A question of agency

One month before the election and three months before women around the world marched to declare their personhood, it was almost Halloween. Suburban housewives were picking out special on-sale assorted candy packs, little girls were picking out plump pumpkins to put on the front porch, college students were picking out festive fall shot glasses, and I, once again, was frantically searching for a Halloween costume. It was my first college Halloween, after all, and I’d been told that Halloween was a “big deal” in college.

Two years ago I was the Spanish Inquisition (of Monty Python conceptualization), and this year I wanted to be something equally clever but more easily executed. I was crunched for time, so I turned to the collective wisdom of the Internet.

If you need an emergency dose of righteous feminist anger, just spend ten minutes looking for women’s Halloween costumes on Google.  If a costume covers the model’s legs, arms, and midriff, it’s morph-suit tight. Though the label “sexy” is used in some cases (for instance: “Sexy Cleopatra Costume”), for the most part, it has simply been absorbed into the label “women’s” (for instance: “Women’s Doctor Costume”).

Of course, we’re all aware of this phenomenon. The fourth result when I search “Women’s Halloween costume ideas” (after three pages that would give your conservative grandmother a heart attack) is a Huffington Post article called “32 Halloween Costumes for Women That Are Definitely Better Than ‘Sexy Cop.’” Gendered Halloween costumes have become a matter of Public Discourse—a discourse that goes a little something like this:

“Why are all women’s Halloween’s costumes so slutty?!”

“Um, WOW let women wear what they want! Get with the times!”

“But they shouldn’t have to wear something slutty if they don’t want to. That’s patriarchy!”

“Yeah, it’s all about choice! Leave the choice about whether to be slutty up to women!”

So, that’s it then. The crux of the matter is the agency of the woman in the costume. If it empowers her to dress like a slutty nurse, then let her dress like a slutty nurse. Problem solved.


According to Joshua Knobe, a philosophy and cognitive science professor at Yale University, humans categorize the sentience of other entities along two dimensions. Being able to categorize the world around you is a fundamental survival skill. The distinction between a poisonous plant and an edible one, between a predator and a harmless herbivore, or between a potential mate and a potential enemy can make the difference between life and gruesome death. One distinction that is equally pressing but not quite as clean is that between sentient entities and inanimate objects.

Let’s think about that for a second. On the surface, this is much simpler than distinguishing a poisonous plant from an edible one (if we put aside the staggering ethical implications). The middle-aged woman sternly bagging your groceries is sentient; the pack of gauzy fake cobwebs she’s stuffing into a paper bag is not. Open and shut.

But what about your dog? What about how slave owners understood the consciousness of black people? What about artificial intelligence? It turns out we understand sentience not as two separate categories, but as a scale along two axes: Agency and Experience. Agency is the capacity to exert your will onto the world. It encompasses hopes, beliefs, desires, and the ability to plan and act. Experience is the capacity for subjective internal phenomena such as pain, pleasure, and emotions. A dog, for instance, has lower Agency than a person but an equal level of Experience, whereas true artificial intelligence could have equal Agency to a person but wouldn’t have a human level of Experience.  

When we evaluate the sentience of the people around us (and we are constantly, involuntarily doing this), we do it in terms of Agency and Experience.


On Saturday night of “Halloweekend” (the weekend of parties before Halloween, because college students want as many days as possible to binge drink in costume), I was lounging on a couch in my friend’s off-campus apartment. I still didn’t have a costume. One girl returned from the bathroom, all changed and ready to go out for the night. She was wearing a long, stylish jacket, discretely covering her costume from view.

“Guys, you have to promise not to judge me,” she warned before unbuttoning her jacket. She was wearing a black body suit that was so tight I feared she’d have to cut herself out of it at the end of the night, and had a v-neck so deep it reached towards her belly-button.

“So you’re a…” someone started, trailing off and furrowing her brow.

“I’m a panther,” she said, pointing at the black eyeliner on her nose and the cat ears perched on her hair. She laughed like she’d just told us a shameful secret and was unsure how we’d react. “I drew whiskers on but they made me look like a mouse,” she joked, pulling at the side of her costume to adjust it.

Everyone laughed at the blatant, unspoken acknowledgement that what she was dressed as wasn’t as important as how she dressed as it. It was like the Halloween party scene in Mean Girls where Karen dresses as a “mouse, DUH” by wearing mouse ears with a normal, skimpy party outfit. In Mean Girls, this scene is about Cady being shamed for coming to a Halloween party in an elaborate, frightening costume rather than a typical “slutty” one. What a fish out of water! Girls can be so mean to each other! It’s funny because it’s true!

“You look amazing,” someone said, because she meant it.

“Thanks,” she replied. Then she left, looking sexy and empowered, and cold and uncomfortable. But she chose to wear that, right?


The amount of sentience we assign to people doesn’t necessarily line up with how much they actually have. Remember, this is about perception, not objective reality. For instance, when one holds deeply ingrained prejudices against a group of people to the extent that one doesn’t consider them fully human (e.g., slave owners, white supremacists, Nazis, etc.), one tends to assign lower sentience to a person in that group. But, as we’ve established, it isn’t a simple scale from human to inanimate object—there are two factors at play. When we strip people of their sentience, we tend to be assigning them the same (or even higher) levels of Experience but much lower Agency. Essentially, we assign them the same sentience as a dog. And then we treat them accordingly. When we understand someone as having no Agency, it makes it easier to take away her Agency in the real world—by limiting her choices, not respecting the decisions she does make, or simply treating her as if she has no opinions or will at all.

It turns out, as Joshua Knobe discusses in a paper titled “More than a Body: Mind Perception and the Nature of Objectification,” we also assign higher Experience and lower Agency to people who are (of all things) wearing less clothing. We see both women and men as less sentient the less clothed and the more sexualized they are. We assign to them less rational agency, and less humanity.You may have heard this referred to before as objectification.


Sitting at my desk on my laptop in my pajamas the night before Halloween, I still didn’t have a costume. With all my agency and all my right to choose, I still couldn’t find a compelling, clever costume to wear that I wouldn’t freeze to death in. I was tired of Halloween already, even though it technically hadn’t even happened yet. The culture of binge-drinking, body-suit-donning college Halloween seemed nothing like the beloved Halloween of my childhood, when there was candy and adventure and you could dress as any Disney princess you wanted.

I pondered why we make all our women’s costumes this way. Does demand drive supply, or does supply drive demand, or does social pressure drive demand which drives supply, or is it all just much simpler and more misogynous than all that? Maybe we don’t like our women with too much agency, and dressing them this way helps us see them in a safe, sexy, agency-free light for one night a year (and perhaps every day after that too).

Or maybe I was being old-fashioned. As Cady says in Mean Girls, “In Girl World, Halloween is the one day a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything else about it.” Maybe this makes Halloween the ultimate expression of agency, choosing to own your sexuality despite societal pressure to cover up. I can’t begrudge any woman her right to choose what to do with her body, as long as she’s doing the choosing.

I chose to skip Halloween, close my laptop, and go to bed.

One Response

Leave a Reply