THAT Scene in Divergent
This is not a movie review, but I am going to discuss one particular scene in the movie. So, if you haven’t seen the movie, be forewarned.
In the book Divergent, Tris joins a faction that valued bravery and fearlessness – Dauntless. As part of the second stage of her training she is forced to go into her subconscious and face her darkest fears. In the book, one of her fears is a fear of intimacy. This fear stems in part from the fact that she has grown up in a family – in a faction even – that is not overly expressive (which was changed some in the movie as we see her parents hug her and hold hands). It also stems, in part, from her own knowledge of her inexperience with relationships and the fact that she has been told that she is Divergent, a trait that puts her in great personal danger, and so she is guarded and trying to figure out who she can trust.
In the movie, this fear is changed drastically as we see Four sexually assault Tris. The scene begins with them kissing, then he tries to remove her shirt and she says “no”. He continues and the two end up on a bed. Tris then kicks him in the groin and hits him, thus ending the attack. She “wakes up” from the scene and is applauded by the audience. She looks at Four, embarrassed, and says “please tell me you didn’t see that.” And then she realizes the fear test isn’t over as she is confronted with one more situation.
There has been a lot of online discussion about this scene and I recommend that you read these posts about the topic linked on this Tumblr post: http://svyalitchat.tumblr.com/post/80504322821/posts-about-rape-culture-in-the-divergent-movie
This scene is problematic primarily because it didn’t even need to be in the movie. At all. It has been suggested that this is how the movie producers were able to communicate “fear of intimacy” on the screen. Except, intimacy is about more than sex. And fear of intimacy is NOT the same thing as a fear of sexual assault. It is dangerous and lazy to equate intimacy with sex. And such a casual and unnecessary inclusion of sexual violence is, in itself, problematic. It also changes how the character of Tris is portrayed on screen and what audiences are supposed to know about her through her fear landscape.
There has been a lot of good, important conversation about this scene online. I have been a part of some of that conversation and I’m growing concerned that even our conversation about the scene is a problem. I think we’re talking about it all wrong.
The first post I saw suggested this:
“Divergent marks the first time I have ever seen a teenage girl articulate, in no uncertain terms, that her body belongs to her. That she gets to decide who touches it, and how, and when. That her yes and her no are final, and unambiguous, and worthy of respect.” – from Medium.com
This post discusses how refreshing and empowering it was to a see a sexual assault on screen and see Tris fighting back and stopping the attack. And I agree, this can be a powerful and empowering message. Girls need to know that they can fight back, that they have a RIGHT to fight back. Time and time again I have scene a girl be raped on screen and I did think it was so very important that, for once, the girl fought back and was able to stop an attack. I took my 11-year-old daughter to see this movie and as we left the theater and she was talking about it, one of the things that she mentioned was that if a guy ever tried to kiss her against her will she would fight.
Then Melissa at YA Book Shelf wrote a series of thoughtful posts on this scene, which I highly recommend you read (linked after the quote):
“If you accept that it may, indeed, instil a fear of sexual assault in teen girls, then one could further argue that it actually maintains the status quo of rape culture in Western societies rather than does away with it as Lalonde argues. Why? Well, quite frankly, because rape culture teaches young girls how not to be raped, rather than teaching young boys not to rape. While the movie may deter young boys from attempting to sexually assault young girls, if only to avoid a powerful kick to the groin, it also, simultaneously, teaches young girls that they have to do everything they can to avoid being raped, from screaming and saying “no” to hitting or kicking their assailant if and when he doesn’t listen or respect them, like the real Four does.” – from YA Book Shelf’s 3 Part Series on the Scene and Why it Matters (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)
Even on Twitter there has been some good discussion of this scene:
As you see, others have suggested that this scene is not empowering but damaging because it reinforces the cultural tendency to victim blaming by suggesting that “See, if a girl really didn’t want it she would FIGHT.” And this too is a legitimate concern. Because what if my daughter found herself in this type of situation and then found that she couldn’t fight, either out of fear or lack of strength? What then would she think of herself and what had happened to her?
But here’s the real problem with this conversation: IT IS STILL FOCUSED ON THE VICTIM. As we sit here and discuss whether or not the scene is an issue because of how the victim does or doesn’t respond in the scene, we are reinforcing the cultural norm that we have any right to expect any type of behavior at all from a victim. The truth is, until you are in this position, you have no idea how you will respond. And if you are being raped, your response DOES NOT MATTER. Whether you fight back or don’t fight back, the victim is never responsible for the fact that they are being raped or sexually assaulted. This conversation is so dangerous because it continues to, incorrectly, put the focus of discussions on sexual assaults on the behavior of the victims. We don’t need to be teaching our girls (and in many cases boys) to fight back, we need to be telling out boys (and in many cases girls), NOT TO RAPE.
This entire scene is not only unnecessary and story changing in its interpretation, but it is damaging because it reinforces a wide variety of negative cultural norms. Our response should not be to focus on the actions of Tris, but to focus the discussion on whether or not this scene enhances the story in any meaningful way – and it does not. There is nothing about this scene that enhances or reveals important information to the story or the characters, and there is nothing in this scene that enhances our culture and the way we view and treat women or the discussion of sexual violence – especially if we are going to continue to focus on Tris’ reaction. By focusing on Tris’ reaction we are, in fact, continuing to negatively contribute to this cultural discussion.
Every time we talk about sexual violence we must always steer the conversation back on track to the real heart of the matter: the crime and not the victim. We must not allow the talking points continue to be about the actions of a victim preceding or in the midst of the attack. The importance of this scene is not whether or not Tris fights back; no, the important thing to be discussing about this scene is how we continue to halfheartedly and without real thought use moments of sexual violence for storytelling and entertainment and how this use continues to create a culture that is willing to so easily glance over those moments on screen and in real life.
Whether or not Tris fights back is not the problem, but the fact that the scene was included at all is.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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