Feminist Movie Review: Divergent

by | August 31, 2014
filed under Pop Culture

Image of Shailene Woodley as Tris with text "But I will find new habits, new thoughts, new rules. I will become something else. I WILL BECOME DAUNTLESS."One of my “ice-breakers” when I teach art to kids is to get talking to each other is the classic: “Who would win in a fight” question. For years this question was usually limited to male superheroes.

“Who would win in a fight, The Hulk or Superman?”

“Who would win in a fight, Batman or Wolverine?”

“Who would win in a fight, Lex Luthor or The Joker?”

Recently I brought out a brand spanking new variation.

“Who would win in a fight, Katniss from Hunger Games or Tris from Divergent?”

Lively debate ensued with half the class shouting down Katniss because “she can only use a bow and arrow and Tris knows how to fight anyone!”

I was firmly on team Katniss (while also knowing that teams are a false dichotomy) until I sat down and watched Divergent this weekend.

Divergent is adapted from a YA trilogy by Veronica Roth set in an alternate future where people are divided into factions based on personality traits. At the age of sixteen each person takes an aptitude test that tells them which faction they should belong to although they have the option of joining a different faction at a Choosing Ceremony.

Tris Prior is Divergent, which means that she has so many varying personality traits that she could belong to any number of factions. Divergence is a dirty secret Tris must hide in order to survive. She joins the Dauntless faction where she trains to be fighter while uncovering a government conspiracy and falling in love with a sullen older dude.

The cast is loaded with heavy hitting female actors: Ashley Judd as Natalie Prior, Tris’ mother, is a quiet force to be reckoned with. Kate Winslet plays Jeanine Matthews, the most powerful adult in the story and a complicated villain with unclear motives. Zoe Kravitz steals every scene as Tris’ friend and fellow Dauntless member Christina and Maggie Q as Tori Wu, an older Dauntless mentor, is magnetic. Shailene Woodley stars as Tris Prior and holds her own with the rest of the cast, quietly transforming from a nervous Abnegation to an outspoken, confident Dauntless.

Although there is a cliche love subplot in Divergent, it’s not the main focus of the story. This is an action thriller that steadily throws off expectations. As society’s security force Dauntless learn weaponry, martial arts, defensive techniques and a kind of futuristic parkour where they jump on and off moving trains and scale buildings without any safety nets.

As a new member of Dauntless Tris’s first experience in hand to hand combat is with another girl and inwardly I braced for scene after scene of women fighting women but it didn’t happen. Not only are there fight scenes with Tris fighting guys and winning, there are other scenes where she is beaten bloody by guys demonstrating that Tris is on equal footing with members of her faction. Gender norms fall away in a world where “blood before faction” is the most sacred rule.

There are scenes where Tris is saved from danger by guys but there are plenty of scenes where she is the rescuer. As Tris grows more confident in her own physical strength she falls into a leadership role and by the end of the film assumes easy command of a rebel faction.

One scene in particular cements how different this film is from other Strong Female Protagonist stories. At a crucial junction in the plot, Ashley Judd shows up to help her daughter, revealing her own combat training. Mother and daughter then shoot their way out of a treacherous situation together in a riveting action sequence. This is one of the most satisfying mother/daughter scenes I have ever watched. There are a lot of films that explore mother/daughter relationships but this is the time outside of the horror genre that I’ve seen a mother/daughter team-up that was in no way gratuitous.

Having read the trilogy I wasn’t expecting much from the film. The cinematography was decent, the soundtrack was lousy, there were too many soul-baring teenage love moments (I write this fully knowing I am not the intended audience) but the plot moved along at a satisfying clip. It was exactly what I expected of a Hollywood adaptation of a popular book except for this: it’s one of the most feminist films I’ve ever seen.

I will never stop loving Katniss but I have to go with the kids on this one, I’m pretty sure Tris Prior would win in a fight.


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