Friday, January 6, 2012

Spunky Agency: Fake Empowerment and not-so-strong Female Protagonists

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Spunky Agency is a term that we use quite often on this site.  We have included a cursory definition in the Fangs Lexicon, but because it is in such regular usage, we thought that it would be appropriate to create a post clearly defining what we mean by this term, with an example of some characters that represent Spunky Agency..

A character possessed of Spunky Agency, is one who makes extremely impulsive decisions that often are reckless and put her in ridiculous danger. This, of course, is meant to frame said protagonist as a person of action. Quite often you see the term "strong" used to describe this kind of action when in fact a better descriptor would probably be, “does not have the sense that God gave cabbage.“

These protagonists use their agency in such ridiculous ways that it actually undermines it. Their decisions are so poor we wish they wouldn’t make them at all - these characters aren’t strong because their “strength” is so misapplied. We have so many classic examples in the genre - Sookie Stackhouse has made some incredibly poor decisions, starting with deciding to investigate a serial killing in vampire bars and just getting worse from there. Clary from the Mortal Instruments virtually embodies this trope with her clueless portal jumping without knowing what’s on the other side. Claire from the Morganville Vampires constantly makes decisions that make my head ache (checking out the curious, locked, lightproof room in the library in a town filled with vampires? Really? What did you think was hiding in there? Mushrooms?)

Of course, bad plans are not the only element of Spunky Agency. How many times have we seen a group make a plan and then the Spunky Agent decides she’s going to sneak off and do her own thing instead? Yes, I`m looking at you Elena from the Otherworld series. How many times will she pretend to agree then go against everything decided? The Spunky Agent decides she knows better than her fellows and feels she can discard their input on a whim.

Similarly, the Spunky Agent will often refuse to accept any other input. She presents a fait accompli, a “my way or the highway”. Her agency is only realised by dictating to the others - even when they are often more experienced and knowledgeable than she is. Elena from Vampire Diaries frequently forces Stefan and Damon to accept her ridiculous plans. Jayne (oh thee of faux french names) from the Blacksun’s Daughter Series knows she should not be in command and yet still leads around the experts; making reckless plans that needlessly risking other people’s lives.

Another common element of Spunky Agency is poor impulse control - or outright random violence. Keillie Riviere from The Hoodoo Series so epitomises this that we’ve actually named the trope after her. To prove how strong and confident and determined she is, she punches people. She even punches Augustin, the leader of an international police and governing body. While she may be the most in need of anger-management therapy or some jail time, she’s hardly alone. How many times has Anita Blake got up in someone’s face at the slightest provocation?

These women don’t look strong and independent with their flaring tempers, they look childish and emotional. It actually demeans them - because a man acting like that would be happily labelled an arsehole or even arrested.

Another common element of this Spunky Agency is arrogance. Very often, these women come to the supernatural world without any prior knowledge at all; yet within seconds of landing in this entirely new life, they feel they know enough to dictate and make demands. Sookie, Elena, Clary, Claire - none of them really know the worlds they have suddenly been exposed to yet they all act like experts and like they know better than those around them - even dictating to creatures that are centuries older than them.

In some ways, Spunky Agency almost makes the reader complicit in the oppression of the female character - in some cases prompting us to actively wish for her to be denied agency. Her poor decisions, bad attitude, loose canon-ness and generally poor behaviour makes us wish she would not be able to make decisions. Their Agency is presented as a negative thing - they have Agency and we wish they didn’t! It’s almost a cautionary tale - this is what happens when you let the silly ladies make their own choices, shouldn’t a man be there telling them what to do?

It’s not empowering to show a woman making her own decisions if a concussed fruitfly could make betters ones - and less when, in the process of these decisions, she acts like a bad tempered, selfish, arrogant child. The fact that they make it all work out in the end doesn’t make it any better - if anything it shows a dazzling lack of consequences for their awful decisions. In the real world these women would be road kill. They succeed DESPITE their agency, not because of it.