Two aspects of the movie, Divergent, released in 2014 by director, Neil Burger, bug me. Both of my irritations come from the obvious attempt of the author of the book on which the movie is based, Veronica Roth, to jump into the popular genre, dystopian literature with a butt-kicking heroine. The book and movie are set in the future and portray a world tightly controlled by a central power that is evil. The power is then threatened by the strong female heroine.
The phenomenon of strong female characters in dystopian novels seems to demand attention and accolades, simply because the girls are portrayed as powerful, rather than as princess-y (waiting for a husband). In Divergent, the protagonist, Tris (played by Shailene Woodley), represents the hope that even if the future is controlled by an evil power, a woman is capable of overthrowing the antagonists through physical, intellectual and emotional strength. In fact, powerful women are not just in the role of protagonist, since the antagonist in Divergent is also a woman, Jeanine (played by Kate Winslet). There is a return to times long ago through basic agriculture and commerce contrasted with the futuristic concept of women seizing power. My issue is not in the strong female role model in itself, but in the potentially tricky issues surrounding this archetype. More on that later.
My first irritation is the internal contradiction of a world that considers dangerous the ability to move among five different socially contrived or genetically engineered factions. The existence of the factions is never really explained since there seems to be a science fiction or even a medieval aspect to the story. The citizens are supposedly protected against this danger with the requirement that the youth be “tested” to determine to which faction each person belongs. If each person fits neatly into one of five factions named for virtues (Amity, Candor, Erudite, Abnegation and Dauntless), then why the mystery or the ability to choose a faction? The sorting ceremony is supposedly based on a fail-safe test. But wouldn’t the test and the subsequent choice suggest “blurred lines?” Isn’t the ambiguity the danger that the author sets up as threatening to the evil power in this world? So are children inherently dangerous to the society because they display indeterminate characteristics of each faction? Also, since each faction represents a virtue, how is having multiple virtues dangerous to the entire society?
The second reason for my irritation is the ending. SPOILER alert! First some background: Tris chooses the most reckless and physically powerful faction whose strength is being exploited by the most intellectual faction. Because Tris is “divergent” and has traits from each faction rather than a single trait, she is immune to the chilling power of a chemical used to mind control the others in her faction. Tris is still able to think freely when her faction is programmed to kill the ruling faction. The selfless ruling faction was the one in which she was raised–the one where her parents remain members. She and a boyfriend, Four (played by Theo James), who reveals himself to be also divergent, are the only two divergents in her faction who avoid detection from the evil power. They play along with the mind control until the opportune time for their resistance. Tris and Four work together to fight the evil powers and free their faction from mind control. Tris slowly begins to recognize and claim the courage, integrity and sheer physical strength within herself.
The last line Tris utters in the movie is along the lines of, “I’m not sure who I am any more.” What irritates me is the line that follows from her boyfriend, Four. He says, “I know exactly who you are.” Tris is set up to be the butt-kicking heroine who is a model of independent thinking and “girl power.” Yet, the last line reveals that the scriptwriters have decided that the final moment restores the overriding need for female characters to draw validation from a male character.
Although, I enjoyed Divergent, I have not completely come to terms with the role of the female protagonist in book series such as The Hunger Games, The Pretties, and other dystopian novels where the girl is fierce but also experiences a traditional teen romance. When a girl is both physically and intellectually strong, rescuing instead of being rescued, does that mean she is by default a powerful female role model? Does having a romantic relationship diminish her power? Or does she only represent the strong female if she is in a romantic relationship with a male where she doesn’t relinquish her independence somehow? Or in a romantic relationship, does each member–both men and women–naturally draw strength from each other?
One method that some people have developed to test the credibility of a movie’s gender portrayal is called, the Bechdel Test that has the following rule which is represented by several conversations in Divergent: The work of fiction “features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.”
- Tris has several conversation with her test administrator, Tori (played by Maggie Q) about survival
- Tris has exchanges with her mother, Natalie, (played by Ashley Judd) in which SPOILER Natalie reveals that she is also divergent and then the two women team up to fight the evil overlords together.
- Tris and Jeanine, the mastermind of the evil plan, have conversations about the society.
In conclusion, I have now aired my two main irritations about Divergent’s premise and ending. However, in reviewing the movie I realized that my biggest irritation is with myself! Despite the story and heroine being so contrived, I actually have a weakness for coming of age, romance adventures. I am a teen girl at heart. I saw the Twilight movies, The Hunger Games and now Divergent. What does this mean? Am I inspired by these movies because I, like Tris in the final scene, “. . . don’t know who I am , , ,?” Reinventing yourself is a daily and lifelong struggle as we are presented with new situations that challenge us. These challenges may not be on the scale of dystopic ruin, but drawing strength from hidden reserves, from the support of friends and family or from a strong female role model is a source of life.
Bibliography: Anon, (2014). [online] Available at: http://www.hdwallpaperscool.com/divergent-movie-2014-wallpapers/ [Accessed 9 May. 2014].
Bibliography: Anon, (2014). [image] Available at: http://lusciousandlovely19.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/divergent-4.jpg [Accessed 9 May. 2014].