The Feminist Underpinnings of Divergent
Something dangerous happens when you mix teenage romance novels with attempted political commentary. No one seems to recognize that dystopian novels almost always end tragically. Remember how in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, John the Savage is driven from society and hangs himself at the end? And how Guy Montag is driven into exile by a lethal mechanical dog in Fahrenheit 451? If tragedy is the mode for dystopian literature, then what message do modern hybrids like the Divergent trilogy send young readers by mixing dark political situations with happily-ever-after love stories?
I wince any time I hear someone speak about Tris Prior as leader or a hero. As charitable as I try to be, neither the character nor Veronica Roth’s writing earns that kind of respect. The sheer quantity of angst alone should disqualify these books from serious praise, but the real cause for concern is the unrealistic social burden that Tris carries to her death.
Feminist ideology says it’s not okay for a young woman to be quiet and reserved. Empowering young women makes an unspoken demand that a young woman take the spotlight whether she wants it or not. The gender wars have shifted from a battle over male acceptance to a fundamental redefinition of what it means to be female. “If we want to achieve gender equality by changing attitudes, it can’t just be male attitudes that change,” as Slate magazine candidly observes. Already we’ve seen how marketers will peddle “sheer confidence” for girls through jeans or tennis shoes and create an artificial self-esteem complex to push back against where no inherent problem exists.
A similar demand for increased female confidence drives the expectation within the novels for Tris to be a role model and to make the world okay in the end. If authors like Veronica Roth or Suzanne Collins aren’t sure that real culture will take the bait, they build in a self-contained TV celebrity status for their characters. When Tris meets people in the outside world, she encounters minor characters who voice their admiration for her actions as seen on the surveillance cameras.
All of this recognition takes place despite the fact that Tris spends almost the entire second book in a state of shock and afraid to take a stand. From the outside, characters might see her actions as controlled and calculated, but the reader is privy to the train wreck of her emotions. As situations arise, Tris continues to press through, but there is no way out of the spotlight for her if she isn’t up to the challenge. She is Divergent and thus ordained for greatness. It’s unfair to build a story around a character in this fashion and to assume that one must make the headlines in order to be significant. There are plenty of “everyday heroes” who play a small role outside the spotlight, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But not every virtuous person deserves the distinction and scrutiny that a novel like this requires. Women can be strong leaders or they can be more quiet and reserved. The same goes for men. Either way, a person should feel valued and affirmed, not conflicted inside from the social pressure to be extraordinary.
Tris’ death concerns me because it stems from a twisted sense of obligation and not a clear-cut understanding of heroism. Yes, she does it for the sake of her brother’s life and the good of everyone else, but consider her reasoning and her decision track record to that point:
“They died for me, I answer. And now I have something to do, in return. I have to stop other people from losing everything. I have to save the city and the people my mother and father loved.”
This passage discretely puts Tris, the feminine ideal, at the center of affairs. There certainly should be a bond between families and communities, but the things that are worth dying for ought to be great and self-evident principles, that “there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for” as Samwise Gamgee would say. And there needs to be an Esther-like resolution that says “If I perish, I perish.”
The ending of this trilogy reminds me of how Edna Pontellier dies at the end of Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, driven away in despair from her stifling community. It really unsettles me how an author (or a cultural movement) will swim a character out to sea to drown and call it freedom – or send a girl to die in a chemical weapons attack and call it heroism.
As feminism continues to gain mainstream traction with polished rhetoric like that seen in Emma Watson’s U.N. speech, we need to be wary of the subtle implications behind the movement. I think most people who support the agenda will have good intentions, but even so this social ideology can easily sacrifice a character like Tris (or worse, real human beings) for the sake of upsetting “the patriarchy” and revolutionizing cultural values.
The feminist mindset will never admit that the world and the people who fill it are fundamentally okay just as they are. At best, these Divergent books are a shallow reflection of teenage angst. At worst, they contribute to an unnecessary societal burden we are creating for young women. As a character, Tris deserves our pity, but not our admiration. Real heroes stand boldly and give their lives willingly for timeless things that really matter. We need books that demonstrate that clearly, not with a muddle of emotions.
Thanks to my friend Isaac for editorial feedback and to my friend Josiah for discovering the Slate quote.