Essays, Reviews

Power, Privilege, and Toxic Masculinity in Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” (2016)

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NOTE: the following contains spoilers for Naomi Alderman’s The Power. The novel was published in 2016, though, so if you haven’t yet read it, where have you been?

“Something’s happening. The blood is pounding in her ears. A prickling feeling is spreading along her back, over her shoulders, along her collarbone. It’s saying: you can do it. It’s saying: you’re strong.”

The premise behind Naomi Alderman’s The Power is at once simple and paradigm-shifting: one day, in a world like our own, teenage girls around the globe discover that they can harness enormous electrical power with a flick of their fingers. Using this power, generated by a specially adapted muscle named the “skein”, women can inflict enormous pain, even death, upon anyone they touch. Before long, the patriarchal status quo is subverted beyond recognition: men are left behind by an evolutionary process that they cannot comprehend and are unable to replicate or control, while women forge a new world in which a shift in gender dynamics facilitates not only physical dominance, but also immense social and political power.

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I first read The Power in October 2017 – the same week that the (still ongoing) Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the #metoo movement started to gather momentum. At the start of the week, the novel was simply a bit of light reading recommended by an old student. By the end of the week, it felt like a vital response to real-world horrors of sexual assault and toxic masculinity. The novel isn’t perfect – there are some structural issues and leaps of narrative logic that jar somewhat (more on that in a moment) – but it IS a masterpiece. And over the last year or so, its messages and themes have taken on even greater significance.

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For me, the most fascinating aspect of the novel is that the skein itself is not, ultimately, what grants women true power. It helps, certainly, in an immediate and self-preserving sense borne out by several instances of women electrocuting male attackers, but by the end it’s just a tool – one of many – that catalyses female community. Another electrical tool that helps? The internet. In the wake of “the Power” emerging, one of the first signs of global change (and the indicator which gives men cause to panic) is the proliferation of videos, on social media and on web forums, of women using their newfound abilities.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In the same way that #metoo brought women together and sparked a dialogue that shook (and continues to shake) the world, so too does the skein create a shared community. This community is the great equaliser that leads to wider social change over the course of the novel. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Allie, a young girl who uses her electrical touch to kill her abusive foster father at the start of the novel. Upon fleeing brutal captivity, she follows the guidance of an omniscient mother-like “voice” to find others like herself. She finds sanctuary in a convent, takes it over, becomes a cult leader (“Mother Eve”), and teaches other young women how to “build a new nation, mighty and free”. By the end of the novel Mother Eve instigates nuclear war – but Allie’s greatest tool is always the community that she inspires. “They have said to you that man and women should live together,” she preaches, “But I say unto you that it is more blessed for women to live  together, to band together and be a comfort one to the next”.

“The Power” itself, then, creates a safe, female space. A space away from sexual assault, from male influence, and from rigid, unforgiving social expectations. In that space, women have freedom to grow and create change. There’s more to it than that, of course. Some women are shown to use their abilities for good, some women change for the worse. Alderman’s world is nuanced, and conflicts emerge between the women in this space; communities rise and fall and merge. But in this new world, the possess the freedom to own these triumphs and tragedies.

“You are weak and we are strong”

The skein is at once a metaphor for and an inversion of male privilege. And like male privilege, it swiftly becomes the norm. By the mid point of the central narrative, the new power dynamic has been firmly established; the women in the novel don’t need to foreground their power or even use it, because while the skein serves as a marker of social difference, the power itself no longer needs to be displayed: it just is, like an oppressive background radiation. Which represents the patriarchy in a nutshell.

Which is not to suggest that Alderman shies away from the horrifying potential of the power. Indeed, she uses scenes of sexual violence throughout the novel in order to illuminate our own reality in shocking fashion. Graphic, harrowing accounts of rape, assault, and genital mutilation against men are upsetting for many reasons, but mainly because (although men can and do get sexually assaulted in real life) these acts represent an explicit inversion of the darkest, most toxic aspects of masculinity in our own society. In these scenes, women are terrifying predators whose power allows them to get away with unforgivable acts. Alderman focuses our gaze firmly on the manifestations of social power in these moments: like Tunde, a young male journalist who “knew what was about to happen” but is powerless to avert his eyes, we are unable to look away. By describing men as utterly vulnerable, physically and psychologically, to assault by women, Alderman forces the reader, male or otherwise, to reflect in an uncomfortable and vivid way upon violence against women.

Some of the novel’s most disturbing points about physical and sexual domination are explored in quieter, more subtle ways that are nevertheless every bit as disturbing as the graphic scenes outlined above. In one brief segway to a television news broadcast, we see one of the presenters, Kristen (who, before the advent of The Power, played second fiddle eye-candy to her male colleague) dominate the conversation surrounding a news segment. The story of the day is about plans to round up and exterminate surplus men. Her broadcast partner, Matt, nods in silent understanding, patiently enduring Kristen’s “gentle hand on his knee”.

Without any reference to the electrical power at all, Alderman presents a simple, horrible truth: a mere touch can do untold, invisible, unreportable harm.

The invisible danger of touch is also present in descriptions of ways in which women’s electrical powers can be used to excite and enhance consensual sex. That seems fine and well until one considers that certain men are shown to crave this kind of touch, even as they fear it. It provides pleasure, but also the potential for unimaginable pain. It goes beyond simple ideas of sadomasochism, and – to my mind, at least, comments on domestic abuse. We see people love something that hurts them – paralysed by a control that provides them with a degree of fulfilment, but against which any resistance would prove ineffective at best and result in dire, violent repercussions at worst.

To digress slightly for a moment: on the subject of Alderman’s incredible subtlety, one of the most powerful features of the novel is the absence of something I’ve taken for granted for most of my life. It’s dead simple: I don’t think that there’s a single “strong” male character in the novel, and this is one of painfully few texts I’ve read where this is the case. It irritated me. But then I thought, “Is this what it’s like trying to find literary representation as a woman? As an LGBTQ reader? As a disabled reader?”

Damn.

Wrapping up: “Can you call back the lightning?”

Power corrupts, goes the adage, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The central story of the novel concludes with an apocalypse, spurred on by Mother Eve’s ideology, by President Margot Cleary’s political motivations, by human nature and “existing belief patterns”. The world burns in missile strikes, paving the way for a new society founded by surviving women to rise from the ashes. The apocalypse itself is framed explicitly as a response to a history of male power. The women react, out of necessity, with force. The final idea of resetting society and placing women on top from the ground-up is phrased in terms of a pre-emptive strike. “If I don’t do it”, Mother Eve claims, “they will”.  

These events contextualise the novel’s framing device – an email exchange between a writer and an editor – by revealing that the central story is actually a “historical novel” written 5,000 years after “the cataclysm”. All of the central characters are dead and forgotten, with no surviving records of any time in which men were ever in charge. The women who rule society assume that this has always been the case. In the email chain we see “Naomi”, the powerful editor, being friendly (but sickeningly condescending) and making lewd comments (“you saucy boy”) to the beleaguered male writer (“Neil Adam Armon”) who is frustrated that his work isn’t taken seriously because of his gender. It is implied that that he published this unbelievable account of a crazy backwards society led – can you believe it? – by men, under the female pseudonym of Naomi Alderman.

Here’s where I had a problem with the conclusion and structure of the novel. Firstly, it feels as though too many sensible, tech-savvy characters survive the nuclear cataclysm for the “prehistoric” society to be convincingly forgotten. Moreover, despite the effects of bombs, chemical attacks, radiation and so on, the central premise of the novel is that women LITERALLY run on electricity, which makes the “hunter-gatherer cave person” society that humanity is supposed to be reduced to seem a bit hard to swallow. It feels a bit illogical and world-shattering.

These critiques, though, are minor. Because, on a thematic level, the conclusion absolutely works.

If the events that lead to the breakdown of society, the violence, the cataclysm, and the emails reveal anything about humans, it is that we possess an innate self-destructive tendency, and that power begets the abuse of power. For the purposes of the novel, it doesn’t really matter whether you agree with the suggestion that if women held the power of men they would only end up making the same mistakes as men, committing the same atrocities as men, slipping into the same bad habits as men. “Gender is a shell game”, Neil writes. “What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”

What matters more, perhaps, is that we question structures and institutions that enable the abuse of privilege. And in this context, that means reflecting on and challenging the treatment of women in our own society. The Power is a terrifying response to patriarchal culture and toxic masculinity, but its most damning indictment is reserved for the insidious means by which gender distinctions and power imbalance become normalised. Toxic behaviour’s most awful trick, after all, is that it can hide in plain sight. By writing this novel as an inversion of the world we inhabit and the norms we accept, Alderman makes crystal clear that the only “power” required to challenge abuse is empathy.

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