From Gone with the Wind to A Walk to Remember (or even The Virgin Daughters), women in film are all too often portrayed as safeguarding their precious virginity against an army of lustful young men, with little discussion of what sex means emotionally and physically for both parties. It's a common theme and a boring one. So, in a way, it's heartening that Divergent tried to take on sexuality, consent, and female empowerment all in one scene — that's quite a can of worms for a film with such sweeping reach. But, it ended up leaving the audience feeling a mixture of incredulity and discomfort and then literally laughing out loud. So, what made this moment feel both phony and disturbingly out of place?
The scene in question features heroine Tris experiencing attempted rape at the hands of her boyfriend, Four, during a mental simulation in which she's forced to face her worst fear. It's unique to the script, but not entirely without some grounding in the text. Tris, who comes from the post-apocalyptic faction that raises children with such extreme selflessness that they are forbidden to look in the mirror for too long, has a fear of intimacy. She's afraid of wanting someone or something, wary of emotional closeness and desire for pleasure of any kind — that's not necessarily connected to sex.
The book also includes an attack on Tris by several masked men with clearly sexual undertones that aren't present in the movie. Without that, the only other mention of her fear of intimacy is her interruption of a sunset makeout sesh with, "I don't want to go too fast." That, in particular, had viewers (at least the cynical, NYC kind) cracking up.
Because the film provides next to no context for Tris' fear, the rape scene — beyond just being a gratuitous add-on — does a disservice both to our understanding of what constitutes rape, and how female sexuality is depicted in media. (Before you remind us that movies don't need to be lessons for young people, consider that kids still in middle school made up a sizable chunk of ticket sales.)
It's not that there's something wrong with depicting a young woman fighting back against an aggressor, or making decisions about her own sexuality. Those are good things, and viewers of all ages could benefit from more filmmakers daring to go there.
Tris voicing her reticence to have sex could've been a really progressive model for young couples to talk about taking that step. Instead, we get a breathless, Sandra Dee moment, and her hesitation is somehow expanded into a deeply rooted fear of rape. Aside from being a bizarre leap in the plot, this leaves no middle ground between abstinence and rape. It takes an equal, respectful partnership and forces it into a painfully retro vision of gender identity in which the girl is afraid, and the boy is predatory — a stereotype that doesn't give nearly enough credit to young girls' understanding of their own developing sexuality.
It would make sense that a 16-year-old Tris wants to approach sex cautiously in her first relationship, especially since the world is basically about to explode into a million crazy pieces. In the book, both characters are nervous, they're both virgins, and they both want each other. In the film, Four becomes needlessly aggressive. This addition is made even more awkward by the well-cast chemistry between Shailene Woodley and Theo James. We enjoy watching them make out, and can't deny the intensity of their smooches. Given that, Tris' statement that she doesn't want to go too fast feels shoe-horned in. It's fine in principle. It's not fine when the only followup scene involves rape, effectively showing physical violence to be a logical reaction to her reluctance. Everything else we know about these characters — both in the book and the movie — suggests that they are on on the same level, approaching sex with a realistic combination of nervousness and longing.
It's not exactly a surprise that a YA movie's attempt at depicting the complexities of sexuality, female empowerment, and sexual assault would be so fumbling. In fact, it's pretty standard for the genre. Twilight did it in a particularly egregious way, literally conflating premarital sex with the loss of basic humanity. In that iteration, Edward's the breathless, demure one — Bella is interested in sex, but he's protecting her from it, because she is a delicate flower and thus in need of his sage male guidance.
As we've seen with The Hunger Games before, literature and films for young adults have the potential to be both massively influential and truly worthwhile for a variety of viewers. Divergent makes a strong statement about self-actualization and identity, but it would've differentiated itself hugely from competitors by addressing sexuality in an equally progressive way. Because, let's face it, in a post-apocalyptic world that throws hundreds of teenagers together in largely unsupervised, co-ed dormitories, it's going to come up sooner or later.