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I went to see "Divergent" with a friend on opening night, the late show, in a theater with only a handful of other people, which seemed to bode ill for the adaptation of Veronica Roth's hit YA series. This is a year of middle grade and YA adaptations hitting the big screen ("The Giver," "The Fault in Our Stars"), and I confess that I was excited about "Divergent" because there are lots of things that I like about the series and the way it subverts some traditional tropes.
At best, "Divergent" was a mediocre movie, often ruined by absolutely terrible dialogue. There were several scenes where my friend and I burst into guffaws of laughter because the writing was so bad, earning glares from the earnest people in the rest of the theater who apparently weren't bothered by the clunkiness of the lines.
But there was one scene that made me sit bolt upright in my seat, and not with rapt attentiveness: with horror. If you've been following the furore over "Divergent" this weekend, you probably know the scene I'm talking about. It happens when Tris is taking her final test under simulation, and her partner Four threatens her with rape. She fights him off, ending with a quick snap to the nuts that sends Four reeling.
One survivor, Beth Lalonde, wrote passionately about how much that scene meant to her, saying that: "'Divergent' marks the first time I have ever seen a teenage girl articulate, in no uncertain terms, that her body belongs to her."
I felt rather differently. The scheme left me with a knotted stomach and tremors, tempered by a growing rage, and the first thing I did when I got back home was send out a Tweet: "Peeps planning to see Divergent -- be warned that it features a gratuitous rape scene."
Why the difference in our responses?
Well, one, purely from a mechanical level, that scene wasn't in the book. The movie adaptation of "Divergent" highlights a world of violence and fear that actually is more or less in lines with what I read of the culture of the book, but what Tris fears in the text is not rape, but intimacy, which is a very different thing. She comes from Abnegation, a faction that values selflessness and quiet and a sort of mousy existence, where physical affection and contact are infrequent and carefully measured, and she's chosen Dauntless, which is a brash, bold, outgoing, aggressive faction.
Adjusting to the world of Dauntless is sometimes rough for her, and one thing she grapples with textually is sexual intimacy as she's growing older, starting to make choices for herself, and starting to experience attraction. Four is older and, it's implied, more experienced, so at the same time that she values her relationship with him, she's nervous.
Understandably. It's one of the things I deeply love about the book, actually, the interplay of consent between the two characters and the way they negotiate their relationship at a pace that is comfortable for Tris, without Four pushing at her. It depicts a model of a relationship that's much healthier than many of those we see in YA right now. (Four is not, for example, stalking her and hanging out in her bedroom a la Edward.)
Tris, in this context, is an empowered young woman with sexual and physical autonomy. She makes choices about what does and does not happen and at what pace. This is a truly fantastic expression of sexuality.
And in the book, when she goes under simulation, her scene with Four plays out very differently. It's a scene instead of intimacy, one that makes her nervous because she's not sure if she's ready to have sex with him. She needs to be sure in herself and make a choice before she can move on in the simulation, and the scene becomes a striking assertion, again, of autonomy and control. Tris gets to call the shots, not Four.
Instead of being violent and awful, it's both tender and affirmative: Yes, girls, you have the right to love someone, you have the right to be intimate with someone, and you have the right to determine the nature of that intimacy. Your partner doesn't get to dictate how fast or how far you go.
What I saw on screen was a brutal assault, with Four chasing Tris across the room, throwing her on the bed, and Tris desperately fighting back, terror in her eyes. This was not the scene I knew, or the dynamic I knew, and it infuriated me that Hollywood had gone for the cheap shot of turning this into a rape scene to ramp up the tension and make it more titillating. Apparently they didn't think viewers would be excited by a scene of negotiated, respectful consent, so they went for yet another instance of violence against women, because while sex sells, everyone knows that violence sells more.
It was, as I said on Twitter, gratuitous and infuriating, but more than that, it was deeply violating. It was yet another reminder of "model" rapes that you can only get through by fighting back, with Tris being positioned as a heroine because she does fight back, because she can't escape the scene if she doesn't. Other responses to rape, in this framework, are invalid and show that you're not Dauntless enough -- not courageous, not bold, not fit to belong.
While there are many ways to read the scene, my take was that it was a disgusting affirmation of rape culture, not a send-up of how society views rape and teen sexuality. I didn't see what Lalonde saw, which was "...a ferocious, determined three hour-long middle finger to rape culture." What I saw was instead a young woman continuously victimized, and told that failing to fight back would make her a failure: would leave her Factionless, without home, support, or food.
This is not a message I want to be sending to young women. I want young women to know that interdependence and respect are good traits to have. I want young women to know that rape comes in many different forms and that there is no "right" response to it -- that not fighting back doesn't mean you failed in some way, or that you deserved what happened to you.
I wanted young women to watch "Divergent" and see a confident Tris navigating her own sexuality and being an advocate for herself, not a battered, bruised Tris being subjected to a brutal rape for the goal of driving up box office revenues. And I was deeply disappointed that a franchise that is fundamentally about a young woman making courageous, bold choices for herself and her society was cheapened and flattened out in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
I didn't see a film about "enthusiastic consent." But then again, maybe I saw the wrong "Divergent."