I’m an English student and a terribly slow reader, and the leisure reading for which I do find time spans a wide range of genres and subjects. I do try, however, to stay relatively current with trends in young adult literature, given that I’m a YA author myself. Most recently, I finished Veronica Roth’s Divergent, and between it and The Hunger Games, I’ve begun to notice a trend in female protagonists of YA dystopia. (Of course, having read only the two, I can’t be completely sure it’s a trend, but since these seem to be trendsetters in the movement, I’m going to go ahead with that assumption.)
With the success of the Twilight franchise in recent years, admittedly a disaster for women’s empowerment, these more recent female authors seem to be writing their protagonists as responses to Bella Swan’s character weakness and hyper-dependence. I find that a worthwhile pursuit, but it interests me that the vehicle for doing so has been martial strength and a propensity for violence.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the worlds of all these series are far more violent in general than those their readers inhabit. So too are those of countless fictions featuring male protagonists; Ender’s Game, a favorite of mine and a novel from which Divergent takes countless cues, features horrendous violence by characters as young as six years old. It will be unfair me to give these stories a pass while criticizing the violence of Divergent or The Hunger Games, and quite frankly, neither of these books struck me as particularly graphic (I actually found THG surprisingly tame, given its premise). I’m just wondering if there are ways to show strength in a protagonist, whether male or female, that don’t involve physical combat.
The problem with using violence to establish a character’s strength is that it carries its own baggage. It isn’t a neutral thing; by wielding it, an author is shaping not only a character but the moral framework of her story’s world. When Tris starts shooting people, Roth isn’t merely giving us information about Tris. Intentionally or not, she’s making an ethical statement about the use of violence as a means of conflict resolution. I haven’t read Insurgent yet, and the third book in the trilogy is forthcoming, so I don’t know how should develop this theme. But taking Divergent as a statement unto itself, violence appears the only viable response to violence.
Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh, but I really found Tris to be an abrasive and unsympathetic character in general. If Bella Swann is spineless and painfully boring, Tris’ general hostility isn’t much better. (It’s also worth noting that despite their apparent differences, in the fall for the same sort of emotionally abusive, I’m-no-good-for-you type of guy.) I don’t know whether Roth intended it for her protagonist to be any sort of role model, and of course, it’s perfectly fine if she didn’t. But insofar as we view Tris as a response to Bella, it bears mentioning that empowerment isn’t the same thing as brutality.