On Divergent, Sex, and Assault

Book cover: Divergent by Veronica RothSpoilers & trigger warning after the jump.

Beatrice Prior lives in a dystopian Chicago that has been split into five factions based on different virtues: Abnegation, which focuses on selflessness; Erudite, which focuses on intelligence; Dauntless, which focuses on bravery; Candor, which focuses on honesty; and Amity, which focuses on peacefulness. Children are raised within their parents’ factions, and every year, all sixteen-year-olds go through a special test  to see which faction they belong to. They then have a choosing ceremony to pick which faction they’d like to be in, regardless of their test results. Most stay with their families, but all go through a trial period; if they don’t make it, they’re kicked out and become factionless, doomed to a life of homelessness and poverty.

Beatrice and her brother are both participating in the choosing ceremony this year. They’re Abnegation, and their parents work in government. At the moment, Abnegation is at odds with Erudite; Erudite has been spreading rumors about Abnegation in an attempt to take more control of the government. It’s more important than ever for Abnegation to stick together. Beatrice has always felt like she never fully fit in with Abnegation, but the thought of changing factions and leaving her family forever pains her. Her test she and her brother take the day before the ceremony are supposed to make everything clear, but they only confuse her even more.

*Spoilers and trigger warning beyond this point.*

I had meant to read Divergent before seeing the movie, but I ended up seeing the movie and reading the book immediately after. A ton of book bloggers have already written about Divergent so I’ll spare you another review. Instead, I want to do something I rarely do: compare the book to the movie. The movie was pretty faithful to the book except in one area: it’s handling of sex and sexual assault.

Beatrice’s test results revealed that she is Divergent: she possesses several different virtues including Abnegation, and her mind doesn’t work in one set direction. People who are marked Divergent are harder to control, and at the moment, Erudite is secretly hunting them down. Beatrice is told to just choose Abnegation and keep her head down, but she ends up leaving her family for Dauntless and is immediately to put to the test both physically and mentally. She renames herself Tris, and determined to make the cut into Dauntless.

One of the Dauntless leaders, Four, takes a liking to Tris. He’s cold towards most people, but the two of them bond; it turns out that he was also once Abnegation. And here’s where the changes in the movie angered me (except since I saw the movie first, I was just confused, then angered in retrospect). In addition to passing tests of physical endurance, Dauntless trainees must also face their fears; they’re given a serum that makes them hallucinate their deepest fears, and they have to find a way to control the circumstances of their hallucinations while Dauntless leaders watch (they have the ability to see everything that’s happening inside the trainees’ minds).

Tris doesn’t fully realize it yet, but one of her biggest fears is intimacy. Being raised in Abnegation meant being raised with extreme modesty, and her time as a Dauntless trainee has only compounded her fear. As her scores on the physical tests get higher, she’s bullied more by a group of trainees who are at risk of not making the cut. At one point, they pull off her towel and mock her body. At another point, when it’s clear that she’s going to make the cut and one of them isn’t, they straight up try to murder her by throwing her into a dangerous chasm. As she struggles against being thrown over the rail, she’s groped and mocked.

Four knows about the bullying and is the one who saves her from being thrown over the rail, but all she tells him about it is that they “touched her,” not in the way he’s thinking, “but…almost.” When it comes to their own relationship, Four understands her nervousness in intimate situations, especially since he was also raised in Abnegation. He respects her boundaries without question and is perfectly willing to take it slow. He has experienced his own traumas in the past, and they are protective of one another.

The day of the big fear test, Dauntless leaders — including Four (whose real name is Tobias, something only Tris knows) — see all of her big fears played out on the big screen:

And then Tobias is standing in front of me.

But I’m not afraid of Tobias. I look over my shoulder. Maybe there’s something behind me that I’m supposed to focus on. But no—behind me is just a four-poster bed.

A bed? … My fear is being with him. I have been wary of affection all my life, but I didn’t know how deep that wariness went.

But this obstacle doesn’t feel the same as the others. It is a different kind of fear—nervous panic rather than blind terror. … This is the fear I have no solutions for—a boy I like, who wants to…have sex with me?

Simulation Tobias kisses my neck.

I try to think. I have to face the fear. I have to take control of the situation and find a way to make it less frightening.

I look Simulation Tobias in the eye and say sternly, “I am not going to sleep with you in a hallucination. Okay?”

Then I grab him by his shoulders and turn us around, pushing him against the bedpost. I feel something other than fear—a prickle in my stomach, a bubble of laughter. I press against him and kiss him, my hands wrapping around his arms. He feels strong. He feels…good.

And he’s gone.

I laugh into my hand until my face gets hot. I must be the only initiate with this fear.

It’s a very different scenario from what happens in the movie. Her fear of intimacy has been established, as has Tobias’s respect of her boundaries. But in her hallucination, Tobias inexplicably keeps pressuring her to go further while she keeps pushing him away and telling him to stop. In the movie, Simulation Tobias is menacing and predatory. He physically tries to overtake her, something that he has never tried to to in all of his real-life interactions with Tris. The only way to “win” that hallucination is for her to fight him off. The film conflated nervous fear of first-time sexual intimacy and the sheer terror of rape, two completely different things.

What’s worse is that it was set up to get the same audience reaction as the book: giggling at how mortifying it was that other people, including Tobias, saw everything. But there’s a world of difference between “Ha ha, how embarrassing! Everyone saw her freak out about being with her boyfriend for the first time!” and “Ha ha, how embarrassing! Everyone saw her freak out about her boyfriend turning out to be a rapist!” What the hell kind of screwed up messaging is that? Why did a healthy fear in a movie aimed at teens have to get Hollywood-morphed into a damn rape scene that had nothing to do with rest of the book?

Thoughts?

Divergent was released in 2011 by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. The film adaptation was released in 2014.

Book Blogs Search Engine | Goodreads
I read it as a(n): eBook
Source: Library
Pages: 487

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5 comments

  1. Gabriella

    YES!!! So glad you did this review. I saw Divergent in theaters with my girlfriend and we were horrified at that scene. It was so bizarre – we had to laugh out of discomfort and disbelief because it was placed so indelicately and without respect for the seriousness of sexual assault! Essentially, it was framed as: her fears are birds, fire, being trapped underwater, and then BEING ASSAULTED. It was gauche at best to present an assault on equal footing with fears of birds flying at you, extremely insensitive and reductive at worst. You are so, so right that the film presented assault and fears of intimacy as the same thing. We were so taken aback that we were left to wonder if Divergent was written to push ideas of “purity” on young people by presenting any intimacy as ultimately leading to dangerous behaviors and attacks on personal safety and well-being. Ugh. Once again, props for putting this out there. Glad we weren’t alone!

  2. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    This is a great post. I remember being upset about this scene in the movie… a fear of intimacy is not the same as a fear of assault. Equating them minimizes both fears and doesn’t add to the growth that Tris and Four have in their relationship throughout the series. It was frustrating.

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