I’m going to climb out on a limb here. Please don’t shove me off.
I’ve never been a good enough feminist, perhaps because I haven’t needed to be. I was raised by a fiercely independent mother, herself the daughter of a woman who ruled her roost and then some. I have access to healthcare and contraception. I’m married to a man who has demonstrated, many times over, that he stands between me and danger. I am sufficiently well educated to know that I am fortunate.
Here is what I believe: I believe that men and women both, obviously, are animals. I believe that we are driven, more than anything else, by instinct which is conducted by hormones. I believe that our primary instinct is to make babies and to protect them, just the same as every other mammal out there. I believe that men have an instinct to prove their strength which has led us in to no end of trouble.
In her Bailey’s Prize winning novel, The Power, Naomi Alderman asks what would happen if women ruled the world. What would happen if the next generation of women were physically, unassailably, stronger than men? How would things turn out? It’s an interesting question.
Alderman proposes that a genetic mutation has caused a new organ to develop in women’s bodies which gives them a super-human electrostatic power as well as the instincts to use it.
Here’s the thing: she makes women the stronger sex and then asks how things would change. Well, surprise, surprise, the stronger sex takes charge and it all turns out much the same. The stronger women are power hungry and greedy and completely dismissive of men. Some even rape and pillage, mutilate, torture and degrade the weaker sex.
When we ask, as we do, what would happen if women ruled the world is this: What would a world be like that was governed by the physically weaker sex? To give women an unassailable physical strength is to redefine them. Alderman just changed the nomenclature. She called the weaker sex men and put women in charge.
What I would rather she had asked is what, unimaginable, alterations to our society, our thinking and our instincts, even our endocrine system, would need to take place for the physically weaker sex to take control of the planet. Is there a point in our future where intellectual ability could simply outweigh physical strength?
There’s another way of looking at this book. Alderman also examines how we think about the way women have been treated and maltreated throughout history. She suggests that we are thoroughly conditioned to accept the second class status of women. This is probably true. All the same, I can’t accept that it is any more shocking to imagine unborn boys being wilfully aborted by families desperate for a daughter, or more horrifying that the genitalia of young boys would be mutilated or in any way worse than young men might be terrorised, raped, scarred, trafficked, humiliated, bought, sold or killed. It certainly didn’t make for comfortable reading but I can’t imagine that any decent man who has cradled his infant daughter in his arms isn’t at least as much repulsed by the undeniable abuse of women. Does the author really believe that men don’t possess that much empathy? Does she really believe that women don’t?
Interestingly, not one of the archetypal strong women in this book, not the ambitious politician, nor the religious reader, nor the crime boss, has a son. The women I know would take each other’s eyes out, if it came to it, to protect their sons. For the vast majority of us, protecting our offspring, and guarding our nest, is the be all and end all.
I am glad that I live at a time and in a country where this book is published, lauded and even applauded. Equally, I’m glad to live at a time and place where I don’t have to like it.
Does The Power have an interesting and original premise? Yes, it’s clever and well-constructed but the argument, in my opinion, is intrinsically flawed.
Is it a good read? That depends. The plot is compelling but not nearly so much so as the headline reviews (‘kick-ass, thrill a minute vim’) had led me to expect. The characters are cartoonish ‘types’ and it all comes off a little like watching a school production of a Shakespearian play with all the male characters being played by earnest girls with painted beards.
Did The Power make me think, and re-think my understanding of feminism? Absolutely; that’s why I’m here with a bee in my bonnet. I’m still not, it seems, a good enough feminist.
I feel obliged to warn readers that this book contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence. Having said that, I think it would certainly add spark to a book club meeting and I’d love to know what you think.