Ah-Ha – Take On Me video: A study in agency
Ah-Ha, Take On Me, is one of my favorite videos from my teen years. I think because the story is about a woman reading a comic book. In a time when I was stared at every time I entered the comic store as a solitary female, seeing another female with my passion for heroes in sequential art struck a cord.
Watching it now thirty years later, the story presented still resonates with me. A woman being pulled into a story then escaping back to the real world with her hero. Romance, action-adventure, fantasy, heroes, great 80’s music, and pretty awesome 80’s hair. (full video can be seen above)
The song “Take On Me” develops new meaning when viewed with the video. (words to the song can be found here: https://genius.com/A-ha-take-on-me-lyrics) The song is about a woman shying away from a relationship, but the guy asking if it okay to pursue her anyway. He needs to go somewhere in a day or two, so it’s understandable she doesn’t want to commit. Still the guy points out “it’s no better to be safe than sorry.” With a choice of losing love or never having it, which is better? A constant question in romances.
During the third verse the woman responses are questioned. Is she just being nice or is it real? The song continues either begging or daring the woman to “Take on me”. With just the song, it seems like asking to the point of begging (viewed through today’s millennium eyes, stalking is a consideration). But in the video, the whole song is clearly a dare. Are you willing to push the limits and discover just how good it can be?
In the song lyrics alone, no one really has agency, the ability to change the world and make a decision. The male singing the song has given the agency to the woman but nothing happens.
In the video both the male and female make choices which change their world. Initially the video sets the stage, the woman leads a solitary, boring life, reading a comic book in a diner late at night alone. The waitress drops of the check. We all identify and understand this world. Then it changes.
The comic male looks out at her from the panel art and winks, breaking the fourth wall. Surprised she looks around and verifies that no, her normal world is still normal, she isn’t dreaming. Then agency happens – the man extends an invitation to enter his world. Her agency response is to accept by grabbing his hand. This choice makes the rest of the story happen; their agency changed both their worlds.
But the agency has consequences. The panel police show up, hunting them down. They run away, but eventually reach a dead end. Up until this point the male has been a rogue, flirting, handsome, daring. Now he makes a choice changing him into a hero; agency not only changes his world but changes him. He rips open the page and sends her through, back to her world, then turns and faces the Big Bad to protect the exit until she is safe.
For her part, her agency comes again. Thrown out of the comic world back into her world, she discovers herself surrounded by the curious, angry, and surprised diner staff and patrons. She reacts by running. Reacting is not agency, but she was in the running mode and, rightly, still terrified from her recent experiences. What shows her agency, her being a heroine for her hero, is she did not forget to rescue him but pauses despite her desperate fear to trash dive before running. Grasping his world in her hands she retreats to the safety of her apartment. And there the first thing she does is discover his fate.
Three times she made a choice, always for the male hero. First responding to the rogue’s invitation to break the laws of their worlds, second to rescue him when every moment could mean danger from police for not paying her bill or men in white suits if she described where she’s been, and last to immediate try to find him again. But these were her choices. A sane person would have ignored the hand, left the comic in the trash, or at least throw it out once home and never look at it again. But her love powers her choice and agency.
The other major characters in the story have no agency. The waitress follows her role, anger at not being paid and surprised when the woman returns. The police do their job in the comic world. Only the hero and heroine have the power of choice.
The final agency of the story falls on the hero. Beaten near to death by the panel police, he gains energy from her love and a chance to escape to her world. Already damaged he starts throwing himself against the panels, the framework, the frame of a doorway between worlds. He is fighting; his final choice to risk everything to return to the woman.
A powerful story set to a pop-song.
WRITING EXERCISE: For you present WIP figure out points where your main character has agency and where s/he is just reacting to the situation and making choices. Is there a way to change some of the reactions to actions?
READING EXERCISE: For your most recent read, which characters of the book had agency and which did not? Where did the characters lack agency when they should have had some?