When discussing literature or film texts, female agency is the ability of the female characters to take action and make their own decisions that affect their lives and the outcomes in the text. It is the condition of being active and exerting power or influence for oneself.
Agency came into English from Medieval Latin abstract noun agentia in the mid-1600s, and by the 1670s had developed in meaning from ‘active operation’ to ‘a mode of exerting power or producing effect’. Thus, it had a clear association with ideas of making things happen, being a driving force, and having the ability or power to achieve something.
It was not until the mid 1800s that agency was used to refer to a place or establishment where business is done on someone else’s behalf.
It’s fair to say that, throughout history and in most cultures, women have not had a great deal of agency.
Because most texts reflect the culture in which it is created, the roles of women in any given text tend to mirror the levels of agency held by women in society at the time.
The increase in awareness and acceptance of women’s rights and gender equality during the 20th and 21st century and the associated increase in freedom and independence of women in that time have changed the way women are portrayed in books, film and plays, where there are far more strong and independent female protagonists than previously. Now, female characters are seen to be able to do anything; previously, their ability to do anything at all was limited by the will of men and the rules they created.
In earlier centuries, female characters with personal strength, intelligence and integrity tended to provide a strong contrast to the other women in their society. Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, Shakespeare’s Katherine and Isabella, and Harper Lee’s Scout Finch are examples of girls who stood out among their peers and delivered powerful messages in the process. The authors who created them had no intention of portraying them as two-dimensional, submissive females.That would have been a complete waste of those characters’ talents and strengths, and would have only served to entirely defeat their authors’ purposes and messages.
When female characters are able to take action, make their own decisions, and influence those around them, they are understood to have agency.
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