Diverging from Chick Lit
Diverging from Chick Lit: Teen Girls and Violent Young Adult Sci-Fi
by Caroline Ballard
The movie Divergent, released in March, is just the most recent book-to-movie franchise based off of dystopian Young Adult novels. It follows in the footsteps of The Hunger Games, the best-seller and blockbuster, and both feature death matches, war, and violence. Teen fans? They eat it up.
HOST INTRO: The movie Divergent opened last Friday in theaters across the country. Based on a popular book trilogy, it features abandoned cities, a charismatic heroine, and lots of violence. Sound familiar? It’s anticipated as the heir to the Hunger Games empire, the runaway bestsellers whose second movie installment “Catching Fire” was the top-grossing domestic film of 2013. Caroline Ballard reports on why these bleak, violent stories leave teens wanting more.
Twenty minutes outside New York City, the windows of the Well-Read Book Shop shine on a darkened street.
Fade up sound bed – Allegiant book release.
It’s really late on a Monday night, a school night, and the small town of Hawthorne New Jersey is quiet and empty. But inside the store twenty pre-teen and teen girls are crowded around an old P.C. They argue over whether it is precisely 11:59pm or midnight.
Fade up discussing time.
Usually the minute wouldn’t matter much, but tonight it is of supreme importance. At midnight author Veronica Roth will read the first chapter of Allegiant, the third and final book in her dystopian series Divergent.
Suddenly, silence. Mostly. Some giggling and whispers. And then.
Sound: Hi everyone I’m Veronica and it is 11:59 on October 21st, which means it’s almost Allegiant time so we’re going to be experiencing this for the first time together. So let’s get started now that it’s 12. Chapter 1, Tris. I pace in our cell in Erudite headquarters her words echoing in my mind. My name will be Edith Prior and there is much I’m happy to forget. (Narration trails…) (0:32)
The Chex Mix and Doritos set out in bowls are forgotten. Fans hang on to each other as they hang on to the author’s words.
Veronica Roth isn’t much older than the girls in the store. She’s twenty-five, and had already sold the movie rights for Divergent before she graduated college.
Allegient sold almost half a million copies on its first day back in October. Since then it’s topped the Amazon and The New York Time’s best sellers every week.
Divergent has had its big screen treatment, complete with stars Kate Winslet and Shailene Woodley. It was released by Lions Gate, the production studio also responsible for The Hunger Games and Twilight.
To understand why so many people – teen girls in particular – are taken with the series, we need to know a bit about the plot.
Fade up soundtrack music.
In the Divergent world, everyone belongs to a faction. Factions are based on personality type, and each one values a virtue: honesty, kindness, intelligence, bravery, and selflessness. At sixteen you’re given an aptitude test, kind of like the Meyers-Briggs test. It matches you with the faction you’re best suited for.
Sound: The future belongs to those who know where they belong. (0:12)
Protagonist Tris Prior is not so easily categorized.
Sound: This was supposed to tell me what to do. We’re supposed to trust the test. The test didn’t work on you. They call it Divergent. (0:08)
Being Divergent means Tris has the qualities of several factions. It’s not a good thing.
Sound: Divergents threaten the system. It won’t be safe until they’re removed. (0:09)
Once you make it past the aptitude test, there’s an initiation period that determines who is finally accepted into a faction. Not everyone makes it in. If you fail, you’re excommunicated from society.
Test after test after test. You beat out the others to earn your rightful place.
Teen girls? They Eat. It. Up.
CALLEY: There’s a lot of killing death destruction gore. Which is sort of my favorite stuff to read in a book. (0:07)
Calley Craig is a freshman at LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts – one of the most selective high schools in New York City.
Divergent is on of her favorite book series. When Veronica Roth came to the 92nd street Y for a talk, Calley showed up with three friends. She had painted faction tattoos on all of them in eyeliner.
She lives in Chelsea with her mom, dad and eleven-year-old twin sisters.
Today Calley is home having breakfast with her mom Liz.
One of Calley’s younger sisters just started reading Divergent. In the first book, one character gets stabbed in the eye with a butter knife. The other night Calley’s younger sisters and friends reenacted this scene at the dinner table.
LIZ: And they were like grabbing it and like wielding it. And it was like, I had forgotten that scene. What is it with the butter knife. And they were like “The butter knife, the butter knife”. (0:17)
Liz is still a little wary of the books’ violence. Tris watches two family members get gunned down and she ends up killing one of her best friends.
Calley rolls her eyes, complaining her sisters don’t take the subject matter seriously enough. They think the violence is funny.
Calley finds it fascinating.
CALLEY: It might not sound like I’m the type of person who loves horror novels and slasher fiction, but it’s it’s what I like. (0:14)
LIZ: Why do you like it? (0:01)
CALLEY: I mean I don’t even know how to say it. It’s just intriguing to me. Kind of sounds like I might do that myself when I say it like that. But no, no no no no no no no no no. I’m afraid of blood. (0:12)
BALLARD: So it’s kind of a different way of seeing the world? (0:03)
CALLEY: Yea I guess you could say that. I guess you could say that. (0:04)
Violence and violent characters are not new in books, video games, or movies. The use of young female characters in these violent roles is. Tris and Katniss of The Hunger Games have to kill to survive; they have no other choice.
Hanna Rosin is the author of The End of Men about changing gender roles. She says characters like Tris and Katniss wouldn’t have even been possible fifteen years ago.
ROSIN: It’s a slowly building idea from you know seeing kinds of violence from women in a low-grade level that you never used to see like women punching each other you know in a public space or in a bar and I think it’s just that’s kind of new interesting dynamic these books are playing with. (0:18)
That new dynamic goes beyond violence. Tris fits the model of a traditional male hero. She’s moody, unpleasant, conflicted. And she pretty much saves the day. Tris doesn’t need to be rescued.
ROSIN: You know it would be odd to find a book I think a sort of a teenage or YA book written now which has the old set up in which there was like a male rescuing hero. That seems sort of like a nostalgic superhero trope that doesn’t really exist in new stuff that’s being written. (0:17)
CALLEY: I don’t like a heroine who’s waiting for someone else to come and save her. (0:05)
Calley, the Chelsea teen, hates reading about girl characters that are passive. She herself is doe-eyed, a book lover, and an artist. It’s not like she’s going out and beating people up. But the thought of reading about somebody who doesn’t take charge is simply unappealing.
CALLEY: That’s really cliché and it’s also really annoying. Because if you’re going to sit around and wait for someone all day of course you’re going to get hurt and you’re not going to turn out too well. Gotta do what ya gotta do ya know? (0:14)
Being strong and being violent are not synonymous. Anne of Green Gables and Laura Ingalls Wilder are strong female characters. Tris is violent. She fights, she throws knives, she kills people.
Philip Kain teaches filmmaking and freshman writing at NYU. He says five or eight years ago, the kinds of films his students were making changed.
KAIN: Students who I would not expect would like the sweetest quietest little student would bring in this violent film and they would think it was hysterical. (0:07)
Kain says the reason this generation is so obsessed with violence is because they grew up post 9-11. He says the media portrays a real threat of violence, so when you read about it or write about it, it has this kind of normalizing effect.
KAIN: And I think that is a September eleventh thing because they are finding ways to incorporate that reality into their lives in a way that I never had to. (0:12)
MILLER: That is just so ridiculous. (0:02)
Laura Miller is a book critic for the New Yorker and Salon.com. She couldn’t disagree with Kain more.
MILLER: It’s really easy to come up with these big sociological analyses that sound like really important and serious but I don’t really believe that. (0:10)
She thinks the violence in books like Divergent is just a reflection of current taste. And Miller says the reason teens are drawn to it is that they’re already in a cutthroat environment – high school.
MILLER: It’s not so much that teenagers think that they have to kill each other as that that’s a kind of an expression of the feeling of the arena like nature of adolescence in general. (0:13)
Killing off competitors in the Hunger Games or beating out others for spots in a faction are just more graphic representations of what already happens in teens’ day-to-day lives.
Take college admissions. There’s only a few spots and tons of people competing for them. Highly-coveted schools like Harvard and Stanford admitted less than 6% of applicants this year.
It matters where you get in – and where you don’t.
MILLER: Like even if you’re a sort of a middle class, upper middle class family, you’re fiercely competing with all these other kids for society’s benefits. (0:08)
Our teenager in Chelsea, Calley Craig, has a ways to go. She hasn’t started thinking about college much yet. But if she feels like channeling Tris’s aggressive spirit over the next three years, she can just look to the big screen.
Lions Gate has already signed on for all three movies in the Divergent series.
Caroline Ballard, Columbia Radio News.
OUTRO: Divergent has received mediocre reviews so far. In part two of this series, Caroline Ballard reports on how midnight premieres attract huge audiences, even when the movie is less than Oscar-worthy.
HOST INTRO: Divergent opened last Friday with midnight screenings across the country. It follows in the footsteps of films like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, which kept young fans up past their bedtimes. With Divergent, many of the “midnight” showings started at 7 or 8pm on Thursday. The actual 12am showings were…sparse. Caroline Ballard reports the thrill of a group experience attracts huge crowds, even if the movie itself is less than stellar. (0:23)
When Catching Fire opened in November, a line fifty people deep assembled outside the theaters at the AMC Lowes in Kips Bay. An employee ripped tickets for the second Hunger Games film.
Fade up sound: Ripping tickets.
Most of the movie-goers were teen girls and young women.
GARTSIDE: I’m Nicole Gartside, I am 20 years old, and I am the president of the Lambda Theta chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha at NYU. (0:07)
Gartside brought about sixty girls from her sorority to the midnight showing.
GARTSIDE: I mean I think all the girls are really excited to do it and I think it’s more fun to come to especially midnight premieres when you get to come with all of your friends. (0:06)
After just six weeks in theaters Catching Fire was the domestic top-grossing movie of 2013. Now, it’s the tenth top grossing domestic movie of all time.
Fade down sound: Catching Fire opening.
Last Friday Divergent opened in theaters nationwide. It features a similar dystopian landscape and it has an obsessive teen fan base. Tickets went on sale in early March, and it surpassed the first Twilight movie in advance ticket sales.
So far the film has received mediocre reviews. It has a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and has been said to be quote “disappointingly predictable”. But for students like Gartside, any midnight premiere is an event.
GARTSIDE: I think it’s fun to get into it even if I don’t like the movies. I like to come anyway because I think it’s fun to go in a group. (0:05)
Group experience isn’t easy to come by today. Technology means streaming movies and shows straight to your computer an exercise in immediate gratification.
KAIN: You have your pleasure when you want it. You press the button and it begins for you. (0:06)
Philip Kain is an author of books for tweens and a writing professor at NYU. He says having to wait for something, like a midnight showing –
KAIN: Feeds that crave that I think is part of us, of being something larger. (0:04)
It’s no coincidence that many of the midnight premieres that pull in huge audiences are based on young adult novels. Kain says in his experience, these are the most rabid fans. Adolescence is the time that readers fall in love with books.
KAIN: They’re very deeply engaged in what happens with the characters lives. And adults don’t have that relationship to books. So the emails I get from readers they are deeply connected to characters and they are incredibly close readers. My university students are not as careful readers as the readers of my books who are in their tweens. (0:23)
Careful reading submerges readers into worlds different from their own. Sci-fi novels like Divergent can let you reimagine how the world can be. Society works completely differently there – it’s a blank slate.
Mason Howard is fifteen. She’s a huge Divergent fan. When the final book in the trilogy – Allegiant – came out, she had it automatically download to her Kindle at midnight.
MASON: I had like this moment where I woke up and it was two in the morning and I was like “why am I awake?” and I was like “Oh my gosh the book!” (0:07)
Mason has a twin brother, Parker. The two like a lot of the same books, like Divergent, and The Hunger Games before that. They saw Catching Fire more than once the week it came out.
MASON: So I went and saw it with like, at the premiere with a bunch of my friends and that wasn’t with Parker, and then I went and saw it with my mom, which wasn’t with him either, and then I went to see it again. Was I with you?
MASON: I wasn’t even with you the third time.
PARKER: Yea I only went to see it twice and I went with different friends both times and yea no I usually don’t go watch movies with you, I don’t know why. Probably because you talk the whole time. (0:27)
As with The Hunger Games, Mason saw Divergent on the day it was released. Though not at midnight. She had school the next day – so she waited until Friday evening.
MASON: And even though it wasn’t as like crazy as the midnight premiere of Catching Fire was, just because it was like the day after a bunch of people were dressed up in like different faction colors and people had like tattoos drawn on their arms and so it was just really exciting. (0:20)
Parker hasn’t read the final book of the Divergent series, but says he’s going to before he sees the movie.
PARKER: Even though I think I already pretty much know what’s going to happen coming from you.
MASON: I would like to point out that I didn’t give away the ending. I was kind of having a freak attack in my room at the ending, but…
PARKER She was crying. She was definitely crying. (0:16)
Parker doesn’t quite have this kind of reaction to emotional moments in the books. He prefers the action and world-building elements, traditionally male territory.
PARKER: It was kind of disappointing at first that there weren’t as many guy main characters. (0:05)
But he doesn’t mind having so many girl heroes.
PARKER: I mean it wouldn’t really matter as long as the story and the plot line are still good. (0:04)
Divergent’s plot is compelling enough for Parker – and he’s not the one. Divergent grossed almost 60 million dollars its first weekend in theaters.
Caroline Ballard, Columbia Radio News.
HOST OUTRO: In her final segment of this three part series, Caroline Ballard reports on how some parents use young adult novels as a way to start a conversation with their teens.
HOST INTRO: As a series Divergent sits firmly in the fan-crazed world of adolescence. It’s got kick-butt heroines, gory fight scenes, and midnight premieres that attract millions of movie-goers. And its influence doesn’t end after a midnight showing. In the final part of her three part series, Caroline Ballard reports on how making sense of fictional relationships can start a dialogue on independence for real life teens and parents.
As with many young adult novels, the first task in the Divergent trilogy is to get rid of the parents.
Both of protagonist Tris Prior’s parents die to save her. Tris spends the rest of the trilogy making sense of their deaths – and the lives they had before she was born.
Here’s a clip from the audiobook version of Allegiant, the final book in the series. In it, Tris is handed a photograph of her mother surrounded by strangers.
AUDIOBOOK: What is my mother doing next to these people. Something, grief, pain, longing squeezes my chest. There is a lot to explain, Zoe says. But this isn’t really the best place to do it. (0:22)
Tris’s mother was placed in the city as a spy before Tris was born. Like most teenagers Tris is surprised her mother had a life before her. She ends up reading her mother’s diary as a way to connect with her after her death, but mostly Tris is on her own. At 16, she functions like an adult.
Philip Kain is author of the series Commercial Breaks, aimed at tweens. He says killing off parents, or at least fading them into the background, is a narrative tool. Authors use this to give teen characters action and access to things they might not have in the real world.
KAIN: Which is why you see a lot of books taking place at summer camp, which is why lots of books take place at boarding schools. (0:06)
And post-apocalyptic landscapes.
KAIN: Worlds that are just kid-involved. There are lots of books where the parents are done away with very quickly, because for it to be a story about the kid, it needs to be about the kid. (0:12)
It’s not a real-life death wish for parents, but it reflects what some teens desire: independence.
KAIN: In an idealized world kids believe themselves to be independent and decision makers and responsible for their own life and what they’re doing. (0:09)
Even before Tris’s parents were killed, they were absent. They became minor characters as soon as Tris chose to live in another faction.
The phrase “Faction Before Blood” is repeated early and often in Divergent. It means that if you leave your family for another faction, all ties are cut.
SMETANA: In some ways it may kind of represent teens psychological world. (0:06)
Judi Smetana is a professor at University of Rochester who studies adolescent-parent relationships. She says one reason parents are killed off is because teens tend to identify more strongly with other teens.
SMETANA: You know parents are important in some ways but in their everyday interactions they look to their peers their friends and their peer groups. (0:14)
As the parents in Divergent fade from the narrative, the opportunity for real life parents and teens to connect over the books grows.
Divergent deals explicitly with the loss of parents and growing independence. Other young adult books offer conversation starters for different issues.
Calley Craig and her mother Liz Craig read a lot of books together.
Fade up sounds of kitchen.
Fourteen-year-old Calley is fixing breakfast in her family’s kitchen nook. Her mother sits at the table.
You can’t hear Calley well, she’s yelling from another room, so I’ll summarize for her.
LIZ: She read Twilight but I don’t…
Calley says she read it in the fourth grade because a friend recommended it to her.
LIZ: Yea she read it really early –
Worst life decision she has ever made.
LIZ: She said that it traumatized her.
Calleys says that’s how she found out about sex. Every parent’s worst nightmare.
LIZ: I guess I didn’t talk with her early enough. I didn’t think fourth grade was the time. (0:25)
This kind of conversation is exactly what psychologist Smetana says can be beneficial about reading together.
SMETANA: Just sitting side by side and being there may not matter that much, but if it’s an opportunity to talk about what they’re seeing and what meaning they’re constructing from it I think that’s a really good opportunity. (0:13)
Even when it’s just about which books they like – or don’t. Liz recently read Divergent.
LIZ: So different from what I read when I was a kid. Calley likes to make fun of me because one of the books I remember enjoying so much was Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court so I made Calley read it. We have a mother daughter book club with two friends and I selected it for one of our monthly readings and…
CALLEY: Everyone hated it. (0:37)
Other mothers and daughters see more eye to eye on book selection.
Fifteen year old Mason Howard and her mom are on the same page. For the most part.
MASON: She’s the one who recommended Hunger Games to me. (0:03)
Mason resisted at first, saying she only wanted to read Harry Potter over and over.
MASON: But um she was like no you really should read this so I did and now it’s one of my favorite series. (0:06)
Mason’s mom Laura Howard was an English Literature major in college. She and Mason talk about the books they read – and how they can convey universal experiences of being a girl.
LAURA: It really does I think give you this jumping off point for uh you’re not the only girl to feel this way. And it doesn’t have to be in such extreme situations, as you know dividing into factions or going to war or whatever. (0:27)
Divergent is a book written primarily for teenage girls. It still has a love story, and a hunk. Actor Theo James portrays Four, the series’ heartthrob.
For girls like Mason, crushing on the love interest is just another factor of growing up and becoming independent. As a mom Laura gets it.
LAURA: I wish you could see her face. Oh it’s the tucked chin and the eyebrows going up and down and the eyes rolling you know it’s just (laughing)…she liked it. She liked Theo James a lot.
Unlike Tris’s parents, love interest Four makes it to the last page.
Caroline Ballard, Columbia Radio News.
HOST OUTRO: Caroline Ballard reported and produced this piece as her master’s thesis at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Kerry Donahue was her advisor and I’m your host, Matt Collette.
Diverging from Chick Lit: Teen Girls and Violent Young Adult Sci-Fi
Adviser: Kerry Donahue
Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels have always been my guilty pleasure. Growing up I read books like How I Live Now, The Girl Who Owned a City, the Uglies series, Harry Potter, and Twilight. I went to the midnight book releases and midnight movie premieres with all of my friends. As I grew older, the characters and their personalities stuck with me. I still admire characters like Hermione for her smarts and Tally for her defiance.
At the beginning of this school year, I read Divergent at the suggestion of a friend. She described it as similar to The Hunger Games, but not quite as compelling. I had enjoyed the Hunger Games and charted its rise to a mainstream obsession. Its violence and blatant graphic nature (The Hunger Games features an arena where children fight to the death) was a shift from the books I had read as a teenager just five or ten years ago. After some further research I realized Divergent’s final book and first movie were both to be released this year. I had seen how the Hunger Games had crossed over into mainstream pop culture and was curious to see if the similarly violent Divergent might do the same. Given my own experience, as well, I was curious to see how what you read influences your personality and book choices as an adult. Unfortunately this angle didn’t flesh out as I had wanted it.
During Master’s Week in October I went to several events for the release of the last Divergent book Allegiant. I went to a midnight book release in New Jersey and to a talk at the 92nd Street Y with Divergent’s author Veronica Roth. It was at that talk I found my first main character Calley Craig, a freshman in high school. I approached her and her friends and asked for an interview while they were waiting in line for Roth’s autograph. Over the next few months I conducted two more interviews with Calley and her mom.
I found my second main character through a friend of my mom; teen twins Parker and Mason Howard. Through the course of reporting I reached out to several adolescent psychologists, authors, book critics, and cultural critics to get their take one what was happening with these kinds of books. In the end I wish I had some more data and more of an angle on the publishing industry, but I never had any success cornering them for an interview.
In reporting this piece, I originally thought that I would need between twenty to thirty sources. A full audio project clocks in around twenty minutes, so I was treating it as a four-minute feature only with five times as much time. In reality, the more voices I added, the more complicated it was to listen to. Listening to other documentaries and thinking more about my own piece, I concluded that it would be better stay with one or two characters and follow them through a narrative arc with other voices sprinkled in. I tried to do this nearer to the end, but had less tape and action scenes with these characters than I would have liked.
In future documentaries, I would try and find one or two characters that have a more focused storyline and follow them to different locales where they could.
Overall this master’s project has given me an excellent insight into how to do a documentary piece of radio. I learned more about my own pacing as a reporter and it helped to hone my technical audio skills. Perhaps the biggest takeaway was getting experience working with and interviewing teenagers, which can be like talking to adults but must be exercised with more caution. Going forward, it’s something I’ll always have in mind when I interview teens.