Warning for movie spoilers and potentially triggering discussion of rape and sexual assault.
After I settled into my seat to watch an opening night screening of Divergent, a funny thing happened.
The wrong movie began to play.
No, really. Due to what I can only assume was human error, I was treated, along with a theatre largely full of young teenage girls, to the first thirty seconds of 300: Rise of an Empire 3D.
Let me tell you what happens in those thirty seconds: a muscled, armoured man rides, astride a horse, over a pile of bodies. A topless woman is plucked from this pile by two other muscled, armoured men, who proceed, for no apparent reason, to shake her vigorously. Her breasts wobble. She screams.
Nothing puts me in the mood for murder quite like witnessing this kind of blatant, male gaze-y glorification of sexual assault.
Even after the screen cut to black, and the correct film began to play, I was pissed. Pissed that I had been forced to watch a sexual assault. Pissed that the young girls in the theatre with me had been forced to watch. Pissed that 300: Rise of an Empire 3D is expected to gross $40 million this weekend.
But then, another funny thing happened: I witnessed a ferocious, determined three hour-long middle finger to rape culture. A hearty antidote to those thirty seconds of 300. A subversion and deconstruction of every exploitative, sexist action blockbuster ever made.
Divergent, at its heart, is about enthusiastic consent. The premise is pretty simple: in post-apocalyptic Chicago, kids select a career path when they turn sixteen. There are five factions to choose from, each with its own values.
Our protagonist, Tris, is a plucky sixteen-year-old born in the Abnegation faction, where selflessness reigns supreme. Her coming-of-age aptitude test fails to slot her conclusively into one category — a terrifying, isolating prospect in this world — and she finds herself free to choose any faction.
She picks Dauntless: a crowd of fearless (and heavily tattooed) cavaliers tasked with defending the city. From there, it’s off to boot camp, and boot camp has one goal: to eradicate fear in Dauntless newbies.
Trainees are placed in a variety of frightening simulated scenarios, and tasked with finding resourceful ways to protect themselves. They are suspended from great heights, trapped in aquariums that rapidly fill to the brim with water, and thrown into great, open fields full of flame. Every trainee’s scenarios are different, depending on their unique fears.
Tris has one especially unique fear, and it’s an important one: fear of sexual assault.
Every woman knows Tris’s terror, knows the horror of walking home late at night, clutching keys like knives between her fingers. Every woman lives with the looming fear that her refusal, her no, won’t be taken seriously.
Now, Tris never suffers any ill treatment at the hands of Four, her Dauntless beau. After they kiss for the first time, she pulls back, whispering, “I don’t want to go too fast.”
He listens to her no. He respects it.
In a media culture where — well, where movies like 300: Rise of an Empire 3D make millions of dollars — this in and of itself is nothing short of revolutionary.
Teenage girls all around the world are going to witness Tris insisting on consent, and teenage boys are going to witness Four listening to her.
In a later scene, Tris is immersed in the fear simulator, and she finds herself in an artificial version of Four’s bedroom. An artificial Four appears. He kisses her. She kisses back. He touches her. She tries to push him away.
“No,” she says, plainly.
He lunges, pinning her to the mattress. Her sentences turn to screams, to shouted no, no, no’s, and her fists begin to fly. She is aggressive. She is fierce. She forces him off with one final, decisive kick, and lies back, gasping.
Then the dream ends, and she awakes to a crowd of exam proctors applauding her. Cheering her on. Patting her on the back. Telling her how brave and smart and strong she is. Telling her that she did exactly the right thing. That she’s a model for the other trainees.
Have you ever seen anything like this? Have you ever seen a teenage girl fight off a rapist on camera, let alone be congratulated for it?
I wept. Openly. Vocally. Because I had been there, in that bedroom, with someone I liked, and I had been too afraid to hit back. Too afraid to say no. Because my best friend once found herself in that bedroom, after a fun night out went horribly, terribly wrong. Because my mother spent her entire childhood in that bedroom, living in constant fear, and she still, to this day, has not reported her abuser.
There is another, earlier, pivotal scene, where a group of boys in Tris’s faction collude in an attempt to beat her up. Their plan is foiled before they can do any serious harm, and one of the boys approaches Tris the next morning, his face sombre, begging for forgiveness.
Tris clears her throat. She stands. Tears well in her eyes.
“If you ever touch me again,” she says, “I will kill you.”
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.
Divergent is important.
I welcome discussion and debate. I do not welcome abuse, bullying, or harassment. I do not condone use of this piece to silence survivors of sexual assault who feel differently about the scenes I’ve discussed or take issue with my analysis.
Please respect that this is the first time I have ever publicly discussed being sexually assaulted. I did not expect this article to garner half a million hits in one weekend. The tremendous amount of attention and feedback that this piece has received, while welcome, is very overwhelming.
Thank you for your support.