Last week, I realized I didn’t know when the next installment of the Divergent film series, Insurgent, was coming out. Turns out, five months ago. The Saucy Scholar cannot account for this unforgivable lapse in pop culture consumption (actually I can: university faculty position). But I’ve watched it now. Spoiler Alert: it’s terrible. The special effects are hokey, key parts of Tris’ and Four’s inner struggles have been changed, and it’s focused way too much around this weird simulation tube chair thing=>
But the worst part is the romance between Tris and Four. I understand this is a key part of the books and essential to the plot. In the first film, quite a few love scenes were cut out or glossed over. I like to believe this was related to the production choice of aging the male love interest from 18 to 24. In the book, Tris is 16 and Four is 18; in fact, the significance of this two year age gap comes up repeatedly. In the film, Tris is still 16. And whereas Theo James (who plays Four) is actually 28 and is hard pressed to come off as young as 24, Shailene Woodley (who plays Tris) is actually 23 but has NO PROBLEM looking and acting 16. For example, Woodley makes baby bird squeaking sounds when her character is upset. And, in Insurgent, Woodley’s hair is not the angled bob from the book but a choppy boy cut that makes her look even younger… and kind of like a boy band member.So what’s my issue? It’s not that Woodley looks boyish or androgynous with short hair. In fact, I like this slightly aesthetically different version of the female super hero ass-kicker. Yes, she’s white and thin and able-bodied and hegemonically beautiful (I did say slightly). But aside from a few plunging necklines and one scene where her bare back is exposed (apparently, in a post-apocalyptic world, people don’t wear bras under their zip-front vests), Tris is not hyper-feminized in that typical way super heroines ususally are…
Also a plus: if you kind of squint, you could almost read Tris and Four as a male-male couple, or a butch male and someone who presents as genderqueer. By the way, this is actually a resistant media reading technique Nikki Sullivan (2000) calls the “gay gaze”: it’s where you choose to see queer subtext in an overwhelmingly heteronormative piece of media. You know, for spice.
I also don’t have a ideological issue with the romantic pairing of individuals of differing ages. However, I will point out that in our contemporary Western society, age is used (rightly or wrongly) to gauge maturity, competence, and consent. Tris is under 18, and Four is six years older than 18. So this particular eight-year age difference—16 to 24 rather than, say, 30 to 38—does translate to us as socially significant.
So then, what’s my beef? Saucy readers will be unsurprised to learn that it’s the nonchalant way producers construct a 16-year-old female character as the object of adult male sexual desire. As I’ve discussed before, the postfeminist female figure is an independent ass-kicker—smart and competent—and also super sexy. That super sexy quality is easily identified when others (mainly men) sexually desire her. Karin A. Martin and Emily Kazyak (2009) did a study on children’s G-Rated films and noted how female protagonists were ideal characters not only when they were awesome, but also when male characters lusted after them. In a nutshell, women are both valued and valuable when men find them sexy. This is a very heteronormative theory because not all women desire men or are the objects of male desire. But our society is very heteronormative, yo.
So we place value on the sexiness of women, and sexiness can be identified in media when male characters lust after or sexually gaze at female characters. Second piece of the puzzle: this value formula is for youthful female bodies. In this context, I mean young. Very rarely in our media culture are older women labeled sexy, feminine, or beautiful because those particular qualities are tied to youthfulness. Evidence: Amy Schumer’s spot-on “Last Fuckable Day” skit. More evidence: every movie where a male protagonist ends up with a woman played by a female actor half his age. So if beauty is tied to youth, and female worth is tied to sexiness, and sexiness is connoted by male desire, then we’re growing a culture that doesn’t bat an eye when very young women and girls are sexualized. Lolita anyone?
Academic rock star Rosalind Gill (2007) talks about the “deliberate sexualization of children (girls)” and “the ‘girlification’ of adult women” in popular media (151). She argues that the valuation of female youth perpetuates a cultural sentiment that it’s normal for female children to be “desirable sexual icons” (ibid). And while the sexualization of young female bodies happens across race and ethnicity (in fact, to a worse extent for Women of Color), when it happens in Insurgent, it further builds Tris into the ideal female figure: she’s white and thin and able-bodied and hegemonically beautiful, and she has value—as evidenced by this adult male sexual interest in her:
Ok, so what’s my point? There are a lot of problems with Insurgent, but I doubt too many will focus on the infantalization and sexualization of the main female character. Why? Because our media has taught us to read older men’s desire for younger female bodies as not just normal, but actually a form of female empowerment. I like this Young Adult trend of centering plots around competent and adventurous young women (Katniss Everdeen is my patronus). But Rosalind Gill astutely warns us “on one hand, young women are hailed through a discourse of ‘can-do girl power,’ yet on the other hand, their bodies are powerfully reinscribed as sexual objects” (163). By portraying Tris as a less-than-adult female while at the same time the object of adult male desire, film producers are reproducing and perpetuating an invisible and insidious cultural trope: female youth is powerful because it’s sexy. Check where empowerment comes from, yo.
*Rosalind Gill, “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10.2 (2007). 147-166.