thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to Be Brave: The “Divergent” Method

In dystopian literature, feminism, YA on August 15, 2014 at 7:57 am

Sarah Todd

Too many girls grow up learning that they should be afraid to live in the world. Female action heroes offer us a different vision. When Ripley punches a slobbering alien queen, we see what it’s like to fight back. When Buffy defeats a pack of vampires with witticisms and a series of neatly executed roundhouse kicks, we can imagine our own unlikely victories. When Katniss aims her arrow at a shimmering window in a force field and lets it fly, it seems possible that we too can take oppressive systems down.

Inspiring as these characters are, their heroism can seem a little inaccessible–their ferocity inborn and therefore difficult to reproduce. Ripley is already a tough, no-nonsense warrant officer when she encounters her first slimy spider-creature. Buffy has the physical strength and superb fighting skills necessary for taking on the Hellmouth. Katniss has a rebellious spirit, fleet feet and perfect aim long before she enters the Hunger Games arena.

But for many real-world women, being brave takes practice. After all, women aren’t wrong to be afraid sometimes; the world really can be a dangerous place, and fear can be a life-saving instinct. But our culture is wrong to instill fear in women and then stop there, encouraging us to stay at home with all the lights on rather than empowering us to try to make the world safer for everyone.

That latter possibility forms the core of Divergent, a young adult film starring Shailene Woodley and based on a popular dystopian trilogy by Veronica Roth. The story—a blander, declawed version of the Hunger Games—isn’t going to set anybody’s world on fire. That said, I’ve read the whole series and expect to see all the movies. This is not because they are actually good, but because I’ve yet to encounter another story that engages so directly with the idea of a young woman who teaches herself courage.

Divergent is set in a bombed-out future version of Chicago that’s walled off from all that lies beyond city limits. Society is divided into six factions, according to the quality most prized by each. The Erudite are smarties in lab coats, while people in Candor are honest enough to tell them that lab coats are really unflattering. Abnegation members practice the art of selflessness; Amity types are peace-loving hippies. And then there’s Dauntless—a group of people who pride themselves on being brave, and will do pretty much whatever dumb thing to prove their mettle.

For Divergent’s protagonist, Tris, the audacity of the Dauntless holds infinite appeal. She’s grown up in Abnegation, leading an honorable, exceedingly dull existence. People in Abnegation don’t wear bright colors (too flashy), nor do they eat hamburgers and chocolate cake (too self-indulgent). The women wear long skirts and tuck their hair into neat, low buns. Mirrors are kept behind sliding doors, not only to discourage physical vanity but as a reminder to focus on others instead of the self. As imagined by Abnegation, a life of public service must necessarily be antithetical to having any kind of fun.

Tris respects the values of Abnegation, but she also resents her faction’s many restrictions. Although Divergent doesn’t call attention to it, the self-effacing, nurturing function of Abnegation is a historically feminine one. Many of Tris’s frustrations with her faction could just as easily apply to the confines of traditional gender roles. So it’s no surprise that when it comes time to choose the faction she’ll belong to for the rest of her life, she opts to for the apparent liberty of the pierced, tattooed, whooping wild children of Dauntless.

Dauntless appears diametrically opposed to Abnegation, which also means that the group occupies a traditionally masculine position within the book’s dystopia. They’re warriors, daredevils, adrenaline junkies; their primary mode of transportation is hurling themselves on and off fast-moving trains. Because they value strength and courage above all else, the Dauntless are cruel to anyone they perceive as weak. Tris has a small, slight body (an all-too-common trait among female YA heroines) and modest Abnegation habits, so she’s underestimated by nearly everyone.

Tris herself doesn’t know if she’s Dauntless material. Her gutsiness has never really been put to the test. But over the course of her initiation into the faction, she discovers that courage is largely a matter of mind over matter.

Since the Dauntless initiation process puts Tris in mortal peril on the regular, she learns to experience fear without being paralyzed by it. She jumps down a dark, gaping hole without any idea what she’ll find on the other side. She stands perfectly still while a chisel-jawed man uses her as a target for knife-throwing practice, taking deep breaths. In a brutal fight against a much-bigger opponent, she’s able to gain the upper hand for a while because she has a strategy (punch first, aim for the throat) that helps her keep her cool. A simulation makes her believe that she’s drowning in a tank of water; she reminds herself that it’s just pretend, taps the glass with her finger and breaks free. Thanks to what is effectively a gonzo version of immersion therapy, Tris learns to separate real threats from fake ones, and to think clearly in the presence of danger rather than panicking.

Unlike Ripley, Buffy and Katniss, Tris isn’t a natural-born heroine. Not only does she have to train herself to work through fear, she also lacks a consistent instinct to protect others. Early in the film, she nearly cruises by an elderly woman who’s taken a spill until her brother makes her stop to help. When her friend Christina is punished for some minor infraction by being forced to hang over a chasm, Tris doesn’t try to intervene. Her growing courage and confidence correlates directly with her ability to act selflessly—a link that makes perfect sense, as most people require a certain level of confidence before they can summon the wherewithal to stand up for others.

There are plenty of valid criticisms against Divergent—its bypassing of important race and gender issues, its problematic representation of sexual assault, its uncritical championing of capitalist-style individualism. But there is something of value in the way that both the books and the film position bravery as something that’s possible to learn and bystander apathy as a problem that can be overcome.

Most of Tris’s worst fears–maybe most of most people’s fears–boil down to feeling helpless and out of control. She gains courage by realizing that she always has options. If everyone has to jump down the hole anyway, she might as well jump first. If she’s going to have knives whizzing past her ears, why not play it cool? It’s all good preparation for the harder choices she’ll confront once she leaves the Dauntless home base.

Watching Tris, it feels possible to ward off paralysis. In the most striking of her fear landscape simulations, she’s getting attacked by a murder of crows. The crows are definitely winning. Tris falls face-down beside a puddle and prepares to get pecked to oblivion. Then she remembers: maybe she can make the puddle a portal? She’s always got some kind of move. Tris doesn’t hesitate: she rolls into the puddle and dives right through.

Related links:

The Erasure of Violence from the Hunger Games

How to Be Awesome Like Katniss Everdeen

An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

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