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YA Lit and Feminism: Divergent as a Case Study

I am a rabid fan of YA literature. I love it, and I think that many authors who are willing to invest in writing for young people are willing to invest in serious portrayals of women and girls as well. YA lit is often the place where the fiesty, strong heroines are born, intelligent and independent young women who pretty much repeatedly save everyone. This is where the Hermiones and the Katnisses of the world live. In many ways, these authors are less dedicated to the older templates of characters and storylines that relegate women to props.

All that being said, YA fiction is not perfect. More often than not we get sloppy portrayals of strength, where the women can kick butt but aren’t all too deep. Divergent, a dystopian sci fi novel set in future Chicago, seems to encompass many of both the good and the bad elements of YA literature and its relationship to feminism. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that it’s the latest YA dystopia to get a movie and that it’s likely to be seen by many, many young female eyes.With that in mind, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the book in regards to the messages it sends about women.

One of the things that we can appreciate about Divergent is that Tris, the main character, is physically strong. Now this is obviously a pretty shallow portrayal of what it means to be strong, but there are a few elements to Tris that are different from the Xena style feminism. Tris does not have a large and powerful body, she is not naturally gifted with some amazing strength, and she is fairly clumsy when we first meet her. Tris works hard for her strength. She fights for it through training, and learns to use her body effectively rather than fighting against her small stature. While it’s unrealistic to imply that everyone can train their body into power and strength, it is realistic to encourage women and girls to capitalize on what they have and not be afraid to become strong or beat out the boys. Tris feels no need to perform femininity. She is willing to embrace her body because of what it can do for her.

Related to Tris’ perception of her body is the fact that Tris is fairly objectively not pretty according to the book. She admits it and so do many other characters (some of whom mock her for her scrawny body and ugly nose). And as the lovely author over at The Belle Jar points out, it is something of a revolution for a heroine to not be beautiful, to be recognized as not particularly beautiful, for that not to be a problem or something that gets fixed, for no one to particularly care that much, and for her still to be loved and lovable, powerful, kind, compassionate, whole, and accepted. Now this does get slightly screwed up in the movie as Shailene Woodley is fairly gorgeous, but at least we have the canon that Tris is not beautiful but it doesn’t really matter.

On that note, we also have a fairly decent romance modeled in this book. I’ll get to some of the problems with Tris and Four’s relationship later, but for now let’s focus on the positives. The basic gist is that Tris and Four are on a level playing field for most of their relationship. They do start out in a teacher/student relationship, but it quickly becomes obvious that Tris is as smart, resourceful, and brave as Four is, and that they need to rely on each other in different ways throughout the book to stay safe. Additionally, there is a strong focus on communication, particularly in the second and third books (Tris lies about some very important things, and both partners make it clear that they must be open and honest in order for the relationship to continue).

Where things get a bit muddy though is around consent. Jeremy West suggests that the movie is a beacon of consent as it shows a young woman fighting off a potential rapist and being cheered for it, however the instance of attempted rape in the movie is clearly violent and implies that women should be able to fight off their attacker. There are places across the book where people’s bodies are violated, from being stabbed in the eye, to a portrayal of a horribly abusive relationship. But Tris and Four consistently model consent. When Tris asks Four to slow down, he stops what he’s doing. Tris makes it clear to everyone that her body will not be touched without her consent, but the commitment goes both ways: she also doesn’t pressure Four into doing things he feels uncomfortable with (such as discussing his past or going ziplining despite his fear of heights).

The final positive element of Divergent is the sheer number and diversity of female characters it presents. There’s Tris, the main character, a variety of female friends she makes during her training, her mother (a kind, but mysterious woman), Jeanine (the clearly cruel opponent), as well as women glimpsed from afar in the other Factions. Women are portrayed with many different motivations and stories, with different priorities, with different strengths and weaknesses, with different allegiances. Some women are confusing and mysterious, while others are easy to predict. Some are kind and delicate, others hard and cold. Simply creating a world with a variety of women who are drawn with the same care and complexity as the men in that world is out of the ordinary and a powerful statement to young girls: you are just as human, just as beautiful and real and flawed and wonderful and complex as any man.

But despite all of these positives, there are some unfortunate elements to Divergent that dampen the agency of the characters and leave little room for divergence from the path that girls and women are already taught they must take. To start with Tris and Four’s relationship, it’s biggest problem seemed to be that it existed at all. It seemed out of place and forced, particularly the scenes that got sexual. The only things that Tris and Four have in common are their Divergence and their previous faction. They have some serious fights, but in the end Tris appears to choose Four for no other reason than “I love him”, without any explanation of why. It leaves the book oddly sex and romance driven when the core of the story is really about choice, violence, and human nature. Sexuality also feels quite compulsory in this world, something that is a common flaw in YA novels.

Additionally, things are pretty damned heteronormative. In book 3 we do meet a gay couple. Who have no personalities except for being gay. Families pretty much exist as mother/father/two kids. Considering all the factions and the different ways of life, the world had a great deal more potential here than it used.

Finally, Tris herself is not what we might hope for in a heroine who is supposed to illustrate “divergence”. We find that once again we have a YA heroine who is petite, dainty, ever so tiny. Yes she can kick butt, but for once could we have a female who actually takes up space? While there is minimal hand-wringing over Tris’ beauty (or lack thereof), our heroine is regularly described cuffing her too-long pants, drowning in oversized shirts, dwarfed by anyone and everyone.You certainly don’t have to be literally big to be powerful, but we’ve done the petite heroine thing (Katniss anyone?). I’d love a strong female role model who is BIG BONED or (god forbid) FAT.

Divergent is a wonderful example of the ways in which YA fiction often attempts to break down boundaries, but does so in limited ways. It deliberately works towards some equal representation, but doesn’t necessarily integrate equality in a deep way, leaving room for improvement and criticism.

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Olivia

Olivia

Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

3 Comments

  1. April 1, 2014 at 11:26 pm —

    I mostly agree with your points. I’ve only read the first book, so my comments are limited to that.
    –Spoilers–
    I was happy with the number of prominent women in the book. I wasn’t happy with the body descriptions. The only two women described as non-normative, Molly (large and solid) and Jeanine (pudgy around the middle and stretch marks on the knees), were non-sympathetic characters. I also found Tris and Four’s relationship hugely problematic due to the power imbalance. In the first book, he’s her instructor for 90% of their relationship. He has the power to kick her out of the initiation process, a fate Tris describes as worse than death. I also don’t like the scene at the end where Tris puts herself at Four’s mercy. Her love for Four is more important than her life or the lives of her former Faction. That falls into some sexist tropes.

    Regarding some other aspects of social justice: race visibility: we have a black best friend in Christina. She’s more detailed than the other friends, and isn’t reduced to a stereotype. A lot of the other characters are racially ambiguous, described as tan or olive skinned, dark hair and eyes, but most the other main characters are unambiguously white. LGBT visibility: none. Differently-abled visibility: none, unless you want to count Al as having depression, in which case their treatment is very sympathetic.

    Aside from social justice, I didn’t think the book was that good. The description of the physical layout sometimes left me confused. The characters were not that well fleshed out. The premise and plot devices were contrived. Ex: the idea of Factions and injection that can turn a person into an automaton, Tris’s rescue via deus ex machina. Beyond that, the idea that a bunch of 16-yos become perfect soldiers after only a week of physical training, everything that Tris does after being shot in the shoulder and almost drowned, the fact that no one was left to monitor the incredibly complex program that was key to Jeanine’s plan (before she mind-controlled Four into the job) – at these times I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief.

    Over all, I thought it did ok on social justice issues, better than a lot of popular books these days. However, Divergent was Roth’s first book, and the writing really shows. I’d only read the next book if I had good reason to believe the writing was significantly improved.

  2. April 3, 2014 at 12:59 pm —

    Hmm, comment over 2 days in moderation. Don’t like formatting tags, huh?

  3. April 3, 2014 at 1:00 pm —

    I mostly agree with your points. I’ve only read the first book, so my comments are limited to that.
    –Spoilers–
    I was happy with the number of prominent women in the book. I wasn’t happy with the body descriptions. The only two women described as non-normative, Molly (large and solid) and Jeanine (pudgy around the middle and stretch marks on the knees), were non-sympathetic characters. I also found Tris and Four’s relationship hugely problematic due to the power imbalance. In the first book, he’s her instructor for 90% of their relationship. He has the power to kick her out of the initiation process, a fate Tris describes as worse than death. I also don’t like the scene at the end where Tris puts herself at Four’s mercy. Her love for Four is more important than her life or the lives of her former Faction. That falls into some sexist tropes.

    Regarding some other aspects of social justice: race visibility: we have a black best friend in Christina. She’s more detailed than the other friends, and isn’t reduced to a stereotype. A lot of the other characters are racially ambiguous, described as tan or olive skinned, dark hair and eyes, but most the other main characters are unambiguously white. LGBT visibility: none. Differently-abled visibility: none, unless you want to count Al as having depression, in which case their treatment is very sympathetic.

    Aside from social justice, I didn’t think the book was that good. The description of the physical layout sometimes left me confused. The characters were not that well fleshed out. The premise and plot devices were contrived. Ex: the idea of Factions and injection that can turn a person into an automaton, Tris’s rescue via deus ex machina. Beyond that, the idea that a bunch of 16-yos become perfect soldiers after only a week of physical training, everything that Tris does after being shot in the shoulder and almost drowned, the fact that no one was left to monitor the incredibly complex program that was key to Jeanine’s plan (before she mind-controlled Four into the job) – at these times I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief.

    Over all, I thought it did ok on social justice issues, better than a lot of popular books these days. However, Divergent was Roth’s first book, and the writing really shows. I’d only read the next book if I had good reason to believe the writing was significantly improved.

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