This post is the 2nd in a 3 part series, called Rape Culture in the Divergent Movie: Here’s Why It Matters. Click here if you missed Part 1.
Warning spoilers and potentially triggering discussion of rape and sexual assault.
If the movie ended with their first kissing scene or others like it, which depict a healthy relationship between Tris and Four, then I’d be happy. However, this desirable situation doesn’t happen. Instead, Beth Lalonde singles out one of Tris’ fears as it’s depicted in the Divergent movie during her final initiation test, a fear that is unique to her: “Tris has one especially unique fear, and it’s an important one: fear of sexual assault.” At the moment when Lalonde unveiled Tris’ unique fear, I knew she was basing her entire argument on the movie version of events and that, most likely, she hadn’t read Veronica Roth’s novel first. If she had read the books, she would know that the novel-version of Tris is afraid of intimacy, or sex, with Four, not being sexually assaulted, which is – admittedly – a huge difference. Leaving aside the fact that the novel doesn’t depict an attempted rape scene during Tris’ fear landscape for now, it’s worth noting how Tris resists the sexual assault scene as her “sentences turn to screams, to shouted no, no, no’s, and her fists began to fly” after Four touches and pins her to the mattress in a way that isn’t consensual and then, not only is she described as “aggressive” and “fierce,” but also she finally “forces him off with one final, decisive kick[.]” It’s great that Tris is able to use her intellect and combat training to end the sexual violence, but the way its received by her community is even more important to Lalonde because it has never been treated in the same way in film before:
Then the dream ends, and she wakes to a crowd of exam proctors applauding her. Cheering her on. Patting her on the back. Telling her how brave and smart and strong she is. Telling her that she did exactly the right thing. That she’s a model for the other trainees.
Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you ever seen a teenage girl fight off a rapist on camera, let alone be congratulated for it?
Some film viewers, like Lalonde, will no doubt applaud the decision by Neil Burger – Divergent’s director – to show Tris overcome her fear of being raped, and if that were the whole story, then it would be impossible to disagree with her because sexual assault is something that teens experience. In fact, researchers from the CAMH’s Centre for Prevention Science found that “10% of males and 27% of females” in the 11th grade admitted to “being pressured into doing something sexual that they did not want to.” However, what Lalonde doesn’t understand, presumably because she hasn’t read Roth’s novels, and what fans of the books are intimately aware of is that Tris’ fear wasn’t originally of sexual assault, but rather of any type of sexual intimacy.
By changing the heroine’s fear about sex in the movie, has Burger and the film team rewritten the Divergent book, Tris’ character, and Tris’ relationship with Four in a positive or negative way? To answer this question, first we need to ask ourselves why the filmmakers made the change in the first place. Perhaps they assumed that more teens are having sexual intercourse at earlier ages, and thus, it would be unlikely that they were afraid of sexual intimacy. However, the percentages of Canadian youth in the 15 to 17 and 18 to 19 year-old age range who reported ever having sexual intercourse remained fairly stable, and actually decreased slightly, from 1996/1997 to 2009/2010, and thus, negates this argument. Perhaps, then, it’s more likely that the filmmakers were hoping to reach a wider audience than that of teens alone, including those who may have forgotten what it’s like to be slightly or very afraid of sexual intimacy, but still understand what it’s like to be afraid of being sexually assaulted. If that’s so, then we certainly can’t fault them for the desire to turn a profit from the Divergent movie franchise, even if it’s only because we’re interested in seeing the rest of the trilogy on the big screen.
If the filmmakers changed Tris’ fear to grab and maintain the interest of a wider audience, then it’s worth considering that this scene may still reflect the status quo, even though Tris stops the assault with a well-placed kick in her fear simulation. What about the fact that Tris was “congratulated” for fighting off the unwanted advances of a fear-simulated Four? Doesn’t that negate rape culture as Lalonde argues? Possibly. It would certainly helps for all the reasons that Lalonde outlines. However, she isn’t taking the whole story into account because Tris is applauded for her efforts while she is still under simulation, not after “the dream ends” as Lalonde’s article suggests. Yes, it seems that she has woken up from the simulation because Four and Jeanine come over and congratulate her, but it is really part of the simulation of her greatest fear. In this last fear, Tris is forced by Jeanine to execute her parents and her brother Caleb to prove her loyalty to her chosen faction over loyalty to her blood relatives, or “faction over blood” as the initiates are consistently reminded, and we can tell it is a simulation for two reasons:
- Because Caleb is wearing the clothes of the Abnegation, even though both Tris and the movie’s audience knows that he switched to Erudite during the choosing ceremony.
- Because Tris’ parents and Caleb are shown to be alive later in both the book and the movie, despite the fact that Tris fires the gun at one of them before her final simulation test really ends.
Since Tris is applauded for stopping the attempted rape while still under simulation, it is really just her subconscious congratulating her, not the community as Lalonde suggests. Thus, the Divergent movie doesn’t revolutionize anything when it shows Tris fighting off her attacker, unless the fact that she is able to defeat the simulated-version of Four is enough to be defined as “revolutionary.” Moreover, whereas the novel emphasizes that Four is always someone Tris can trust, even when she’s a little nervous or afraid about taking their relationship further than kissing, the movie-version of this simulation also suggests that Four may be someone who she can’t trust, who could always commit an act of sexual violence against her, even though he has already respected her wishes once when she told him, “I don’t want to go too fast,” and has never suggested that he would really behave otherwise in their real interactions.
Continue to Part 3 of the Rape Culture In The Divergent Movie blog series now.