Everyone Knows Where They Belong

The Choosing Ceremony, the Sorting Hat, the Reaping: YA and the quest to know who you are.

Shailene Woodley in Divergent.
Shailene Woodley in Divergent—where 16-year-old kids choose their factions and then stay there for life.

Photo courtesy Jaap Buitendijk/Summit Entertainment, LLC.

A pie chart of the society in Divergent, the YA franchise coming to theaters Friday, would have five slices, representing the five types of people in the fictional universe devised by author Veronica Roth: Dauntless, Amity, Candor, Erudite, and Abnegation. Dauntless are the warrior class, those in Amity farm the earth, the clever Erudite store knowledge, Candor members enact the law, and selfless Abnegation leads. “It all works,” explains Tris (Shailene Woodley) in the opening voice-over, referring to the system by which 16-year-old kids choose their factions and then stay there for life. “Everyone knows where they belong.”

Meanwhile, in another community in another YA fantasy universe, the student body cleaves into quarters. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Dauntless are still the heroes, but here they’re called Gryffindors. Erudite becomes Ravenclaw. Amity is Hufflepuff. (You can always count on the kindest and most hardworking souls to populate the underclass). The analogy falls short of perfect: No faction in Roth’s transformed Chicago sucks up malfeasants quite like the Harry Potter series’ Slytherin. Abnegation—where Tris starts her journey of self-discovery—lacks a counterpart in J.K. Rowling’s Britain (except for maybe the House Elves). But everyone still knows where they belong.  

Then there are the 12 districts of Panem in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Each has a distinct character derived from its share of natural resources and closeness to the Capitol. In The Giver, slated to arrive in theaters this summer, a perfect society hands down “roles” to 12-year-olds, and those roles become life sentences. (“Receive your destiny,” breathes the text at the end of the trailer.) Likely as not, all of this essentialist categorization stirs some primeval memory in you, a fever dream of anxiety, confederacy, and Tater Tots. Jocks in one corner, geeks in the other. Norms, princesses, and stoner-criminals in the middle. What is the urtext of the young-adult fantasy novel? It’s the high school cafeteria. 

“You never truly leave high school,” proclaimed Jennifer Senior (or her headline writer) in a long 2013 feature for New York magazine. There’s evidence that these labels—Brain, Goth, Golden God—cling to us for the rest of our lives. In a 2000 study, psychologists asked a group of 10th-graders to pick the character from the Breakfast Club they most closely identified with. Then, when the students were 24, the researchers circled back and found those stereotypes “immensely predictive,” according to a variety of metrics. Some interesting exceptions arose: While 16-year-old “princesses” had higher self-esteem than “brainy” girls of the same age, by 24 the tables had turned, and the smart girls reported more confidence. But for the most part, destinies had gelled rather than melted: Former “jocks,” for instance, proved especially self-assured eight years later, and former “criminals” were especially likely to get high.

High school is where we do a lot of the work of self-creation. As Senior explains, our teenage years fine-tune the prefrontal cortex, where abstract thinking and a sense of identity take shape; also, the dopamine flooding our synapses gives everyday life a formative luminance. Experiences are so intense that even tiny things seem significant, each an attempt by the universe to tell us who we are. We approach peak narcissism in adolescence, but perhaps that’s because the stakes seem stratospheric. Just like the 12-year-olds in The Giver, the 16-year-olds in Divergent, and the first-years in Harry Potter, high schoolers are moving uneasily into self-conceptions that will, they think, seal their fates.

Of course, those dopamine-dazzled brains are still maturing, so a full command of abstract thought remains out of reach. Which means that teenagers can be the most literal-minded people you’ll ever meet in your life. Self-invention is hard, and it helps to have a set blueprint. Enter labels and stereotypes: the Gryffindors, Givers, and Geeks who turn the chaotic terrarium of high school into a taxonomist’s paradise.

But it’s not just teenagers. Teenagers aren’t the only ones taking BuzzFeed quizzes, are they? In Slate, Emma Roller has written about those quizzes and the deep pleasure we all take in cognitive shortcuts. Games that “dictate people’s behavior based on random characteristics,” she argues, “[appeal] to a naïve desire to simplify the world.” When Kate Winslet’s totalitarian official sits across from Tris in an immaculately tailored suit and exquisite makeup and feeds her the usual lines about peace, harmony, and “all things in their place” (surely the lorem ipsum of movie villainy), the order Muppet in me desperately wants to believe her.  

Yet BuzzFeed quizzes, Sorting Hats, and Choosing Ceremonies tap into something arguably weirder than the human love of taxonomy. They speak to a kind of magical thinking wherein one slender detail branches into a thousand meaningful results. It goes like this: If you capture that one essential fact about you (“I’m clever” or “I’m kind”), you have found the skeleton key—the snitch!—and unlocked everything. In the same way, we try to funnel tremendous amounts of meaning into 140 characters, or the half inch of space that is Facebook’s “about me” section. We collect symbols, scraps of info that represent the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe that’s why the worlds of young-adult fiction are soaked in abstractions made literal. Panem selects children from each district to serve as sacrificial synecdoches of all their friends and neighbors. Harry Potter and his friends compete in House Cups, the outcomes of which define the emotional takeaway of a year at Hogwarts. (The Potter era was a rough one for, say, his Hufflepuff contemporaries.) These teens can take symbolizing to an extreme: When Tris and her boyfriend Four feel strongly about something, they get it tattooed on their bodies. (For example, Tris fears birds, so she expresses that by inking birds onto her sternum.) I couldn’t help laughing when Four finally showed Tris the markings on his back. “I don’t want to be just one thing,” he tells her, as she traces a finger down the emblems that represent courage, wisdom, honesty, selflessness, and kindness. He wants to be five things. Got it!

But there is another, simpler explanation for the sorting mania in YA fantasy: herd instinct. In what Senior calls the “redbrick, linoleum-tiled perdition” of high school, only 37 percent of friendships are reciprocal. According to Senior, even kids deemed popular by their peers confessed to researchers that they felt hated and alone. As family dynamics shift in confusing ways, a lot of teens hunger for community, and YA fiction mines that wish with its visions of deep group cohesion. (Teen readers know this well: For the many who’ve attached firmly to one universe or another, fandom itself becomes a surrender to a higher power.) At Divergent’s Choosing Ceremony, when Winslet’s character says the participants will discover “who you really are and where you truly belong,” the second part of her statement taps into a yearning both older and younger than the first. Scenes from Divergent are thinly veiled high school set pieces: Tris enters the underground lunchroom at Dauntless headquarters and wonders where to sit, Tris watches her friends chat from behind a pane of glass. At one point, her new faction lifts her and the other initiates into the air and the moment is insanely, unapologetically euphoric. Who cares about authoritarian government? Everything’s cool when you’re part of a team!  

The Potterverse traffics in the same dream of total belonging. All of Rowling’s Gryffindor heroes marry each other, just like members of Roth’s factions or Collins’ districts. And the Sorting Hat is mostly a benign, cozy presence, who charmingly promises:

Now slip me snug about your ears, 
I’ve never yet been wrong, 
I’ll have a look inside your mind 
And tell where you belong!

In other words, this won’t hurt a bit!

Except that, sometimes, it does. The flip side of all the unity and togetherness is that it can snuff out individuality, as Tris learns when (spoiler!) a mind-control serum transforms her friends into drones. Resisting categorization becomes central to the mythology of each universe: Harry could have been either Gryffindor or Slytherin, and Tris is not Dauntless but Divergent—an uncontainable mix of courage, brains, and goodness. In the end, these heroes confront not just the beauty but the terror of labels, and they come to know both the terror and the beauty of standing apart. Even Tris’ great fear, alive in her bird tattoo, doubles as Katniss Everdeen’s Mockingjay, a sign of her refusal to be seduced by the promise of belonging.

And all of this makes sense: As much as teenagers (and adults!) yearn to blend in, they/we also want to shine forth as special snowflakes. (And if we are more self-conscious now than we were, perhaps that’s because the Web gives us so many fresh opportunities to perform our selves?) We don’t feel like anybody else. So our fictional avatars flirt with categories and then reject them, striking out on richer and lonelier quests for identity. Still, it is probably telling that both Roth and Rowling have a lingering affinity for the “brave” ones. Self-creation may require a dash of Erudite cleverness or a degree of Hufflepuffian labor, but it is precisely an act of courage – and no less so for being one that every teenager, hero or not, must undertake.