Book Review: The Female of the Species

25812109 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.

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When People Pull a Lugubrious Face

We have a problem. We need everyone to be part of the solution. 
This week, I’ve been reminded of my favorite line from Go Set a Watchman, which I wrote about in my dissertation:
“As I sit here and breathe, I never thought the good God would let me live to see someone walk into the middle of a revolution, pull a lugubrious face, and say, ‘What’s the matter?” ― Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman
The novel takes place in Alabama shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. A grown-up Scout Finch returns home from New York City and can’t wrap her head around why the people she grew up around are suddenly so racist and why the black woman who raised her is now so distant. Much of the drama of the novel rests on Scout learning not to be so oblivious. People’s feelings haven’t changed. The political climate has forced them into the light, beyond the norms and politeness of Southern gentility. (It’s a great book, by the way.)

I have seen a lot of people on the internet this week calling people babies and entitled and stupid for being upset about the election or for protesting or for being afraid. First of all, that’s rich considering the obstructionism of Congress over the last eight years. More importantly, however, I have seen more people writing about fear for their lives or their safety. I have seen reports of harassment, assault, and threats at the hands of those who feel like they have won the right to be racist or sexist monsters because of the rhetoric of our president-elect and those who endorsed him. You do not have the right to be a monster. No matter your politics, you do not have the right to verbally or physically assault your fellow citizens. You do not have the right to violate their constitutional rights.

2fc7aedabba383f448717e5b9638b521Listen to me carefully, please. The upset and protest and tears are not about losing the election. This anguish people express is about feeling that the election was a referendum on the character of the country, and the country is now in the hands of a man with no character. This is about people being scared for their civil rights, based on statements the president-elect campaigned on.

 

If you voted for Donald Trump for reasons that are not racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic, it is now essential that you speak up on behalf of minorities who are afraid for their own security. Your voice has been heard and changes will be made. It is essential, however, for you not to ignore how hate groups such as the KKK feel emboldened by his election to treat people like second class citizens or to violently lash out at them. I’m not talking partisan politics right now. I’m talking things that are actually happening, right now, in our country. As my husband said, the election has to do with more than just the candidate himself, but the impact his or her words and actions have on the larger population. Not everyone will understand or pay attention to foreign policy, but they will understand a powerful man laughing that he can grab women “by the pussy.”

If you think that is dramatic, you need to pay more attention. Here are some resources, from the many available, some of them crowd-sourced if you’re one who distrusts the media:

(With thanks to my friend Megan, for tirelessly posting examples to Facebook.)

Please, don’t pull a lugubrious face and brush these fears under the rug. If you are calling for unity, you need to be part of that unity by speaking out against those who are saying things that suggest that the United States is a country just for white men or that men can treat women however they please. If you do not say anything, you are complicit. Your silence is support and agreement. It reflects on your character and your values. People are watching. Show up. Please.

Speak up if Trump tries to silence the press. Speak up if you see someone threatening another person. Speak up if you hear someone say something shitty, hateful, sexist, or racist, or otherwise bigoted. Set a better tone. Wear a safetypin. Be a good example. Please.

See Also: To My Friends and Family Who Voted for Donald Trump

Messages New Yorkers Left on the Walls of the Subway after the Election

A Bystander’s Guide to Standing Up Against Islamaphobic Harassment

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I saw this on Facebook via my friend Stephanie, who shared from Instagram. I’ve seen it many times since, but no one can seem to figure out who posted first. Thanks, whoever you are.

When You Marry an Ally

Next to Ron Swanson, my husband is the most “manly” man I know. Also, the best. Hands down.

As I previously mentioned, Election Night was rough in our house.

The past few days have been getting better, but I keep waking up hoping it was all a nightmare, quickly cycling through the stages of grief a la Leslie Knope–denial, bargaining, anger, no I won’t accept this.

I also previously mentioned how inspired and motivated I am by those who are using this loss as a rallying cry to do more and better social justice work, and to be better allies and neighbors. That continues to be true. What I haven’t really mentioned is how phenomenal my husband, my partner has been.

We have been married a little more than a year, and what has surprised me the most about marriage is how his character continues to reveal itself to me. I knew him pretty darned well when we got married, but I am still learning things about him and about how good a person he really is.

This election has been tough for Julio, but he has also been so attentive to my feelings of anger and grief. He has tried his best to cheer me up. He has sworn to wear his Knope ’16 every day. Today is day three. More importantly, he is continuing his efforts to be a good man and a good ally to women in his industry.

Recently, he was asked to be part of a diversity committee at work, part of the company’s effort to do a fairer job of hiring good people (Rock on). Wednesday night at dinner, Julio told me that he thought that they were actually doing okay in terms of racial diversity, but they could do better at hiring women and giving them a voice in the company. “There’s a woman on the committee, too. How do I address that issue without mansplaining?” he asked.

We talked about it. I suggested bringing the issue up, and leaving a beat for the woman to pick it up, if she wanted to. If not, proceed with what he wanted to say. Sometimes it’s enough to bring an issue to the table and let a more directly affected party take it from there. But you don’t want to make that person be a spokesperson for their minority group, either.

Objectively, this effort is not huge, but it is a contribution, and it is important. Thanks, bae. I see you; I hear you; I love you. I’m sorry if me bragging on you makes you uncomfortable.

Men, there are so many ways you can help, even without much effort:

101 Everyday Ways for Men to Be Allies to Women

5 Ways Men Can Be Allies to Women at Work

10 Ways Men Can Be Feminist Allies, Because Yes, Feminism is for Everybody

When the Ceiling Doesn’t Shatter

Gif sent to my BFF at 9:12 last night. The feeling persists.

Last night, my husband held me while I wept, realizing that we were not electing our first female president. Instead, we were elevating the unqualified playground bully to the highest elected office in our country.

This morning, I woke up with that nagging feeling that I can’t actually be whatever I set my mind to. My “Who Run the World? Girls!” tank, featuring a drawing of HRC in that iconic shades-on texting photo, seemed so very sad. (It’s also so comfortable.) I asked my husband what we would tell Veronica and Xiomara (our hypothetical daughters–Xiomara won’t stick, but I call dibs on Veronica). I felt so low.

I haven’t posted to Ph.D.s and Pigtails in over a year. In that time, I’ve gotten married, moved twice, finished my Ph.D.–It’s Dr. Pigtails now, thank you–and started a job that I love. I won’t talk about that job here, for security reasons (it’s not as fancy as that sounds), but I feel like I am doing what I am meant to do, even if that’s taken me outside of the academy. The quickest way to make me angry is to remind me in any unintentional way that I worked my ass off to get that Ph.D. in a culture that now so clearly wants nothing to do with intellectuals. Fuck. that. shit.

And yet, I do still have this Ph.D., and a dissertation that I’m quite proud of about girlhood in American literature and citizenship discourses. So, I feel galvanized in my heartache to come back to this space and reflect regularly again about what our culture is telling girls and young women about their possibilities and the value placed on their contributions.

Today, it told them that even if they spend their whole lives working hard and doing the homework and fighting hard for their rights and the rights of others, a grossly less qualified and less principled man can still swoop in and take over. I can’t accept that. I won’t.

I am tired of “outrage culture,” as, I suspect, are many other people. I feel outraged, nonetheless. I have always aimed to avoid knee-jerk reactions and to instead think through implications and contemplate what we could do better.

Today, I am so impressed by the people I know who have written and spoken eloquently about what we can do to change for the better. To be there for those who are vulnerable. To use privilege as a platform for standing up for others. I am hopeful only because I know so many remarkable people who give me hope and who put my anguish into perspective that I am too emotional to see.

I called my sister, who is nearly 13. I told her that I was upset by the election and she seemed not to be terribly bothered herself. Then, as is typical of my sister at this age, we talked about some other, lighter, things for a while, and she circled back to the big issue. She told me people were gloating and yelling in other kids’ faces at school today. Someone had a panic attack. And still, she is not as worried as I am. Most of the kids at school don’t see Donald Trump as a role model. They see him as–in her words–“blech.” That gives me hope.

Today, I am grieving, and taking comfort in the incredible men and women I call friends and colleagues. We have a lot of work to do going forward. I feel so screwed by the cards previous generations have dealt; we owe it to ourselves and to those after us to do better than this.

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Who Was Emmett Till? An Anniversary and a Legacy: Daily Kids’ News – August 28 – 1.1

In this new feature on the blog, I will compile news stories for younger readers (2nd-7th grade). Not only will stories that are relevant to kids’ lives be featured, but also current national and world news presented with context and language to help young readers engage with and understand the day’s biggest stories. Stories that young people and their parents may want to read and discuss together, due to sensitive subject matter, will be flagged as such, but I will not attempt to shield kids from tougher (whether scary, complicated, sad, etc.) news stories, if they are important. 

60th Anniversary of Emmett Till’s Death Resonates with Current Civil Rights Events

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

(Parental Guidance Suggested: Racial Violence)

On August 28, 1955, 60 years ago today, 14 year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped by Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam. The men cruelly beat Till, and shot him. Three days later, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. Why did they do this? On August 24th, Till, who was visiting cousins in Money, Mississippi, bragged that his girlfriend back home in Chicago was white. The local boys he was out with didn’t believe him and dared him to ask a white store clerk, Carolyn Bryant, out on a date. Till allegedly flirted with and whistled at Bryant, although friends and family said that Till often whistled to overcome his stuttering. Whatever happened, Bryant was offended by it, and complained to her husband, Roy Bryant, when he returned home from a trip a few days later.

For his funeral, Till’s mother worked hard to make sure her son’s body made it back to Chicago for burial, and wasn’t buried in Mississippi. Usually, when a person is very badly hurt, or their body is in bad condition, a closed casket funeral is held. Till’s body was swollen and terribly damaged, but Mamie Till had an open casket funeral so that people had to look at what was done to her son. It was shocking. Tens of thousands of people came to see Till at his wake, and photographs were published by Jet Magazine and The Chicago Defender. Outrage over the incident became a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement and Mamie Till became an important person in the fight for equality.

Till grew up in a working class suburb in Chicago, and was perhaps unprepared for the Jim Crow racism in the South. His mother, Mamie Till, warned him “to be very careful… to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees” (Time). Jim Crow is the name given for the laws and rules that kept black people and white people separate, and black people disadvantaged. (For example, in segregated schools, schools for African American children usually had fewer resources and used old, sometimes out-dated textbooks that the white schools were done with.)

It is this very system of racism that allowed the men who killed Till to get away with it. Because they could not register to vote, black people could not serve on juries either. When the case went to trial, an all white jury found the two men who killed Emmett Till not guilty. They later publicly admitted that they did it, and showed no remorse.

Emmett Till’s story still has meaning and importance today, not just because of how it outraged and motivated people in 1955, but also in light of the killing of young black men and boys over the last few years. The shootings of Trayvon Martin (17), Michael Brown (18), and Tamir Rice (12) sparked public protests and heated debate about violence, racial prejudice, and the high stakes for young African Americans if they are even just perceived as doing something wrong by the wrong person.

In the events commemorating Emmett Till’s life and death today, the Till family will include the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Today’s events include a ceremony at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago, the church where Till’s funeral was held, a motorcade to the grave sites of Till and his mother in Burr Oak Cemetary, and a memorial dinner in Chicago. According to Till’s cousin, the family decided on public events to mark the anniversary, “because of the climate of murder, the climate of injustice, in the present time” (Chicago Tribune). In Mississippi, movie screenings and public events will be held in memorial of Till.

Can you name the 5Ws of this story? (Who? What? When? Where? Why?)  If you have questions, ask them in the comments below. 

Further Reading

Want to learn more? These links can give more context, information, and reflection on the stories above.

Remembering Emmett Till – New York Times

History Channel: The Death of Emmett Till (Video)

Emmett Till’s Casket Goes to the Smithsonian 

The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till – a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks

Inside Out: The Adventure of Life and Complex Emotions (With Discussion Questions)

inside-out-anger-smoresEarlier this week, I took my little sister to see Inside Out, a film I had been eagerly anticipating since the first news came out about its production. This is the third time this year that I’ve shown Marissa a movie that made her cry, but it’s probably the first time that the tears stemmed from something that directly applied to her daily life and sense of self. (For the record, the other two movies were Selma and Jurassic Park.)

Inside Out follows the emotions inside the head of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year-old girl who is coping with a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Although her parents ask her to stay strong and be their happy girl, Riley has complicated emotions about the situation. Specifically, Joy (Amy Poehler) is trying her best to keep Riley upbeat, while Sadness (Phyllis Smith) keeps touching Riley’s memories, making her blue. Meanwhile, Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (HRH Mindy Kaling) have a lot to say about San Francisco in general.

Inside Riley’s head, there are core memories that support “islands” of her personality, such as Hockey Island, Family Island, Honesty Island, and Friendship Island. These core memories are at the heart of who Riley is. While trying to keep Sadness from touching the core memories (after Riley cries in school, creating a core memory that was not controlled by Joy), Joy accidentally gets the memories, Sadness, and herself sent to Long Term Memory. She must get back to the control center and restore the memories or else Riley won’t be herself, or happy, again.

Be the Happy Girl

Not discounting that gorgeous opening sequence from UpInside Out may be Pixar’s smartest, most mature film yet. What I especially appreciate is the way the narrative actually focuses on a fairly common experience–a big move–and makes it an epic journey by following Riley’s emotions. At its heart, the film is about a girl navigating complicated feelings. There’s a lot that someone could do here with Affect Theory and the way this story presents and anthropomorphizes emotion. Additionally, the narrative touches, lightly but significantly, on the pressure that is put on particular emotions over others. Riley is asked by her mother to be her happy girl, in an attempt to help Riley’s father not be so stressed about his new job. On one hand, this emphasis on happiness in the face of change is pretty common in both parenting and contemporary culture, in which good thoughts and a good attitude are supposed to overcome all obstacles. On the other hand, there is a gendered nuance to the expectation for Riley to be happy and joyful, even when the move has taken away her favorite places and people.

Sadness and Joy

But, importantly, these expectations about the value of Joy over Sadness set the stage for Joy to see the value in Sadness. Sadness is able to comfort people by hearing them out or by drawing those who love them close. Sadness has important insights. And, as it turns out, Sadness is often close to Joy’s favorite memories. Joy and Sadness are the team at the heart of the action and as Joy learns to see Sadness as valuable, it becomes clear that Sadness was not messing up by turning Riley’s memories sad, she was an important part of the moving process. By preventing Riley from feeling sad, Joy just left her stuck with Anger, Fear, and Disgust, unable to cope with what she was feeling or to lean on her parents. The action and the metaphor work beautifully together. It’s a fairly nuanced lesson about emotions that I think opens a door for talking about mental and emotional health, balance, honesty, and coping mechanisms. (See more below)

On a personal note, I am a Midwestern girl about a month away from moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I have my own mixed emotions and this movie just made me weep openly in a way that was cathartic and helpful and pleasing.

The Upgraded Controls

So, once the conflict of the film is resolved, Riley’s feelings get an upgraded control panel that allows them to work together. She can experience more than one emotion at once and her memories reflect that. The process of opening up about her sadness and allowing it to affect her joy enables Riley to mature and be joyful again. I thought that was a pretty realistic way of closing the film. There can’t be much real resolution, given that Riley is only 12 (“What could happen?”), but it sets the stage for Riley’s emotions to continue to evolve and for adults and kids to think about their own “control panels.”

Discussion Questions for Kids (And Other Movie Buddies)

I think one of the best parts about Inside Out is how it creates a space for talking about emotions and how we understand and react to them. Possibly because the action of the film is so minimal on Riley’s part, it could be easy for kids and other viewers to insert themselves into Riley’s position, or to think about what might be going on inside their own heads in experiences in which they have mixed emotions. Here are some possible discussion questions for after viewing the film, some of which were asked of me by my little sister:

  1. Disney-Pixar-Inside-OutWhy do you think Joy and Sadness were the first two emotions?
  2. Which emotions do you think most control how you react to things?
  3. What is disgust? Describe a time when you felt disgusted.
  4. What are you most afraid of? How might Fear react to your nightmares?
  5. What makes you angry? Why?
  6. Describe a time when you had mixed emotions. Can you imagine what the conversation between those emotions would be?
  7. Was if fair for Riley’s mom to ask her to be happy for her dad?
  8. What are the islands of your personality? What are some core memories that you think shaped who you are?
  9. Do you have a memory that used to be happy, but now you feel sad about? Why? How do our feelings about events change over time?
  10. Do you think people like some emotions more than others? What does that tell us about how people expect us to behave? Is it okay to act differently?
  11. Is there a time in which you expressed emotions and were embarrassed by them? Why were you embarrassed? Is it okay to be vulnerable?
  12. What was your favorite part of Riley’s brain? Why?
  13. How did the different parts of the brain work together to create Riley’s experience of the world?
  14. What are some moments in the film in which feelings lead to conflict? How might the conflict have been avoided or resolved?
  15. How does Riley grow at the end of the film? How does Joy grow? What about Mom and Dad?
  16. Is there a reason for the gendering of certain emotions? (Why are Joy, Sadness, and Disgust female and Anger and Fear male?) Are there stereotypes present in the film’s depiction of emotion?
  17. Do you have any questions about emotions, how to express them, or how to cope with them?

Like Orange is the New Black? Check out these Documentaries

crime after crimeToday the third season of Orange is the New Black debuts on Netflix. Although my affection for the hit series is waning, it does important work bringing the experiences of incarcerated women, women of color, poor women, and LBGTQ women onto the radar of a large audience. In some research I’ve been doing, I’ve been watching many documentary films and shows that deal with the criminal justice system. Here are some shows and films you might enjoy if you like Orange is the New Black or want to know more about the experiences of people in prison.

Crime After CrimeThis documentary focuses on the work of two lawyers to help free Debbie, a woman in prison for life for conspiring to murder her abusive boyfriend. The film highlights developing legal issues around domestic violence, police, and the courts, as well as intersectional experiences of race, class, and gender. Plus, one of the lawyers is an Orthodox Jew and the film was made in part through funding by Jewish organizations, so there’s an added layer of religion that I found fascinating.

Lost for Life: This documentary explores the stories of people serving life sentences for crimes that they committed as teenagers. It’s a startling and moving film about the lives of the incarcerated and the connection between the juvenile courts and the prison industrial complex.

Death Row Stories: This CNN series, narrated by Susan Sarandon (you know, because of Dead Man Walking…), details the experiences and legal cases of people on death row, mostly people who were wrongly sentenced and the people working to get their sentences overturned or commuted. It’s fairly hit and miss, but when it hits, the stories are pretty incredible.

Frontline: Death by FireThis Frontline episode goes through the trial and sentencing of a man found guilty of an arson that killed his three daughters. As I learned on Catching Killers (an awesome series about forensic science), arson is really hard to prove and the science is often pretty bad. The documentary makes a pretty compelling case that an innocent man was executed due to mistaken police work and the political motivations of Texas politicians.

Frontline: Locked Up in AmericaIn a series of Frontline episodes, you can learn about some controversial issues in the American prison system, including solitary confinement.