Disclaimer: not a spoiler-free review. Trigger warning for sexual violence.
What are the qualities of a hero?
This was the question I kept returning to as I contemplated writing this review. Specifically, whether or not to write it at all. The Female of the Species had affected me deeply, with its savage commentary on rape culture, as well as the brutal way the characters reacted to it; it was certainly worthy of a glowing review. But the main character, Alex—a teenage girl who murders rapists—presented a problem. As a character I found her fascinating because her actions were morally dubious, with a strong suggestion that Alex herself was a sociopath. But was it responsible for me to dub her a hero?
What are the qualities of a hero? Do we admire them more for the goodness that makes them larger than life, or in spite of the darkness that makes them so complicatedly human?
The cast of supporting characters in Mindy McGinnis’s novel experience the same problem on how to perceive Alex—a girl who opens the book by knocking on the door of the man who raped and murdered her older sister. We aren’t shown what happens after the door clicks shut behind her, nor do we ever learn the specifics of what transpired there. But Alex is blunt and unrepentant even in her own thoughts: she tells us she knows how to kill someone and doesn’t feel bad about it. To her classmates, Alex is the sort of quiet girl who is easily forgotten, apart from her association with her murdered sister. But inside, Alex is completely consumed by violence: both the memory of what was done to her sister, and her obsessive quest to balance the scales with her own alarming brand of justice.
Much of what the novel tells us about Alex is through the alternating perspectives of two characters who slowly become her friends: Peekay, who works with Alex at the animal shelter in town, and Jack, a popular jock with a crush on her. Peekay and Jack become involved with Alex at pivotal points in their own lives, where the culture of sexual violence they live in is beginning to reveal itself. Peekay has just been dumped by her boyfriend for a popular girl who “gets around”, while Jack, a genuinely well-intentioned teen obsessed with being a “good guy”, is slowly discovering, to his horror, that good intentions don’t make him less complicit in perpetuating rape culture. Both these characters are drawn to Alex for complicated reasons: Jack is infatuated with her, but also feels immense guilt for his involvement in the discovery of her sister’s body three years ago. Peekay is nervous of Alex’s strange, detached behavior, but her newfound helplessness in this world of slut-shaming and casual sexual violence draws her to Alex’s darkness, as well. And while neither of them are ever fully aware of the scope of what Alex is capable of, there’s an air of uneasy suspicion pervasive throughout their interactions.
Alex, meanwhile, is a character totally unique in the canon of young adult literature: completely, unflinchingly, and unrepentantly brutal in a way that is presented more complexly than simple strength. In a later chapter, upon discovering that a classmate’s uncle has molested a child, she instinctively moves to retaliate—against this man she does not personally know, in a horrific fashion, without so much as a second thought. Her obsession justice, and her perceived responsibility for enacting it where it has been denied, do not blind her to her own darkness: she knows that the calm, detached way she kills is indicative of something deeply wrong with her, and that she cannot stop it. The word sociopath is never used but heavily implied. At the same time, however, it’s impressed upon the reader that Alex isn’t a monster: she’s a teenage girl who’s just beginning to move past the act of violence that turned her world upside-down. She makes a friend. She falls in love. She discovers, to her surprise, that she enjoys ordinary teenage things: school dances, sleepovers, talking to her friends about their crushes. It’s heartbreaking to see how close she comes to leaving the darkness behind, and how pervasive sexual violence is that it constantly drags her back in.
So again, the question: what are the qualities of a hero? The Female of the Species is mum on the subject. It neither praises nor condemns Alex’s actions, preferring to let them speak for themselves: acts of violence spawned from unspeakable violence, a cycle that continues on and on and—inevitably—ends in tragedy. Yet by the end of the novel, Alex has left us with a glimmer of hope—a small inkling that the school’s pervasive rape culture may be dismantling, with other victims beginning to speak out, in small ways, against their attackers. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s hopeful, and for that, I argue that Alex, while flawed, may be the most realistic hero of all: an imperfect person capable of incredible darkness, whose legacy, nonetheless, is light.