Monday, September 12, 2016

The Female of the Species

Why do we accept and praise vigilantes in fantasy, science fiction, and comics, but when it comes to a female vigilante in a YA contemporary novel, it's suddenly a shocking, horrifying concept?  What does that say about society?

Give a guy a mask and a catchy nickname and he can toss as many bad guys off of a bridge as he wants.  He can beat them up and torture them and let them fall, all in the name of justice for people without the power or influence to be revenged.  And consider the antihero: people love Deadpool because he's hilarious and snarky, but he also kills people.  Like, all dead.  Never to return.  Not even with a magic pill covered in chocolate to make it go down easier.


So why is it that in The Female of the Species, the response is to vehemently push back against Alex, the teen girl who kills her sister's rapist and murderer?  Superheroes are vigilantes, Deadpool is an antihero, but Alex?  She's a murderer.  Where do we draw the line?

These questions are deeply rooted in gender roles and the inherent sexism of human society, and The Female of the Species does a fantastic job of prodding those uncomfortable places and making you squirm.  I'd rather a book make me deeply uncomfortable than for it to coddle me.  Additionally, I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole time she was telling the story, Mindy McGinnis was playing a trick on us.  It added this vaguely sinister aura to the book, which may or may not be amplified by the fact that she can skin dead animals and probably kill people with a straw.  I mean, Mackenzi Lee could feature her in "Bygone Badass Broads" on Twitter--but skip the "bygone" part.

Jack was there the night they found Anna's body.  He wasn't sober, nor was he looking for her.  He was busy with Branley, the sexiest girl at school.  But he's always felt like utter crap about that night.

Alex loved her sister  And so the fact that the guy who repeatedly raped her and then murdered her walked away from so-called justice ate her up inside.  So she killed him.

Peekay is the Preacher's Kid (PK).  She's not a rule-following Jesus-loves-me type.  Peekay isn't quite sure who she is, though, because she's just always been the Preacher's Kid.

These three lives intersect in a stunning way in The Female of the Species.  Peekay loves (does she really?) Adam, who broke up with her and is with Branley, who used to be with Jack, who's in love with Alex, who volunteers at the animal shelter with Peekay.  This is a chronicle of high school in all of its glory: drinking, sex, parties, more sex.  It's not sanitized.  It's truth.  And lurking in the shadows in the knowledge that Alex has killed a man, and that she doesn't feel bad about it, and that she'd do it again.

So why does Alex make readers so uncomfortable?  Why is the concept of "teen girl takes matters into her own hands" so much more distasteful than "growly rich boy takes matters into his own hands, also has a cool car and a butler"?  Has murder been gendered?  Is it unfeminine for a woman to kill?  I'm not condoning murder--far from it--but it is curious how we, as a society, look at murderers and murderesses.  Even that word--"murderess"-has a seductive quality.  The sibilant hiss of the "s" softens the hard tones of "murderer."  It's telling that Alex has a name that could be either a boy's or a girl's name: she could be anybody, but because she is female, she is more threatening to us as readers because she challenges our mental image of "murderer."

Some readers have criticized Jack and Alex's relationship as being the typical "boy saves girl from herself" trope.  Except ... he doesn't.  She might even say, "Oh Jack, I want to change because of you," but words and deeds are two different things.  Personally, I thought Jack was a human turd, but as it so happens, girls fall in love with human turds.  It's a sad fact of life.  But you'll notice that in the end, Jack did not change Alex.  Not one bit.

Nobody here is truly a "good person."  They're all complicated and messy and they say thoughtless things.  Some readers will call out slut shaming--but guess what?  A lot of teens talk like that!  I'm not saying it's right; I'm saying it's the truth.  Peekay covets and deceives; Jack lusts, and Alex murders.

The Female of the Species is not a happy story of redemption.  It's not a saccharine tale of how twue wuv saves a girl from herself.  It's not what it seems at first glance.

It would be much more dramatic to describe my reaction upon turning the last page and closing the book, but I had an eARC, so just ... use your imagination.  "Swiping to the last page" really doesn't have that same feel to it.  I felt like my heart was simultaneously over-full and empty.  It fell out of my ribcage and landed in my gut.  I was hollowed-out and humbled by this experience of reading.  I marveled at the darkness I had just walked through.    Because here, darkness only begets darkness; death leads to death, and nobody has a happy ending.  

4 comments:

  1. I take your point, but face it: superhero vigilantes - and that's all superheroes - are the stuff of fantasy. Nobody would seriously suggest that a real-life person, male or female, should commit murder, however justified. And you do keep saying how real this story is. And as I recall, Superman, for one, had a tendency to tie up the villains in elaborate knots and deliver them to justice. He didn't usually kill them.

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    1. I was going more for the Watchmen-type vigilantes. Superman is so NICE!

      Maybe it's an American thing, but when serial rapists or murderers are caught, you usually hear someone say "They don't deserve to live." What Alex does is act on that (relatively common) sentiment. It's that whole Biblical eye-for-an-eye bit. The characters who know what Alex did struggle with the knowledge that she killed somebody, but that the person probably deserved it, but she also volunteers at an animal shelter and saves puppies. It's hard to reconcile.

      But I think that in literature--whether it's realism or fantasy or sci-fi--antiheroes or vigilantes really skew towards the male, and they're often admired in a strange way. We all know that murder is wrong, but there's a strange sort of fantasy fulfillment that they're meting out the justice that we cannot.

      I'm not sure how to explain it.

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    2. Yes, fantasy is indeed the word here. ;-) And the next time someone mutters, "They don't deserve to live," in your presence, perhaps ask if that person would be prepared to pick up a knife or gun and do justice. I suspect few of them would actually do it. Mind you, with all those guns in the U.S. perhaps more would be willing to do it than here.

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    3. I think this article is more coherent than I am, apparently. http://www.salon.com/2013/10/03/im_an_instrument_that_will_avenge_the_stories_of_women_who_fight_back/

      And fiction, even if it's realistic, is still the fantasy of the author.

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