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.



We did it!

Greta, Alyssa, José, and I graduated with out PhDs on August 12. I defended my dissertation in May, and am so thankful to my committee, and especially my chair, Anita, for their help and support along the way.

Thanks to you, too, for reading along. You can call me Dr. Kasey now, if you want to.

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.

Dear Younger Me: Being In Love is Not the Best Thing


Photo by Jessica Branstetter Photography

A couple of months ago, I was out with friends and we were talking about the then-current trend of “Dear Younger Me” letters going around the internet. Years ago, I composed a series of letters to myself at various ages, leading up to a birthday (which, I can’t remember). In the bar that night, however, I distilled my reflections to one curt line: being in love is not the best thing.

Lest you hear that advice with a bitter tone, let me first say that I am rather deeply in love with a man who I am set to marry in less than five months. I honestly cannot imagine another person who I would rather be partnered with. I love him; I like him; I trust him. My love life is peaceful and happy. This last, and best, love, however, is my seventh relationship. Partly, I am reminded of the delightfully bad TV-movie Lucky Seven. Mostly, I know that I have clocked plenty of hurt hours to get to where I am today.

As my life as a single woman comes to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting often about what this period of my life has meant to me, what makes me happy, what quirks and habits I need to keep through the transition, and how I got here. Sometimes I will be reminded of past boyfriends and, overwhelmingly, my thoughts land on, “how the heck did I think that would work out?!” For the most part, I have no ill-will toward any ex-boyfriend, just laughing wonder at the lack of self-knowledge that went into particular pairings.

The conventional wisdom would suggest that with each relationship and subsequent breakup I was supposed to learn something that would help me in future romantic endeavors. First, I think that’s shortsighted and fails to account for the importance of non-romantic relationships. Second, I don’t love the mantra that everything happens for a reason, because sometimes that reason was that I made stupid decisions. Yes, I have made many, varied, dramatic mistakes in my dating life. I have learned from them and, I think, earned a black-belt in monogamy. But, when I think about the times in which I have grown the most, they have more often than not been times when I was either single or at a 2,000 mile distance from my partner.

Living alone for six years has been one of the most important experiences of my life. Two thumbs up. I know how to fix toilets and sinks and how to imperfectly hang things on the wall. I have moved furniture and changed tires and worked out while drinking wine. I know that I can take care of myself. And I’ve had the time and space to really enjoy being on my own. Being single or long-distance for so long has also provided me with the time and space to nurture my friendships. Years ago, my mother cautioned me against putting boyfriends ahead of my friendships. I scoffed that would never do that, feared that I did, and made it a cardinal law of my life to nurture my friendships. My friends are a treasury of generous life-knowledge and love. Thank you, Mom. I’ve also been able to enjoy my family as an adult single person, spending more time than is probably usual at my parents’ house, enjoying the company of my family, making peace with past hurts, and getting to know my mother woman-to-woman. That has been an enormous gift, teaching me about growing up, atoning for past idiocy (by which I mean ages 13-17), and becoming my own woman without necessarily eschewing my mother’s influence. Just as with boyfriends, in family and friendship, I had to let go of the desperate need of approval to maintain healthy love. Thank you, dear therapist. In short, although I am still at times an angsty brat, I know that I am surrounded by other angsty brats who love me. (That is the best thing.)

So, being in love is not the best thing. And if I could go back to 15 years-old, on the precipice of starting to date, I would tell younger Kasey not to worry a lot about romantic relationships. That it is okay to need a great deal of love, but that it doesn’t have to be romantic to be fulfilling. That the fear of being alone is a trap. Being alone can kick ass, but single =/= alone. That it’s easier to find love by caring for those around you than to chase it down like the heroine in a romantic comedy.

It would be dishonest to suggest that having someone who I respect so much, and who is under no obligation to love me, think that I am the bee’s knees didn’t do wonders for my relationship with myself and with love in general. It has. A lot of the good this love has done for me, however, stems from Julio not engaging much of my angst with much more than, “I’m here for you. Please be kind to yourself.” The peace in our relationship, and his peaceful response to my relationship with myself, has given me some much needed quiet to grow that maybe I wouldn’t have given myself. I also know that I speak from the secure place of being in a loving, accepted-by-our-kin, hetero-relationship.

Being in love can be wonderful, yes, and even transformative. It can also really suck and bring out the worst in people. Before you start quoting the Bible, or C.S. Lewis, or Carrie Bradshaw to me, I know that what I’m saying isn’t particularly philosophically complex or even original, but for what it’s worth, in my experience these are the things that are as good as being in love (in no particular order):

  • Deep, respectful partnership of any kind
  • Long-term friendship
  • An evolving relationship with a higher power
  • Being alone, in the quiet, and enjoying the minutia of the life you’ve made for yourself.
  • Sitting with the mystery of what is yet to come.
  • Working hard at something you enjoy
  • Filling your bed with books, or pets, or whatever you want.
  • Spending time with your family and getting to know them, on your own, as an adult.
  • Traveling alone.
  • Learning to at least know yourself, if self-love and acceptance prove elusive.
  • Going to the movies by yourself and eating the whole box of Mike and Ikes.

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

tease amanda macielTease by Amanda Maciel

Tease follows the court case following the suicide of Emma Putnam, holding the girls and boys who bullied her responsible for her death. The novel has a pulled-from-the-headlines quality, after cases such as that of Phoebe Prince, which lead to harsher anti-bullying legislation and the emergence of “bullycide” in popular conversations around bullying and aggression. Filtered through the thoughts and memories of Sara Wharton, a high school junior, the novel takes the reader through the build up to Emma’s suicide and the aftermath for those who are being held responsible. Although it is packaged like a thriller, Tease actually deals fairly movingly with how awful high school can be. Although some elements of the story, particularly the romantic plots are a little after school special-y, I think Maciel depicts with care and nuance a young woman trying to deal with issues that are just slightly beyond her emotional maturity.

Tease is painfully sad in the way that it depicts the thoughts and feelings of its teenage characters, particularly Sara, whose perspective the story is told through. Rather than demonizing the mean girls for ganging up on the new girl, the novel looks behind the aggressive behavior to the pain that causes Sara and Brielle to lash out. In some ways it’s a sentimental move, but I think it is strikingly effective and authentic in the way that it depicts the conflicting emotions Sara feels when she gives in to Brielle’s pressure, whether it comes to bullying, having sex, or smaller issues like how she dresses or speaks. By the end of the novel, Sara’s defense that everyone at school was mean so she doesn’t see why she should be held responsible for the suicide still reads as alarmingly immature, but it’s also kind of sympathetic. That’s how well the characters are constructed.

Incidentally, a book about bullying in pop culture that I contributed to is now available for purchase. Bullying in Popular Culture  focuses on the depiction of bullying in film, television, and novels. My chapter addresses the codification of the “mean girl” archetype and the rules of “girl world” in movies and TV.