In honor of the US Premiere of the film Divergent, I want to reflect on the phenomenon of teenage girls in an action movie.
Ten years ago, when the Harry Potter phenomenon was at its apogee, a reviewer asked “Why is Hermione not the main character?” The reviewer felt that she was the most well developed of the three main characters (Harry, Ron, and Hermione), so she should have been the main character. The answer was, “Because boys wouldn’t read it.” The accepted wisdom has always been that girls will read books about a relatable main character, but boys will only read books about boys. If Hermione had been the main character, she would have eliminated any chance of having boys read the books on their own volition. (I wonder how many boys actually read Harry Potter.)
I remembered this anecdote two years ago when I was reading The Hunger Games. One Friday I had gone to Aladdin’s to eat lunch, as I did every payday. As the waiter came up to me, a young man, he noticed my copy of The Hunger Games on my table. He said, “I love that book.” It’s been nearly two years since that happened, and I still remember that. Think about that. That’s how shocked I was.
It’s worth pointing out that The Hunger Games takes a plot that would normally be the province of boys (a fight to the death and overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship) that is normally the province of boys and men and makes a girl as the protagonist. In the last book, she even adds a woman as a power hungry villain, a villain that in most books and films, would be a man by default. There is the same phenomenon in Divergent, where the main character in a Spartan faction (Dauntless initiation is truly reminiscent of the agoge) and has to confront a corrupt leader. Both the main characters would normally be men, but the books make the main characters women.
Why is this?
I can think of three reasons.
1 Teenage girls are more likely to read than teenage boys.
Is this true? I have no idea. It could be true though, and if it is true, then it might make sense to make girls the main character.
2 Society is far more accepting of “masculine” enterprises than it is of “feminine” enterprises.
I think this is a large part of the reason why The Hunger Games was so well accepted. (That and, to quote Screen Junkies, “Everyone wants to be BFF’s with Jennifer Lawrence.”) Men are willing to watch a movie about a woman doing “men’s things” because “men’s things” are the only things that ultimately matter in the world. It reminds me of the plot of Trifles, a one act play by Susan Glaspell. It tells the story of two women who are able to solve a murder where the police fail. The reason the women are able to solve the murder is because the women closely examine the contents of the kitchen, where the men dismiss them as “trifles.” It is the same phenomenon in The Scarlet Letter when Nathaniel Hawthorne writes so distainfully about women’s practice of needlework. He dismisses it as the only art that women are truly capable of, and yet he thinks of it as a silly past time. He says this despite the fact that all the men in Puritan Boston rely on Hester for their clothing.
Of course, women can and do face life or death situations, suffer terribly from oppressive governments, and even run oppressive governments. However, we typically associate these activities with men. I am glad that there are books and films that make people realize that women also share in these experiences.
3 The violence represents a different way of thinking about how women relate to their bodies. I saw a clip recently called The Sexy Lie, where a woman essentially did a talk about the objectification of women in the media.
There is a line in the talk where the speaker says “Men think of their bodies as useful tools in their daily lives, women think of their bodies as endless projects. What would it be like if a woman viewed her body the way a man views his body?” I think that both Katniss and Tris have that kind of relationship with their bodies, which must be a wonderful thing.
I have read the first two books in the Divergent series. They’re all right. They’re easy to read, and I was intrigued by them. They’re not fantastic, or even great. Still, I hope that the film does well. I want films to explore many different facets of the human experience, and women make up 50% of the human race. I want films to feature women as rich, complex characters facing compelling, complicated plots and dilemmas, not simply as accessories for men. If films with women in the starring role are well reviewed and financially successful, then we may hope for more of them in the future.
Oh, I understand there is a movie version of The Giver. I may have to write a post about how, while I haven’t seen the trailer, I hope the movie blows up and all copies of the film are destroyed, never to be seen by human eyes.