Thursday, January 2, 2014

No Divergence from "Mama Bear" Stereotype in Veronica Roth's Divergent

My almost 11-year-old daughter recently received Divergent (2011), by Veronica Roth, as an early Christmas present.  The gift came from a family member who had taught English in a middle school for the past several years, so, thinking that it was already vetted by an expert, I felt pretty safe letting Taegan read the book.  Besides, Taegan reads at at least a 10th-grade level, and she’s been choosing books from the Young Adult section in the library for a few months now.  Granted, I try to assess each YA book for its levels of violence and sexual content before letting her check it out, but, honestly, how much can you tell from a cover?  I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the idea that she will probably, at some point, read content that is somewhat inappropriate for her, but I guess I’d rather her read that than not at all due to boredom with the books that are classified as Juvenile. 

Anyway, I picked up Taegan’s copy of Divergent one day last week, and we ended up reading it together.  The book upheld my expectation of a YA novel in its inclusion of some violence and sexual content.  It was titillating but not explicit; perhaps more importantly, nobody got past first base.  Even so, Taegan said that it contained the most kissing that she has ever encountered in a book.  J  Going through it with Taegan actually gave me the opportunity to talk to her a little bit about what she was reading, though, which ended up being a good thing, I think. 

Divergent is frequently compared to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, due to its similar themes and target audience.  It is a bestseller, and Lionsgate Entertainment is currently producing a film version of the story.  The novel is the first in a trilogy about a dystopian world where people are strictly organized, according to their dominant personality traits, into five factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, and Amity.  It is also a coming-of-age story, portraying Beatrice—or Tris—Prior’s discovery that she is Divergent, which means that she doesn’t fit neatly into one faction; her subsequent choice to leave her home faction of Abnegation, because she is unwilling to live an entire life in a state of self-denial; and her successful initiation into Dauntless, where she struggles to hide her differences from the other initiates.  In the ending chapters, the novel depicts the beginnings of a war between Erudite and Abnegation.  Erudite’s attack is fueled by the insertion of computer chips into members of Dauntless and their use Tris’s Dauntless peers as combatants.  By the end of the novel, Tris is uniquely positioned—because she is Divergent—to quell the violence of the war and change the structure of her society for the better. 

Divergent is interesting in several ways, but I am most intrigued by its portrayal of Tris’s mother, Natalie Prior.  Although the critics have said very little about her, Natalie plays a crucial role in the development of the story’s narrative arc, as she ends up teaching Tris that which I would argue is the primary lesson of the novel.  In the heat of battle, Natalie courageously sacrifices her life for her daughter, an act that proves that self-denial and bravery are sometimes one and the same—not opposite from each other, as the division between Dauntless and Abnegation seems to suggest.  By extension, Tris begins to realize that no one is merely one thing or another, that every personality combines elements of selflessness, courage, knowledge, honesty, and kindness.

Natalie is portrayed as foundational to Tris’s journey of self-discovery and cultural awareness, even from the opening pages of the novel.  The story begins with Natalie and Tris locking gazes in a mirror, a moment that might suggest, of course, that the two see each other in their own reflections.  According to Abnegation rules, members of the faction may utilize mirrors only on the second day of every third month, and, this time, Natalie is taking advantage of the opportunity to cut Tris’s hair (1).  Tris needs to look her best for the upcoming Choosing Ceremony, where she will elect the faction in which she will spend the rest of her life.  Tris perceives Natalie as the perfect model of self-abnegation, “well-practiced in the art of losing herself” (1).  But, in this instance, Natalie surprises Tris: “Her eyes catch mine in the mirror.  It is too late to look away, but instead of scolding me, she smiles at our reflection. . . . Why doesn’t she reprimand me for staring at myself?” (2).  Natalie surprises Tris again at the Choosing Ceremony, defying the motto, “Faction before family,” when she assures Tris that she will continue to love her no matter her choice (41).  Certainly, Natalie’s words contribute to Tris’s election to enter into Dauntless, but Tris continues to think of her home faction and her new one as stark opposites, telling herself, “I am selfish.  I am brave” (47). 

When Natalie visits Tris on Visiting Day, she complicates her daughter’s perception of the division between the two factions.  Tris learns that her mother wasn’t always as selflessness as she appears to Tris: Natalie was a transfer to Abnegation and originated in Dauntless (188).  Even more shockingly, Natalie displays traits that Tris never saw in her before.  When the older woman tells Tris that her father isn’t attending Visiting Day because he “has been selfish lately,” Tris is stunned: “More startling than the label is the fact that she assigned it to him” (179).  Tris deduces that her mother must be angry with her father to call him “selfish,” and she is shocked that Natalie is capable of such an emotion.  Natalie is also easily able to shake hands with Tris’s Dauntless friends, even though shaking hands is not acceptable in Abnegation, where the gesture indicates too high of a level of self-possession (181). 

After Visiting Day, Tris begins to call on the image of her mother as both an inspiration for moments of self-sacrifice and a source of strength when she is faced with challenges.  After a fellow initiate is brutally attacked by a competitor, Tris volunteers to clean up the blood, thinking, “Scrubbing the floor when no one else wanted to was something that my mother would have done.  If I can’t be with her, the least I can do is act like her sometimes” (209).  In a later scene, Tris dreams that her mother engages her in the process of cooking crows, birds that have repeatedly swarmed Tris in the simulations that she has undergone throughout initiation (301).  In this dream, Natalie is depicted as herself a force of power and, also, as a source of encouragement as Tris is learning to overcome her fears.

I would argue that the climax of the novel occurs at the same point where Natalie most surprises her daughter by displaying bravery much like that of Tris’s Dauntless peers.  When the war between Erudite and Abnegation breaks out, Tris is discovered as Divergent and taken to become a test subject for Erudite officials, as they attempt to learn how to control even the most irrepressible among them (437).  Natalie rescues Tris from her confines and then courageously runs into a crowd of soldiers, knowing that they will kill her but that her daughter will escape (443).  Tris later announces to her remaining family that, since leaving Abnegation, she has learned how to be both brave and selfless and that, “Often they’re the same thing” (457).

Some might read Natalie as a powerful mother figure and her depiction in the novel an improvement from, say, the portrayal of Katniss’s mother—weak and overcome by her circumstances—in The Hunger Games.  Surely, Natalie is strong and wise; she lives and dies as a testament to the important overlap between fearlessness and self-sacrifice.  But, at the same time, Natalie’s characterization is stereotypical.  She fits the type of the “mama bear”—or the “mama grizzly” so infamously celebrated in Sarah Palin’s campaign rhetoric in 2008.  In literature and film throughout the ages, the “mama bear” is subservient until her child is threatened, at which point she becomes fearless and ferociously powerful.  Michelle Rodino-Colocina argues that the “mama grizzly” ideology articulated by conservative female politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman “st[ands] to further the interests of wealthy, white patriarchs rather than working to end sexist oppression” (89).  It characterizes women as motivated solely by the wellbeing of their children and, in doing so, reduces their own claims to subjectivity.  Although Divergent gives us a strong female lead in Tris, its depiction of Natalie Prior as a “mama bear” does little to challenge this harmful sort of ideology regarding the place and interests of women.  In addition to kissing, the “mama bear” is another thing that I’ll need to talk to Taegan about.

Works Cited

Rodino-Colocina, Michelle.  “Man Up, Woman Down: Mama Grizzlies and Anti-Feminist Feminism during the Year of the (Conservative) Woman and Beyond.”  Women and Language 35.1 (2012), 79-96.


Roth, Veronica. Divergent. New York: HarpersCollins, 2011.

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