“Agency is the capacity to act or make a difference; to have agency means to feel or to believe that you can change things that matter to you” (Foss, Foss, and Domenico 16).
Agency is the ability for an individual or community to possess and exercise free will. Agency is usually enacted by making a decision or carrying out an action.
Gender Performativity and Agency
Limited Agency Paradox
In order to make a decision, a person must make a choice. Options are limited in certain situations. Pre-existing cultural structures simultaneously create space for agency while limiting types of agentic expression. For example, gender can be challenged but it usually is a subversion of the gender binary construction.
Performance elements of gender expression paradoxically create and limit agency. Examples include:
(Foss, Foss, and Domenico 168-178)
Agency as a Contested/Ambiguous Term
Some historians and scholars only acknowledge agency when an act is consciously performed.
Judith Butler ontologically views agency as a problematic term. The existence of the “self” is required for a person to indeed possess/have agency. Butler does not believe the “self” to be a factual truth, but rather a social construction. Logically, if there is no such thing as “self,” then a person cannot truly “have” agency. Therefore, Butler believes that agency cannot be possessed. However, she does believe that subversive acts are possible (Butler 201).
Walter Johnson, a 19th century historian, wrote an article titled “On Agency” which outlines how historians have come to use “agency” as a synonym for power, free will, humanity, resistance, rebellion, revolution, etc. As a result, the term has become ambiguous which is problematic when attempting to make an articulate argument.
In addition, he does not believe in the ability for an individual to “give” or “grant” agency to other persons. (Johnson 114-115)
Examples of Agency in Utopian/Dystopian Literature
In this sci-fi film, Neo has the free will to choose between the red pill and the blue pill. Although he has agency in the situation, he is limited to only two choices.
In Thomas More’s Utopia, the citizens have the freedom to choose their own profession. This level of agency was a revolutionary contrast to the feudalistic systems of 16th century European society. However, in terms of gender, Utopia’s patriarchal structure and uniform dress code limit agency.
In Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild,” Gan’s agency is limited. He is faced with the burden of becoming a host for alien parasites. He explores the options of killing himself, killing his parasite, or passing the burden onto his sister. Ultimately he accepts the burden. Gatoi states “You were the one making the choices tonight, Gan” (Butler 28).
The Handmaid’s Tale
Women have virtually no agency in this oppressive dystopia. However, the protagonist still manages to find ways to subvert by following the motto “nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (Atwood 235). Offred comments on her agency by stating that “there wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose” (Atwood 94).
Angels in America
In Tony Kushner’s epic play, every character is faced with choices. Two examples include:
• Prior Walter’s decision to live
In his plea, he references people throughout history who have exercised agency to ensure their own survival.
“I want more life. I can't help myself. I do. I've lived through such terrible times and there are people who live through much worse. But you see them living anyway” (Kushner 266).
• Belize’s gender performativity
Despite the doctor’s disapproval, Belize sassily chooses to dress according to his own sense of style in his workplace:
Henry: Why are you dressed like that?
Belize: You don’t like it?
Henry: Doctors are supposed to wear white. (Kushner 154)
In the film, Belize is shown wearing pink. His disregard for the rules of his workplace is an act of subversion. However, because he works the nightshift, Belize does not often appear to interact with authority figures. Therefore, he has more freedom to assert his agency.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild and Other Stories. 2nd Ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005. Print.
Foss, Sonja K., Karen A. Foss, and Mary E. Domenico. Gender Stories: Negotiating
Identity in a Binary World. Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2013. Print.
Johnson, Walter. “On Agency.” Journal of Social History 37.1 (2003) 113-124. Print.
Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2003. Print.
The Matrix. Dir. Anthony Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, and Hugo Weaving. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999. Film.
More, Thomas. Utopia. New York: Simon & Brown, 2011. Print.