Unconventional Wisdom

Measuring female “agency” is a dumb way to talk about art

Is it feminist? Is IT feminist? Is it FEMINIST?
Unconventional Wisdom

Measuring female “agency” is a dumb way to talk about art

Is it feminist? Is IT feminist? Is it FEMINIST?

Challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted

In a 1985 installment of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel illustrated a conversation based on her friend Liz Wallace’s rule for movie-going: only see films in which at least two women characters have at least one conversation with one another that isn’t about a man. The strip was intended as an incisive joke, a call-out of mainstream media’s failure to clear even the lowest representational bars. But the rule was codified in cultural criticism decades later as the Bechdel test (or, if you’re Diane Lane, “the rectal test”), a metric for the feminist politics of a particular film. The popularity of the test has dwindled lately, either because its parameters are too strict or because they’re not strict enough; it depends on whom you ask. I personally don’t think it’s an accident that a decline in usage occurred shortly after people recognized that both installments of Twilight: Breaking Dawn meet its requirements.

But while dogmatic adherence to the rule has ebbed, the desire to determine whether a work of art is feminist remains. Critics — both professional and casual— seem to always exist at some stage of an online debate about how (and why) to measure the politics of a cultural text, reconstituting new arguments from the spare parts that survived the old ones. These conversations about representation and ideology aren’t limited to gender politics but — as with most things on the internet — they intensify when they come into contact with feminism.

And through them, agency has become a feminist-critical watchword. The idea is a little messier than the discrete parameters of the Bechdel test, but it satisfies the desire for a metric nonetheless. Agency describes our capacity to take independent action, to assert control over our own circumstances. It’s the conceptual base of the argument that more marginalized people in positions of creative and/or critical influence makes for more progressive representation, of the discourse surrounding the Strong Female Character, of the notion that seeing one’s subject position represented in art can be a force for empowerment and thus for social progress.

The underlying assumption — that women’s agency on, behind, and/or in front of the screen is an ideological good — is often extrapolated into a clean, explicit formula, one that uses on-screen agency as a yardstick for a text’s ideological commitments. If a work of art depicts women who have agency, it is a feminist text; if it doesn’t, it is not. But there is not a tidy, one-to-one correspondence between how a piece of art depicts women’s agency and whether it reinforces a feminist ideology. It would be easier if there were, at least in the sense that it would save us all a lot of exhausting conversations — but it would also reduce the experience of women to a very narrow range of concepts and limit our capacity to articulate its complications in both art and criticism.

There is not a tidy, one-to-one correspondence between how a piece of art depicts women’s agency and whether it reinforces a feminist ideology.

While there is more than enough art created by people totally unacquainted with the notion that women are human beings who have been granted the gift of individual consciousness, it is not inherently misogynistic to depict women who are not assertive, agentive drivers of plot. Our world limits women’s agency, and reflecting lived experience is one of many valid purposes of creative labor. But viewers often struggle with what to make of seeing that reflected on screen, separating into pro- and anti- camps that often boil down to a preference for either aspirational or realistic narratives as much as they do any particular political commitment.

For example, in response to the 2018 remake of A Star is Born, some women pointed to the film’s approach to its woman protagonist’s agency — and, for some, its depiction of pop music — as evidence of the film’s lack of regard for her as an individual and women as a whole. On some level, I don’t disagree with them: Ally becomes less agentive throughout the movie (though the fact that her pop songs are bangers is a hill I’m willing to die on). She’s introduced as a fully-formed being: talented, mouthy, insecure. But as she ventures deeper into her career and her relationship with Jackson Maine, she turns into a compliant people-pleaser, someone whose life is defined by compromise.

But is this is presented as an ideal we’re supposed to project onto women as a whole? The film makes her accommodation — her inversion of the linear trajectory toward empowerment we might have expected — look about as aspirational as Jackson’s self-destruction. It also accounts for the gendered contours of her compromises: Jackson’s preciousness about Ally’s alleged betrayal of her authenticity is made possible because men are generally assumed to be serious artists, especially when they drink too much or have a beard.

And let’s not forget, Ally’s compliance is a real way women navigate the world. We decide what concessions we’re willing to make and what experiences we’re going to keep secret in order to maintain precarious professional and personal lives. To depict that on screen is not automatically unfeminist; representing something is not condoning it. I don’t deny the capacity of art to shift a viewer’s perception, but art that forces us to reckon with the flaws of our world can be just as transformative as those works that envision fantastical, thrilling alternatives to it.

Some of the works of art that shaped my own politics were those that, like A Star is Born, featured women who compartmentalized and made concessions and failed to prioritize themselves — women who, one could argue, lacked agency. It was not that I found them aspirational; it was that I found them resonant, cathartic. They way they situated women’s lack of agency — whether it was an intentional choice or not — helped me recognize that things I had accepted as inevitable certain things that were maintained every day by larger structures. This is a thoroughly feminist reckoning.

And the other half of the formula falls apart under scrutiny as well: women’s agency, on- and off-screen, isn’t itself inherently feminist. Women can use their agency to assert all kinds of abhorrent shit — including shit that harms other individual women, and shit that upholds larger structures of power that make marginalized people’s lives worse. Which is to say, it isn’t the agency; it’s the agent. Individual empowerment and collective liberation don’t overlap as neatly as we’d like them to; agency usually benefits those who are already close to power, and their use of it often upholds the structures that limit those of us who aren’t.

Measuring agency shouldn’t be a goal of feminist criticism at all. It’s not any more effective than the Bechdel test at measuring misogyny in art — and truthfully, I don’t think measuring a text’s politics should be the point. The “is this feminist or not?” puzzle draws a strict boundary around the possibilities of talking about politics in art and criticism and culture, often treating feminism and the artistic representation of women as interchangeable concepts. If we’re going to dive into the subjective murk of cultural criticism, letting go of our desire for metrics and frameworks and hard-and-fast answers can take us to far more interesting and revolutionary places.

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Kellie Herson is a writer and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona.