Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Romance and Agency

One of the big "debates" in Science Fiction and Fantasy right now is the question of women and the role they play in the genres we all love. Some have erroneously gone out and proclaimed that women authors are "killing" genres, which is kind of bullshit when you consider the fact that it would mean that Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Shelley, Patricia McKillip, Karen Lord, K.V. Johansen, and an outstanding mix of old and new women authors have done so much to keep the money flowing into publisher's pockets, which keeps the genre going. There really aren't "male authors" or "female authors." Just great authors.

Mary only invented Science Fiction and Horror. But what does she really know?

And before anyone asks: I am not a feminist due to the fact I am  a humanist, simply because I think humanism encompasses all the things that feminism wants without all the political bullshit and gender-divisive language. I am a big fan of Judith Butler and Naomi Wolf though, so I do understand and support the goals and aims of the movement, as long as it is is for true equality and the realization of human dignity outside of gender, race, creed, and whatever else.

Seriously, cut that intolerant shit out.

But enough of that! Politics always sours a good table of friends.

What I wanted to talk about this time revolves around is the question of "Romantic Interests," because one thing that women readers and women writers often bring up is how female characters are relegated to being love interests. And it's true, speaking from person experience. Nine out of ten books I read within fantasy feature women who are treated as some sort of prize to be won by the hero.

So let's get some things out of the way. Nobody should be a "prize." When you get turned into an object instead of a person (which I think defines "objectification"), there is something being taken away from that person, which adds the nasty quality of "subjectification." What is being taken away is their right to be something unto themselves.

But is having a love interests a bad thing then? It depends.

At the crux of this argument I am about to make is that it all comes down to Agency.

What is Agency? It is not just something important for female characters, but for male characters, gay characters, black, brown, white, red, and green characters too. Agency is the ability for characters to act independently and make their own free choices.

Let's look a pair of examples of characters with agency and another pair without agency before we talk about its implications of how this fits into writing a relationship between two romantic leads, because the implications are where things might get contentious.

Please understand, everything below is my opinion alone.

Characters with Agency

Example #1

All rights go to CinemaBlend for the image.

Jen Yu from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is  one my favorite characters from one of the best (yet still universally underrated) films in international cinema. Played masterfully by Zhang Ziyi, she is a character that is all about her agency. Instead of being the kind of mewing princess that dreams of holding a sword and going off on adventures, she actually goes and does it throughout the entire movie without having to rely on someone else to do it for her or show her the way. From her choice to study Wudang in secret to deciding that her arranged marriage isn't for her, her willingness to give up her easy life for more than just love alone throughout the story demonstrates for the viewer quite clearly that she is a master of herself and her fate. That is agency in a nutshell. It isn't just that she decides to be a "kick-ass female," it is that she decides on her own to be a kick-ass female.

Example #2

All rights to R.A. Salvatore and The Forgotten Realms

One of my absolute favorite characters from the menagerie of R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt novels, Wulfgar of Icewind Dale was more than the average Thor/Conan stand-in that often overburdened any D&D property. Salvatore's books have been a high mark for a company that often executes before it really thinks. While all of Salvatore's characters get their time to shine throughout the twenty-plus book series, Wulfgar stands out to me as a realistic depiction to the torments of being a real hero. Raised by a dwarf-king and trained by a dark elf, Wulfgar has both the ability see outside of his native people's worldview, and at the same time, form it in a way that it fits within his as well. From deciding not to marry "the girl" and marrying the one he actually loved to giving up his rightfully-earned crown as King of Settlestone, he forged his own path based on what he felt and needed, not what others expected of him because of the typical tropes that usually come with this type of character. He took actual responsibility for the consequences of his actions. This is a marked difference from other warriors I often see in the genre, who are either drones for a higher power or people that just want to work within the system they operate in with little thought to why they do it. Having agency means having the ability to go outside the accepted notions of how people think "the story should go", and Wulfgar does that.

Now, let's look at

Characters *without* Agency

Example #1

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Please note, I am not picking on the character of Maid Marian herself, as there are a lot of great examples of her being a character with agency; in fact, Cate Blanchett playing the role is a perfect example of a character that could have topped the previous section. However, Maid Marian in Prince of Thieves is a pro-typical damsel in distress that feminists like Anita Sarkeesian point to when they talk about this kind of subject, even though Anita is equally full of shit (another topic for another blog, though, get back to the topic, Jay!) The problem here is that Marian throughout this version of the Robin Hood story is always having things done to her. Robin of Locksley returns to England, she falls in love on first sight. The Sheriff of Nottingham (played by the brilliant Alan Rickman) kidnaps her after trying to force her into a bogus wedding and tries to rape her, requiring her to be rescued by Robin because dammit, that is what needs to happen to get us to the climax of the story. She's a pretty set piece meant to motivate the protagonist to action and little more. She's a prize both sexually and in a proprietary sense, and prizes don't have their own agency if they are only allowed to be won. This is why Robin Hood: Men in Tights is so damned hilarious when they tackled this very issue.

Example #2

You know who this is? The best actress in that movie.

So this pick is probably going to earn me a lot of heat, but bear with me. Everyone loves Rue, but at the end of the day, she is one of the many characters in The Hunger Games that does not have an ounce of agency. Let's be honest: Rue is there to get jacked (killed) for the sake of Katniss Everdeen's plot, and if we go by the strictest definition of agency, then she is a character without it from the get-go.

This gets to an important point of characters and agency in the first place: not all of them are going to have it, nor do they all of them need it. The moment any author decides to harm, kill, alter, or change a character for the sake of of another character's plot, that character loses their agency and becomes a set piece.

This leads to the overall discussion of how Agency and Romantic Relationships interplay with each other, especially in stories where one of the characters in the relationship most likely won't be a point-of-view character. Let's look at two more examples of relationships with agency that only have one point of view in the relationship, and then let's look at one where there isn't any agency present.

Relationship with Agency

Croaker and The Lady, Glen Cook
***SPOILERS in this section***
Full disclosure, I have to admit my bias for this relationship as it is my favorite in all of fantasy. Croaker is the medic and keeper of the annals for The Black Company, a elite force of mercenaries that often hire their services out to the worst of the worst. The Lady is an all-powerful sorceress that rules over half the world, which she took from her husband, The Dominator. Slap these two together from book one, and you have one of the most unforgettable, awkwardly romantic, and organic relationships in one of fantasy' more under-appreciated works. The Lady is always in the seat of power next to our lowly medic, but these two develop an attraction that turns into friendship, and friendship into a love that lasts beyond the most difficult of travails. Yet what makes them work so well is that each is independent of the other, with one neither defining themselves on the basis of the other when it comes to their own self-worth. When Croaker is thought dead and gone from the result of a battle, The Lady steps up as the Company's new leader to take care of herself and the survivors, just like when Croaker finds out The Lady is potentially in huge trouble, he doesn't dash off to save her, knowing she has more than enough ability to handle herself. What makes these characters work so well together is their individual agency and how it interacts within the relationship. When they need each other, they are there, but when they can't be there, they don't just sit their thinking "Oh, what is he/she doing? What am I going to do? I MISS THEM SO MUCH I NEED THEM HERE RIGHT NOW!" It is a relationship that befits any strong couple: one of trust and honesty, not sycophantic reliance on one person.

They are a TEAM.

Now let's look at a

Relationship *without* Agency

Yep, I'm going there.
Once again, I am not bashing the film. In fact, I love this movie! But this movie features a romantic duo that is the exact opposite of Croaker and The Lady. Buttercup, from the get-go, is a blonde Maid Marian, meant to stand there, pout, look pretty, and smile and kiss Wesley on cue. Now, I know what many are going to say: That was the point. The entire movie/novel is meant to satirize the princess genre completely, but they do it so well that it popped into my mind pretty much immediately. Buttercup's entire world is built on two things: 1. I love Wesley and 2. Is Wesley coming for me? Every action she has is at the behest of him, but let's not let Wesley off the hook, either. His entire character  is about finding Buttercup and literally giving her whatever she wants, no questions asked, so everything I can say about her should be applied to him as well.

Like Lady and Croaker, who are a TEAM, this is DEPENDENCY.

And there is a crux of writing a Romantic Relationship with Agency involved:


Here is an easy guide to know the difference:

Does your romantic relationship feature two characters working in team, who make independent decisions for themselves outside of the relationship and can still be in a relationship?

Then YES, they have agency.

Does your romantic relationship feature two characters where one is dependent on the other for everything, who's role and function is dependent on serving the other person's story line or identity?

Then NO, they do not have agency.

It is pretty simple when you get down to it, but again, just because a character or a pair of characters do not possess agency doesn't mean they are automatically bad. Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones is distinct for the fact that she has no agency but is still compelling as a viewing glass into the workings of Westeros. She is our witness. As is Gollum from Lord of the Rings, who is meant to represent the corruption the One Ring brings upon all those who wear it. As with everything in writing, it all comes down to how your write it. Be thoughtful about what and who are you putting the page, and put real thought into how you want them represented. You will never please everyone, but a well-written character will always please more people than not.

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