‘Because they could’

The_PowerWhen I was thirteen or fourteen, I read a number of science fiction and fantasy young adult novels that imagined matriarchal worlds where women held political and societal power, rather than men. These worlds were not necessarily presented as utopias, but they were usually peaceful, co-operative and somewhat passive in the face of threat. Published in the 1980s and 1990s, novels such as Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985), and Jean Ure’s Come Lucky April (1992), already seemed to me to be very old-fashioned. Of course it was ridiculous to assume that women would rule any better than men, I thought. And why would you want to imagine such a world anyway? I devoured these novels, but regarded them with suspicion. I thought that I recognised them as part of a ‘feminist’ project that was itself out-of-date. (I’m not a feminist, I declared proudly at that age; basically, I was saying I’m not like other girls.) Concerns about gender had nothing to do with me and how I was going to live my life.

Most readers probably know the premise of The Power by now. Girls and women start to develop the ability to deliver fatal electric shocks through their fingertips. At first, this is regarded as a curiosity; then as an incipient threat; then as an existential crisis, especially as religious cults form around female religious leaders and women overthrow male-led governments. The book swaps between a number of viewpoints; Allie, who assumes the mantle of ‘Mother Eve’ and claims to perform miracles; Tunde, who starts off as a freelance reporter and soon finds himself being pulled into the unrest; Margot, running for state political office, and her daughter Jocelyn; Roxy, part of a family of organised criminals in Britain who, at the start of the novel, witnesses her mother murdered in front of her. These stories are tied together by a framing narrative that takes place thousands of years in the future, as a ‘male author’, Neil, presents them as an historical novel to his female mentor, Naomi. Channelling the Man Who Has It All, she  questions his conclusions about the world ‘before’: ‘I feel instinctively… that a world run by men would be more kind, more gentle, more loving and naturally nurturing. Have you thought about the evolutionary psychology of it? Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

Other reviewers have rightly criticised The Power for its curious silence on the subject of race, and how race might intersect with this new gender order, especially as it features one black and one mixed-race protagonist whom you might expect to have thoughts on this. Given that it’s already bitten off more than it can chew, I can forgive the novel more easily for not engaging with other axes of oppression. I don’t see any reason why the premise of The Power requires the novel to engage with issues of sexuality, or with trans issues, for example. As ever, I’d like to see more – or indeed any! – important gay, bi, lesbian or trans characters, but the omission is no more glaring here than in many other novels. Indeed, my main criticism of it would not be that it isn’t intersectional enough, but that it doesn’t take into account all the reasons for women’s gendered oppression. In physical terms, women are not solely oppressed as a sex class because they are physically weaker than men, but because they carry, bear and often nurse children. (Helen Sedgwick’s new novel, The Growing Seasonout in September, promises to explore a world where men can have babies, and I’m hugely looking forward to what feels to me like an exploration of the other ‘half’ of The Power’s conceit.)

Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation. All this would feel much less problematic if the book simply lacked its framing narrative, which is where we see a gender-flipped world, and overall, I’m not convinced that the framing narrative adds very much. It introduces problems (surely The Power would be written very differently if it was an historical novel from thousands of years in the future? Wouldn’t there be more explanations for its ‘modern’ readers, and less explanation about things the writer would assume they’d know?) and doesn’t solve any. It recalls The Handmaid’s Tale a little too obviously. And yet, despite these issues, I already feel convinced that The Power will remain with me for a very long time.

It’s clear from the start that The Power is not going to be about a matriarchal utopia. And yet, I suspect my teenage self would still have held it at arm’s-length, because it makes it clear that sex, and its constructed counterpart, gender, both matter. A number of reviews of The Power have suggested that ultimately, it’s not really about gender, but about power itself. I’m not sure that’s the case: I think that the novel is about both gender and sex. Alderman seems to me to be interested in the power that men hold over women as a biological sex class. In other words, she’s concerned less with socially constructed ideas about gender, and more about the physical reality of the average man’s physical superiority over the average woman. The unreality of gender norms is demonstrated by the ease with which ‘female’ characteristics – such as emotional behaviour, caring personalities and the sexual double standard – are handed over to men once they are subjugated by women. Of course, we might argue that many of these things, such as the ability to nurture and support, are not undesirable at all, but made so by the unequal burden of emotional labour they require from women. And of course, that’s right. This, I think, is precisely the point that Alderman is trying to make; as she says in her excellent interview at The Writes Of Women, ‘of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence… So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor. Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ 

The crucial conversation comes near the end of the novel:

One of them says, “Why did they do it …?”

And the other answers, “Because they could.”

That is the only answer there ever is.

Given its acknowledgement of the reality of the subjugation of women, and hence the importance of feminism, my teenage self would have wanted to run a mile from this novel as well. It’s that, more than anything, that suggests to me how important The Power is, even if its exploration of the world it’s created is necessarily incomplete.


An aside. At the beginning of 2016, I started a re-read project, where I planned to re-read classic books I disliked as a teenager and see if my opinion had changed. I ultimately only got around to re-reading one novel (To Kill A Mockingbird) and decided that, basically, it hadn’t. However, reading The Power has inspired me to add The Handmaid’s Tale to the list. I’ve never been a big Atwood fan, but my skewed views on feminism as a teenager may have unfairly biased me against the novel, which I hated as a fifteen-year-old. Watch this space!

18 thoughts on “‘Because they could’

  1. Ace review as usual. I do think that, if you’re going to read the novel as being about sex and gender, then there *is* a good reason for Alderman to have acknowledged trans identities, and this reading actually makes it more of a standout error for her to have ignored that. The skein’s appearance on biological females and a very small number of biological males seems to beg the question: what is “female”? What does “being a woman” mean when female-ness appears to be biologically determined (as general thinking now groups “women” in the same class as “people with vaginas”, where in fact many people born with vaginas are biologically female but, in terms of gender, feel like men)? There’s a ready-made resonance there that Alderman never explores. If you think of the book solely in terms of power, perversely, I think it’s easier (though still a bit troubling) to collapse the axes of oppression into one and treat them as essentially similar symptoms of one group having more *literal* power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • These are definitely important and interesting questions which Alderman might have taken a look at if she had chosen to make one of her protagonists trans. I wonder, though, if the book is more about biological sex than it is about either gender or gender identity. In other words, it’s not really about the question ‘who is a woman?’ but ‘who do we perceive to be women by virtue of their biology?’. As you point out, it seems obvious that trans men would have the power, despite not identifying as women. This issue could certainly have been mentioned, but I don’t think Alderman wanted it to be central to the novel. She is – and I think deliberately so – focusing squarely on one axis of oppression while ignoring the issues raised by other kinds of oppression. Perhaps I am being too generous to her here, but I sympathise somewhat with this decision, as I think she’d already taken on a pretty much impossible task, and to give these kinds of questions the space they deserve, she’d have to have written a very different, and probably much longer, novel. This of course raises questions about how to deal with ideologies of oppression in this kind of what-if novel – is it ever OK to focus on certain ideas about oppressed groups and not others? (A different matter from the more straightforward representation of oppressed groups – which is why there should be LGBT characters in The Power!) But this would take multiple blog posts to discuss properly…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree (and if you ever *wanted* to write those multiple blog posts, I’d read them)! The problem really probably is one of space—you have to make some decisions as a writer about what you’re focusing on. And I think you’re right too that it would have been a very different novel if she’d taken it in that direction.

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        • I’m not sure I could write coherent blog posts on the issue, but I think about it a lot in relation to my own work (though I’ve never tried to write anything as ambitious/speculative as The Power).

          I don’t know how WordPress notifications work – did you see Naomi’s post below?


          • Hrmm, no I don’t think I get comment notifications! Well, damn. Now I’ll have to think of something brilliant and sophisticated to say to Naomi Alderman.


  2. Thank you for this, which is thoughtful and thought-provoking. I am interested in the comment I’ve seen several people make that the novel should have/could have/would have been better if it had explored trans issues. I’d be very interested to understand what people are envisioning in this context – what sort of story would you have liked to see, and how would it have played out?

    It’s not that I disagree per se, to be clear! The conclusion I came to when writing the novel was that there are *infinite* stories to tell about gender and about power, and that my role was really to pick a few suggestive ones and trust the reader to think through how this changed world might impact her/his own life and issues they find central. I’ve had very interesting conversations, for example, with people in audiences at events about how the power would affect life in Afghanistan and China. I think the novel’s a success if people come away from it pondering how it would affect their own lives or the world they live in.

    So I’m all up for conversations about the bits one can’t include in a non-infinite novel. But I’m interested to understand why this particular one comes up more often than many, and what the ‘left out’ story would have been. I did of course include a character who is implicitly intersex – but I’d love to know what stories would be told about trans people in the world of The Power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello – thanks so much for taking the time to comment! When a novel makes me think, I tend to start pontificating about it without saying much about whether I actually liked it or not – so I should say that the fact that I’ve written a 1000+ word blogpost about The Power, and am now having such interesting discussions about it, makes it a massive success from my point of view 🙂

      I think your question might be one for Elle rather than me. (And I’d also be really interested to hear her thoughts!) My points about a possible trans protagonist are really just quibbles – as I said in my original post, I don’t think there’s a fundamental thematic gap in The Power re. trans people in particular, at least in my reading of it.


    • Hello! Laura just told me that your comment was here and I can see from her reply below that she thinks it might be more aimed at my comments than at hers. I’m in complete agreement with you about choosing a few suggestive/resonant stories to tell and telling them (and should add that The Power was one of the most visceral reading experiences I’ve ever had; I’m a bookseller and have been recommending it pretty much non-stop.) Your phrasing – “trans people in the world of The Power” – actually makes me think of/hope that people will write The Power fan fic; maybe that’s where the space for these stories is to be found. I think the biological aspect of the power itself is what drew my attention to the fact that there was a gap where those stories are; because trans-ness in our world is often accompanied by a sense of having the “wrong” body or sexual organs, it struck me that having an extra organ/function that defines and is defined by biological sex would probably raise that question too. What if, for instance, you’re in the world of the power, and you’re a woman, but you have a penis and no breasts or vagina and you lack a skein? You *know* this power is something you should have – you’re a woman, dammit – but your body is betraying you again. What happens to your mind? What happens to your body? Do people assume you lack the skein? Are you living and dressing as a woman, and therefore people assume you *do* have it? It seems to me there’s a rich seam to be mined there.

      At the end of the day (I hate that phrase, sorry!), though, you wrote a book. It’s yours; you chose the stories that would go into it; it works. It’s an indication of the richness of the world you made that I think there’s space for more stories in it than the ones in the book. It’s unlucky that those stories are the very ones that are often absent from fiction, obviously, but my intention is absolutely not to attack you for not including them. Just to suggest that there’s room.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Despite their physical inferiority to women, men in The Power still won’t have to deal with unwanted pregnancy, or pregnancy as a result of rape; they won’t have to spend nine months pregnant and then give birth; they still won’t have to take any time out from work at all to have their own biological children. This means that the nature of their oppression is not the simple flip-side of women’s oppression, but a different kind of subjugation. All this would feel much less problematic if the book simply lacked its framing narrative, which is where we see a gender-flipped world, and overall, I’m not convinced that the framing narrative adds very much.

    I think you missed the point – that’s actually stated in the framing device – that the idea that the ability to bear babies places women at a disadvantage is actual a societal construct – part of the retroactive reasoning to justify/uphold patriarchy. In a matriarchal society, a woman’s child-bearing ability actually makes her superior to men (remember how it’s speculated that a 1:1 male: female ratio is not necessary for population? and the incidence of baby boys being aborted en masse?) and, of course, if women run the world then – duh! – they’d make sure that the world protects them during pregnancy. Ergo, if the CEO of Yahoo! is a woman, she’d give herself a year’s maternity leave with pay, and have creches and daycares in her offices, and of course a cute, healthy full-time husband to raise her babies.

    And even child-bearing…. this a world run and controlled by women because women are physically stronger than men (all things being considered). Women aren’t going to get raped. And if a girl has an accident, she’d just take a pill or abort the baby, and she’d have the Gospel of Eve telling her that she’s doing the right thing. (And don’t forget that Neil & Naomi refer to practice, larger-spread in history and still existent in present-day, of pre-teen boys being culled and mutilated. Basically men are robbed of their sexuality in this world the same way that many women are robbed of their sexuality in our own).


    • I think you’ve misread – I wasn’t arguing that in the far future imagined by The Power women will still be oppressed in these ways, but that the oppression experienced by men, while equally serious, will have to be different because the ways in which women exercise control over their bodies will be different. I agree that the majority of women won’t be under threat of rape, for example, in this future, although of course there would still be individual female rape victims.

      I totally agree about how pregnancy and childbearing/rearing could become central to a matriarchal society. I now wish there was a sequel to The Power set completely in the far future so we could see all those things in practice! I’d be especially intrigued to see the effect on women’s body image – as you say, pregnancy would now be envisaged as a strength, a superior ability that (most) women possess, and the purpose of women’s bodies would hence be totally reimagined.

      (I do think that, even with all the support a matriarchal society would surely introduce, the biological fact of having to carry a child, and the fact that pregnancy wouldn’t be 100% safe, would still bear on women, but the shift in attitude you outline would certainly do a lot to mitigate this).

      As an aside, even before I saw this comment, I realised that I’m still thinking about The Power even though it’s now almost a year since I’ve read it. Such a great thought experiment.


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