March 25, 2014

Hilary Clinton Is Evil, and Other Lessons from #Divergent

Warning! Spoilers ahead!

Last week, I was ridiculously lucky enough to score a pair of tickets to an advance screening of Divergent.

Yes, I know, it's in wide release now and you've probably already seen it. So why bother reviewing it at this point?

Because me and M are STILL arguing over it.

You read that right. My husband and I, who only ever participate in prolonged arguments about the secular v. religious aspects of Christmas, have been arguing for almost a week about a movie.

For those of you unaware, it seems the 20-teens are the decade of the teenaged badass heroine. Which I think is FANTASTIC. And the heroine of Divergent is great. The actress, Shailene Woodley, knocks it out of the park. Generally speaking, when you're watching a movie about a ton of teenagers that involves long, elaborate scenes featuring only ONE actor, and that ONE actor is the teen girl... well... they get pretty insipid.

Not so in Divergent. Shailene Woodley was absolutely captivating. Especially in her solo scenes.

But that's not what M and I have been bickering about. We've been picking at each other over absolutely everything else.

You see, neither of us have read the Divergent books (although you can bet we're going to), but we're both political junkies, and we both love dystopian fantasies.

One of the things we've both always appreciated about dystopias like, say The Hunger Games, is how it plays on current economics. It's a haves versus have nots society. There is no middle class. It's a satire of life pretty much as we're living it now in America- with politicians proposing to cut food subsidies to poor children's families if those children perform poorly in school. Say, because they're hungry. But I digress.

EVERY dystopian fantasy is based on pointing out a flaw or two in the real world and blowing it way out of proportion. The Handmaid's Tale is an excess of religious misogyny, Fahrenheit 451 is an excess of anti-intellectualism, The Hunger Games is an excess of income inequality...

So where is Divergent's theme? What's the bad thing that the heroine is going to fight against?

The Divergent society is divided into five strict castes, with basically no interaction between them. People are lumped together because they're either kind, happy, brave, honest, or smart. and 95% of all people just are whatever they're born into. As teenagers they get one chance, one in their entire lives, to pick a different caste and never see their families again. If you don't have a caste? You get nothing. No job, no food, no home. Nothing.

Sounds kind of like a bad idea, right?

So you have this heroine who is divergent, who is MORE than just one thing. Seems like it's going to be her job to make sure that people are free to BE more than just one thing, right?

Wrong. You see, the smart people? They're bad. They're bad bad bad bad bad. So bad they're going to brainwash the brave people (soldiers) and make them kill the honest people (politicians).

My little abnegation and my little erudite-
both dressed like little amity sprites 
So it's the heroine's job to protect the incredibly segregated society.

Because the strict caste system is good.

So no, this isn't a dystopia, aside from the fact there was a war that trashed Chicago (and let me say, I LOVED watching every shot that included Chicago landmarks), it's a utopian ideal.

Fundamentally, nearly everyone is happy in one single role. Fundamentally, this is a good system.

So says the mechanics of this dystopian universe.

What makes it bad are smart people. Smart people who are to be feared, who are power hungry and paranoid and evil. It's not a cry against anti-intellectualism, it's an anti-intellectual fantasy camp.

To rub a little salt in that wound, the HQ of all the evil bad no-good smart people is the University of Chicago. You know. Obama's school.

And the supervillian of the smarties? She's a thinly veiled Hilary Clinton reference.

There is a lot to like in this movie. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The special effects were SPECTACULAR. The tension was great, it was suspenseful and engaging... but it seemed to me an obvious right wing counterpoint to the left leaning Hunger Games.

Katniss is fighting an oligarchy of both business and government run by the elite, dragged into things against her will.
Tris is fighting FOR a strict caste system, as a volunteer and ring leader.

Katniss lives in a society where the working poor toil in factories and mines with no access to education or social advancement.
Tris lives in a magical society with no manufacturing sector, where people who do nothing but toil all day in the fields are super freakin' happy about it.

The teenagers in Katniss's life who pose the greatest threat are the super militarist kids who buy into the system of the class divide.
The teenagers in Tris's life who pose the greatest threat are the ones who read the newspaper.

Katniss lives in a society full of homeless poor, and sees it as an injustice.
Tris lives in a society where the homeless are cautionary tales, but really no more. They're basically not even human beings.

Katniss thinks the district system is bad and unfair.
Tris thinks the faction system is good and right.

The big crossover is that both of these movies involve teenagers killing each other, and lots of shots of a girl in a leather jacket, running. why are my husband and I fighting about this movie?

For the first time in our relationship, I find myself in the position of telling him to chill out and be moderate. Every few minutes he'll text me with another little detail from the movie, and an explanation of how it's anti-intellectual, anti-woman, or anti-public service. He's nearly panicked over wondering where all the brave children and elderly are (after all, 95% of people are born in their caste, right? And die there.). Every few hours I have to roll my eyes and say, "Dude, not every single shot in the movie is a metaphor for how the Bush family is born to run the United States government forever."

Which is weird for me, as I'm usually the more liberal of the two of us. And also kind of makes me love him even more.

And I keep complaining to him about basic world building. This is Chicago- why is EVERYONE white? And more importantly- WHERE THE HELL ARE THE FACTORIES??? If the only laborers in the entire society are farmers, who's making the guns and unlimited supply of ceramic shooting targets? M keeps telling me to relax, it's just a movie, not every fantasy has to specifically tell you where it gets its toys.

I also have huge problems with the dry, totally forced love story, in which a teacher uses his position of authority to seduce a student. (Doesn't matter if she thinks he's cute- if you're an adult you shouldn't be bringing teenagers to your bed. Period.)

There are so many things about the movie I loved, or wanted to love. I loved Kate Winslet, even if she was portraying bizarro-Clinton. I loved Shailene Woodley, that girl is my new hero, and I can't wait to see her in The Fault In Our Stars. I loved the trippy fear sequences, with nightmare landscapes of my city and gorgeous cinematography dripping with symbolism. I loved the dark aspects of the underbelly of society. I loved the theme of the importance of family despite caste.

I loved the way the pre-release event was handled, everyone in the theater also got a copy of the first six chapters of the book, which is AWESOME. Any movie that encourages people to read is okay by me.

But the climactic action sequence was unbelievable, and you have to shut down your brain during the whole thing, to avoid thinking about the fact that being smart means being evil. And of course, shutting down your brain seems to be what the producers want.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope the next two movies turn the tables on this society, and the brave, kind, AND smart Tris helps take the whole world apart.

Because if you ask me, a society where you're born to be a politician is a bad society. And a society where if you're smart you're also evil is a bad society. And a society where you slave in the fields (or more realistically the factories) all day and never get a voice in your government is a bad society. And a society where your law enforcement is judge, jury, and executioner- accountable to nobody and flooded in a culture of dare-devil hyper-masculinity- is a bad society.

Not an ideal to be upheld by the lucky few mavericks who know how to keep their heads down and fit in.


  1. You raise some excellent points. But read the books now!

  2. I think it's unfair that you both are having this argument without having read the books. For instance, Four is about 18 and Tris is 16, which - in my personal opinion - is an appropriate age gap. This is stated clearly in the novels and not the movie. Obviously it takes much longer to read a whole series instead of watching the movies, but it is much, much more than what the movie makes it out to be. It gets much better, and it gets much worse.



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