30 Sep

The Power: The Fantasy You Didn’t Know You Needed

Thoughts on The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Power is a story set in a frame. A man, 5,000 years in the future, pitches this book as a way to help readers visualize history and events that occurred before “The Cataclysm.” His publisher is skeptical that any story suggesting men might have once subjugated women will sell or be read as anything but “men’s literature” or smut. However, the text of this “author’s” story is included, leaving the reader to decide for herself.

This book is a glorious revenge fantasy, which I, for one, particularly appreciated on the heels of Judge Kavanaugh’s hearing and, let’s say, the entirety of recorded history. In The Power, women spontaneously develop the ability to wield electrostatic power. It starts with young women, but the young can awaken it by passing a charge to another woman’s skein, the organ governing this sense. Soon, women around the world are exacting righteous retribution and, in the case of one of our protagonists, Mother Eve, starting religions to usher in the new world order.

Narratives Can Change Us

One of my favorite scenes in The Power was when women in Saudi Arabia realized that they were no longer beholden to the cruel, archaic power structures that had long kept them prisoners in their own homes, with fathers, sons, and husbands their wardens. En masse, the women take to the streets. Armed police advance on them, but what gun can stop the fury of thousands of women holding electricity in their fingertips? Soon, the women begin blowing up cars and rioting in earnest, their tone jubilant.

Of course, women make up half the people on the planet. I read this scene and thought, if women truly exercised their solidarity, could we be stopped? If the whole of Riyadh’s female population today, for example, said we refuse to accept this any longer, could they force a change? Could women in the United States, in a surge of power, prevent another rapist and man who believes women shouldn’t be able to decide what to do with their own bodies from becoming a Supreme Court justice? Just maybe.

Reading The Power made me think about the stories we tell ourselves and the way we frame the world. Adlerman is not the first writer to posit that how we see ourselves in the world can change reality. Another book, and a book I love, is Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin. In Native Tongue, women work together to develop their own language, naming new concepts and creating power in doing so. Although the women in the story are palpably oppressed by the men in their family, deploying their new language tips the balance of power. Soon, the men cannot control women and the power they have unleashed.

Similarly, I thought of a part of the Sandman comics in which Dream, in the form of a cat, tells another feline that cats once ruled the world, saying “We were larger then, and this whole world was created for our pleasure. We roamed it as we would, taking what we wanted.” However, a human pet, in a flash of inspiration, dreamed that the world could be different. He shared the dream with others and “They dreamed … and the next day, things changed.” Humans became the dominant species.

The Power is women’s version of that dream. Perhaps if we all dream the same dream, one day we, too, will wake to find everything changed.

4 comic book panels from "Sandman." A large black cat tells a small white cat the secret to changing the world

Dream, in the form of a cat, instructs a cat in how to change the world.

But Are Women People?

The second half of the book, for me, was not so much a revenge fantasy as a revenge nightmare. Women, mad with power, start paramilitary camps that train young women to use power as soldiers. A European president institutes laws stipulating that men must have a female guardian at all times, men must carry documentation, and men can be sent to work camps for too much surly backtalk. We even witness the graphic rape of a man. That, is, we witness a gang of women raping a man.

The tale’s atrocities ramp up slowly, so when at last a man is ordered (by a woman in power) to lick up spilled alcohol pooled amid shards of glass, you almost wonder how we got here. Almost. In this scene, older women spur on the terror, shouting that men had done much worse in their time—this is no less than they deserve.

What strikes me is how easy it is to see the horror in male refugees, men’s suffering. Really, it’s the crux of the whole book: how simple it is to empathize with men, how easy it is to identify wrongs committed in the name of power and of the status quo are, indeed, wrongs, when applied to men.

It reminds me that society generally sees men as people and women as some other class of human. You know, like a woman writer, or a woman chef, or a “girl boss.” Maybe even a female doctor. We don’t read woman into these neutral words. Nothing about “boss” is inherently male. Except millennia of patriarchy and male power have taught us that, yes, boss is a male job. Men do it. The Power gives us 5,000 years of the opposite. How foolish, the fictional publisher thinks, to see men running gangs and committing violence against women. Women, in this story, are the ones with the right to humanity.

It’s easy to see the horror in men confined to their homes or in (women) soldiers raping (men) victims. How terrifying! But the reality is that this is how women in the real world live now. Women today are afraid to go out at night. Women today, in some countries, can’t leave the house without a male to escort them. Women today are raped (by men) and are the victims (of men’s) violence.

All this happens today, yet we are either too close to it or too fatigued to be shocked by it.

At the end of The Power, we return to the discussion between “author” and “publisher.” The author states, “Three or four thousand years ago, it was considered normal to cull nine in ten boy babies. Fuck, there are still places today where boy babies are routinely aborted, or have their dicks ‘curbed.’ This can’t have happened to women in the time before the Cataclysm.” He goes on to say that “the world is the way it is now because of five thousand years of ingrained structures of power based on darker times when things were much more violent … but we don’t have to act that way now.”

What if we didn’t act that way now?

What if women seized the power of solidarity? What if we dreamed the world into existence? What if the world changed overnight?

 

27 Sep

When Nothing Happens

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have never been the victim of sexual assault or abuse. That doesn’t mean I have always felt safe. There have been many times in my life that could have easily escalated into assault or worse. It is hard, in some ways, to talk about these close calls because, I think, well I wasn’t raped. It wasn’t that bad. That said, here’s the scariest story of a time that something bad almost happened.
 
When I was in ninth grade I lived in London for a year with my (now ex-)step-mom, step-sister, and my actual sister. It was the first and only year I had to wear a uniform for school and I was very naive about how walking around in a city in a school uniform makes girls a target for harassment.
 
The day that nothing happened, I was walking home after school and, a few feet from my house, a car pulled up to me. There was a man driving the car and two women passengers. The women, both adults, kept giggling. In retrospect, they might have been on drugs but I didn’t know how to identify that at the time. I had never seen any of these people before. The man invited me to get in the car with them.  I said no. I don’t remember what else the man said to me, only that was I was scared and upset, and I hurried to the door (but did not run, because running shows weakness). I fumbled with my keys and went into the empty house. I don’t remember if I cried but I remember holing up in my bedroom.
 
I remember being extremely shaken by this incident and I didn’t know how to tell anyone about it—in part because nothing “happened.” But something did happen. That non-event has stayed with me for 17 years. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had gotten into that car. I didn’t know if the man was going to get out and overpower me. I am lucky that I got away and I was close to my house.
 
Even though nothing “happened,” this is one of many things in my life that has taught me that many men see women as objects. Actions like this, or like street harassment, serve to remind women that they are not meant to be in public, that they should not be alone or feel any power or agency in their own lives.
 
I have spent my morning watching Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford be cross-examined in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. I believe her. Republican senators brought in a professional prosecutor to interrogate the details of her story, as if she has anything to gain by making this up. No one wants to relieve the most painful parts of their life. To ask her to do so in front of the whole country and then to answer probing questions about any gaps in her story is cruel.
Dr. Blasey-Ford is a civic hero. She understands her place in the national conversation. She didn’t want to come forward. She didn’t want to do this. She has spent her life trying to forget about the time that Brett Kavanaugh almost “accidentally” killed her, as she stated in her testimony today. Yet, here she is, doing all of us the biggest favor by trying to keep another privileged rapist from joining the Supreme Court.
I wonder if, in some way, Dr. Blasey-Ford also thinks that “nothing” happened. She was terribly violated, but she wasn’t raped. Does she downplay her assault in her mind, despite the clear trauma it left her?
Even though “nothing” has happened to me, enough has happened that I, like most women, think through when and where to be outside alone. I look for exits in buildings. I avoid men who give me creepy “vibes.” These are the subtle accommodations women make for men’s incessant predatory behavior.
It’s strange, the imprint that nothing leaves on one’s life.