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Divergent: A Dangerous Relationship

Boy meets girl. Sparks fly. Butterflies flutter. Other things come up. Feelings get hurt a little.  Both go their separate ways because it’s really the best thing. Roll credits. I’m still waiting to come across a movie like that.

The happily-ever-after ending is as natural and important as villains monologuing in critical moments or good overcoming evil in the end. Young people are hungry for stories about true love and lasting relationships even while marriage and family statistics continue to decline. Those two factors put our culture on dangerous footing and may encourage some to ignore major red flags out of desperation while dating.

The romantic relationship between characters Tris Prior and Four (a nickname) in the movie Divergent gives cause for serious concern. The giddy applause scattered around the theater annoyed me at first when actor Theo James pulls off his shirt to show off his tattoos and chiseled torso. That of course leads to Tris and Four making out, no surprises there. It’s hard to go to the movies without something like that happening, but this kiss scene bothered me long after I left the theater.

The film takes place in a creepy, dystopian Chicago. It essentially combines The Hunger Games, I, Robot, and Fight Club with high school themes and angst. At her community’s coming-of-age ceremony, Tris leaves her family’s plain clothes, charity oriented faction to join Dauntless, the sort of biker gang group devoted to strength, bravery, hamburgers, tattoos, and tight black clothing. The initiates fight each other until they’re bloodied or unconscious as part of their training. They live in a grungy, co-ed barracks with zero privacy for bathrooms or showers. Unlike the military, however, these young men and women are not even on the same team, but compete against one another to avoid exile. That just asks for sexual harassment. (Readers will note that it does actually take place in the book, even though author Veronica Roth gives guys and girls separate bathrooms).

It’s disturbing, but possible to flinch and move on like the film does. We can even hope that tetanus shots still exist in this post-apocalyptic world with all the rusty metal around, and that Dauntless sprays or does something to prevent mildew in their dank underground quarters. What does really matter though is how this dating relationship  plays out between Tris and Four. They’re on the poster together, they play off each other’s strengths to survive in the end, and more importantly from an entertainment perspective, they’re both very attractive.

Things might look okay on the surface for these two young characters, but they’re by no means a perfectly matched couple. Four is older – visibly so, though the filmmakers don’t specify how much (it’s only about a year in the books.) He’s part of Dauntless leadership for training the initiates, so he has some practical seniority. He’s also physically a lot stronger than Tris and demonstrates this awkwardly in part by the way he clasps his hand on her midriff while teaching her how to hit and punch. There’s also a scene that involves Tris standing submissively with her back against a target while Four throws knives around her head and intentionally grazes her ear. He does it to make the other instructor back down who instigated this punishment. It’s justified, but still really creepy considering books like Fifty Shades of Grey also happen to be popular now.

Despite the initial impression he makes, Four does seem to be an okay guy. He maintains a sullen air about himself, but he can be kind and protecting toward Tris. And in reality, he does respect her and the boundaries she sets. While they’re making out, Tris whispers admirably, “I don’t want to go too fast.” Four accepts that. She stays the night at his place after some other initiates try to kill her (spoilers, sorry), and he sleeps on the floor that night. Good qualities, I can’t argue with that

The problem is not that these two characters kiss, but that the scene takes place too soon. Tris’ desire to wait before having sex demonstrates a healthy sense of time for the relationship that the filmmakers don’t respect on a greater level. In the audience’s mind, Tris and Four are locked in as our romantic payoff for this movie. Regardless of the obstacles that may come up, we expect that these two will be together in the end. That’s dangerous because the biggest strike against the relationship comes up after the fact.

Four respects Tris in reality, but that’s that’s not how things play out in her imagination. For another part of their training, Dauntless initiates learn to conquer their worst fears in a high-tech mental simulation that allows others to watch on-screen. On testing day, Tris discovers a new fear in her subconscious that involves a replayed scene from Four’s apartment, only with him pressuring and attempting to rape her. She fights back, the simulation ends, and she chuckles nervously, telling Four, “I hope you didn’t see that.” Again, the film winces briefly, but moves past a significant issue without incident.

Divergent is not the indignant gesture to “rape culture” that some have made it out to be. Of course it’s good for young women to see that they can and should fight back if they’re being pressured into sex, but the reality is that Tris stays in a relationship while deep down inside she is afraid of Four. Maybe I’m some sort of Puritan, but I believe a woman should have full trust in a man’s honorable character. There are enough good guys in the world to slow a relationship down or move on if a guy does not earn that confidence when given the chance.

Trust is always a personal matter even if there are objective measures for a person’s trustworthiness. There is no easy answer whether or not these two characters should be together because love is vulnerable and will always encounter fear of being open and transparent with another person. I think that is what author Veronica Roth intended to suggest initially, but that’s not how it comes across. On either side of the fence whether they should or should not be together, this is a very weighty dating scenario and needs to be considered carefully.

Is the relationship really even up for debate, though? As an audience, does it even enter our minds that perhaps this wasn’t meant to be? I saw a lot of issues from the beginning, but I felt extremely betrayed that Tris’ own concern did not come up until the end. The trite way that the filmmakers brush things off left me with this nagging question: does Divergent quietly condone situations favorable to date rape?

I’ve written before that we need to respond by telling better love stories instead of merely criticizing culture, but I still can’t help feeling that we need to be wary and take action about the bad ones. I doubt most of the teenagers who saw this film thought about a lot of these issues. The character of Beatrice Prior becomes a puzzle piece in our cultural sense of normal, but should she? Is it even possible to change that?

Banner Image from Monika Thorpe. Creative Commons License, 2010.

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