TW: for mentions of sexual violence
Given the stereotype that women are biologically more compassionate, sensitive, and emotional, the answer to the question ‘what if women ruled the word?’ usually gets clouded with these stereotypical ideas of womanhood. Probably the most popular piece of literature that examines the idea of female leadership is Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland, a book that is based on a utopian community of women that is isolated from the rest of the world. When three young men venture into Herland they’re surprised to find the way that this community has developed, and is a utopia of peaceful and communal living. The women have even found a way to reproduce without any need for men.
While an interesting book in its own right, Gilman’s book seems to eagerly feed into the stereotype of women as nurturing leaders – and a female-led world as utopian, without pesky wars and violence. Naomi Alderman’s The Power follows a similar line of thought – what would happen if women ruled the world? Yet, instead of succumbing to idealistic images of women, Alderman isn’t afraid to examine the deeply rooted problems within society – and flip the switch.
The Power is interested in the power dynamics of the world – specifically how gendered these power dynamics have become. It doesn’t just shift these power dynamics, but in order to shift it, it has also had to thoroughly examine what many of the power dynamics actually are and where they come from. It doesn’t take for granted what is embedded into our society. Our gender roles, ideologies – they are a part of power structures. So when power shifts, so do all of these dynamics.
For those who find it easy to accept the way things are – to claim something is okay because that’s just the way it is – Alderman wants to shift that conversation. Something is the way it is because of power. Power is the driving force of this world.
The shape of power is always the same: it is infinite, it is complex, it is forever branching. While it is alive like a tree, it is growing; while it contains itself, it is a multitude. Its directions are unpredictable; it obeys its own laws.
For those unaware, Alderman’s The Power follows a pretty simplistic premise. One day, the world discovers that some girls – young, teenage girls – are showing a strange power. The power of emitting electricity. It is a small thing. It is a slow thing. But things are changing. The young girls can wake this power in older women, and all girls are suddenly born with a skein that generates this power.
However, things are not as rosy as Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland. These women and girls with power are eager to fight back in a world that has been unjust to them time and again. Roxy is the literal ‘warrior’ of the book, displaying more power than most of the others. She takes over her father’s drug empire, and is associated with some of the most powerful women in the world. Then there’s mother Eve – or Allie – who in many ways uses the compassionate woman stereotype to her advantage. She uses her power in order to manipulate those around her in believing that she has a higher purpose. That God has given women this power in order to create a change in the world. And there’s Margot, a small-time politician who slowly begins to gain more and more political power due to the world shifting around her to favour women.
The rise of these women’s powers are also often linked to the sexual violence that they have faced in their lifetime. Much of the book is centered around how sexual violence is about power, rather than anything else. Mother Eve/Allie is being molested by her foster father at the beginning of the book. Moldova becomes the first country to be women dominated – Republic of Bessapara – precisely because of the sex trafficking that Moldovan women are subject to. Their subsequent rise to power, and determinism against men of the world, comes with the history of years of abuse and assault.
Yet, it is exactly at this examination of sexual violence that Alderman failed to closely examine power dynamics. While she writes a new female-dominated Western world where women rise in response to the sexual violence inflicted upon them, she doesn’t do the same favour to women in the East. Instead, women in the east do get reduced to harmful stereotypes. When Tunde – the only dominant male narrator of the book – visits Saudi Arabia, what he finds are not women in the midst of a revolution that is defined by their past of sexual violence, but women who are more interested in achieving “sexual liberation.” Whatever that means. Reducing Saudi – and Muslim – women to western stereotypes of being sheltered, sexually repressed, and eager to throw themselves at the first men they are able to without repercussions.
While Western women in the book get nuanced and interesting narratives that are an examination of power dynamics in the world, eastern women are reduced to stereotypes, and are never given their own narrative voices. Instead, they’re voyeuristically a part of Tunde’s narrative – who continually reports on the fact that the women of the developing world have descended into chaos because of this new power.
Ultimately, The Power is an interesting examination of many of the power dynamics that allows our world to continue being oppressive towards women. It’s less interested in the likes of Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s utopian ideas of female leadership, and more interested in the nitty-gritty of what it could really mean if the power dynamics of the world were flipped