Are Divergents Feminists in Disguise?

Insurgent_posterLast year the first film of the Divergent series made close to $200 million, putting it almost in league with The Hunger Games.

While the latter dystopian trilogy, featuring the intrepid Katniss Everdeen, is richer and more politically nuanced, the Divergent series—now weighing in with a second film, Insurgent—also offers relevant political critique and a realistic dystopian future. Both series have brave, independent, intelligent and politically minded females at their helm. This in itself, in a world that still needs the Bechdel test, is significant.

In the world of Divergent, society has been split into five main “factions”—the smart (erudite), the peaceful (amity), the truthful (candor), the selfless (abnegation), the brave (dauntless)—and two out-lying or renegade factions, the outcasts (the factionless) and the undefinable (the divergent). Tris Prior (played by Shailene Woodley), the lead character, is divergent, as was her mother Natalie (played by Ashley Judd).

The female equivalent of “Big Brother” in the Divergent world is Jeanine (Kate Winslet). At the start of the first Divergent film, on screens broadcasting throughout the society, Jeanine attributes peace to the faction system. Framing Divergents as the true enemy, she claims “Divergents will destroy our society … unless we destroy them.”

By the close of the first Divergent film, these Orwellian sentiments are rendered false, and we learn Divergents are in fact the key to a better, more peaceful society. This led a question to course through my mind as I watched the adrenaline inducing thrill-ride of Insurgent—are Divergents feminists in disguise?

Like feminists, Divergents are framed as a threat to society, they are attacked by what counts for media in their world and they must constantly guard against those who wish to exploit and destroy “their kind.” (Lest we forget our world is out to destroy feminists, the recent backlash against Ashley Judd (who plays Tris’ mother in the film) is a stark reminder of attempts to bring feminists down. Judd’s tweet, as noted here, led to “an avalanche of online abuse, much of which was sexual in nature.” Reminiscent of recent “gamergate” attacks against feminist Anita Sarkeesian, this story is a reminder of the pervasiveness of  attempts to destroy feminists.)

The constant attacks and harassment feminists endure have a metaphorical equivalent in Tris’ dystopian world. As a Divergent, she is targeted, those she loves are threatened/harmed and her very existence is a threat to the fragile peace in her world.

The help she receives from other social renegades nods to the fact that those on the outside of cultural norms must join hands to fight the systems of power that oppress them. True to feminism’s insistence that justice can only be won if all participate, Tris is helped by a cadre of characters who share her visions for a society undivided by factions. Significantly, most of these characters are female: Johanna, Evelyn, Natalie, Christina, Tori and Edith.

From a Hollywood perspective, the fact that females carry a film not dubbed a “chick flick” is key, but even more significant is the fact most of the actors are in the age realm Hollywood has tended to define as “past it.” Though Four, Caleb and Peter (played by Theo James, Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller) are lead characters, the females played by Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Ashley Judd, Kate Winslet and Janet McTeer are the true heart of the film. The action may be front and center, and Tris is the lead heroine with the most screen-time, yet the women who surround her are what make her triumph possible. Further, Four, Caleb and Peter support Tris’ bid for revolution rather than rescuing her or taking over. This aspect of the film has feminist messaging as well (yes, we need feminist men!).

The film breaks traditional gender norms. For example, when Tris, her brother Caleb and her lover Four run towards a train near the start of the film, Tris makes it to the train first and has to help Caleb aboard. She is no damsel, she is the female knight! The film also includes other feminist aspects within its heart-pumping narrative, including Tris’ dedication to her activist mother, Four’s mother Evelyn’s revelation that his father was very abusive and (yay!!) a big nod to the importance of consent in the key sex scene between Tris and Four.

That the lead mothers of the film, Natalie and Evelyn and later Edith, are the people insisting on revolution is another way in which the narrative suggests feminist activists are the solution. Indeed, Evelyn’s claim that what they are doing “is about putting an end to a system that says one group is more deserving than another” is in accordance with key feminist aims. Similarly, Tris’ insistence that “I am just one person, I am not worth it” echoes the notion that larger social change must be the goal while also signifying the complex interplay between the micro and the macro, the personal and the political. Given that the film refutes Tris’ self-abnegation, showing she is indeed worth it, it also insists that we can’t always focus on “the many” when “the few” are so rabidly oppressed.

Tris is “a walking bleeding heart,” as one character derisively notes, but this is not her downfall—it’s what leads to her triumph. Tris’ keys to success are all linked to having a heart—forgiving herself, admitting her weaknesses, recognizing she and others need help, making peace with her deserving foes. Redolent of the derogatory “bleeding heart liberal” moniker lobbed at progressives, this depiction of a bleeding heart as a good thing is another way the heroic divergent Tris aligns with feminist tenets.

At the end of the film, a message from “beyond the wall” is delivered by Tris’ ancestor, Edith Prior. Edith reveals the city was an experiment utilized to determine which faction would lead the way to a peaceful future. Divergents are this faction; as Tris puts it, “We were never the problem … we’re the solution.” The (feminist) Divergents are the solution to the divided, violence-riddled future world the series features.

The message that reverberates at the close of the film, that there is “hope…beyond the wall” gives this feminist hope—hope that the final film will go beyond the disappointing third book of the series, hope that Hollywood will continue to make films with diverse casts, and, most importantly, hope that one day, perhaps our own society will come to realize that those of us who are “Divergent” are not the problem, we are the solution.

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Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.