Divergent isn’t perfect. And I am not referring to the film’s dystopian world, wherein society has been split into six “factions”—the smart (erudite), the peaceful (amity), the truthful (candor), the selfless (abnegation), the brave (dauntless) and the outcasts (the factionless).
I am referring to the fact that it does not, as with most mainstream dystopian narratives, go far enough in its critique. Divergent does not include enough representations of those who would be (and are) factionless in the real world (people of color, trans people, disabled people, non-heterosexuals), does not adequately decry violence (especially sexualized and interpersonal violence) and, finally, does not go beyond the same old story that the real “happy ending” is finding a (hot) guy to love.
However, I still loved the book. And I loved the film. Would it have been great to have a woman of color cast as Tris? Of course. But Shailene Woodley does a phenomenal job as the hero who defies social norms, and Christina, her best friend, (played brilliantly by Zoë Kravitz) is no Rue (hero Katniss’s friend in The Hunger Games) (As an added bonus, Woodley is sharing laudable divergent views on Twilight as promoting toxic relationship models.)
Would it have been nice if there were a lesbian or trans or disabled primary character in the film? Indeed. But at least there are non-normative body types (Molly Atwood, played by Amy Newbold), leaders of color (Max, played by Mekhi Phifer) and awesome female tattoo artist-renegades such as Tori Wu (played by Maggie Q).
How about an ending where the protagonist doesn’t find “true love” in a male that is older, has more power and commits violent acts against her? Yes, that would have been awesome (but Tobias “Four” Eaton, played by Theo James, is certainly worlds better than the likes of vampire Edward Cullen in Twilight).
In spite of these disappointments, the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s best-selling novel does diverge from many of the problematic narratives spun by the Hollywood machine. It gives us a world of more gender equity, no damsels in distress, leaders who are not only white and male and a positive mother figure played by Ashley Judd—who, as an out feminist, is particularly well cast, methinks.
But where it is most different is in its representations of violence. Rather than violence being something done in the name of special-effects or kill counts (as in so many blockbusters), violence is presented as necessary for personal and societal survival. Violence enacted by males towards females is also presented in a way it rarely is—as a mutual fight rather than as active victor against passive victim.
While this is the part of the narrative that is hardest for me to respect as a peacenick pacifist, it is also the part that is perhaps the most radical in its divergence from normative scripts.
Seeing a female character punched, kicked, beaten and almost murdered by males is not rare in Hollywood cinema—what is rare is that this violence is not sexualized, is not one directional (male to female) and is not motivated by female spite, evil or desire for power. Rather, as in The Hunger Games, violence is a non-gendered battle for survival. Further, in contrast to that series and its film adaptations, violence is more up close and personal in Divergent—more kick-boxing, jaw-bruisingly visceral than The Hunger Games’ Capitol-controlled fight arenas.
Why is this important? Why does it matter for feminists? Because it goes against rape culture, sexual objectification and the binary divides that hetero-capitalist-patriarchy is so fond of—and it provides a female heroine who is fully clothed while doing her ass-kicking, who is fully capable of fighting her own battles without “super powers” or male intervention, who has female allies of color who do not die and who has a mother who is as strong, brave and intelligent as she is.
But why is it also problematic? Because, yet again, the capability to enact violence and endure pain is presented as the solution. Because militaristic “dauntlessness” is championed in a facile way. Because the reality of violence done to our bodies and the body of the world is nicely packaged in a way that presents parental violence and sexual assault as no more than hallucinatory scenes one can stop if only one recognizes they are not real.
I love that Tris is strong mentally and emotionally as well as physically, and I love the humorous way Woodley captures her frustration with others assuming she is just a “nice girl” who won’t/can’t shoot, fight or kill. I love that she is motivated to triumph through seeing her best friend, Christina, used as a militarized automaton. I love that she names herself (turning Beatrice to Tris), refuses the expected female role of self-abnegation and has sexual agency.
However, I would have loved her even more if she could have been divergent in a way rarely seen: if she could have questioned violence as the inevitable answer to conflict and instead led a “let’s go off the grid” peace-loving utopian revolution.
Alas, this is possibly my too-hopeful self wishing that violence is never the answer.
Perhaps this is also why I liked the film so much—because it made me confront my own revulsion towards violence and face up to the fact that in a world such as Tris’, and in a world such as ours, when one is put in the ring with foes such as sexism, sexual assault or interpersonal violence, one has no choice but to strike first.
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.