Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Crosstalk: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

Author Mindy McGinnis will be visiting MPL next Tuesday, June 20 at the main branch. In light of her coming visit, Meredith and John revisit one of her works that very much affected them, The Female of the Species (2016). 

John: Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is a story about high school kids (girls primarily) in a small Ohio town. It’s got to be one of the most intense books ever to come out as a YA title. The story centers on a girl named Alex whose sister has been murdered and it looks at the ways that that experience alters her. I remember the first time you described the plot to me I really could hardly believe it. What was it that first drew you to this book?

Meredith: A couple of superficial reasons, actually. First of all the title, The Female of the Species, is odd in a way that I found attention-grabbing. It gives you the sense that teen girls are some sort of mysterious creatures that need to be studied in order to be understood. And then there’s the first line of the jacket, “Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it.” This book ends up covering a few different topics, one of which is female anger. That’s something I find endlessly fascinating: the way girls are socialized to internalize their anger so as not to upset the people around them. Our protagonist Alex, understandably, has a lot of anger. Her sister was brutally murdered and the killer went free because of a lack of evidence. So Alex is left to deal with all of those feelings and one way she copes is with catastrophic violence. John, the way the book unfolds leaves the reader with a lot of doubts regarding Alex’s reliability as a narrator. Did you get the same feeling?

John: Absolutely. The narrative structure of the book is really interesting. It’s told in alternating and overlapping bits by the three main protagonists (Alex, Peekay, and Jack) and in the present tense, which leaves the story open for revision. But as far as Alex goes, yeah, you’re left in some doubt about how much of what she’s saying is true and how much is sort of...aspirational. It’s especially interesting because the things that she’s thinking and talking about have a pretty profound influence on the kind of person she is. McGinnis does a great job of contrasting her internal monologue with the external view that her friends have of her. This is important especially because of the role that violence plays in the book. Alex’s life is shaped by violence, and it has changed her into the kind of person who is ready to use violence in ways that can be quite startling. What did you think about how violence played out in this story?

Spoilers ahead! Click "Read More" below to continue this Crosstalk. 

Meredith: First of all, I think because Alex is a girl, you don’t believe she’s capable of the heinous acts the book suggests might have happened. Girls are conditioned to deal with their anger in ways other than physical violence and, especially when paired with Peekay’s own fantasies of violence, you’re left with the feeling that Alex may just be sublimating the pain of the loss of her sister into these daydreams. But then, in a stunning shift, McGinnis takes away all doubts about Alex’s ability to physically hurt another person.

“I used my markers as I go from place to place. Seeing evidence of my small rebellions, spots where my wrath was allowed to vent and has impacted the world around me, no longer safely encapsulated inside...My violence is everywhere here. And I like it.”

Not only can she hurt others, but she wears her anger like a badge of honor or a suit of armor. It makes her feel powerful and invulnerable because of how it catches everyone off guard. No one expects this teenage girl to fight back. Those around her are left stunned and speechless, not sure how to react to the way she operates outside the norms of expected female behavior.

That makes for a kind of interesting contrast with the character of Jack. He’s an athlete and he’s popular. So the fact that he’s interested in Alex is atypical to begin with. But he’s also not notably aggressive. To exactly the same extent that girls are conditioned to be passive, boys are conditioned to be aggressive. Growing up as a boy (generally) means getting cuffed around a bit, and hearing the phrase “boys will be boys” a lot. Jack kind of breaks this mold and that’s a lot of why he and Alex work together. Alex’s violent side seems generally within her power to control. But as the book goes on things get meaner and darker. Do you feel like the character of Alex in the second half of the book fits with how we see her in the first?

I do because I don't think Alex changes or becomes more violent, per se, I think Alex stops feeling like she has to mask her nature for the benefit of the people around her. Alex is trying to find a balance within herself. She killed someone because she felt societal norms failed her and there was an injustice that needed to be righted. She doesn't view the world in the same way anymore. We're taught that the rules of our society will prevent terrible things from happening, and if they don't, that rapists and molesters and murderers will be punished. Alex knows this isn't true and makes her own rules. But she's also not surprised when she’s forced to face the repercussions of her actions. In a final, horrific confrontation, Alex is killed. What do you think her legacy will mean to her friends and classmates? Does her death mean anything? Will anything change?

As far as what her legacy will mean to her friends and classmates, clearly this is going to be a central and devastating experience for Jack and Peekay. Jack is one of those boys with the normal adolescent failings, but well on the way to being a right guy. Jack and Alex’s relationship was always going to be complicated, given the things that Alex has done. But losing the first person to whom you’ve said the “L” word (and who has said it back to you) is the kind of thing that will really mark a person. And losing her in that particular way is going to be especially destructive. Likewise with Peekay: Alex stood up for Peekay, and Alex shared a kind of openness with her that’s rare. For the people around her, Alex was a catalyst for getting in touch with their better selves. It’s almost as if she had to sacrifice herself for the good of others. As for the rest of the world, well, it’s hard to imagine that they will be able to see Alex clearly after she’s gone, any more than they did while she was alive. The truly sad thing about this book is that the things that drive her down, the problems that face girls growing up in modern society, have real staying power. It’s an important story. But it’s very, very grim. My question to you is: If you had a daughter would you want her to read it?

Yes, I would. This is a brutal book, but it is an important book. And I suspect that teens who read it will recognize themselves and their peers. That is what makes this an essential read. I think the value of teens to be able to relate to difficult narratives is crucial and maybe help them navigate challenging situations in their own lives.

(For more conversations between John and Meredith on various topics, check out their bi-weekly podcast No Talking in the Library.)

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