Book review by Femke Boom
The Female of the Species is a contemporary young adult novel written by Mindy McGinnis. It takes a closer look at ‘rape culture’, and depicts the struggles of girls regarding stigmas and the patriarchal society. It is told from the perspective of three characters: Alex, Jack, and Peekay.
Before I start with this book review, I would like to say that there are (trigger) warnings for The Female of the Species. This is a book that deals with heavy subjects, and it contains portrayals of sexual abuse, animal abuse, and mentions of murder.
“You see it in all animals – the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”
The story is about a girl called Alex, whose sister has been raped and murdered a few years prior to the setting of the book. Due to this event, Alex doesn’t look at the world in the same manner anymore; she starts to see people as a threat, and begins to train her body in order to be able to fight off men who can potentially hurt her. The tale kicks off with Alex running, partially as a workout and partially as a dark plan: she intents to kill her sister’s murderer. Being just a casual runner would make her seem innocent, and she’s convinced that, if she shows up at the killer’s doorstep, he would let her in without hesitation. The first chapter ends with her entering the man’s house, thinking: “this is how I kill”. The Female of the Species revolves around her darker side, and how the other characters interact with it. Not only that, but the story also takes a gloomy turn, so it can only end in disaster.
Alex and Peekay are initially just classmates, but they ended up volunteering at the same place for one of their high school classes: the animal shelter. They bond during their work, and witness various forms of animal abuse at the shelter. Peekay, short for ‘preacher kid”, is the only one who sees Alex’ softer side – protective and kind. One of the major moments they bond over is when they find an injured dog at the shelter that had been thrown over the fence around the shelter during the night. Alex is determined to give the dog something to calm down, while Peekay makes sure that the owner of the shelter does not notice it, because if the dog turns out to be violent, it has to be put down. Alex does get bitten and hides it; Peekay noticed it and helps her.
Peekay’s part of the story also shows how McGinnis plays with the typical notion of ‘girls hating girls’. This is in the form of Peekay being mad at the popular girl, Branley, the reasons being partially the looks – a girl who seemingly can get anything she wants, and does not seem to have to put in any effort – and the fact that her ex-boyfriend left Peekay for this other girl. Alex quickly shoots down this idea, saying that it is not Branley’s fault. Moreover, the idea that girls should stand up for each other rather than hate each other is emphasised. This becomes the most noticeable after Peekay nearly gets raped at a party; she got drugged and was nearly dragged away. This was prevented by Alex, as she watches everyone in the room in order to know who’s a threat, as well as Branley. The latter took care of Peekay, while Alex called the young men out who wanted to rape Peekay. After this, Peekay slowly changes her mind about the girl, and decides to be less judgemental.
The third perspective is Jack’s, a boy who has a crush on Alex. Jack seems like the jock stereotype at first sight, but is actually working hard – both in sports and classes at school, and a job at a slaughterhouse – in order to get a scholarship for college. He is enamoured of Alex, mostly because she is a mystery. He attempts several times to get closer to Alex, and eventually ends up in a relationship with her. Yet, not everything is what it seems, as Alex is hiding a big secret.
There are a few moments in The Female of the Species that stood out the most to me. One of them is when Alex watches a boy of perhaps 15 who’s, crudely said, dry-humping a basketball while other (male) students laugh at him. Alex finds it terribly disturbing, and thinks that something is wrong with society if men are allowed to do such vulgar things, while it is unacceptable when women would behave out of the ordinary.
“But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”
Another is when Peekay and another friend notice doodles of phalluses and lines degrading girls on lockers and in the girl’s bathrooms. They decide to clean all of it, and other girls start to help. Then one of them remarks that it is a ‘typical guy thing’, and that you never see women draw their genitals on every surface. Simply put: they don’t understand this ‘phenomenon’ that is present in society. Additionally, the girls felt violated because it would be across ‘their’ things (lockers) or in rooms only they would be ‘allowed’ to enter (bathrooms) – the drawings were often accompanied by lewd remarks about some of the girls at the school. Peekay’s friend decides to do something as a counteraction towards the dick doodles: next morning the students find that a vulva has been painted around the entrance doors. Many of the male students refuse to enter the school, while the girls just go in.
Lastly, at one point in the book a cousin of Peekay’s friend, just a child, is sexually abused by an uncle. It led to a quote that I found painful yet suitable for today’s society, especially when looking at sexual assault ratios:
“I live in a world where not being molested as a child is considered luck.”
Sexual abuse, both of adults and children, is inescapable in the news and on social media. The last few years it has slowly become more socially acceptable to come forward as a victim, rather than feeling like you have to hide it. Figures showed – something that is also mentioned in the book – that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused in the USA. In the Netherlands 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted; the majority of the victims were young people.
It is a novel that represents rape culture incredibly well, and in addition points at struggles of females within society. The Female of the Species reads like a thriller; as a reader, I often found myself in suspense. The only thing I disliked about this book is that it was hard to get a sense of where the storyline exactly was going. The whole high school environment, as well as the friendships with Peekay and Jack take a long time to describe or to grow. It feels like that took up the majority of the novel; over halfway through, the attempted rape of Peekay happens, and only then does the book really pick up and show what it is all spiralling down to. But it is well written overall, and a must read for the feminists of the species.