Divergent

03.28.14

Sex Won’t Kill Young Adult Heroines: ‘Divergent’ and Rape Culture

Divergent’s bold step into the battle over rape culture and teen sexuality is actually a meek regression, as its heroine remains deathly afraid of what’s hiding under her own covers.

Divergent is a film about a teenage girl that blatantly glosses over the desires of its adolescent heroine. It’s also a movie about sex and rape culture that doesn’t really show any sex. Confused? So, clearly, are the filmmakers who have rendered their characters two dimensional and flimsy by making them poster children for enthusiastic consent (aka saying yes and really wanting it) as opposed to believable teenagers.

In an effort to start a conversation and bolster a movement, the team behind Divergent has actually undermined their own progressive agenda, producing a film in which the 16-year-old heroine Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) boldly conquers her cruelest enemies, but remains deathly afraid of what’s hiding under her own covers. In this way Divergent’s bold step into the frontlines of the battle over rape culture, female liberation, and teen sexuality is actually a meek regression, as its heroine, hiding behind sexual timidity and a set of obscenely huge eyelashes, reverts into a well of prudishness far deeper and scarier than the various cliffs and gorges scattered throughout the Dauntless compound.

It turns out that Divergent’s heroine really does need saving: not from her political foes or her fellow initiates, but from the media’s pervasive urge to infantilize its young adult heroines.  Divergent features two scenes that explicitly revolve around the sexual relationship between Tris and her boyfriend Four (Theo James). The first scene, when Tris and a shirtless and tattooed Four kiss for the first time, is one of those unintentionally hilarious onscreen interactions that makes you slightly embarrassed for everyone involved.

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After some low-grade making out, Tris pulls away, and stresses that she doesn’t “want to go too fast”—never mind the fact that Tris is clearly attracted to Four, and that he hasn’t rushed her or made any attempt to push her past her sexual comfort zone. Since this is, after all, their first and only kiss in the film, Tris’s interjection seems a little presumptuous, and a whole lot forced. The awkward, PSA-worthy interaction comes across as a consent role-play, rather than a believable, exciting first kiss. The intermittent gusts of wind that ruffle Tris’s hair are the only signs of life in this otherwise robotic scene.

While the architects of the film made a laudable decision in emphasizing the importance of consent, the awkwardness of the dialogue gives the entire interaction a sheen of artificiality. Furthermore, Tris’s quick admission, her apparent fear and apprehension, don’t feel like natural extensions of her character, or her and Four’s relationship. Because we don’t understand why Tris felt the need to immediately insist on her sexual parameters, we can only assume that someone behind the scenes was writing to the message, as opposed to the characters. Tris’s insistence on a consent conversation, coupled with Four’s hyper-PC, gallant robot response about giving Tris the bed and sleeping on the floor, transform these formerly three dimensional characters into consent education pamphlets. And no one wants to watch two pamphlets suck face.

But the sex scene that everyone’s talking about comes later on in the film, when Tris undergoes a simulation test in which she must confront and surmount her greatest fears. One of these fears is Four forcing himself upon her. In the simulation, Tris must fend off Four as he attempts to rape her, repeatedly pressing her for sex, both physically and verbally. Having conquered her rapist, Tris emerges from the simulation as her fellow Dauntless cheer and congratulate her.

Like its strange predecessor, the first kiss scene, this simulation nightmare strikes a false note. Nothing in Tris’s past indicates that she mistrusts Four, or believes that he has any intention of violating her or disrespecting her wishes. Any woman can have a rational fear of sexual assault—but why is Tris specifically afraid of Four, who has proven himself to be one of the more consent-oriented teenage boys to have ever graced the silver screen? Again, it appears that the filmmakers have made a decision on behalf of their characters that is entirely independent from them; it’s hard to believe that Tris truly fears that Four will transform from a compassionate boyfriend into a violent rapist. She’s far too intelligent for that, and Divergent’s audience should be too.

Why is Tris specifically afraid of Four, who has proven himself to be one of the more consent-oriented teenage boys to have ever graced the silver screen?

The Divergent rape scene constructs a false reality through a false reality; the simulation mirrors the artificial distortion of Tris and Four’s characters, who have been robbed of consistent emotions, believable reactions, and general verisimilitude. The way that this scene was designed and executed is called into further question when compared to its source material. Veronica Roth, the 25-year-old author who wrote Divergent while on winter break in her senior year at Northwestern, does pen a simulated sex scene. But the interaction reads entirely differently than its cinematic counterpart—Roth’s intentions and methods shed a totally different light on Tris’s internal fear landscape, replacing a fear of forced violation with a more nuanced anxiety towards intimacy and sexual vulnerability.

Roth writes, “My fear is being with him. I have been wary of affection all my life, but I didn’t know how deep that wariness went. But this obstacle doesn’t feel the same as the others. It is a different kind of fear—nervous panic rather than blind terror.”

In this version of events, Tris is nervous about doing something she’s never done before, understandably apprehensive towards the unknown. These logical nerves are coupled with her wariness towards physical affection, a natural extension of her Abnegation childhood (as we see throughout the novel, Abnegation is widely mocked for their humility and modesty, which is seen as overly prudish). Roth is incredibly consistent when it comes to Tris’s sexual reticence. The first time Tris and Four kiss, Tris is extremely self-conscious: “I tense up at first, unsure of myself.” In other words, Roth is doing her job as a writer, fleshing out a character by delving into her desires and fears while remaining conscious of the backstory and internal narrative that she has already established.

While Roth’s portrayal of Tris and Four’s relationship is undoubtedly more believable than the film’s, it still raises (and refuses to answer) a myriad of questions about female sexuality. Critical readers are bound to trip over the bold assertion that Tris, a young girl who’s not afraid to blindly jump into a dark pit or leave behind the only life that she has ever known, is so totally overwhelmed by the idea of consummating a relationship with her loving partner. It’s not that Roth doesn’t make a convincing case for Tris’s fear of intimacy. Rather, one is simply caught off guard by Roth’s desire to sexually infantilize a heroine who is otherwise so bold, so in control of both her body and her mind. Tris could have any number of fears—so why did Roth decide to center her heroine’s anxiety on her own budding sexuality? More importantly, what message does this conscious decision send to Roth’s young fans as they begin to confront their own sexuality, without the aid of high-tech serums and educational simulations?

While Roth herself might beg to differ, Tris’s fear of sex and intimacy is destructive and regressive at its core. Divergent’s take on female sexuality is about as evolved as a Victorian medical textbook: Tris’s own sexuality is portrayed as a dark, confusing phenomenon. As much as she wants Four, she anxiously awaits the physical intimacy that this desire is pushing her towards. Tris is not afraid that Four will rape her—rather, she fears the natural evolution of her own unexplored sexuality. In this way, Roth harkens back to an era when young girls were taught to ignore their burgeoning desires, in the hopes that they would eventually disappear. Of course, the fact that Tris faces and eviscerates her own anxiety lends the simulation scene a veneer of victory and autonomy. But don’t be fooled—Roth, who also happens to be a devout Christian, has created a deceptively liberated female heroine, one who harbors both deadly weapons and regressive beliefs up her sleeve.

Conversely, the Divergent film is self-consciously, proudly progressive. In elevating the simulation scene from an intimate bedroom conversation into a full out rape scene, the filmmakers engage in a blatantly feminist act, making the personal political. Whereas the original scene spoke to Tris’s specific insecurities, the Hollywood rewrite shows a strong young woman overpowering her rapist as her peers cheer her on. The scene takes a bold and inspiring anti-rape stance (depressingly enough, in our current media culture an onscreen anti-rape stance is truly bold). But in the process of striking a blow against rape culture, the filmmakers sacrifice authenticity in service to their ideological bottom line. In speaking to a broad, highly politicized fear of sexual assault, Divergent glosses over the specificities and unique vulnerabilities that would render its characters as believable young adults.

Divergent’s portrayal of adolescent sexuality naturally begs comparisons to other YA stalwarts, most notably The Hunger Games and Twilight. Twilight’s Bella Swan, the brainchild of the devoutly Mormon Stephenie Meyer, is similarly afraid of her own sexuality. Her boyfriend is constantly telling her that if they have sex, she’ll probably die—and while this is an effective form of birth control, it’s also an incredibly harmful and regressive message to send to young girls. In The Hunger Games, sex isn’t really part of the equation—we see a little heavy petting, but Katniss Everdeen is predominately preoccupied with staying alive.  Still, Katniss does exhibit a few instances of actual lust. After a particularly enthusiastic arena make out session, she admits, “This is the first kiss where I actually feel stirring inside my chest…this is the first kiss that makes me want another.” Katniss’s powerful warrior princess is widely acknowledged as Tris’s direct predecessor. However, one could argue that Tris is actually a mixture of Katniss’s boldness and Bella’s regressive values; a YA test tube baby who’s simultaneously inspiringly liberated and alarmingly conservative.

Tris is actually a mixture of Katniss’s boldness and Bella’s regressive values; a YA test tube baby who’s simultaneously inspiringly liberated and alarmingly conservative.

But the war over young women’s sexuality is being fought on a pop culture battleground that extends far beyond YA. For example, Girl’s Hannah Horvath is in turns praised and derided for her unabashed sexuality, most commonly manifested through her inability to keep her clothes on. Hannah is usually a consenting and eager sexual partner, but her sex scenes also reveal an uncomfortably apparent need to please, a willingness to engage in awkward, un-enjoyable sex that feeds her appetite for attention, but does not seem to appease any of her physical desires. Who can forget the traumatic scene in episode 3 of the first season when Hannah, after an extremely awkward sexual encounter with Adam, blindly reassures him, “So good. That was really good. I almost came.”

Hannah’s inability to demand good sex, particularly in the first season of the series, reveals her inherent immaturity. She is sexually liberated, but still trapped in her own anxiety, held back by her crippling lack of self-confidence and fear of rejection. Lena Dunham’s portrayal of Hannah as a girlish narcissist masquerading as an independent woman serves to highlight the relative strengths of Divergent’s Tris as a female role model. Tris’s prudishness can be seen as an extension of her strengths. Unlike Hannah, who is cripplingly obsessed with how others perceive her, Tris is not attempting to please anyone. Tris refuses to conform to societal conventions, both in terms of her divergence and her sexuality. She will not do anything before she’s ready, allegations of prudishness be damned—her body is her own. Of course, the natural counter argument is in that revealing everything, Dunham is creating a space where young women can see a reflection of their imperfect selves. Tris might make sense as an idealized vision of an anti-rape culture, pro-consent heroine, but do her fears, needs, and desires (or lack thereof) actually resemble those of a living, breathing, young adult?

In many ways, Tris is already a feminist heroine—so why is Hollywood so reticent to add a believable sexual appetite to this multi-layered character? What are they afraid of? Pop culture, from blockbuster action films to Kim Kardashian butt selfies, places a huge emphasis on sex—but a realistic representation of a sexually autonomous teenage girl who practices safe sex and has fun doing it is alarmingly rare. The notable absence of these female characters isn’t just a mindless oversight—it reflects a pervasive cultural fear of female sexuality, particularly of the under 21 variety. While saying that consent is sexy is a great step, Divergent should go a step further and say that sex is sexy.