by Hannah Bressler
At first glance, this film seems like another dystopian-future and hero-fights-the-fascist-state kind of narrative, but there’s a lot more going on here, namely, feminist influence.
The movie Divergent, based on the book series by the same title, is a speculative fiction about a dystopian walled-city split into five “factions” or social groups. These factions each operate independently and adhere to strict rules of conduct to ensure the peace. Women exist at every level of government, hold all forms of authority, and even compete with men in physical combat. In this futuristic world, gender, race, and wealth do not create social divisions, but even with these noticeable equalities Divergent shows a society with vast social injustices and prejudice between factioned and factionless people.
The story begins during a day of psychological testing for adolescents about to enter their faction for life. Testing requires a hallucinogenic drink and then monitoring the test subject, as they face a series of vividly imagined dangers. (This film spends a lot of time exploring fear-fantasies through tests with psychedelic drugs.) The protagonist of the story is Tris, a 15-year-old about to enter Dauntless, the military-style faction.
As the story unfolds, my first clue that this movie might be more than just another teen-girl-film is the lack of a makeover scene for the female protagonist. I can’t think of another teen-girl-protagonist movie that avoids a makeover--even in The Hunger Games, which uses the makeover scene in a sinister way, the hair and makeup people are central to the plot. Generally speaking, if a movie has teenage girl protagonist, throughout the story (and often during the apex of the story), she will change into a more attractive version of herself to get a boy to like her. However in this film, though Tris’ perspective changes considerably throughout the story, the most she physically changes is to get a tattoo. Even the tattoo doesn’t have much to do with changing her appearance, instead it shows her investigative personality; she gets one while trying to find out information from a secretive tattoo artist.
You might ask, so why doesn’t she get a makeover? Because it’s not important to the plot or her life! Because she lives in a gender-egalitarian society where no one tells women that being pretty or a wife-mother is your only valid option for power.
Another part of the film that seems clearly feminist inspired is the way it explores date-rape. When Tris becomes sexually interested in someone she kisses him, but asks him to take it very slow. She’s interested in dating him but is also afraid he’ll rape her, so much so that her rape-fear shows up in her public psychological fear-test. I have never seen date-rape discussed in a popular, mainstream movie. It’s always some creepy character on the sidelines, never the realistic-to-life story of a close relationship that turns violent. To his credit though, we never see the love interest, Four, pressure her for sex. Tris is just very aware that sexual assault is always a possibility.
Another feminist inspired streak is the way Tris problem solves in social situations. She mostly follows the rules and plays along with her role in society (like many people who feel loyalty to their race and gendered roles in our world) but uses her critical mind to poke holes the logic of the social norms (like feminists, among other social dissenters). More than once in her psychological testing she says, “This isn’t real.” This quality of thinking critically about her society’s rules of order is what makes her “a divergent”, hence, the title of the film.
Of course we should also ask, “Does this movie pass the Bechdel* test?” Absolutely. Not only are there more than two women in the film, but most of the important, plot -progressing conversations between women; between Tris and a power-hungry faction leader, between Tris and her badass, sharp-shooter mother--where they have an action-filled shoot out together where the mother and daughter are on the same side!, another groundbreaking plotpoint because in the vast majority of stories, maternal-offspring characters are pitted against each other--, between Tris and the reluctant-informant tattoo artist character.
Another common theme for American films is to make the villain of the story a non-gender-conforming (NGC) character. When this happens, instead of the viewer thinking that what makes this character creepy is how they want to dominate the world, or kill whoever gets in their way on the path to power, or just be generally evil, the most noticeable characteristic in a villain is their lack of adherence to a gender stereotype. So then, we learn to associate this NGC quality with a villains, making them easy to spot early in the story. But in the film Divergent, the main power villain, also a woman, is very feminine-looking, and often very logical sounding. Unless you’re paying attention to her craftiness, you might not see her as a villainy at all until towards the end of the story. She’s also not just antagonistic, but calm, thoughtful, and group-oriented (as a opposed to frenzied in the pursuit of personal political gain from other villain characters,) which is just another way this film rocks.
In the many ways that feminism can help us, from reimagining possibilities of what it means to be human, to dissecting forms of power and valuing decentralized voices (the true theme of this story,) I believe the most engaging way to allow feminism to influence you is through story. Thank you to the people who made this feminist themed movie. You inspired me to keep listening.
*Credited to Alison Bechdel, in order to pass the Bechdel test a film must contain
1. more than two female characters,
2. who talk to each other
3. about something other than men.
(It is shocking how many films do not pass this this test. )