Wyldstyle’s case allows us to examine what might be missing in the Master Builders. When we first meet her, she’s amazingly capable and confident. However, we later learn from Vitruvius that “Wyldstyle” is only the latest in a string of names and identities that she’s adopted. Her given name is Lucy, and she molds her personality to others’ expectations. We see in Wyldstyle an individual with many of the qualities of other autonomous individuals, but she nonetheless suffers from a deference to others’ expectations. Lucy became Wyldstyle only after wanting to be seen by others in different ways.
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) argued that we experience ourselves through the look of others. Sartre’s point is that you experience yourself partly in terms of how others see you and react to you. Sartre argues that “I am responsible for my being-for-others, but I am not the foundation of it.”5 In other words, you can never fully determine how others see you or think about you. The categories and meanings according to which we understand each other and ourselves are the result of an ongoing negotiation between ourselves and others. Nonetheless, my choices in relation to those categories and meanings make me responsible for how I experience how I am seen by others.
Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) further develops this idea, especially with respect to the ways that women’s experiences are shaped and limited by how they learn to see themselves and their possibilities. Beauvoir argues that women’s experiences are so affected by others, and that their choices are foreclosed so much, that women’s autonomy is disrupted. She writes, “what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all human beings, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other.”6 Beauvoir doesn’t just claim that the choices women make are forced in some way, and therefore not genuinely autonomous. She also stresses that choosing to be identified as fully capable of autonomy—a choice generally available to men— isn’t available to women. How others see us determines how we see ourselves, which in turn determines whether or not we can develop autonomy.
If I’m the sort of person who is traditionally seen as being capable of achieving autonomy, then I’m advantaged in at least two ways compared to one who isn’t seen this way. First, I’m not impeded by others’ expectations, I haven’t internalized those expectations, and so I don’t have to deal with these sorts of obstacles to developing my autonomy.7 Second, even if I can work around those blocks and develop my autonomy, it will not be undercut by how others receive my actions. To see how this works, think about how Wyldstyle expresses her discomfort with her identity, and how she doubts her abilities during moments of weakness. Think also about how her ideas aren’t given equal consideration, especially by her partner Batman. More generally, consider the gender imbalance of the Master Builders. Apart from brief appearances by Wonder Woman, Cleopatra, a mermaid, and the Statue of Liberty, the only women Master Builders are Unikitty—who is manic and childish—and Wyldstyle. The rest form a literal “boy’s club.”8
Contemporary philosophers have explored how other people might be crucial to the development and maintenance of an individual’s autonomy through discussions of relational autonomy. Their point is not that the individualist conception of autonomy is itself wrong; rather, it’s incomplete in exactly the sorts of ways demonstrated by the Master Builders and Wyldstyle.
Catriona Mackenzie provides three points in favor of relational conceptions of autonomy. First, a relational account is consistent with the facts of human vulnerability and dependency, in contrast to individualist conceptions where individuals are completely self-sufficient.9 Second, unlike the individualist conception, relational conceptions are premised on the recognition of how social practices, group identities, and historical contingencies shape the formation of individual persons.10 Third, a relational account recognizes that unjust social conditions restrict some individuals’ capacity for self-determination.11
Mackenzie stresses that the individual conception of autonomy is generally structured as an ideal theory: a theory that starts from the perfect ideal and then judges actuality in relation to how far it falls short. By contrast, a non-ideal approach starts from actuality and theorizes what possibilities we have within our actual state of affairs. Compare Lord Business’s plan to use the Kragle. He cannot stand the non-ideal, so he seeks to “perfect” everything by freezing it forever into an ideal state. This sort of ideal state is attainable only at the expense of everyone’s autonomy via the Kragle. By contrast, Emmet and friends seek to make the actual world a better place. In Wyldstyle’s case, we see that she measures herself against an impossible standard, never accepts herself as good enough, and thus always second guesses and reinvents herself. It is better for her to recognize the exceptional person she is, get comfortable in her own skin, and accept being Lucy.
Relational accounts of autonomy help us understand and appreciate how others play constructive roles in developing and maintaining our autonomy. It’s not just that others can help us develop our individual skills, but that others help structure the social contexts in which we operate. Cultural and social norms are products of human actions. If everyone thinks that people with a certain characteristic are a certain way, it’s hard for someone with that characteristic not to see herself that way. If Lucy is always around individuals who don’t respect her or her capabilities, she will likely internalize their expectations and attitudes and seek to make herself into something she thinks others would prefer. Her autonomy is thus undermined by others’ expectations of her. Likewise, if young women are repeatedly told that LEGO sets and bricks are for boys, then they won’t feel that they should play with LEGO sets and bricks. They’ll then also lose out on the opportunity to be first guided through complex builds, to then surpass that guidance in a community of peers.