A micro-analysis of the gendered patterns of women’s lives would reveal a lot. All of the cat-calls, the horn-beeps; from the disproportionate shares of housework to the fear of saying no, holding your keys in your hand walking home in the dark, just in case. But what if one day, tomorrow perhaps, women became the physically dominant gender? The Power, by Naomi Alderman explores this question, in a novel where women begin to be able to transmit electricity through their bodies and into other people, they can inflict terrible pain, and even death. The day of the girls has begun.
The Power begins and ends with conversation between Nick and Naomi, Nick is working to discover a world where men were once the dominant gender instead of women, and Naomi is reading the novel he is creating and giving him advice. Nick then tell us the story of when women first were able to use the power, through Roxy, daughter of a London crime boss, Tunde, a boy who suddenly finds himself a successful journalist, Allie, who discovers the power in the context of her religious life, and Margot, an American Government Official, whose daughter realises she has the power. Almost all girls aged 14-15 begin to feel the power within them one day, and as all baby girls begin to be born with it, it is discovered that they can pass it to the older women too.
“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.”
Where does that leave the men in our world? They haven’t been born into a world where women are physically dominant, this change has happened almost overnight. Suddenly, a woman is physically much more dangerous, the coin has flipped, an entire system of privilege has been torn from under their feet. Many of the male characters do what women have done, and learn to adapt. They are afraid of women, and learn to survive and ‘make it work’. However, there are also many men who are angry, believe this new system is unfair, and work to take back what they’ve lost. There are armies, there are rebellions.
The Power questions our core understandings of the gendered power relations on which so much of our world is based. Is gender inequality ingrained into our society because men are the problem? Or does the very capability to exercise power over another person corrupt us? If women were the stronger, physically dominant gender, would we be kinder, more equal? Would men feel safe around us? Certainly, there are women in the novel whom we cheer for, as they discover their strengths, rise to become more than they thought capable; and there are abused and trafficked women who escape from, or avenge the men who imprisoned and humiliated them.
However, there are also women who use their power for pure violence, who kill not just men, but children, and even each other. Soon after “the day of the girls” begins, teenage girls are fighting each other in schools, after that they are trained up in the military. Women use their strength sexually to seduce, and women use it to abuse and rape. The novel expertly asks, are women all naturally nurturing, motherly and peaceful? Or is it a product of our place in a society where we are second best?
“When does power exist? Only in the moment it is exercised. To a woman with a skein, everything looks like a fight.”
And so, where does it end? If women were physically dominant would this dominance lead to a world without the wars historically orchestrated by men? Would humans be more equal all over the planet? Or would we find a society with our current gender inequalities turned upside down, and men the ones who are condemned to sexualised harassment and fear? The Power seems to argue that power is arbitrary in who in corrupts but given it, many are corrupted absolutely. That whichever gender identity is dominant, this dominance will ruthlessly persist, disregarding ideas of women as “naturally” kinder and more nurturing. Ultimately, we may never know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t ask.
Written by Katt Skippon