The Female of the Species

The Female of the SpeciesWhen I started this blog around two years ago, I didn’t know what it might become, but I didn’t see it becoming a series of book reviews.  Then, last night, I finished a new book.  The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis.  And I can’t forget about it.  And it’s the end of Banned Books Week 2016.  And while I know this new release will (hopefully) catch a lot of attention in the near—and distant—future, someone needs to be talking about this book, now.

So, here is my 5/5 star review of The Female of the Species, the book that should be absolutely next on your To Be Read (TBR) list.

Disclaimer: This review may contain some spoilers, but my intention is not to talk about the plot of the story so much as some of the content and conversations this book has started about change that should be occurring in our contemporary culture.

I had heard about this book from some of my former coworkers at Barnes & Noble.  As mentioned in my other blog post, I really enjoy getting recommendations from booksellers, so picking the book up was more about the people who suggested it to me than what the book itself was about.  I don’t always read the “backs” of the books I read, either, because I’ve become frustrated by summaries that give away too much of the plot—or not enough, in the case of the ones that only contain celebrity blurbs.  So, quite frankly, short of knowing I respected the opinions of the other people who had already read this book, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

While the plot of this story is spectacular—a real page-turner with a handful of powerful, gut-wrenching twists—I loved this book for its approach to extremely difficult content.  Actually, “love” may be a poor choice of words.  This book is hard to think of with positive emotions for the same reason that it’s a perfect fit for Banned Books Week; if it hasn’t been challenged yet, it will be.  McGinnis unabashedly captures rape culture in an upfront, inescapable way.  It’s not romanticized.  It’s not referred to only in metaphors.  Sexual assault is identified for the horror that it is, and it is given a response.  And other elements of high school culture are shown in a garish, truthful light as well.  In fact, it is so graphic that many parents may (no, excuse me, will) baulk at it, claiming the content is inappropriate for the targeted age group.  On some baser level, I wish they were right.  I wish high school students didn’t have to be aware of the dangers the world has prepared for them.  Unfortunately, because of the environment we have currently found ourselves in, I would argue that they have to know about this stuff.  As one of my coworkers said, this book should not only be read by high school students, but also this should be a required reading book.

The reality is that this book will be challenged for the wrong reasons.  There’s booze, and drugs, and sex, and language.  And it’s all very detailed.  It made even me, a 24-year-old who works with undergraduate college students, uncomfortable at times.  But McGinnis isn’t writing about this stuff to encourage its use or acceptance by teenagers.  Instead, teenagers who read it are exposed how real and present these elements of culture are, whether they are the “fun”-filled versions, or the violent and dangerous counterparts.  Quite frankly, most students are already aware of these elements anyway.  I love this book, not because of its content, which I find disturbing and discomforting; I love this book because its author was unafraid to show high school and rape culture for what it is—frightening and inarguably real.

The Female of the Species is not only relevant for Banned Books Week, but also is relevant for other national and cultural issues we have present in our country today.  This book was published only weeks after Brock Turner’s early release from prison.  His experience facing charges for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, as well as the language surrounding him, her, and the case, has revealed the scandalous treatment of sexual assault and rape cases across the country.  Several groups and individuals have subsequently chosen to speak out about rape culture on college campuses, which is growing harder to ignore (thank goodness!).

At the same time, Turner’s situation hasn’t been the only thing drawing rape culture conversations out of the woodwork; documentaries fill DVDs and Netflix detailing recent developments, situations, and uncalled-for responses to claims of sexual assault and rape.  Moreover, more individuals are speaking out against the language that suggests women are “solely” responsible for ensuring men will not want to rape them, whether it relates to “what they were wearing” or “how they were conducting themselves.”  And we are seeing small instances of retribution and correction coming about from these changes, such as judges being held responsible for language they used toward victims in the courtroom.  Moreover, conversations are now louder on college campuses as victims and their friends refuse to be silent.  Many people are having the right conversations about what needs to change, but change at the institutional level is still negligible.

While trying not to give too much away, I just want to say that McGinnis looks at all sides of this issue in her book—when sexual assault is recognized, when it is reported, when “institutions” try to create change, and when that change doesn’t keep everyone safe.  This is the real mastery of the book, because the issues presented by a culture that “allows” men* to “take” what they believe they are entitled to cannot be ignored.  These issues are made all the more real through the multiple first-person perspectives.  We see what happens through the victims’ eyes, and through the eyes of those who try to help.  Honestly, McGinnis is pointing out how this situation is nowhere near healing itself.

[*I do want to say, quickly, that I recognize women are not the only victims of sexual assault.  In many ways, this is hinted at in the plot of The Female of the Species.  However, I believe the story is supposed to focus on the situations women—or, rather, girls—find themselves in.  This does not downplay the significance of other types of sexual assault and rape, but rather concentrates on one element to more sufficiently reveal the intricacies of the damage and darkness surrounding this single perspective on rape culture.]

This book is good because the characters are real.  While these particular victims’ stories are fictional, they might as well be borrowed from the pages of real-life accounts.  It’s good because, just like in real life, no easy Band-Aid is placed over a gaping wound.  In fact (again, as I try to not give too much away), McGinnis gives us a decently fictionalized ending that offers at least a little closure (more on this in a minute).  Even with this small element of poetic license that gives the book the feeling of ending in a “good” place, the very obvious message is that nothing is fully resolved. In the end, The Female of the Species is good because it is honest.

Spoiler Warning: the most disappointing reality check this book provides is that 99% of us don’t have an Alex.  Of course, I think both she and McGinnis would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Alex’s part of the story wraps up, her conversation with the reader makes it clear that she understands where her choices have brought her.  And while Peekay—and Branley, and Jack—may be forever grateful for those choices, their repercussions are ever-present and irreversible.

Yet, clearly, the change that occurs in situations of sexual violence, at least in the world of this small town, is all because there is an Alex.  It is what she does that draws to light the letters, and that changes the tone of the notes in the restrooms.  She shows you what happens when rape culture becomes personal as well as public.  In the world of the book, Alex is the integral component of the reactions to sexual violence, even as she is dependent on her relationships with Peekay and Jack to bring this out in her.

In the real world, victims are not “fortunate” enough to have a girl like Alex on their team.  But this. Should. Not. Stop. Us.

We need to have the courage and confidence to defend ourselves without someone stronger than us to support us.  I think that’s why Alex’s solutions aren’t presented as the be-all, end-all in the text.  McGinnis wants us to know that we don’t need to be—or have—an Alex to try for change in the way our communities perceive situations of sexual violence.  Peekay sees that in the end.  And she is encouraged to see others responding in the same way.  This book is so important, so key, because it says that something must be done to stop the current perception and response to sexual violence.  It also says that the response may not eliminate any or all threats, and each response has a time limit in its effectiveness.  But, finally, this book says that none of this should stop us from trying.

Related to the significance of Alex is the message this title alone carries.  The name of the book comes from the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same title, in which it is said, “for the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”  This line most directly represents Alex’s character, but it also helps to communicate the all-important truth that even girls can bring about change in contemporary environment and culture.  Their voices matter, because they have an in-born, natural strength that is recognized as powerful in defense of violent attacks.

I would never say that this book is beyond rebuke.  I’m a very picky reader, and I challenge myself to find things I “don’t like” in a text, even if I find myself appreciating the rest of it.  For instance, I think the ending of this story could have spent more time addressing the fact that victims with guilt should never be blamed for their responses to their attacks.  Peekay feels responsible for most of what happens in the second half of the story because she didn’t speak up.  And while I think McGinnis shows that time and understanding can begin to heal that wound, a more important message is that this guilt, while legitimate, is completely unfounded.  Yes, all situations on sexual violence should be reported; it is the best way to combat the current culture.  However, our focus on reporting should never be so strong as to make victims feel like they have contributed to the problem if they do not voice their experiences.  Communicating what happened to them is first and foremost personal; all resulting public outcry is secondary to their own healing.  If these two elements coincide, fantastic.  If they don’t, it is not the victim’s fault.

There are also moments in Jack’s part of the story that may be construed as contributing to the mindset that men and boys “cannot help themselves.”  His perception of sex gives an allusion to the common opinions that girls are asking for the attention they get.  Of course, in no instance does he act toward a girl who has told him “no.”  Similarly, I think he is an example of how boys can be victims of sexual harassment and abuse.  His years of exposure to a certain type of girl have left him both craving immediate sexual gratification and perhaps permanently separating emotion and sex from one another.  Do I think he is a small component of an overarching sexual violence culture? Absolutely.  Do I think it makes his role with Alex and Peekay any less authentic?   Absolutely not.  He may not be a perfect opposite to Ray, but his role does demonstrate that men who enjoy sex can still perceive rape culture as wrong.

Finally, I was a little uncomfortable with the way faith is handled in the story.  Of course this is purely on a personal level.  Out of all of the characters in this story, the only ones I find inauthentic are Peekay’s parents.  To me, it feels that a pseudo-rumspringa is used purely to allow Peekay to be present in all the situations the story creates—like being able to hang out with the same people after the first “incident.”  Also, as someone who theoretically shares the faith of Peekay’s parents, I want my response to situations of sexual violence to be more potent than what theirs are.  I understand that different Christians perceive the issue of rape culture in different ways, but I have issues placing this particular response in the mix.  It doesn’t detract from the overall story—and, as I said, it enables Peekay to be present where she’s needed for the movement of the plot.  I admit this is a personal dislike of an element of the story, even as it contributes to my perception of the book’s message.  If anything, other people of faith reading this should see that they are (a) not immune to sexual violence, and (b) as obligated to respond in appropriate ways as other members of the community and its institutions.

This review took me places I wasn’t expecting, but I feel that everything here had to be said.  In the end, The Female of the Species shares with us the all-important message: one person can become the courage others need to fight back against rape culture.

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