Suspended and Stolen Agency in Fictional Narratives

While it is impossible to claim that there do not exist fictional narratives without at least one protagonist, it can be safely assumed that the most popular pieces of fiction usually have a central character. The appeal of many stories stems from that character’s interaction with the world; such a character is given agency to act and affect both the fictional world and the people in it. However, it is equally common, especially in popular, commercialized literature, that certain side characters are ridden of all agency. Therefore, a discussion will be firstly had on what agency as a term constitutes, followed by an analysis of suspended or stolen agency in Passengers (2016) and Kafka's Metamorphosis (1915).

Figure 1. Sleeping Beauty and the Prince. Leutemann, H. 19th c. Clear example of suspended agency: the female character literally cannot act until moved by the agency of another character.

The concept of agency has become a source of increasing strain and confusion in social thought … the term agency itself has maintained an elusive, albeit resonant, vagueness (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998, 962).

Recognizing that agency itself remains difficult to wholly define, it would perhaps be prudent to start off with two definitions of agency that are not directly correlated with literature, in order to showcase how the term maintains its core identity even though it is applicable in different contexts with different overall meanings. In economic terms, agency is seen as a “relationship [that] has arisen between two (or more) parties when one, designated as the agent, acts for, on behalf of, or as representative of the other, designated the principal, in a particular domain of decision problems” (Ross, 1973, 134). The definition, despite the passage of time, has largely remained unchanged to this day (see Wex Definitions Team, 2022). In terms of social psychology, agency can be observed as personal, proxy, or collective; the three basically differ in the (non)existence of an intermediary and/or likeminded individuals (Bandura, 1999, 21-24). While much research has certainly been conducted since the publishing of the two aforecited articles, the general markings of agency as a term in those fields have not changed significantly (this is not to say that it was not and cannot be applied differently, but that it still hinges on a similar aspect of interaction with one's surroundings).

Figure 2. Passengers; Jim and his hibernation pod. Columbia Pictures. 2016. Jim (Chris Pratt) awakes due to a malfunction and chooses to subject another to the same fate, removing her agency.

On the surface level, neither of the two definitions has much to do with literature; however, it can be argued that they both contain an essential element to defining agency. If one does not seek out a dictionary definition, it can perhaps best be understood as a willingness/ability of one to interact with and significantly alter the world around them. In the economic definition, this is achieved through an intermediary who becomes an agent for another, while social psychology observes how it occurs in society at large. Naturally, the significant altering is again a vague statement; what is significant to some may be irrelevant to others and vice versa.

Figure 3. Superman saves Lois. Frank, G. & Sibal, J. 2009. The relationship between Superman and Lois encapsulates the idea of a male saviour and a female character ridden of agency (in later stories Lois has become a more active character, however).

A definition of agency stemming from an article that discusses comic books as a narrative medium agrees with this conception: “We define agency as the character’s ability to act intentionally in the central story as either a protagonist or aggressor” (Facciani, Warren & Vendemia, 2015, 217). They use the parameters of race, gender, and class in order to uncover whether a particular combination of those parameters is more frequently represented as a character who is given agency. Unsurprisingly, white male characters are shown to be the ones with the most agency.

It stands to reason that other media production of the West conforms to this “standard”. There have been attempts in recent years to shift the agency onto previously underrepresented races, genders, and classes. A direct example of this can be seen in Miles Morales who is the Spider-Man in the 2018 animated movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

This is a part of the overall shift in the way that racial minorities have been treated in visual media; no longer are African American characters predominantly given a token character role, being either comedic relief or awaiting certain death or both, but are now actually fully developed characters. Same goes for other racial minorities; the shift has been significant from 2000 to 2010 (Monk-Turner et al., 2010, 108-111), and it stands to reason that even more positive changes can be traced in the twelve years that have passed since that study.

A big part of that shift is, of course, giving agency to characters who traditionally had none. Many a fictional narrative exist that feature characters who do not affect the world whatsoever; the prime example of this is the “princess in a castle” trope, where a helpless female character awaits salvation; in those examples, the agency has been removed to serve to story. The narrator, or the author for that matter, suspends the agency of that figurative princess in order to exemplify the bravery and selflessness of a figurative knight—an extremely common trope in fantasy especially.

Figure 4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; The variety of Spider-Man. Sony Pictures Entertainment. 2018.

However, agency does not always need to be “stolen” by the author/narrator. This theft of agency can also function as a narrative element. Two particular pieces of fiction seem to be apt examples in that regard: the 2016 movie Passengers and Kafka’s classic Metamorphosis (1915).

Starting with the latter, one is immediately greeted by the purest act of stolen agency: the act of turning the protagonist into a bug steals it all away. The story emphasizes this by showcasing how it makes him unable to work, while the entire household has grown to be dependent on him for income. Slowly but surely, the rest of the family assumes a more active role, as if they are siphoning the agency away from their strangely afflicted family member. Due to the fantastical act of transformation, the novella can be read as a fantasy text, or an existentialist fantasy to be more precise. Carrying the name of the philosophical stream of thought that “attempts to define and evaluate the fundamental conditions of human identity and agency” (Stableford, 2009, 137), existentialist fantasy utilizes the fantastical to deepen the ponderous nature of existentialism. Therefore, it can be claimed that Kafka deeply explores the consequences caused by suspending one's agency; the inability to act leads Kafka's protagonist to withering and death.

Figure 5. Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Anonymous. (n.d.).

Whereas magic (or, at the very least, something inexplicable) steals away agency in Kafka’s tale, the theft is much more morally charged in the next example. Passengers follows a mechanical engineer by the name of Jim (Chris Pratt) who is part of a crew on a space colonization ship. Jim’s hibernation pod malfunctions, thus he is awoken 90 years too early. In his desperation, Jim decides to awake another person to quell his loneliness: Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), the awoken woman, is first lied to, but Jim eventually reveals his deed. Regardless of the direction that the story takes from there, Jim’s act serves as the textbook example of stolen agency. Aurora had made the decision to hibernate until the desired planet was reached; without consultation or regard for her and her desires, Jim awakes her simply to satiate his need for company. Therefore, in an abstracted sense, agency (or lack thereof) becomes the central theme of the entire movie. However, its resolution takes something away from the severity of Jim's actions.

An idea as complex as that of character agency warrants a much longer discussion; however, this article has provided insight into how it can be thematized in fictional works, but also how it can signify a vast lack of representation and care in certain fictional storytelling. Every human sees themselves as the protagonist of their own life and every human cherishes freedom and agency above all else. In this broad discussion, the matter of representation stands out as pivotal and fundamental. It is important, therefore, for fictional narratives to include active agents of all races, genders, and classes—every kid and every person deserves to have something to look up to and something to look forward to with which they can relate.

Bibliographical References

Bandura A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: an agentic perspective. Annual review of psychology, 52, 1–26.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What Is Agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023. doi:10.1086/231294

Facciani, M., Warren, P., & Vendemia, J. (2015). A Content-Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class in American Comic Books. Race, Gender & Class, 22(3–4), 216–226.

Monk-Turner, E., Heiserman, M., Johnson, C., Cotton, V., & Jackson, M. (2010). The Portrayal of Racial Minorities on Prime Time Television: A Replication of the Mastro and Greenberg Study a Decade Later. Studies in Popular Culture, 32(2), 101–114.

Ross, S. A. (1973). The Economic Theory of Agency: The Principal’s Problem. The American Economic Review, 63(2), 134–139.

Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press.

Wex Definitions Team. (2022). Agency. Legal Information Institute.

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Dino Mušić

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