(This should be evident from the title, but in an abundance of caution: this post contains Divergent spoilers.)
This week, we two YA fantasy aficionado feminists went to see the movie adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent which exceeded our expectations by maintaining the powerful female lead, Tris (compare the vastly diminished Clary of the City of Bones film adaptation). However, we were jaw drop appalled by a five second alteration: in a training exercise hallucination, male-lead Four attempts to rape Tris. Rape!
Amid the pre-release reminiscing of disappointing film adaptations, we noticed director Neil Burger’s assertion that, “the movie is different beast than the book. It has different dramatic needs.” The aspiring screenwriter among us acknowledged the difficulty in translating inner turmoil into a lively shot (shout out to J-Law for her remarkable performance of the death of Rue). But, for a moment, let’s overrule Hollywood experts’ dismissive hand-waving and admit that some of the complaints respond rationally to the movie industry subverting relationships and action for no clear necessity, and maybe even damaging character arcs in the process.
For those of you who limit your reading to age-appropriate texts, here’s the background you need. In this dystopian society, the coming of age ritual forces teens to choose from one of society’s five factions. Tris, our hero, abandons her faction of origin for Dauntless, the faction of courageous fighters. As part of her hazing, um training, her leaders induce hallucinations in which she confronts her deepest fears while supervisors observe and evaluate her handling of terror. In the book, Tris’s fears include bird attacks, drowning, and intimacy.
In the movie, Tris also faces the birds and the drowning, but right when capable actor Shailene Woodley should show us fear of intimacy overcome by personal sense of security and sexual desire, that key step in coming of age morphs into a fear of rape.
In the book, the imagined Four walks toward her slowly, smiles at her kindly, kisses her distractingly well, unzips her jacket, and caresses her midriff. Tris’s realization that her fear of intimacy factors so dominantly in her psyche stuns her, but she takes control: by telling him no and then making out with him on her own terms.
This is the fear I have no solutions for – a boy I like, who wants to…have sex with me?
Simulation Tobias kisses my neck.
I try to think. I have to face the fear. I have to take control of the situation and find a way to make it less frightening.
I look Simulation Tobias in the eye and say sternly, “I am not going to sleep with you in a hallucination. Okay?”
Then I grab him by his shoulders and turn us around, pushing him against the bedpost. I feel something other than fear – a prickle in my stomach, a bubble of laughter. I press against him and kiss him, my hands wrapping around his arms. He feels strong. He feels…good.
And he’s gone.
I laugh into my hand until my face gets hot.
So, a teenager, considered by her society adult enough to have chosen her life path and left her family, has a crush on a supremely hot, skilled, confident, strong, powerful, idealistic teenager who feels the same for her. She is so petrified of intimacy that he appears in her drug-induced nightmare as the personification of physical affection. To conquer her fear of intimacy, she tells him no, which he respects, allowing her to instigate sexual contact within her comfort zone. She flushes with an awesome reward: he “feels…good.” Wow. Face a fear of intimacy with someone you’re attracted to and who respects your boundaries and the fear disappears.
Cut to Four. Here buff, masculine, amazing young man respects his crush’s boundaries.
In contrast, the movie Four uses his significantly larger size and socio-political position to overpower Tris. She struggles and begs him to stop. He ignores her, pressures her further, even taunts her with the initiation requirement that she be fearless. She faces this new, more sensational fear of rape by kicking him in the balls and beating him off of her.
Even feminist bloggers cheered. Yea for Tris for kicking him in the balls, for defending herself, for physically dominating him, for fighting back. Yea for the movie for showing this kind of power in a girl. Yea for the movie for having the adults watching her hallucination cheer for her when she comes out of it.
Here, we’d like to insert the “different dramatic need” the director mentioned. But we can’t come up with one.
Instead, we we se see the movie industry prefer teenagers see an attempted rape than a girl grow into her sexuality and a boy respect her boundaries.
On the simplest level, why did they have to add a rape scene? Our entertainment industry casually and constantly exposes us to sexual violence against women. People who face a form of brutal oppression do not need to be re-exposed to it so endlessly. In Divergent the book, violence and oppression govern, but they are not gender-based or sexual.
Furthermore, this speaks ill of the state of masculinity. Four is a sexy, buff, tattooed, powerful, confident, courageous leader with integrity, heart, and martial prowess (you should see him throw a knife). For some reason, the movie takes away this super masculine young man’s ability to restrain himself and to respect a young woman’s no. We, and feminism, believe that masculinity is, in addition to strong, confident, and courageous, also respectful and self-controlled. Furthermore, we believe that manly men desire consensual sex.
Roth’s character prevails for most of the film; Four himself does not want to rape Tris. The fault lies with the movie industry, its decisions, and their part in defining masculinity. With ease, we attribute fashion trends to the entertainment industry- celebrities, red carpets, stylists, costumes- but when we cringe at the violence unleashed on our communities, we insist that art innocently mimics life.
The exercise of affirmative consent empowers those exercising it, but the producers swap it out for (unrealistic) physically repelling the attack of a strong man. To change the story requires a compelling justification. Yes, people should fight back when attacked, but that message does not trump the value of a reminder to all of our right to consent and our duty to honor that consent or its absence. Any producer who thinks that even subtle demonstrations of respect don’t make good drama must have missed The Help, every Mandela biopic, and Friday Night Lights.
To exacerbate this whole mess, Tris and Four are a couple in the end. They’re so connected that she overcomes the powerful mind control of his captors by forcing him to look at her while he holds a gun to her head. Add it to Hollywood’s innumerable scenes set to keep domestic violence counselors employed for another generation. The man holds a gun to her head and she cries, “I love you. It’s ok. I love you. It’s ok.” while he squeezes the trigger of a pistol pointed at her brain. That’s a mess for another conversation. Here, we’re just worried about a story in which the hero’s greatest fear is being raped by her boyfriend.
Fearing rape is common and reasonable, but being attracted to rapists is not. Yes, women are raped by men they are attracted to, but that’s a tragedy to be condemned. We just should not show a young woman push through her fear that a young man is going to rape her. Ugh, and if we do, she should not then date that guy.
We talk about rape prevention as the responsibility of girls and women to make “smart” choices, protective choices, the types of choices that make this a fantasy and we say that teaching men to wait for affirmative consent is unimaginable in that it is impractical, untenable. But it’s not unimaginable. In fact, Veronica Roth imagined it in her book, and 11 million readers imagined it right along with her.