Book Review: The Female of the Species, Mindy McGinnis (2016)

September 19th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

There aren’t enough stars in the universe.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including rape and pedophilia. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)

The shelter is running a neuter-and-spay clinic next month. One of my jobs this morning is to get the mail, fighting the urge to throw a rock at a speeding car when the driver wolf-whistles at me. The mailbox is full of applications for the clinic, most of them for dogs but a handful of cats as well. Rhonda, the lady who runs the shelter, has me sort them out, dogs and cats, male and female.

Rhonda snorts when she sees all the male dogs on the roster. “People don’t learn,” she says.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Everyone thinks if you fix a male dog it will lower his aggression, but most of the biters are female. It’s basic instinct to protect their own womb. You see it in all animals—the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

The books didn’t help me find a word for myself; my father refused to accept the weight of it. And so I made my own. I am vengeance.

Like her father before her, who abandoned the family when she was a kid, Alex Craft has violent tendencies. Unlike Daddy Dearest, however, what piques Alex’s rage is injustice: bullying, animal abuse, rape jokes, and violence (particularly that of a sexual nature). If her father had stayed, it’s entirely possible that they would have come to blows, since he sometimes seemed one frayed nerve away from wife beating territory. But Alex saw him as a kindred spirit, and in his absence, she has no one to relate to or confide in. No one to teach her how to channel her rage in a productive way.

Alex’s older sister Anna helped to keep her wolf caged. When Anna was murdered, Alex unlocked the door.

Alex’s freshman year of high school, Anna went missing. Days later, her body – or parts of it, anyway – were discovered in a local field. The popular consensus was that a man named Comstock was to blame; but, absent any physical evidence, he was never charged. He was Alex’s first kill. (This is an accurate statement, but also makes it sound like Alex is a legit serial killer. She’s not, not really. Mostly Alex just beats up bullies in defense of self and others.)

Now it’s three years later, senior year. In the interim – and for most of her life, really – Alex has successfully shut herself off from others. Not because she doesn’t care, but because she cares too much; and she doesn’t trust herself, a wolf, to walk among the sheep she’s vowed to protect.

Yet her meticulously crafted façade is about to be breached by two fellow classmates: Peekay (short for “Preacher’s Kid”; Alex prefers to call her by her real name, Claire), who Alex meets and (reluctantly) befriends while volunteering at the animal shelter as part of her “Senior Year Experience”; and Jack, her main competitor for valedictorian and a member of the search team that found Anna’s body (kind of). Slowly but surely, they creep and wiggle and poke holes in her armor, drawing Alex into their world – that of high school seniors – for better or for worse.

This world, of course, is marked by sexism, misogyny, and rape culture. The Female of the Species is a both a brilliant and nuanced exploration of rape culture and a thoughtful treatise on violence. McGinnis adeptly places rape jokes, slut shaming, victim blaming, sexist double standards, non-consensual photo taking and sharing, unwanted touching, sexual harassment, and other ostensibly “nonviolent” violations on the same continuum as sexual assault and rape, showing how the “less serious” offenses allow more egregious forms of violence to flourish. In the form of Alex Craft, antihero, she also poses some rather weighty and vexing questions about the morality and interconnectedness of violence: when the justice system is anything but, is vengeance an acceptable alternative? Can you fight monsters without becoming one yourself? Are all killers equal?

** Caution: Spoilers head! **

Given how much we celebrate antiheroes – in the form of Dexter Morgan and Walter White, Deadpool and Catwoman* – all of Alex’s bellyaching over her “baddie” status made me want to variously shake her…and give her a freaking medal. (And just plain shake those who thought she ought to be reported to the police for stopping a rape in progress! You can’t humiliate a misogynist without tearing some cartilage, okay.) I’m not just a member of Team Alex, I am the head freaking cheerleader.

Dexter Morgan is the obvious point of comparison – so much so that I initially dubbed this “Dexter Does Degrassi” – yet it’s not wholly accurate to call Alex the teenage girl’s answer to Dexter. At the series’s outset, Dexter is presented as a textbook-case sociopath. He exhibits little, if any empathy, and does not feel shame, guilt, or remorse for his crimes. (He worries what his family will think if he’s ever caught, but that’s different: an awareness of society’s mores, if not an acceptance.) He has trouble maintaining close relationships with others, yet is a master manipulator: aside from Doakes, Dexter is easily able to win over others with donuts and false charm. His emotions are shallow, and for a long time Dexter remains convinced that he’s incapable of feeling love. His career as a serial killer started early, when he tortured and killed nonhuman animals for kicks.

Alex is, by her own admission, Dexter’s opposite: her problem isn’t that she doesn’t care; rather, she cares too much. Alex’s rage doesn’t rear up at random times; instead, it’s inflamed by injustice. Bullying, rape jokes, sexism, and violence (often of a sexual nature) are her calls to action. Every single time we see Alex lash out, it’s reactionary: in response to a wrong done – either to her or another vulnerable being – by another.

Indeed, she’d be appalled by young Dex’s treatment of animals. During her time volunteering at the animal shelter, we see Alex (and Peekay) protect and nurture the dogs and cats placed in her care. McGinnis does a lovely – if heartbreaking – job of portraying the inner workings of a “pound.” Animals at this tri-county Ohio shelter are held to a one strike rule: one bite and you’re done. Since dogs often bite when scared, and shelters are a damn scary place, Alex recognizes the unfairness of this:

A dog that bites is a dead dog. First day at the shelter and I already saw one put to sleep, which in itself is a misleading phrase. Sleep implies that you have the option of waking up. Once their bodies pass unconsciousness to something deeper where systems start to fail, they revolt a little bit, put up a fight on a molecular level. They kick. They cry. They don’t want to go. And this happens because their jaws closed over a human hand, ever so briefly. Maybe even just the once. But people, they get chances. They get the benefit of the doubt. Even though they have the higher logic functioning and they knew when they did it THEY KNEW it was a bad thing.

When Alex is bitten by a frightened and injured dog – dumped at the shelter overnight by a human hoping to avoid paying the surrender fee – she and Peekay conspire to hide it from their boss Rhonda. Instead of reporting the bite – perhaps ending the senior volunteer program for good – she patiently coaxes the dog into a kennel and sits with her until she’ll eat. Peekay observes Alex’s calming (almost hypnotically so) effect on terrified dogs and fussy kittens alike.

While Alex walls herself off from her peers, it’s not so much because she fears she’ll hurt them physically. Rather, she quakes at how they might view her – if they ever got to know the “real” her, the wolf that lurks instead her girl-skin:

It’s not the sheep that call to me, but the other wolves. I want to run with them, so that I may tear out their throats when they threaten my flock. But I can’t return to the sheep with blood on my breath; they will shy away from me.

It’s true that Dexter almost exclusively kills baddies – a monster hunting even worse monsters – but this is thanks to Harry and his Code. Recognizing early on that his adopted son had all the makings of a serial killer – and that sociopathy isn’t amenable to psychiatric treatment – Harry decided to make lemonade by teaching Dexter to target violent criminals, preferably those the law couldn’t touch: rapists, murderers, human traffickers, pedophiles. This is similar to Alex’s M.O., yes, but not as a matter of necessity: in the absence of “bad guys” to punish, Dexter Morgan would still be a killer; Alex, not so much. Harry just found him better targets for his rage.

Of course, Dexter evolves over the course of the show: his relationships with his sister Debra and wife Rita (and especially Rita’s brutal murder at the hands of his nemesis, Arthur Mitchell – played brilliantly by John Lithgow); the birth of his son, Harrison; and his Season Five Roaring Rampage of Revenge with Lumen – all challenge him to become a better, more human person. It’s even debatable whether Dexter was destined to become a killer – or if Harry’s reluctant tutelage made him into one.

If anything, Alex is what Dexter is evolving toward. Or maybe Alex is Lumen, at least for that brief period in her life. Either way, it makes her a much easier (anti) hero to root for. And root I did!

(All that said, I kind of have to believe that McGinnis was at least partially inspired by Dexter, given that she drops a reference to the “dark passenger.” Granted, it comes from Jack’s mouth, and in relation to the unknown DNA of outsiders – but still! I squealed and did a happy dance.)

In Peekay vs. Alex, McGinnis also explores the difference between fantasizing about violence – and actually carrying it out. Alex prevents Peekay from lashing out at Branley – who “stole” her boyfriend Adam – with the caution that violence changes you. Indeed, once she resolved to kill Comstock, Alex recognized that this act would pull her into a circle of violence, one from which there’s no good escape: violence begets violence.

It’s obvious from the beginning that the story will end badly for Alex, either with her death or capture. I almost didn’t finish it for this very reason: because I desperately wanted for Alex to have a happy ending. I thought she deserved as much, and the thought of anything else made my stomach gurgle with anxiety.

And while Alex does indeed fall, the ending wasn’t quite as bad as I’d feared. In death, Alex finds sympathy and understanding from unexpected places – particularly Branley, who she died saving from a gang rape; Jack, who was nearly forced to witness it; and Sara, whose family was saved from the (potential) horror of a trial when Alex killed the uncle who molested her sister. Alex’s grave becomes a shrine for other victims and survivors, and her sacrifice inspires in her peers their own “small rebellions”: identifying their rapists on the walls of the girl’s room stalls; making a scene over non-consensual touching; painting a giant vagina on the front entrance. (My favorite? When the art teacher covers for the would-be Georgia O’Keeffe.)

You might wonder – as many of the characters do – why didn’t Alex just go to the police? For me, this crossroads is where fantasy veers oh-so-tragically toward reality. Since most of Alex’s ire is directed at sexual violence – and rape culture in general – this is where I’ll focus my attention. The simple answer is that the justice system, as it currently exists, is anything but just: for victims of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. For women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, the disabled, the poor, sex workers, etc.

Statistics on rape and sexual violence bear this out. According to RAINN, 1 out of 6 American women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. For men, this number is 1 in 33. Every 2 minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S.; 1 out of 10 are men. Young people between the ages of 12 and 34; trans, genderqueer, and gender nonconforming people; Native Americans; and incarcerated people are at greatest risk. The majority of sexual assaults (2/3) are not reported to the police, and the vast majority of perpetrators (994/1000) go unpunished.

McGinnis addresses this concern in a rather clever way with the introduction of Nolan, the “cool” cop who reaches out to Alex’s class via an assembly. He drops some hard truths on sexual assault and encourages the kids to come forward if they see anything bad go down. He promises to believe them, no matter what.

Yet he also engages in some gross, victim-blaming language:

“So you’re drinking, no big deal,” Nolan says. “Except maybe it is, not because you’re under twenty-one and it’s illegal, but because of what happens next.”

So I get the reasoning behind this, I really do. Intoxication impairs your judgment and makes you an easier target for a rapist. But this doesn’t stop rape, people! This only (maybe) prevents you from becoming a victim. If you’re not drunk (or upset, or distracted, or lost, or alone, etc., etc., etc.), your would-be rapist will just move on to someone who is. Steering a predator toward weaker prey is not a victory, okay.

And beer doesn’t rape people! People rape people. Or, more accurately, men rape people, as a vast majority of perpetrators are men. If alcohol causes a perfectly nice person to turn into a rapist (see, e.g., Brock Turner’s defense), and women pound ’em back at a rate similar to the guys, then why don’t we see an equal number of cases where drunk women rape unconscious men with foreign objects? It’s not about sex, or drugs, or booze, or crossed signals – it’s about power and control. Asserting your dominance over others. In Peekay’s words, “[W]ho wants to be crushed when you can do the crushing?”

Furthermore, Nolan is but one cog in a much larger machine. He might believe victims and treat them with compassion and empathy, but what about everyone else? Will the prosecutor bring charges, even if it’s hard-to-win case? Will the jury indict your rapist? What about the judge – will he (or she!) allow the prosecutor to discuss your sexual history, what you were wearing at the time of the rape, whether you led your rapist on in any way? Will the perp’s friends and family shame and blame you in the media? Will the jury vote to convict, or believe your rapist when he claims that you “wanted it” – even though you were passed out, unconscious behind a Dumpster when the rape occurred? Even if you prevail, a trial can be traumatic AF.

It boggles my mind when people say that a woman’s just “crying rape” to get back at a guy for a minor slight; there’s so little to be gained for women who pursue charges, and so very much to lose. Our culture is not kind to rape survivors.

And we see how the system failed Sara and her family. The uncle’s predilection for child porn was common knowledge in this small Ohio town. Yet he was not only allowed to walk free, but apparently given access to young children!

Given all this, I’m hard-pressed not to cheer for Alex when she torches a pedophile or disfigures a serial rapist. It’s easy because it’s fiction, a fantasy; yet I also cheer for those rare real-life cases that reflect Alex’s experiences. My favorite is the woman from Crete who set fire to a British man’s genitals when he tried to assault her in a bar. Imagine if would-be rapists were just as likely to be chased down by a pack of vigilantes – men and women and everyone in between – as they were to get away with it. Methinks there’d be less rape in the world, okay.

** End of spoilers. **

As a fan of rape revenge stories and cerebral dissections of rape culture both, The Female of the Species spoke – no, sang – to me. As always, McGinnis’s writing is a work of art: raw and beautiful and full of sharp edges and other pointy objects. I love the alternating perspectives of Alex, Peekay, and Jack…even if I hated Jack himself, and never thought him good enough for Alex. Seriously, his womanizing is gross. It’s one thing if everyone’s engaging in casual sex in the know, but he admits to stringing girls along for sex and money. Nope, no thanks, no want. Good day, sir.

In many ways, Alex reminded me of the anti-hero of another favorite book: Delilah Marlow of Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie trilogy. Alex’s declaration that “I am vengeance” is reminiscent of Delilah’s own call to arms: “I deal in morality, not in law.” And in many ways, this is exactly what Alex does: she metes out justice (or revenge, if you prefer) on behalf of the little guys, when the law will not (or cannot). What Delilah is to cryptids (or nonhumans in general), Alex is to women and children. And they’ve both laid claim to my heart.

* It’s interesting to note that, of all the examples I came up with, nearly all were men. As for the women – Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Harlequin – their status as antiheroes vs. straight-up villains is a matter of ongoing debate. It just goes to show how we celebrate violent men but condemn (or are at least more ambivalent about) violent women. Double standard much?

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Like her father, who left the family when she was a kid, Alex Craft has violent impulses. Unlike Daddy Dearest, Alex’s rage is most often aroused by injustice, such as bullying, bigotry, and violence (particularly that of a sexual nature, e.g., sexual harassment, rape, and rape apologism). Dexter Morgan is an obvious point of comparison, though not completely accurate. Whereas the baddies are just a convenient outlet for Dexter’s (allegedly untreatable) sociopathic impulses, one devised for him my his adoptive father Harry, the baddies are the very source of Alex’s violence. Put another way, in the absence of “bad guys” to punish, Dexter Morgan would (or might, depending on whether you think his career as a serial killer was inevitable) still be a killer; Alex, not so much. If anything, she’s what Dexter is evolving toward later in the series, after the birth of his son Harrison and his Roaring Rampage of Revenge with Lumen in Season 5.

When Alex was a freshman in high school, her older sister Anna was abducted, raped, and murdered. Parts of her mutilated body were discovered in a field, but her killer was never brought to justice due to lack of evidence. However, the popular consensus is that the perp was a man named Comstock. In the months after Anna’s death, and with much planning, Alex gains access to his home (where it’s implied that he tried victimizing her as well) and then tortures and kills him. She’s never caught, possibly because the police didn’t try all that hard to find Comstock’s killer.

While Comstock was Alex’s first kill, he won’t be her last. Three years later, while Alex and her new friend Jack and Peekay are at a party in an abandoned church, a “tweaker” named Ray Parsons and a group of his friends drug Peekay and attempt to rape her. Alex breaks it up, punching one guy in the kidneys and mutilating Ray (she rips off his nose chain, and part of his earlobe and nose with it). Months later, she gets into an altercation with the same group of men, preventing them from raping classmate Branley Jacobs and possibly hurting Jack. She shoots and kills Ray with his own shotgun; Ray’s friend tackles her on a pile of rubble, and her skull caves in.

Prior to this, Alex also killed Sara’s uncle, who molested Sara’s younger sister. It was common knowledge that the guy was into child porn, yet he was somehow allowed to walk free and gain access to young children.

Alex also uses violence in defense of self. When Park attempts to give her a slobbery, unsolicited “for show” kiss, she drops him with a punch to the balls. She once broke her wrist by punching her locker in response to a rape joke, and so on.

This book is a brilliant commentary on rape culture, astutely placing “harmless” beliefs and behaviors (rape jokes, slut shaming, unwanted fondling, double standards) on the same continuum as sexual violence. McGinnis explores the moral and practical implications of violence, e.g., the difference between fantasizing about violence and actually carrying it out in real life; whether violence can ever be considered “just” or “right,” particularly when the justice system is anything but; and if, in hunting monsters, you are destined to become one yourself.

After their assaults, both Peekay and Branley suffer from PTSD.

Sara is a lesbian.

Ever since Anna’s death (and possibly starting earlier, when her husband left her), Alex’s mom has suffered from depression and alcoholism.

Animal-friendly elements: At the start of her senior year, Alex begins volunteering at the animal shelter for her “Senior Year Experience”; it’s here that she meets and befriends Peekay. While the book’s exploration of violence primarily focuses on sexual violence and revenge, their experiences at the shelter also inform the conversation. Most often, dogs and cats are seen as the victims of human violence. For example, Alex explains how dogs who bite just once – even if it’s out of fear, and the human’s fault – are be “put to sleep”:

A dog that bites is a dead dog. First day at the shelter and I already saw one put to sleep, which in itself is a misleading phrase. Sleep implies that you have the option of waking up. Once their bodies pass unconsciousness to something deeper where systems start to fail, they revolt a little bit, put up a fight on a molecular level. They kick. They cry. They don’t want to go. And this happens because their jaws closed over a human hand, ever so briefly. Maybe even just the once. But people, they get chances. They get the benefit of the doubt. Even though they have the higher logic functioning and they knew when they did it THEY KNEW it was a bad thing.

Yet little (if any) punishment awaits the human who tosses a garbage bag full of puppies out of a moving vehicle, as happens when Alex and Peekay are alone at the shelter.

“You swerved to miss the bag. You care enough to report it. So why didn’t you stop and do something yourself?”

“My kids are in the minivan,” she says. “I didn’t want them to see anything they shouldn’t. Look, I’m doing everything I can. I feel sorry for those puppies—”

“I’m sure they appreciate your pity,” I say.

“Three puppies,” she says. “Two broken necks and an asphyxiation.”

A puppy feels like life and love. Their entire bodes are soft—fur, skin, the pads of their feet new and delicate. They radiate warmth in the way science can explain, but it goes further than that. The heat of affection pours out of their eyes and makes their little butts wiggle like crazy as soon as they see a person—they don’t even care who. They’re love, encapsulated. And someone touched that, put it in a bag, and killed it.

Alex’s protective instincts extend to the animals placed in her care as well: when an injured dog who was dumped at the shelter overnight – tied to a fence and abandoned – bites Alex in the bum, she and Peekay conspire to hide the injury from their boss Rhonda. They even steal a sedative from the medicine cabinet and slip it to the poor dog, so she won’t attack the vet during her exam.

Whereas Alex is awkward around people, she has a hypnotic effect on animals; she’s able to calm nervous dogs and cats alike, and has infinite patience for them.

While she has a seemingly bottomless well of compassion for those in need, there’s no doubt that she still sees animals as “less than,” as evidenced by this passage:

In my mind there is a scale. I do not know how many small lives add up to a big one, or if there is a formula to work it out. How many cats do I have to save? How many dogs?

McGinnis also introduces an interesting thread in the form of Jack, who is working alongside his father at a slaughterhouse in order to save up for college. While the work repulses him, he agreed to take the job (when offered by his father) because he didn’t want to hurt his father’s feelings (i.e., by acting superior to him or above it all). However, this is mostly a missed opportunity: McGinnis doesn’t explore the psychological effects of repetitive, normalized violence on slaughterhouse workers, nor does she connect the cows on our plates to the dogs and cats that Alex tries so hard to save.

 

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