The Power by Naomi Alderman was first published in the United States this year and The United Kingdom last year. The book is getting a lot of buzz and it is generating a lot of online discussion. This is a dystopian tale that explores the issues of gender, violence, oppression and religion.
Over the past year or so I have read several books that take place in fictional matriarchies. This book fits in with that reading. The links to my commentary on the other novels that I read on this subject are below.
I found this novel to be outstanding. The plot is gripping. The characters are interesting. The themes are fascinating. It is full of ideas. It is imaginative and inventive.
The book is framed as a historical novel written by a writer named Neil who lives in in the distant future. The story begins in the present time. One day, teenaged girls find that they have gained a new ability. They can administer electric shocks to others. Later they learn how to pass on the power to older women. Women and girls can control the intensity and effect of shocks. Thus, most women gain the power to easily cause minor discomfort, paralysis, great pain, serious injury, or death. The new - found power gives women enormous physical advantage over men. In most cases, males are essentially helpless if assaulted by a woman. Most of the narrative of the book takes place over the ten - year period that follows the change. During this time radical transformations occur throughout the world.
Initially, in some places, there are enormous benefits. Abused and exploited women overthrow their oppressors. Women who are the victims of sex trafficking, physical abuse, oppressive laws, etc. are liberated. In Saudi Arabia for instance, women quickly overthrow the repressive regime and free themselves from male domination.
Things quickly go awry however. Chaos and war break out in many places as revolutions spiral out of control. Much of the narrative takes place in Moldavia. There, a repressive and violent female supremacist regime takes power. Men are reduced to a status of near slavery. Males are brutalized, raped and murdered on a large scale. Lest anyone think that there is no equivalent to this in our world, this part of the book reminds me of ISIS's treatment of women. The regime also institutes laws that are very similar to Saudi Arabian Male Guardianship Laws, but in reverse. The narrative, as told by the writer in the far future, makes clear that this is a pattern that will repeat itself in many times and in many places in the future.
In places like The United Kingdom and the United States, change is less chaotic but still dramatic. Violence committed by young girls skyrockets. In schools girls and boys are segregated for the protection of the boys. Men and boys fear being out alone and need to be cautious around girls and women. Domestic violence and murder perpetuated against men by women becomes much more common. Men begin to be displaced from leadership roles in both business and government. Men begin to be objectified and sexually harassed.
In one passage, the President of Moldavia and her entourage is described,
“Tatiana is followed into the room by two well-built men in fitted clothing: black T-shirts so tight you can see the outline of their nipples, skinny trousers with noticeable crotch bulges. When she sits— in a high-backed chair on a dais— they sit beside her, on somewhat lower stools. The trappings of power, the rewards of success.”
Alderman has created scenario, where a major change in the physical balance of power between men and women brings about massive social change in a wide variety of areas. The author puts a lot of imagination into the role reversal aspect of the story.
The narrative alternates between several main characters. Allie is an abused foster - child who goes on to lead a new worldwide female - centric religion. Margot is a rising American politician who uses her power to project strength. Tunde is young Nigerian man who is a journalist and who travels the world reporting on the great changes occurring.
This book is not for the faint of heart. It is full of graphic violence. There are numerous accounts of murder, torture and sexual assaults. Nothing is gratuitous however. Alderman is clearly trying to show the terrible aspects of violence.
This book explores so many issues that it is hard to choose what to focus on. My commentary on several other books that centered on matriarchal societies focused on the nature/nurture debate and gender differences. Thus I will write a few words on those issues. Alderman raises what I think should have been an obvious, but somehow overlooked point here. That is, she attributes much of the gender differences relating to violence, sexism, reproductive strategies, etc. to the difference in raw physical strength that exists between most men and women. In a short Twitter conversation I had with her, she emphasized that she thought that the ability to inflict pain was a big factor. It is surprising to me that that this point is not brought up more often.
The main point of the book is that the consequences of this change in physical power would drive fundamental changes in multiple levels of society. The novel makes a somewhat convincing case and makes me wonder how much gender differences relate to physical strength.
I think that if such a transformation occurred a lot of things would change. However, I also think that evolutionary psychology drives a lot of the differences in the behavior of large groups of men and women. I think this is true in regards to the propensity to be violent, and in reproductive strategies. In other words, it is more likely, due to genetics, that men will be violent. It is also more likely that men will act in certain ways when it comes to choosing mates, objectifying people in sexual ways, tendency to rape, etc.
I do think that Alderman in on to something. I agree that the disparity in physical strength and the ability to inflict pain is at the root of a lot of gender differences. But I think that there is more to the story. If such a dramatic change happened, as envisioned in this book, violence committed by women would surely rise. However, I do not believe it would rise as high as it does in this story. More women would harass and objectify men. However, I do not believe that the mirror imagine world that the book portrays would come to be. Women might exploit and oppress men for sexual and reproductive reasons, but I think that if they did, it would be in different ways. In regards to rape, I think that more women would commit rape against men (a small number do so now) But I do not believe that they would not do so on the level of the mass rapes depicted on this book.
I wrote much of the above before I finished the book. To my surprise, I found that before the story closes, Alderman presents a fascinating, counterargument to the evolutionary psychology type arguments that I mention above. She clearly anticipated such objections. As mentioned above, the entire story is framed as a historical novel by a writer in the far future. The supposed writer is a man named Neil, living in a society where men are clearly face sexism citizen and discrimination, but that may be slowly moving towards equality. “The Power” has indeed changed the world forever. Neil exchanges letters with another writer who is a woman named Naomi. In her letters Naomi makes an evolutionary psychological argument as to why women are more violent then men. She writes,
“Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women— with babies to protect from harm— have had to become aggressive and violent. The few partial patriarchies that have ever existed in human society have been very peaceful places. “
Neil writes back,
“I… don’t think much of evolutionary psychology, at least as it relates to gender. As to whether men are naturally more peaceful and nurturing than women… that will be up to the reader to decide, I suppose. But consider this: are patriarchies peaceful because men are peaceful? Or do more peaceful societies tend to allow men to rise to the top because they place less value on the capacity for violence? “
I think Neil is speaking for Alderman here. I also think that she is leaving it to "the reader to decide" here.
The counter argument, presented in this way is simply brilliant. At the vary least, it illustrates how easy one can create a narrative based on evolutionary psychology, that sounds convincing, but that is simply untrue. With that, I am still convinced that evolutionary psychology plays a major part in relation to these issues. In my opinion, a change in relative physical strength between the sexes would make a big difference in our society but such a change would not create a mirror image society.
I am quibbling a little here. These are complicated issues that almost no two people would agree on everything about. Despite my own beliefs, this book is an extremely compelling narrative. It is extremely imaginative and it is bursting with fresh ideas. Alderman is, at the very least, raising many compelling questions.
I have also only scratched the surface. The book has so many other things to say about people and society. In particular, the book delves deeply into the subject of religion. I could devote an entire, long blog post on that issue. The work also tries to explore the root causes of violence and oppression.
I found this book to be fascinating. I found it to be brilliant in parts. The plot and themes are intriguing. The characters are interesting. Throughout the book there is a sense of tension that shows Alderman’s skill as a writer. I think that this book belongs alongside some of the best works of work of dystopian fiction. Due to a lot of graphic violence this book is not for everyone. However, for those interested in this kind of story and themes, this is a must read.
My commentary on The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent is here.
My commentary on The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is here.
My commentary on Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is here.
My general commentary on fictional matriarchies is here here.