Theory Thursday: Autonomy and Agency

Today in feminist philosophy we’re reading Marilyn Friedman’s essay, Autonomy, Social Disruption, and Women. I thought I’d say something about autonomy.

A generic definition of autonomy starts with the etymological root: auto = self, nomos = governed. The opposite of autonomy would be heteronomy, being “other-ruled.” Someone who was brainwashed, as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate, would be a classic example in the philosophical literature of a non-autonomous person.

To most philosophers, especially those who situate themselves in the liberal tradition, broadly defined, autonomy seems like a good thing, both for what it is (intrinsically), and what it can do (instrumentally). An autonomous person’s choices are really hers in a personally (and often morally and politically) significant way.


A very common philosophical account (elements of which span philosophy from the ancient Greeks through the present day) says that to be autonomous, a person has to be independent, even isolated, rational, and a rule breaker.  Some feminists have criticized “autonomy” for being too closely associated with masculine traits (literary characters like Roark from The Fountainhead, or film characters like Mel Gibson’s character in Road Warrior would be paradigm examples of the autonomous man). Friedman says feminists, and indeed all human persons, need autonomy to fight oppression and because it represents full human development, a fully human life.

One question that gets raised is whether there is a difference between autonomy and agency. It seems plausible that some agents (humans who take actions) can be nonautonomous. That is, these people take actions — they are not like a plastic bag that gets blown around by the wind as in the movie American Beauty —  but they are not autonomous.  However, cashing out what “agency” means in this context is really hard. So I’m putting it aside.

Feminist philosophers have asserted that the connection between autonomy and western masculinity is contingent, not necessary. They may offer, like Friedman, an account of autonomy that focuses more on process than outcome. The idea here is that autonomy “is realized by the right sort of reflective self-understanding or internal coherence along with an absence of undue coercion or manipulation by others.” So, a “stay at home mom” might be autonomous, if she was reflective and if her choices fit coherently into her life plan, but a single, childfree female plastic surgeon might not, if she was basically bullied into her career by a father who manipulated and shamed her (I was thinking about Cannie’s relationship to her father in Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed in this context).

But feminists typically want to avoid giving a hyper-rational or atomistic account of autonomy, so Friedman insists both that reflection can be of an “emotional” sort, and that it takes place using a language, norms, standards, and dictates one did not create and that one utilizes in the context of social relationships. This raises a problem with procedural accounts of autonomy: the infinite regress. At what level of reflection can you finally say your desire is your own? Why stop at second order (“I want to want — I reflectively endorse —  staying at home with my young kids”) and not fiftieth order (“I want to want to want to want to ….. stay at home with my kids.”)? I’m putting that one aside too.

I think urban fantasy plays with masculine and feminine notions of autonomy in interesting ways, sometimes trying to integrate their most hyper-gendered versions in one female character.

Many feminists have developed explicitly “relational” accounts of autonomy, which seek to reframe relationships not as threats to autonomy but as, in many cases, autonomy enhancing. They may draw from Charles Taylor’s work on strong evaluation in this context:

 . . . we cannot say that someone is free, on a self-realization view, if he is totally unrealized, if he is totally unaware of his potential, if fulfilling it has never arisen . . ., or if he is paralyzed by the fear of breaking with some norm which he has internalized but which does not authentically reflect him . . . some degree of exercise is necessary (1985, 213)*.

The idea is not that we distance ourselves from the desires we happen to have and then rank them, but rather that we have a vocabulary of worth that we subject our motives to. Unfortunately, oppressive circumstances can damage our capacity to do this, giving us deformed desires and false consciousness.  Perhaps the women who Tweeted about Chris Brown might be examples of this sort of thing (we’d have to know more about them, for example, whether they were joking, though.)

Justine Jones is a good example of a heroine whose autonomy is both compromised and enhanced by her relationships.

On a relational account, self-referring attitudes like self-trust and self-esteem are crucial for autonomy, but they emerge in social relationships, with the unavoidable result that how we are interpreted by others can erode these prerequisites for the exercise of autonomy.  I can think of heroines who have been so damaged by oppressive circumstances that they can’t own their decisions in any significant way. They retain the intellectual capacity for reflection, but it’s not enough.

One of the reasons I’m draw to romance fiction and women’s fiction is that in featuring female protagonists, they inevitably tangle with questions of autonomy and agency. I tend to think of autonomy in the more robust, idealized way Friedman and Taylor do, and while I’m happy to say a character has agency, I’m more reluctant to say that any choice a female character makes is reflective of autonomy. But I do think that the ways social conditions in general, and relationships in particular, impact female autonomy are a fascinating theme in the fiction I read.

*1985. Philosophy and the human sciences: Philosophical papers 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

12 responses

  1. Thanks, this was fascinating. Do you use the movie examples in class, and do your students get the references? (I find I can rely less and less on shared cultural references in class discussion). I am assuming you added romance references for “us” but maybe not?

    Your final points made me think about the issue of whether romance novels, because they are by, for and about women, are by definition feminist. I think not. But you made me think that by definition they raise feminist questions (or questions of interest to feminists) even if they don’t always give feminist “answers.” And maybe that’s what people who make that claim mean.


  2. @Liz Mc2: I agree with your comment that romance novels are not feminist but raise feminist questions. Thinking about your whole post jessica – before I rush off so this is quick! For me autonomy depends on agency; i.e. the capacity to act. Autonomy is meaningless without the ability or capacity to bring into reality the desires and intentions that autonomy generates.


  3. @Liz Mc2: It’s true that my stock movie examples are no longer useful because they are so old students have not only not seen the films but haven’t heard of them. I still sometimes deliberately use older examples, in the hope that one or two students might be motivated to go out and rent the movie. These days, I often describe a scenario and ask students to think of a book, movie or TV show that fits. That way, I learn about what they are into.

    I don’t know what it means to say a genre is feminist. That is nonsensical to me, both because there are so many different conceptions of feminism, and because the genre has evolved over time and there are millions of books in the genre.

    So, I just claim in the post, that autonomy is a central issue for many feminists, and that any genre, whether it is romance, women’s fiction, chick lit or UF, that tends to feature female protagonists will likely deal (even if it is by not dealing) with autonomy. It may or may not actually have a female protagonist who is autonomous in a sense I can endorse. So, it’s a more modest claim, but it is one I am more comfortable making.

    @Merrian: Well, it is conceptually impossible for there to be autonomy without agency. Agency is the bare capacity to act. It’s not a normative conception. A brainwashed person is still an agent, for example. I think in romanceland and everyday speech, “agency” means something more along the lines of autonomy, but that’s not how I use the terms, mainly because I want to be able to distinguish two kinds of human actors, not between a human non-actor and a human actor.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the conflation of agency and autonomy in romanceland is predictable given the general reluctance to look beyond individual psychology to structural, social conditions of choice and action.


  4. @Jessica: That makes sense; an author on my facebook is proud of having donated stuff to a homeless shelter that has helped a family that didn’t have anything in their new accomodation. Meeting someone’s immediate need is great but it jarred me that there was no discussion or reflection on how the family had arrived at their state of destitution and marginalisation.

    I have been thinking about this stuff because there is a cultural pattern in my family of ‘soldiering on’ of just keeping on doing instead of engaging with how big or awful or outside of control by individuals are the circumstances in which they find themselves. It seems to me that this implies a particular definition of autonomy and a wilful ignoring of how agency is constrained by social and economic circumstances.


  5. “I can think of heroines who have been so damaged by oppressive circumstances that they can’t own their decisions in any significant way. They retain the intellectual capacity for reflection, but it’s not enough.”

    My question would be: not enough for what? For them to be considered autonomous, I guess, but then what? I feel like the subtext is: if you aren’t autonomous (enough), then your decision-making power, and therefore, your HEA is invalided.

    I am pulling from book reviews that have said similar things here, so this might not be what you meant at all, so what follows is more of a commentary on “if someone thought that” than something directed at you. It is also relevant that the person described in the quote is someone I prefer to read (and write) about.

    But the idea that I’ve seen expressed in multiple places is: if you’ve been oppressed, then I don’t believe in your HEA, because you can’t make decisions for yourself. In fact, I can’t believe you CAN have an HEA at all, because that’s how beaten down you are, and that seems unfair (both in fiction and in real life). Furthermore, it strikes me as…insulting? If you’ve been oppressed, you have lost your ability to make decisions, to think for yourself, to be happy. It seems to me to be a form of victim shaming, even if it’s not intended as such.

    Here’s an example, one I’ve written about before, but some people say: oh, BDSM is just for people who were abused as children (or something). People will say: no, it’s not, because look: so-and-so does BDSM and she was never abused as a child!

    But that is missing the issue. What about the person who WAS abused as a child and does BDSM? Are their choices now invalid? I would say no, they have just as much right to practice BDSM without being subjected to ridicule. Maybe they would have done it anyway. Or maybe they’re doing it due to their past oppression/abuse. But either way, their decision is still their own and can absolutely lead to an HEA for them. It’s not going to look like someone else’s HEA, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

    It also goes to the nature of an HEA. It implies both happiness and doing-it-with-someone-else. The ability to achieve that is a big thing for anyone, but maybe a lot more difficult for someone with a history of oppression. So, personally, as a reader, I don’t need to impose an addition constraint: also, you must have had your choice of men. You must have tried them out, had all the time and money in the world, and made your decision devoid of external pressure.

    In fact, though I personally write in the erotica genre, where things like dubious consent are, if not commonplace, at least a known element, I also love to read historicals, paranormals and HPs, all of which contain those same elements. In some of the Mary Balogh’s I love, the heroine’s don’t have autonomy – not at all.

    And these are widely loved books, so I guess the question I have is: if autonomy is so valued a prize, if it is actually *necessary* for an HEA, what is the deal? Are readers not recognizing the lack of agency due to Balogh’s writing skill? Are they overlooking it, just to enjoy the story? Or is it that the lack of agency/autonomy is acceptable, but only in a non-contemporary setting?


  6. One of the reasons I’m draw to romance fiction and women’s fiction is that in featuring female protagonists, they inevitably tangle with questions of autonomy and agency.

    But can romance heroines actually tangle with questions of autonomy and agency if they are not protagonists of their own romance stories?


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  8. @Skye Warren:

    My question would be: not enough for what? For them to be considered autonomous, I guess, but then what? I feel like the subtext is: if you aren’t autonomous (enough), then your decision-making power, and therefore, your HEA is invalided.

    I appreciate you distancing my post from this view, because it really doesn’t follow from anything I wrote in the post, and it’s not the view I in fact hold. I mentioned the books and films I did because examples help people understand concepts.

    To me, autonomy is an important component of living a fully human life. I think oppressive circumstances make autonomy harder for members of some social groups to achieve. I also have problems with the culturally dominant masculinized conception of autonomy. Since I work as a philosopher, I think its worthwhile thinking about what autonomy is and what a feminist (ideal) conception of autonomy would look like. That’s what I was doing in this post.

    I’m not interested in using that concept to measure or judge fictional or real women. That said, obviously, as a feminist, I don’t think it’s enough just to say “here’s a nice concept. We’re done.” To give an example, I work as a clinical ethicist, and I’m often presented with patients whose decision-making is impaired for a variety of reasons. Having really thought about autonomy, read a lot about it, etc., makes me more helpful in this context. I’m better able to suggest ways to enhance patient autonomy in that setting, to change the situation so the patient is able to make medical decisions that she can own in a significant way.

    When it comes to feminist activism, a concept of autonomy can also be a kind of guide. On a board for women’s health, for example, I might think with my colleagues about city wide programs that can help women and girls take charge of their health.

    So, I can’t stress enough that when it comes to my own work, my teaching and activism, the point of thinking about autonomy is to help identify where it might be lacking and to do things to enhance it where possible. It’s not about judging or pointing fingers.

    When it comes to romance novels, I believe in an HEA if the writing is good. An example of an unbelievable HEA is one where the characters seem really ill-suited and are arguing until the last page, but then fall in love at the very end. When an HEA doesn’t work for me in a romance novel, I consider that a writerly failing.

    That said, are there some believable HEAs I personally find it hard, given my feminist and other commitments, to endorse? Yes, absolutely. But the question of whether those books are problematic from a feminist point of view (outside the text, that is “a problem for society, or for readers, or the writer”) is really a separate question, and really dangerous ground and very, very hard to answer, even for myself.

    The questions you raise about autonomy are really good ones. I mentioned in the post that some feminists think autonomy is overrated, and not a very important component of a good life at all. This view is also more more common in non-Western societies. We have to recognize the extent to which our concept of autonomy is itself socially constructed. I tried to keep the post under 1000 words, so I wasn’t able to get into some of those subtleties.

    I also hasten to add that autonomy is not an all or nothing thing, despite my misleading language so far. Someone can have more or less autonomy, like being more or less healthy. So to say “where there is any oppression there is no autonomy” would be much too strong. Readers of historical romance often celebrate the ways heroines in very oppressive circumstances manage to carve out a genuine and important modicum of personal autonomy. I have not read much Balogh, but I would put her heroines in this category.

    Thanks for asking such great questions.


  9. Jessica — What a fascinating discussion, especially in light of the discussion going on over at SBTB about a “canon” for romance fiction. Laura Vivanco and I exchanged a couple of posts regarding the history of romance novels, including E.M. Hull’s The Sheik, which I had never read. As I began reading it last night, and at the same time checked in on your blog, the issue of autonomy and agency seemed entirely essential to any appreciation of the book. And as Merriam wrote on your linked blog about the feminst theory syllabus, I think understanding the time frame and the author’s standpoint is also essential to understanding the book. I guess it’s time to dust off all my feminst theory books again!


  10. When others view romance novels, are you automatically assigning the label protagonist to the female lead?

    When you view the female leads actions / thoughts are you viewing them simply by what’s happening to that character in the story or through what’s being accomplished in the story by the action / thought as it pertains to the protag?

    A Few My Examples on non-protag female romantic leads:

    Beth in Dark Lover by J. R. Ward.

    I don’t see Beth as a protagonist from a story role perspective. I see Wraith (and by extension the entire brotherhood) as the protagonist. His character arc is one of redemption and becoming a worthy king. The vehicle chosen to tell that story is through his romance. So although Beth has agency and autonomy to a certain extent, the entire purpose of her character within the story is to help Wrait through his redemption arc. So when we start talking about agency and autonomy of her character, do we view her actions in isolation or do we also look at the purpose of those actions?

    I see Jessica from Lord of Scoundrels similarly, especially once the story moves into Act 2. Dain’s moves full circle in his character arc and Jessica’s actions / reactions as hero helper or protagonist helper get him through his arc. Again I feel that the romance is the vehicle used to do so.

    How about a TSTL heroine? Assuming that the hero is the protagonist in a particular story and that the author wants to have him do something like rescue a heroine and prove his love or setup a particular steamy scene, would that change how you view the TSTL character? Would you say, or the author wants me to see or feel this so that’s why the character is acting is so stupidly rather than just hating the character (although you could still hate the character)?


  11. Thanks for the thoughtful response. Yes, I can see how I might be projecting what I’ve read in other reviews with what I read here, and once the two were/are linked, it’s hard to separate them in my mind.

    I realize you have a broader scope in terms of philosophy and feminism than romance novels. It makes complete sense to support a real life woman to seek more autonomy if that’s what’s going to help her find happiness.

    But Balogh is fantastic, if you ever want to give her a try. She writes the nicest dominant dudes you ever did meet :)


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