I love books, especially books with strong female characters who aren’t afraid to upset an unjust system and kick some butt. One of those books for me is Divergent, by Veronica Roth. This young adult fantasy novel, which was just released as a motion picture two weeks ago, features several such women who, to varying degrees, rock the proverbial boat of a “perfect society”. Set in Chicago after an undescribed apocalyptic event, Roth paints a picture of an alternative constructed/”utopian” society, in which people are divided into five factions: Candor, Erudite, Dauntless, Abnegation, and Amity. Within these factions, people behave as according to the meaning of those faction names. For example, Amity people farm the land because of their love of life, Candor’s are judges and court officials, while the Dauntless are head of security. Into this static society, five female characters are introduced.
But first, what exactly IS a strong female? To me, a strong female is a woman who is secure in herself and willing to stand up for the values she believes in. She is willing to make the hard choices; go down a path that is not easy or guaranteed and change that which does not do justice or that causes harm. She is a leader, and mobilizes others to act. Her actions range from calling out the classroom bulky to crumbling corrupt government institutions. But this super woman is not necessarily a superhero. She is human. And like all people, has faults, limitations and doubts just like the rest of us.
Tris: The protagonist of the book is Beatrice, the younger daughter of Andrew and Natalie Prior, one of the Abnegation leaders. As a member of the Abnegation faction, she is encouraged to value selflessness and service above all. However, when it comes time to choose which faction she wants to belong to, her test results determine she is a divergent, or someone who embodies more than one of the factions. It is her divergence that makes her a strong female character.
Now that’s a familiar concept: difference as a seed for change or transformation. However, difference itself is not the only prerequisite for a strong female but the willingness to act on that difference. For instance, Tris is easily the weakest initiate upon entering Dauntless. Physically, she has as little chance of winning a fight as a rabbit does against a bear. However, she is quick to defend those who are put into a position of weakness by other initiates or trainers. For example, when her friend Al is criticized for being a terrible knife thrower, Tris volunteers herself to stand in for him when he is forced to stand where the target is and get knives thrown at him. This demonstrates a selflessness that goes beyond duty. Why do people stand up for others? There are several answers to this, glory, accolades, instinct, an sense of right. Tris, with her action, not only stands up for Al and puts herself in harms way, but also highlights a part of the Dauntless training that is corrupt, that feeds on the fear of people for enjoyment. That is the quality that makes Tris strong, she is actively opposed to a system that preys on other. She does this again when she infiltrates the Dauntless compound and is willing to die in order to stop the Erudite takeover of the government via the extermination of the Abnegation faction. She is literally putting above all else her desire to ensure that the oppressors/villains are toppled and that what she believes is right, equality of all factions in the acceptance of divergent, a reality. While not everything she wants is achieved, it is the action to act nevertheless that makes her a strong female. This may sound super cliché, however, when you really think about it, it takes a lot of willpower, determination and faith in self to outright go against the status quo. It is really important that this message reaches the intended audience of the book, young girls and boys who can replicate this in their daily lives. There are so many pressures that young people (and older ones too!) go through. Reading about it in the extreme, may serve as a motivation to deal with smaller though no less important corruptions or oppressions.
Natalie Prior: Natalie is the mother of Beatrice and Caleb. She is one of my favorite characters because of her determination to save her family and do what is right. Before I go on, what exactly is “the right”? In he book, “right” coincides with the people who believe that all people, regardless of faction, should be able to choose their place in society, but also diverge from those strict ties and also honor family and friendship bonds. “Rightness” directly opposes opposition, suppression and undue violence. Natalie is originally from Dauntless, however, no mention is made of her family there, which suggests that when she left he family faction to join Abnegation, her family disowned her/abandons all ties with her (a common practice). However, when her own children decide to leave the Abnegation faction, she not only encourages them that their decision is good but continues to visit them and provide for them. This is so out of sync with the rest of society that her refusal to put blood aside for her faction demonstrates her to be a strong female. She does not fall pray to what everyone else does, and does what she believes is right. She does this by sneaking onto the Amity property to warn Tris about an Erudite plot. Natalie demonstrates the values of loyalty and justice, that inspire other people, first her children and then later other members of the Abnegation faction, to put themselves last and act in a way that would bring about those values.
– Oh Kate, what would Leo think?
Jeannine: While the villain of the book, she is also a very strong female character. Jeannine (an Erudite leader) is the woman who strives to maintain the status quo and the separation of the factions. She is unwavering in her beliefs that humanity is severely flawed and goes to great lengths by: 1) slowly using skewed perspective information to turn the populace against Abnegation leadership, 2) devising a plan to permanently install Erudite as the leaders in order to enforce the faction laws and 3) creating a brainwashing system that will enforce the rules of society on its people. She is even willing to die in order to ensure her dreams of a “perfect world” come true. Very much like Tris, Jeannine wishes to help the society. For the greater good she sees the killing of Abnegation leaders and people as a necessity that would lead to a more just, organized and efficient world. Jeannine serves as a lenses to see how people perceive different issues. One person’s idea of a government can be another person’s idea of a joke. We have to ask ourselves, are the ends more important than the means? What are the consequences of our actions? What is the best or worst that can happen? I believe viewing the character Jeannine as a strong female helps readers to realize that issues are multifaceted and knowledge and awareness of other sides of an issue is crucial to making sound decisions and actions.
Christina: Christina is Tris’ best friend and a strong, passionate girl from the Candor faction. She is also specifically described as a black woman of color, and is only WOC major character in the book. Christina is constant in her friendship with Tris, and befriends her even when Tris is obviously the weakest initiate. She also refuses to back down. Christina is an example of someone who does not conform to the status quo. When an initiate gets stabbed in his sleep, Christina is the first to say that the incident should be reported. She also encourages Tris, urging her to fight harder and not give up. The character of Christina shows that we are nothing without our friends. While people may believe that going at it alone is the best options, our friends are crucial to our success with our personal, as well as professional/emotional/physical/etch goals. Christin is a strong female because she is unafraid to be who she is and encourages the same in her friends. And that she is specifically cast as a WOC demonstrates that this is not a trait inherent in skin color but a part of people of all colors.
Tori: Tori is a member the Dauntless faction and is the person who warns Tris of her status as a Divergent and helps her to understand what it is. She demonstrates strength of character in her role as part-mentor to Tris. She refuses to allow another person to die (the usual punishment for Divergents) by helping Tris. Tori is a character that I think a lot of us can relate to. She is someone who has been personally affected by the government’s systematic killing of divergent; her brother was killed because he was a divergent. However, she herself is not in danger except as an informant. She acts the role of a witness, and is able to pass on her experiences to help Tris. Her character demonstrates the qualities of a strong female due to the fact that she is not silenced. While she does not actively try to publicize the death of her brother, she doesn’t let his death strop he from speaking out against the oppressions/corruptions of the government. We can use our words in may ways. Words have an impact that many times last longer than words, because a word, a message, a story, can be repeated and remembered. Tori represents the strength of small actions.
– We too can break the glass on any unjust or unhealthy realities
Divergent is a book that tells a familiar tale: a girl who, due to circumstances, has to fight to stop the villains from taking power. However, I think it is a good read because it is the repetition of stories such as these that pushes us to look at our own society, community or self and push the boundaries of “what is” to “what is right/should be”. Sappy teen love plot aside, this book includes within its pages women who are admirable in their own ways and show us how to each be the hero or heroine of our own stories.