Representations of Agency for Female Documentary Subjects in Selected Films on Netflix



Photography, Film & Multimedia


  • interaction design, media, gender, documentary, agency, conation


Communication design for documentaries is changing with online distribution through global platforms like Netflix. Actuality and entertainment are increasingly often elided in a single program, which confuses the genre categories that tend to underpin the scholarship of documentary as a field of study distinct to that of entertainment. Certain programs are marketed as documentary/docu-series alongside fictional ‘based on real events’ stories and fiction but are constructed as much through significations used in pure entertainment as through those associated with informational and educational media. The paper explores the relationship between factual information and tools of fictional mediation through an analysis of three Netflix films that use documentary styles and forms to focus on issues of gender, while also creating the narrative tension usually characteristic of fiction films.

‘Mercury 13’ is about female pilots tested in the 1960s to be astronauts but not sent into space due to political issues. The docu-series ‘The Keepers’ is about the 1969 unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a Catholic nun and high-school teacher possibly killed by a sexual predator. ‘The Staircase’ is about the trial of Michael Peterson, an author accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen. The paper interrogates to what extent and in what ways the women around whom the films revolve are signified as active, subjectified agents rather than as passive, objectified victims. ‘Agency’ is approached from the perspective of psychology: through the lens of ‘conation’ as mental process, which stands alongside the psychodynamic constructs of ‘cognition’ (intellectual understanding) and ‘affects’ (emotion). From this perspective, the paper explores whether and how the docu-subjects are represented through discrete visual and aural significations and narrative construction as people who engage or focus behaviour and action, and exhibit intrinsic motivation, goal-orientation, volition, will, self-direction, and self-regulation in ways that countermand assumptions that the women were merely the passive victims of a sexist society.

Keywords: interaction design, media, gender, documentary, agency, conation


DEFSA conferences

DEFSA promotes relevant research with the focus on design + education through its biennial conferences, to promote professionalism, accountability and ethics in the education of young designers. Our next conference is a hybrid event. See above for details.

Critical skills endorsement

Professional Members in good standing can receive a certificate of membership, but DEFSA cannot provide confirmation or endorsement of skills whatsoever. DEFSA only confirm membership of DEFSA which is a NPO for Design Education in South Africa (