This is how the patriarchy dies, not with a whimper but with a cataclysmic bang. One day, women wake up with a new power; their power is unprecedented and incomprehensible, exhilarating and frightening. It threatens the entire male-oriented structure that has defined most human civilizations throughout recorded history.
In Naomi Alderman’s new speculative novel The Power, there’s a very literal, tangible power at work. Teen girls have mysteriously developed the ability to wield electricity with their fingers, and any older woman, once jolted by a young girl, can activate this power as well. Women, as a sex, have grown unimaginably dangerous. In every corner of the globe ― the U.S., India, Moldova, England, Nigeria ― women have found themselves with a physical strength that allows them to overpower men, even men who have long abused or controlled them.
The Power, which originally came out in the U.K. in 2016, ended up arriving on American shores at an eminently relevant time. In a cultural moment dominated by the spectacle of abusive powerful men finally laid low by the stories of the women they victimized, women do seem to have a new weapon in the battle of the sexes. The question is, how much power do we have, and how much would it take to really change anything?
From the outset, readers know how Alderman’s story ends. The Power is framed by correspondence between a supplicating male author, Neil, and a female author, Naomi, to whom he’s writing for thoughts on his historical novel manuscript, which constitutes the rest of the book. The letters in themselves are fascinating, revealing, as they quickly do, that the sexual power dynamics have been neatly flipped in this imagined future: Neil is ingratiating, flattering, apologetic over taking up Naomi’s time. His letter is postmarked from “The Men Writers Association” and signed “Much love.” Her response is flip and patronizing, deeming him a “saucy boy” for putting male soldiers and police officers into his book. “I think I’d rather enjoy this ‘world run by men’ you’ve been talking about,” she concludes. “Surely a kinder, more caring and ― dare I say it? ― more sexy world than the one we live in.”
This letter from Naomi efficiently reveals one of Alderman’s dominant themes: A world run by women would be no kinder, more caring, or sexier than our current model. The titular power refers not only to the electrical force wielded by women in the novel, but the qualities of power itself ― how possessing power shapes us, allows us to become cruel and careless. Women, she posits, would not be too angelic to turn to violence and exploitation, if we could. If we had the power to get away with it.
But though the corrupting ability of power is important, and aptly explored in The Power, it isn’t the most gripping and timely. As feminists brace for an anticipated backlash against the #MeToo movement, what’s particularly fascinating in Alderman’s novel is her assessment of how desperately the powerful cling to their privilege, and how much force is needed to unseat a hegemony as deeply rooted as the patriarchy.
Our terror of female power, and any unsettling of the patriarchal status quo, has been acutely visible in the current #MeToo moment. If women, instead of men, are the adjudicators of truth, then won’t men be injured? We fear overcorrection, men ousted from the industries they love based on unfair or misleading accusations, an abandonment of due process. Some, like Masha Gessen, have warned of a “sex panic.” More disturbingly, innumerable men have hinted that the current wave of sexual harassment accusations and attendant firings is akin to a witch hunt, rather than a form of long-delayed justice.
Others, like Erin Gloria Ryan and Rebecca Traister, have cautioned women to be prepared for an inevitable backlash as male power reasserts itself. “You can feel the backlash brewing,” Traister wrote in The Cut recently. “All it will take is one particularly lame allegation — and given the increasing depravity of the charges, the milder stuff looks lamer and lamer, no matter how awful the experience — to turn the tide from deep umbrage on behalf of women to pity for the poor, bullied men.”
Not only that, she noted, but the natural inclination of men in the workplace would be to limit women’s rights and opportunities in order to protect themselves from accusations. “Many men will absorb the lessons of late 2017 to be not about the threat they’ve posed to women but about the threat that women pose to them,” she wrote. “So there will be more — perhaps unconscious — hesitancy about hiring women, less eagerness to invite them to lunch, or send them on work trips with men.” The reaction to women gaining power will be to push them back down, even if unintentionally.
“As feminists brace for an anticipated backlash against the #MeToo movement, what’s particularly fascinating in Alderman’s novel is her assessment of how desperately the powerful cling to their privilege.”
Alderman’s novel-within-a-novel follows a far-flung cast of characters ― Roxy, the daughter of a British organized crime don; Allie, a girl who flees an abusive foster family in the American South and is reborn as Mother Eve, a messianic religious leader; Tunde, a male journalist from Nigeria; Margot Cleary, the mayor of a major city ― as they negotiate the new world order, one in which women, not men, have the superior physical strength.
There’s not much recognizable similarity between the matriarchy society that unfolds in The Power and the U.S. in 2017 ― but the uneasy, suspicious approach to female power jumps off the page. After Cleary’s electric force is jolted awake by her young daughter, Jocelyn, she’s simultaneously strengthened and made vulnerable by it. She’s bolder in meetings (“Nothing that either of these men says is really of great significance,” she muses during one, “because she could kill them in three moves”) but she also stands to lose her position if her power is discovered. As soon as the pervasive threat of young women’s ability became clear to the government, new regulations cropped up to keep them controlled. Public schools are segregated by gender. Women with the power are barred from most public offices. It’s all for safety ― the safety, above all, of men, which is achieved by limiting the rights of the dangerous gender, not the endangered. The goal is to support the status quo, “trying to keep everything normal, to keep people feeling safe and going to their jobs and spending their dollars on weekend recreational activities,” and that means keeping girls and women subordinate.
“When the power first came,” says a young man who serves in the palace of a new Eastern European rebel leader, “the men there, the warlords, blinded all the girls. That is what I heard. They put their eyes out with hot irons. So they could still be the bosses, you see?”
It’s late in The Power, several years into the fallout of women’s new capability, and the power dynamics have begun to shift. This male servant was just made to lick splintered glass off the floor after interrupting the rebel leader, Tatiana Moskalev, as she tells a joke to her guests. Moskalev’s new country, Bessapara, was wrenched out of Moldova, an impoverished Eastern European country notorious for the prevalence of sex trafficking. With their new powers, the women and girls of the country were at last able to wreak vengeance on men who abused and imprisoned them, and even to take control themselves. But that control is not given easily, despite the deadliness of their new abilities. Men, fearful of once-vulnerable women, find ways to make them vulnerable again ― laws that confine women, defenses that will allow them to survive the electric shocks, stores of heavy weaponry to overpower women’s sparks.
One of the least convincing aspects of The Power is how quickly women and men ― but especially women ― create and take on new gender roles. A role-reversing flip in power would, of course, shift gender roles, but Alderman paints it as near-immediate, despite the lifetimes of conditioning, and long-standing patriarchal power structures, each girl and woman have already absorbed.
“There are strange movements arising now,” Alderman writes, just a year or so into the narrative. “Boys dressing as girls to seem more powerful. Girls dressing as boys to shake off the meaning of the power, or to leap on the unsuspecting, wolf in sheep’s clothing.” By the time a handful of years have passed, a new culture has sprung up: Advertisements that depict strong, commanding girls flaunting their sparks, to the admiration of boys; sprawling networks of female mercenary soldiers; a woman politician openly leering at handsome young journalists and aides; a woman stealing and taking credit for the reporting of her male colleague.
This all seems to happen with remarkable speed, compared with, say, how slowly the American political system has adjusted to the reality that more than half of contemporary voters are women. (We got the vote decades ago, and still no woman president ― just saying.)
More convincing, and familiar, is how the existing male power structure organizes in defense of its own continued dominance. Men brutalize women to ensure their continued subservience, or they hack out the mysterious organ from which the electricity surges and implant them in their own bodies, or they gather unconquerable coalitions of government force to overwhelm the female upstarts. The world has destabilized, but that doesn’t mean women are winning the fight to realign it.
It’s a grim vision. Alderman’s novel is lurid with gruesome murders and massacres, superfluous torture and exploitation. Men are cracking down on women in hopes of reestablishing their primacy, but women have become equally bloodthirsty in hopes of seizing control.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about dystopia is how perilously close it can come to utopia. We long to reimagine our world into something more just, more safe, more free, but the cost can’t be ignored: new injustices, new cruelties, new restrictions on human freedom and feeling. Justice, safety and freedom are not distributed equally; a realignment might look utopian to some, dystopian to others. (Extreme proponents of Christian theocracy might look on the Republic of Gilead, the setting of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, far more charitably than feminists.) How do we solve the flaws in our societies without creating newer, greater flaws? What counts as an improvement, and to whom?
As I read The Power, I found myself ambivalent as to whether the novel qualified as a dystopia or a utopia. It’s casually, and understandably, described as a dystopia in The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian and other publications. But why, exactly? Is it dystopian to imagine our own patriarchal society in mirror image? A toxic matriarchy can’t really be any worse than what we have now. Yet, by the same token, surely it’s not better. Which is to say, it’s not better on the whole; it would probably be better for women.
That, in itself, is perhaps the terrifying thing: A world in which women and people of color are routinely disenfranchised, their freedoms curtailed by extrajudicial and judicial violence and discrimination, has long been acceptable to us. What often terrifies, in a dystopia, is similar lack of freedom being visited on the people in charge ― what if white people were treated like black people, or men like women?
As in The Power, a display of female power, like that of the #MeToo movement, invites a crackdown; the crackdown, in turn, reveals that this whole time we didn’t have equality, but a begrudging tolerance based on our willingness to cede men the ultimate say. If we insist, at long last, that men not be allowed to sexually terrorize women in the workplace, we are a threat, and threats are to be crushed.
In Alderman’s book, the threat is not so easy to crush. Intoxicated by their new strength, women torture and kill men who raped or abused them. Men and boys become viscerally fearful of the women and girls in their lives, in the same inescapable, unceasing way women now fear men. But that’s still not enough, not in the face of all the institutional power men have accrued over generations. “The world is trying to go back to its former shape,” thinks Allie, toward the end of the novel. “Everything we’ve done is not enough. There are still men with money and influence who can shape things to their will.” She’s speaking with a mysterious inner voice, which has guided her throughout her rise to religious leadership. “You want the whole world turned upside down,” the voice tells her. “You can’t get there from here. You’ll have to start again.”
There’s only one answer, Allie finally realizes: An apocalyptic war that will shatter all the existing norms, institutions, governments and other structures built by and for men.
“The women will die just as much as the men will if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age,” someone warns her. “And then we’ll be in the Stone Age,” she responds. “And then there will be five thousand years of rebuilding, five thousand years where the only thing that matters is: can you hurt more, can you do more damage, can you instill fear ... And then the women will win.”
The thing that will really end the patriarchy isn’t an incremental shift, a demand for rights, a few skirmishes ― it’s Armageddon.
The endgame of feminism isn’t to replace the patriarchy with a matriarchy; another system of injustice isn’t the goal. But Alderman’s novel lays bare how difficult ― nearly impossible ― a just and equitable society is to conceive. A reversal of power might leave the other team in charge, but we’re dreaming if we think that women are immune to abusing their power. Either way, the reality remains: One gender has the power, and as long as they have the power, any “equality” is offered as appeasement and can be revoked if we “botch” our plea for justice.
And, as we uneasily ponder a backlash, that is exactly what we’re contemplating. There are women in power now, but not many; the vast majority of top executives and government officials are men ― and certainly there’s been no change as to which gender has, on average, the ability to physically overpower the other. Should men decide to stop this bloodletting of abusive cads, then that’s what will happen. This reckoning is happening on sufferance, and that’s why we wait anxiously for something to go wrong ― a false accusation, the wrong man getting fired ― so that the men in charge have a clear excuse to shut the whole thing down.
Of course, women do have some power, and that’s why we need to be placated, convinced not to think about more extreme measures of retribution. We have voting rights, and we outnumber men. We have purchasing power. We have the weapons to strike at the patriarchal system, to boycott Weinstein Company movies and the “Today” show or to vote wave after wave of women into office. We can make things very uncomfortable for men, if they don’t give us some taste of justice, some hint of equity.
But we’re not in charge.
“Remember, sweetheart,” Allie’s voice tells her again and again, “the only way you’re safe is if you own the place.”
In The Power, women can finally own the place, if at a staggering cost. But in this reality, women don’t own the place, or even co-own it, and we probably never will. There’s nothing more dystopian than that.