The Female of the Species Review
Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species is a very different novel. Among McGinnis’ previous works, it was the young adult novel author’s first foray into contemporary and realistic fiction, contrasting with her previous thrillers and her dystopian duo-logy Not a Drop to Drink. Whereas her previous stories seemed to deal more with a young girl dealing with the dangers of the world around her and her mistrust towards it, The Female of the Species focuses on a young girl’s struggle with her own self. It is heavily introspective, speculative, dark, and radically ahead of its time. Initially published on Sept. 21, 2016, a little more than a whole year before the Harvey Wenstein scandal that would kickstart the #MeToo era and ignite the start of the #TimesUp movement amidst the #MeToo era, The Female of the Species is beautifully written and is an essential reading in today’s political climate.
The Female of the Species focuses on Alex Craft, whose older sister Anna was raped, killed and mutilated three years prior to the beginning of the story. However, when Anna’s killer was acquitted, Alex took matters into her own hands and killed him herself — but was never caught by authorities. As she lives out her senior year, Alex knows that she cannot trust herself around other people. But through meeting Jack, the star athlete, and Peekay, the preacher’s kid who volunteers at the animal shelter with her, Alex slowly starts to open up and unravel as her guilt challenges her mindset and her darker nature threatens to break out.
The Female of the Species may sound simple, but it is so much more complex and layered and has a lot to say. It is brutal, raw, and honest about its portrayal of high school culture and rape culture. It doesn’t hold back on its candid remarks and portrayal on how high school women are lauded for their bodies more than their personality, acting as a powerful commentary on widespread misogyny that starts at the roots of one’s upbringing. It is almost written like a satire, except that McGinnis’ small town and smaller high school feels frighteningly and grippingly real. While The Female of the Species is set in Ohio, McGinnis makes the book’s location feel universal, driving home the fact of how devastatingly common Anna’s situation could really become without change.
Alex Craft is masterfully written, with each chapter written perfectly and truly allowing readers to explore her thoughts, reasoning, and dark nature. Each chapter charts her growth in a realistic manner and fashion, with each one standing out and showcasing McGinnis’ masterful writing style. McGinnis crafts Alex as morally grey yet also as the most painstaking realistic character I have connected with in a long time; she has a purpose to her standoffish personality, but when she opens up thanks to Jack and Peekay, she truly touches the lives of the people who matter to her and accept that side of her. She is also a victim of her sister’s murder, and hides how much she truly is struggling until it boils over into her actions. She is a strong female character who refuses to stay silent about her school and town’s troubling rape culture, and her inner strength and courage commands respect throughout the novel.
Jack Fisher and Peekay are also amazingly written windows into the world that McGinnis has created, both not only helping Alex Craft to open up and integrate herself within her high school peers but also to give a bystander’s perspective into the novels thrilling events. Just due to stereotypes alone, golden boy and star athlete Jack Fisher could have been a flat, uninteresting character who simply checked off the boxes of what a love interest should do and be. Instead, McGinnis fleshes Jack out into a boy consumed by guilt for his immaturity who just desperately wants to leave his hometown, and step out of that “golden boy” image that his town and high school peers have painted on him and lauded him for to be something more. Overall, he is oddly fascinating and thankfully charming to read about, adding a different angle and male perspective to McGinnis’ story — and thus, possibly a different layer of recognition and understanding.
Peekay, or “preacher’s kid,” is also a refreshing departure from typical stereotypes. Her best friend is a lesbian, and she comes from an understanding and loving family that is God-fearing yet understanding of town and high school culture — and all her family members support Peekay throughout the novel as she learns more about the high school community and progresses and grows amidst a presence of rape culture that’s becoming harder to ignore. She is empathetic and provides an interesting foil to Alex Craft, becoming the first person to see Alex as more than just “the sister of the dead girl” and helping her to branch out a little more in her community by becoming her first true friend.
Cited on the back cover of McGinnis’ novel, Rudyard Kipling’s quote “*The Female of the Species* is more deadly than the male” is a prevailing force over the novel. It shows a variety of female characters alongside Alex and Peekay who all provide different perspectives on rape culture and misogyny, but all of whom contribute to the takedown of rape culture in their society. Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about the novel is the strong network of female friendships that exist and prevail throughout amidst the catty high school climate of the novel and who come together in the conclusion of the novel in a concentrated effort to dismantle their school’s rape culture and create a better environment of gender equality. It is a scene that very much echoes the novel’s future and our present, amidst the #MeToo movement and a heartening rise in student activism, taking on a political charge without meaning to but making it even more important.
Also touching on broader themes such as life and death, love, and femininity, McGinnis’ startling commentary on rape culture tops a list of contemporary novels from this century that should serve as required reading for not just high schools, but for our generation. The Female of the Species is a symbol of the future. It is a glimpse of our world two years ago and a reminder of what was and what never should be, again.