Divergent’s strength and virtue inconclusive

Divergent is thrilling, the acting good, and the storyline palatable. But it also sends mixed messages about self-defense to its target audience of teenage girls.

Until two days ago, I’d never heard of the book or its subsequent film. But, early spring being notorious for its lack of worthwhile films, I figured it was either this or The Muppets to help celebrate my niece’s 14th birthday. This book is wildly popular at her school, so Friday night, at 7:45, Grace and I were sitting second row left of what looked to be a sold-out showing.

Some spoilers ahead:

In a dystopian future, teenage Tris is about to choose which faction of society (the brave, the selfless, the intelligent, the kind, or the honest) best represents her. But like in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” a personality test reveals she doesn’t belong to any preset faction: She is divergent. Like a wobbly dresser drawer, she can fit a slot, but not very well, and she can’t easily be controlled. She chooses the brave and begins training with them before realizing she lacks what they consider to be the right kind of strength to succeed in that faction.

The movie portrays a strong girl who fights for what she wants and what she believes, despite the literal and emotional beating she takes from everyone around her. They want her to follow her heart, simultaneously telling her she isn’t good enough wherever she is (among the selfless who raised her or the brave she has chosen.) That’s no reflection on her — almost no one in this story seems good enough for what they consider to be their purpose. And that’s life, you know? Even the best of us have faults. That’s important to remember.

But what I’ve come to dislike is that even with months of brutal training, our heroine Tris remains one of the worst-rated fighters in her freshman class of warriors. It’s not like I want her to be a superhero — I just wish the movie could have shown her capable of doing anything other than shooting people or throwing knives.

As Grace and I returned to our car in a dark, near-deserted parking garage, she told me if she were in the story, she would have chosen the brave too. “I would love to be able to defend myself,” she said. I told her I had already learned one of the escape moves the movie portrays, and she was surprised. “When did you take a class?” In college, I said — two of them. And two with a local police department. And one at a martial arts school. But the first was in high school.

What bothers me about the movie isn’t that Tris isn’t the best, or that she doesn’t have a real-world inherent skill like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or practiced skill like Katniss in The Hunger Games. It’s that no matter how good she gets — no matter how much she learns — it’s never enough. Everyone she fights is black-belt level. Even the newbies.

Granted, she is divergent — she can’t be cataloged like most of the others can — but self-defense isn’t about strength, it’s about knowledge and being aware of one’s environment. It shouldn’t matter that she isn’t predisposed to being a warrior. I mean, what kind of message does it send that this girl who trains for months in mixed martial arts can’t ever win a fight? That she is, in fact, in danger of being thrown out of her faction because of how bad she is at defending herself?

Still I guess most girls will come away from this movie encouraged to become strong like Tris, confident in knowing they’ll never have to face the sort of ruthless warriors the movie stocks. And anything that makes girls want to become stronger and braver is a good thing. I just wish movies and TV shows wouldn’t make self-defense skills so mysterious or seemingly unachievable.

Then no girl would ever have to say, “I wish I had the ability to defend myself.”


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