Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Your Values, Not Your Aptitude, Will Determine Your Life (Divergent)

So. The time is finally upon us. The great Divergent movie has been released, made a ton of money, and suggested the possibility that a world of young adult adaptations that don't suck might just be upon us. What are we to do with this information?

Uh, be happy, I guess? And also, analyze the crap out of it!

For those of you who studiously avoid things like this until I tell you about them, which is statistically at least one of you, Divergent is another young adult dystopian franchise, the successor to The Hunger Games' crown, and one of the more imaginative iterations of the whole "teenage girl in oppressive society must rebel against government's desire to squash her bodily autonomy" subgenre. Which is weirdly getting big enough to be its own genre.*

The movie and book (written by Veronica Roth) follow Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), a young girl who has grown up in a very weird world. She lives in a city that we know is Chicago, but that she has never thought to know the name of. She knows that there was some kind of war, and that the founders of her city took great pains to create a society that would discourage the ill effects of human nature.

To do this, they created the faction system: five groups based around five important values to a free society. There is Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), Dauntless (courage), and Abnegation (selflessness).** When children of this society come of age at sixteen, they are forced to choose which faction they will join. They can stick with the one of their birth, which most do, or they can defect to another faction, but in so doing, they will lose all rights to their family, and their new faction will become their family. It's a weird system.

Fortunately for the undecided, they don't have to make the decision blind. Nope! They get told what to do. Isn't that comforting? Each student takes an aptitude test, or simulation, that basically sees what they really do in a variety of situations, and uses that information to determine which faction they belong in.

Tris is Abnegation and while she loves and adores her family, she's never really felt comfortable in selflessness. It doesn't come naturally to her. I would argue that it doesn't come naturally to anyone, but it's hard for a sixteen year old to get that. Anyway, as much as she loves her parents (played by Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), Tris is pretty sure she's not going to get Abnegation when she takes her test. And she's right. Sort of.

Because she does get Abnegation, but she also gets Erudite and Dauntless, and that's a very, very bad thing. Tris is someone they call "divergent", which pretty much just means that her brain is a little bit different, and the serums and tests the government uses to control its citizens don't work on her. Which is a very bad dangerous thing. And while this is explained in a kind of confusing, herky jerky way in the books (and the movie), it does end up being very important. Tris is divergent, and it's probably going to get her killed.

So Tris decides to follow her heart, and joins Dauntless. She loves being brave and doing silly, adrenaline junkie things (I would not be in Dauntless, not even a little bit), but more than that, Tris likes protecting people, and Dauntless makes up the city's security forces, its police, its law and order. Tris wants to keep people safe, so she learns to be dangerous.

In Dauntless, though, things are more dangerous than they seem. While Tris gets on very well with her gruff (and dreamy) instructor, Four (Theo James), she also makes quick enemies with Four's supervisor, Eric (Jai Courtney). And it's refreshing to see that while she has guts to spare, and a determination to do well, Tris isn't actually very physically strong, and it takes a good long while for her to measure up in the initiate rankings. Fortunately, she has a solid motivation. If she doesn't do well, she'll get booted out, and become Factionless, which is a fate worse than death, apparently.

And then in the end, (SPOILERS), Tris and her divergence, her ability to be unaffected by the serums and simulations, both save her life and create a big problem: while she and Four are able to stop the evil Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet, who reportedly took the role because she wanted to "play the baddie for once") from killing off Abnegation, they must then go on the run while society crumbles around them.

I skipped a few steps in there, I know, but don't worry. I'll make it up to you.

What makes this story somewhat unique in a sea of dystopian fiction is that it is so highly philosophical about the whole thing. And it's the rare dystopia where, aside from that thing where Erudite is trying to murder Abnegation, it's not actually that dystopian. It's weird, and strict, and kind of intense about things that don't immediately seem to matter, but the faction system itself isn't actually awful. It's actually kind of nice. Or, well, it should be.

I say this not because the idea of segregating people into cliques based on common personality types seems like an inherently good idea (it's not), but because the basic idea behind the most basic idea here is actually freaking great. It's not the factions that are awesome, it's the Choosing Ceremony. Allow me to explain by way of another, better known, book series: Harry Potter.

You all know what happens in Harry Potter, especially in the first book. We're going to skip right to the part in the Great Hall, where Harry meets the Sorting Hat and determines his fate. Now, there are fourteen kajillion tests online that will tell you what house you belong in, and the houses are based around basic character traits and values, just like the factions. Harry gets the Sorting Hat put on his head, and he expects it to tell him exactly what house he ought to be in. Only it doesn't.

Instead, the Sorting Hat asks Harry what house he would like to be in. It's not that the Sorting Hat doesn't have an opinion. It does. But it maintains that this is Harry's choice. Harry has the qualities to be in pretty much any of the houses, though he's best suited for Gryffindor and Slytherin, but the Hat is actually letting Harry decide where he'll go. And that is absolutely crucial.

Harry decides he wants to be Sorted into Gryffindor, because that seems like the best house to him. What this means is actually really important: it's not that Harry examined himself and determined that he had the most aptitude for Gryffindor, or that he looked at their classes and determined them to be the easiest, or anything like that. Harry chose Gryffindor because he agreed with them the most. That bravery is important, and, for him, the most important thing.

How is this like Divergent? Well...

The Choosing Ceremony, like the Sorting Hat, is less to do with your natural aptitudes than it is about your values. You choose your faction based on natural ability, sure, but you also choose it based on the thing you find most important. Because your faction will determine the rest of your life, you choose based on the values that you will be most comfortable upholding for the duration of your (hopefully long) existence. 

And this matters. A lot. It matters because it forces you to, at least once in your life, publicly declare what you believe to be good.

Whenever I take online tests about this, because I am a nerd and I love taking tests, it tells me that my Hogwarts house would be Ravenclaw, and my Divergent faction would be Erudite. And those are both pat, neat answers. I am a nerd, and I do love learning more than I love almost everything else, so those seem like totally easy solves, right? Well, no, because that's not what I would pick.

I don't actually want to spend my life surrounded by a bunch of people who think intelligence is the highest value, because I don't think intelligence is the highest value. I like intelligence. I am quite fond of my own, and I get rather a lot of mileage out of it. But it's not my core belief. I don't cherish my brain. If tomorrow I woke up, and I had lost my ability to remember everything, to analyze, to think circles around my teachers, I would be sad, yeah, but I wouldn't be devastated. In short, I would make a great Ravenclaw or Erudite. But I would be totally miserable.

When I sort myself, I pick Hufflepuff, and when I choose, I choose Abnegation. Not because loyalty and selflessness are values I inherently have. They aren't, trust me. But because they are values I deeply, deeply want. I want so much to be loyal and kind and selfless. I want to be that person, and I try so hard to make my choices reflect that. If I chose in the ceremony, I would probably pick Abnegation, even though I have every bet that my aptitude test wouldn't show that.

Which brings us back around again to why this is such an interesting story. In the world of this book/movie, the faction system is supposed to be about choice. It's supposed to be about the values you hold most dear. If you think of it like that, the faction system is actually great. The problem comes, like with most societies gone wrong, from the implementation: the aptitude test. (Also that whole thing with the death and the killing. That wasn't great.)

The aptitude test is like those online quizzes: it shows you what you are, but it doesn't say anything about who you ought to be. It doesn't give any indication of who you want to become, and it doesn't take your values into account. This is important.

It's important because it creates an artificially narrow view of what it means to be brave or smart or selfless. It matters because people change. Tris changes. And also, Tris stays the same.

I really wonder sometimes what would have happened in this story if Tris had understood the Choosing Ceremony to be not about what you're good at, but what you value. Because Tris actually does value selflessness. She values it so much that she never gives it up. In true divergent fashion, Tris manages to show the selflessness of courage and the courage of selflessness. Dauntless and Abnegation have quite a lot in common, but then, so do all the other factions.

Tris isn't less selfless just because she wants to learn to fight. She wants to learn to fight in order to be able to stand up to bullies. How is that not selfless? But because society has defined selflessness narrowly, she is shunted into another corner. Because society has decided to base the system on what you're good at, and not what you value, everything gets all messed up. 

It's a terrible system, when they do it this way. Because when we decide to define our lives by our aptitudes, we only look at who we are now. When we define our lives by our values, then we can see a glimpse of who we will be.

Okay, this is all really philosophical. What's the bottom line?

The bottom line is that you should probably go see Divergent. Not just because it's a good movie, or because I want you to watch the hell out of most movies with a realistically drawn, compelling female protagonist (good reason, though it is), but because this is a movie that will make you think. And, if you're willing to let it, this is a story that will make you choose. What do you actually hold most dear? What do you value?

And how are you going to define your life?

*The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, Uglies, The Selection, and even The Maze Runner which is about a dude, but has the same basic plot as all the others. There are more, I just got sick of listing them. But isn't that weirdly specific? Well, I think it's weird. And I wrote a paper about it! For more on this, be on the lookout for The Age of Dystopia, a new book about dystopian fiction, with a chapter on this very topic, written by moi, on your bookshelves sometime in 2015 (hopefully).

**Also be on the lookout for another article by moi on the courage of selflessness in Abnegation, and the perils of a society that seeks to enforce it, in Divergent and Philosophy, which will be on your shelves in...2015? Maybe? It's really hard to tell with these things. But probably sometime around Christmas, if we're lucky.


  1. "teenage girl in oppressive society must rebel against government's desire to squash her bodily autonomy" subgenre. Which is weirdly getting big enough to be its own genre.*

    Given the relentless attempts to do just that by state legislatures right now - under the guise of protection - may this genre rise far and wide.

  2. "For those of you who studiously avoid things like this until I tell you about them, which is statistically at least one of you..." Hmmm, perchance was I referenced again on this blog??? I might have to start reading more consistently! ;)

    1. What? Read consistently? Crazy talk!

      And yes, I was thinking of you when I wrote that. <3

  3. I'm with you on a lot of this. I definitely liked the movie, even though I thought the divisions were somewhat idiotic from the start. Also, more than any other heroine save Eowyn, I related to this female protagonist. I related to her in so many ways, it's actually a little curious (do most people have the ability to, in the middle of a nightmare, stop and say, "this isn't real" and wake themselves up?). Most of all, I related to her in desiring to be part of a warrior society when not at all physically suited to it. I'll second you on loving how much she struggled through it, and how sheer determination won out. Of course, that made me bring real-world baggage into the movie with me?

    End result? I had a lot of trouble with several things during her training, chief among them, her growing relationship with Four. Dude, you're sharp, squared-away, and entrusted with the training and good order and discipline of these recruits. For heaven's sake, wait until she's graduated to start making out! One of my buddies actually leaned over and asked if I was ok while I was sitting there, wincing in pain.

    That said, and if I ignore some of the other glaring martial flaws, I have to say, they did do a good job with elevating Four to demigod trainer status without beating us over the head with it, particularly when she tried to chit-chat with him and he had the proper "oh, look, the gum on the bottom of my shoe is trying to talk to me" reaction. ROFL I should probably just write something long and involved on my view of military in scifi and fantasy though.

    Loved hearing your review once again, and psyched that once again we agree on something :D

    1. Tris is awesome. I find her to be a bit more relatable than a lot of ya heroines (Katniss is great and all, but she's pretty much a superhero), and while the faction system is a little weird, I kind of dig it.

      As for Four and Tris' kinda skanky relationship, yeah, it's a bit awkward when you think about the whole thing where he's her instructor and older than her and all that weirdness. It's kinda funny, actually, that they cast an actor who looks so much older - Four is supposed to be 18. He did not look 18. And while this society does consider Tris a legal adult (after the choosing ceremony, you are now a full member of society), I do agree that the whole instructor/instructee thing is hinky.

      Seriously, though, that guy is playing an 18 year old. 18. Yeah, no.

      I will say, though, that I *love* the part where, like you said, Four treats Tris like the gum on his shoe. I love it because she's all, "Are you a transfer?" and when you see it again, you realize that Four recognizes Tris from Abnegation, and he thinks she's being a bitch because she recognizes him too. Which she doesn't.

      Personally, I think the biggest plothole is that Tris never recognizes this guy who she grew up with and whose father is her dad's boss. He's only two years older than her. Get it together, Tris!