hair into giant fists of righteous Umbran fury.
I also present exhibit B, which is missing from the prosecution’s analysis: Bayonetta herself, and more specifically her personality and characterization. Bayonetta is a sexual, flirtarious being who enjoys using her wiles even against things that couldn’t possibly be affected by them since, you know, demons and angels. Both trying to kill her and not being killed by her. Which she does more often than not in spectacularly gory fashion, and enjoys just as much as she enjoys shopping for clothes with a particularly large neckline with her bumbling sidekick’s paycheck. Which do look terrific on her, I may add.
So I have to ask: have you even played the games? Because yeah. Bayonetta would and does wear such outfits out of her own will. It seems that while speaking of ‘character agency’ the accusation has found themselves imposing their own morals and personalities on the ‘victim’ instead of basing their analysis on Bayonetta’s own one, doing exactly what they had accused the character’s creators of doing.
Because they or someone they know/listen to/believe into wouldn’t do such a thing and/or think no woman would ever willingly act this way -ignoring real-life examples-, they assume Bayonetta has that same mindset and that her clothes and actions are imposed on her by supposedly misogynistic creators to turn her into a ‘fighting fuckdoll’.
This preamble wasn’t meant to be inflammatory or provocative -I’m sure some will take it as such, but that’s out of my hands- and it was necessary to emphasize a fundamental point: characters acquire an agency upon their birth, personal and separate from that of their creators. It may not always be independent but a character’s existence itself forces certain limits on the narrator when it comes to progressing his/her story.
Let’s not so hypotethically say that I’m an aspiring dev and I crafted a story with a main character whose characterization includes being kind-hearted, loyal and proud of belonging to an order of warriors. That fact alone now limits me as a storyteller. I won’t be able to, say, make him/her willingly fight and hurt members of this order without providing a reason to and portraying the emotional fallout of such an event.
If I did players would notice the discordance between who a character is and the action. Depending on how affectionate they have grown to him/her, the epithets coming my way as a result of my careless decision may range from mild to offensive to ravings on the sexuality of my ancestors which may cause even my placid greatgrandpa to rise from the grave and say ‘don’t make me come over there!’.
What we can take from this first half of a debate is: just existing as characters gives fictional beings a personal agency, which can be guided but not distorted by the creator without grievous consequences on the story. Looks good on paper, doesn’t it? But it’s ultimately faulty, because it hinges on the assumption that characters exist in some kind of fictional vacuum. There are many, many instances where the accusations stand and a character is indeed forced to do or endure things he/she wouldn’t normally do or want to endure.
And that’s wonderful news.