Ah! Summertime! The time when the school semester is over and a person gets to actually choose what books they read. On my list for summer 2014 is the “Divergent” trilogy and I just recently finished the second in the series, Insurgent. (For the record, I haven’t read any of Allegiant nor have I seen the film adaptation of Divergent).
The “Divergent” trilogy sits amongst a collection of young adult science fiction novels (like “The Hunger Games” and “The Mortal Instruments,” for example) that recognizes the importance (and marketability) of young female heroines. However, on the feminist blogosphere at least, fan-girling over the likes of Tris (“Divergent”) and Katniss (“The Hunger Games”) hasn’t come without careful analysis of what’s missing from these series. While the predominately male-dominated world of science fiction has made space for these ladies, we are a still a far way off anything resembling fair representation. Namely, Tris and Katniss are able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, and white (whiteness is debatable for Katniss, but the movie adaptation portrays her as so). Max Thorton from Bitch Flicks points out that
“Just because straight white pretty cis girls are beginning to be represented in specific (or rather, in one specific niche that is still derided in male-dominated geek culture), we can’t assume that this means the trend will continue in the right direction without some very real, tireless, and vocal work on the part of us consumers.”
Badass lady heroines like Katniss and Tris are absolutely a step in the right direction. But until we are also seeing non-white, dis/differently-abled, trans*, and queer girls kicking ass on screen, we still have a long way to go. (More on this here, here, and here).
(Note: my mom read this and immediately thought of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Larsson’s books aren’t really young adult oriented and they’re definitely not science fiction but Lisbeth is such a fantastic queer ((and potentially dis/different-abled)) heroine that I couldn’t not mention her here!)
Maybe that’s one of my favourite things about series like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” I can love them so much while simultaneously critiquing them and using them as a starting point for broader conversations about popular culture. One topic that I’ve been increasingly interested in while reading both Divergent and Insurgent is the development of Tris’ relationship with the story’s central love interest – Four.
Tris and Four’s relationship changed a lot between Divergent and Insurgent. In her review of the film, Bitch Flicks’ Amanda Rodriguez notes that the main character, Tris,
“gets rescued a lot, mostly by her love interest, Four… This made me roll my eyes a lot because I didn’t pay $10 to watch a young woman lead be so dependent on a dude for her survival.”
I’ll admit that this is a frustrating element of the first book and I expect that the movie simplified the damsel-in-distress trope even more for the benefit of Hollywood.
However, all of that changes in Insurgent. Firstly, the theme of “rescuing” stood out in the novel for other reasons. The most important rescue in the book happens when Tris’ nemesis, Peter, rescues her from certain death. Despite their personal hatred for each other, Peter saves Tris in order to pay the debt he owed her for saving his life earlier in the book. This stands out as far more thematically important (to me, at least) than any lifesaving being done between Tris and Four.
Secondly, the resolution of the story’s central conflict depends on Tris going against Four’s wishes and undermining his authority as a community leader. This allows Tris to emerge as a political actor in her own right, separate from Four and many of the other characters. Not to mention, it is her best friend, Christina, with whom Tris ends up saving the day which equals a lot of awesome girl power.
What I liked most about the way Roth developed Tris’ decision to undermine Four was how explicitly she allows the reader to see Four attempting to control Tris, and Tris directly defying that control. More than once, Tris is determined to put herself in harm’s way for the good of her allies and Four tries to deter her through guilt. He uses their relationship as a means of control by telling her that “if you do that again, you and I are done.” (page 260) Eventually, he even puts the blame for himself being in danger on her by saying, “You die, I die too… I asked you not to do this. You made your decision. These are the repercussions.” (page 338)
It wasn’t a side of Four that I was a huge fan of. But what I did appreciate was the way that Tris ultimately responds. She calls him on using the fate of their relationship as a way to control her at the end of the novel:
“You tell me you love me, you trust me, you think I’m more perceptive than the average person. And the first second that belief in my perceptiveness, that trust, that love is put to the test, it all falls apart…. So you must have lied when you told me all those things… you must have, because I can’t believe your love is really that feeble.” (page 503)
In the end, it is Tris’ belief in herself that triumphs and that is the reason that her and her allies end up being successful. My favourite line in the whole novel is when Tris says to Four: “I am exactly who you think I am” (page 503).
This side of Tris is amazing. It’s not just her determination to protect her family and her community that I so admire, but her fierce trust in herself. Despite whatever tired romantic tropes get dredged up in Divergent, Tris and Four’s relationship in Insurgent carries one message to the girls and young women who are reading: Boys are awesome and fun. However, as soon as they stand in the way of our goals, our sense of self, and our ability to be agents in our own right? Well, then they can fuck right off.
This is something that I enjoyed about Insurgent a lot. However, I have to ask myself why it is that Tris gets to be the feminist heroine and why her relationship with Four can be highlighted in exciting ways. Tris gets to be read as “non-traditional” because she’s a teenage girl with qualities like bravery and power that typically aren’t associated with girls in pop culture. Four can be a “non-traditional” love interest because he admires Tris for qualities like strength and determination as opposed to beauty. But Tris and Four are still traditional enough. They’re still white, cis, straight, and able-bodied. It is only because they didn’t rock the boat too much that they were allowed to achieve the ranks of mainstream popularity.
If you read Insurgent you might have noticed Lynn admitting to being in love with Marlene (another woman). But, this is as Marlene is dying. As a consequence the reader’s awareness of Lynn and Marlene’s romantic relationship ends as quickly as it began. That it is Tris and Four’s relationship that I focused on in this post, and not Lynn and Marlene’s, speaks volumes to where power structures continue to play an enormous role in the production of popular culture. We’re going to need to rock the boat a lot harder if we want that to change.