Warning: Spoilers Ahead
My fiance asked me recently if I thought my test result would be Divergent were I to undergo the faction test from Veronica Roth’s book.
“Of course I would! Everyone would,” I said, “No one is as simplistic as the faction system makes them out to be.”
And that’s exactly the point of the book, in my opinion. When I saw the movie it resonated with me deeply, making me wonder what it was that kept me coming back for more. I’ve watched the movie three times, and read the first book for the first time, over the course of two weeks and this is what I’ve concluded:
Divergent‘s factions are built upon supposed innate differences between people. Yet as the narrative unfolds we see that things are not as neat and tidy as they seem. The organization of people into factions shows how society can exacerbate supposed “innate differences” between individuals to disastrous ends. We gradually unravel the weaknesses of the faction system and watch as it implodes upon itself.
If gender conflict or oppression exists in Veronica Roth’s world, I did not find it – at least not in book one or movie one! I found it incredibly refreshing to read a story that does not default itself to the same-old same-old sexist society (because it’s historically accurate! /s/) yet still addresses the fundamental problem of stereotypes. By creating a new brand of “stereotypical culture roles” using the faction system, it is easier for the message of how bad they are to come across. Much easier than trying to address the actual “stereotypical gender roles” insisted upon in our society. With a skilled hand, Veronica Roth has introduced the idea of socially constructed roles, and how detrimental they are, in a way that is entertaining.
Beatrice, or Tris, “fails” the faction test because she does not fall clearly into one of the categories. Instead she falls into several of them to varying degrees. In the beginning of the book Tris is still living in the Abnegation faction where she was born and raised. In Abnegation the forgetting of the self is of the utmost importance. Selflessness, humility, nonaggression, vegetarianism, and compassion are the ideals by which Abnegation faction members live. In other words, Abnegation by another name is our stereotypical understanding of the nature of femininity. And it chafes Beatrice as it chafes so many women in American society, past and present. Beatrice isn’t as selfless as she’s supposed to be. She doesn’t want to have to take care of everyone else all of the time. She’s selfish. And that’s actually a pretty healthy thing to be sometimes.
Instead of staying in Abnegation like she is told to do by her tester, Beatrice chooses the Dauntless faction. Dauntless are brave, strong, courageous, loud, fast, allowed to eat meat, and even considered dangerous. Dauntless by another name is our stereotypical understanding of the nature of masculinity. You could as easily say “Dauntless will be Dauntless” as say “boys will be boys.” And it fascinates Beatrice because it represents the opposite of everything she has been raised to be.
She wants to be heard. She wants to move her body and to exert power in the physical social sphere. She wants to be brave. She wants to be selfish! She wants to have fun! And in the world of Veronica Roth it is only a matter of which faction you are in that dictates whether you inhabit the “feminine” or “masculine” spaces. Faction association trumps everything else, including family, and including biological sex.
Tris is who we all want to be, we Millennials who are so revolutionary. We want to be the linchpin for change. We want to buck tradition. Yet when we enter the adult working world our surroundings are not so accommodating. We still win or lose by rules that previous generations wrote, much like the Divergent are hunted down in Tris’s world since they are deemed dangerous. The persecution of the nonconforming is a tale as old as time, yet still rings true to readers today.
Tris dares to be both Abnegation and Dauntless, going so far as to have the Abnegation symbol tattooed on her back covertly. A good part of the Tris’s character development revolves around how she comes to understand what Abnegation means to her, and how it is still a a part of her identity. She realizes that Dauntless and Abnegation don’t have to contradict one another, and that they can be complimentary and both reside within one person. To take the message further, “masculinity” and “femininity” are complimentary and can reside within one person without contradiction.
The character of Four takes this idea further. He purposefully and intentionally embraces all the factions and wants to be the best of each of them. He recognizes that as humans we limit ourselves by assigning labels for the sake of social order. Moreover, Four’s development throughout the story goes against the common themes we see in other young adult movies. He is a young man that provides support to Tris, but not once does his presence in the story undermine Tris’s agency and strength.
Yes, he is a love interest, but the love story is not the driving force behind the film. Yes, he does rescue her from being thrown over a cliff’s edge, but Tris is not a damsel in distress. And what’s more, he is vulnerable. He shows his fears AND he shows them willingly. His trust and openness with Tris gives readers a great example of how vulnerability can be a sign of strength, not weakness.
By the end of the story, it is clear that Tris and Four are neither wholly Abnegation nor wholly Dauntless. They are neither wholly feminine or wholly masculine. They are a mix of both, just like all of us are.
We are all Divergent.
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