If Veronica Mars is Philip Marlowe in teen girl form, Alex, the protagonist of The Female of the Species is Dexter. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis is one part revenge fantasy, one part teen romance. It pairs angst over stolen boyfriends and uncertain futures with more serious subject matter focused on grief, trauma, and violence. (Trigger warnings: sexual violence, abuse)
In the novel, Alex Craft works to counteract her rage and animal instincts by volunteering at an animal shelter helping stray cats and dogs. In the meantime, she keeps the secret that she killed the man who raped and murdered her older sister and keeping an eye out for other predators. Meanwhile, she starts her first forays into friendship with Peekay, a pastor’s kid struggling with her own teen issues, and dating with Jack Fisher, a kid who wants nothing more than to get out of their small town for good.
The Female of the Species is compelling and has an interesting plot. What I liked most, however, was the depth and nuance with which McGinnis builds her characters. She moves beyond high school stereotypes and makes even minor characters who might not normally be sympathetic well-rounded and understandable. Sometimes I felt like the narration belabored the point that Alex was different, but the writing about her difference was still pretty delicious. For example: “Tonight they used words they know, words that don’t bother people anymore. They said bitch. They told another girl they would put their dicks in her mouth. No one protested because this is our language now. But then I used my words, strung in phrases that cut deep, and people paid attention; people gasped. People didn’t know what to think. My language is shocking” (146).
Elements of The Female of the Species sound like a cautionary tale. The book all but urges readers to report violence to the police and to intervene on behalf of their peers, no matter the peer pressure involved. Paired with the complicated portrayal of the characters, however, the book also creates space for working through the feelings of fear and guilt that might keep someone from speaking up. McGinnis makes her point without veering into afterschool special territory. The response of the characters toward violence directed at them is also potentially helpful. For example, after one character is assaulted and nearly raped, Alex tells her, “Physical attractiveness has nothing to do with it. You were alone, isolated, weak. The three of them had been watching girls all night, waiting for someone to separate from a group. It happened to you, but it could’ve been anyone. Opportunity is what matters, nothing else” (157). Afterward, the feelings of the character are not brushed aside and there is space created in her friendships for dealing with the emotional toll of the assault.
Although the novel is not wholly original, it is forceful and intriguing. The metaphors about the animal kingdom feel like the author riffing on the “Girl Worl” parts of Mean Girls and the more sociopathic elements seem borrowed from Dexter. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see the darker parts packaged in the character of a teen girl. While not going so far as to condone Alex’s violence, the novel uses her thoughts about it to take poignant jabs at rape culture and its bystanders. It reminded me at times of Jessica Jones and is in keeping with the trend toward anti-heroes that so often leaves the females of the species out of the vengeance.