Missy Elliot may have been the first woman to rap about flipping and reversing, but in her book, The Power, Naomi Alderman takes this to a whole new level, writing a story of gender role reversal for a new generation, that has won her The Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction.
This is such a thought-provoking, insightful, clever, satirical book, (akin to 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale) and The Power has left its mark. This novel has brought up so much for me, with all roads leading back to gender inequality. A work of speculative fiction, this story seeks to redress the balance of power between men and women, and it is fitting that it harks back to biblical references for the founding of this new world order. In Alderman’s book, young girls have developed a unique physical power, an electrical current, that can harm and even kill. It has drastic consequences for our historically patriarchal society and asks the question –
What if the balance of power shifted from men to women?
This book has come at a very important time and feels like the culmination of a ground swell, that has found an international, border-free voice on the Internet. I have learned more about gender equality and feminism from the last couple of years on Twitter than I ever did at school or in society. Women are sharing their stories with hashtags like #EverydaySexism, they are uniting in their shared experiences and turning the tables. If you don’t follow @manwhohasitall start now. This twitter account expertly flips and reverses the entire gender issue with maximum effect.
A whole new language of ‘mansplaining’ has sprung up, as women find a new vocabulary to express their experience of this man’s world. But not everyone is a fan.
As the gender pay gap was yet again highlighted by a recent report into the BBC payroll, ‘journo’ Kevin Myers took it upon himself to blame women for the fact that they are paid less for doing the same work as men. According to Myers, men are paid more than women because they “work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant”. As columnist Fintan O’Toole pointed out, a woman can’t win with this kind of misogynistic mindset. Myers claimed women weren’t as eager as men, but when they are, they are called cold-hearted bitches. Putting career before family. Power hungry ice queens. It’s heartening to see sexist drivel like this being called out, but let’s not kid ourselves. Myers lost his job because of his anti-Semitic remarks, not because of his misogyny.
When women protest for equal rights and equal pay, we are too often dismissed as ‘whining women’, ‘feminazis’, ‘men-haters’, when really, we just want to be treated equally. Yet, for some reason, we just aren’t being listened to, or taken seriously. Incredulously, we are being blamed for that too. This is a recent tweet by correspondent Will Saletan, in which he referred to a video of a female politician, who was repeatedly ignored/talked over/disregarded by a male colleague .
It’s this kind of ‘advice’ and twisted logic that, yet again, puts the blame on women for men’s behaviour. Unsurprisingly, women responded to his tweet in their hundreds and thousands, pointing this out.
Ironically, he proved their point by completely disregarding their opinion, because after all, what would women know about it?! He wanted women to be more assertive, only, not against him. He could not see that using language like ‘women’s willingness to yield’ is dangerous and just plain wrong. Putting the onus on the woman for a man’s inability to listen and accept that, no means no. Classic. But he was completely blind to the flaw in his argument, despite the fact that hundreds of women were ‘firmly’ pointing it out to him. Instead, he referred to their response as ‘twitter rage’. I guess it was easier for him to label their opinion as hysterical, rather than review his position, learn through listening to women or admit he was wrong. So you see, sometimes you just can’t win for losing.
Like everyone else, I have been raised in a patriarchal society and have learned that this is just the way things are. But that is the genius of The Power; by simply reversing roles, we can see that just because this is the way things are, doesn’t mean that’s the way they should be. Tradition, culture and religion have played their part in forming our roles as men and women, the burden of which has been heavier to carry for one half of the population.
I believed them in catholic school when they said we were all equal in God’s eyes. I believed them in university when they said we were all entitled to equal opportunities. They were wrong. In Christianity, God only speaks to the men. God is seen as a man (say otherwise and wait for the sniggers). Jesus was a man. I grew up believing Mary Magdalene was the worst thing a woman can be; a whore and a prostitute. More baseless lies. Before her, there was Eve, that sinful woman who corrupted Adam and tempted him away from Eden. The only other woman who features, Mary, got to be a virgin AND a mother. Who could ever live up to that? I have grown up in the aftermath of Magdalene laundries (a fitting name for ‘fallen women’), where unmarried mothers were banished to bear the fruit of their sin. Not the fathers mind you, they didn’t get punished. As we speak, there is still an investigation into the bodies of babies who were found buried in a septic tank on a site that was once a mother and baby home, run by the church and funded by the state. In my city. And this unforgiving, patriarchal union of church and state is also responsible for the 8th amendment, a part of the Irish constitution that takes a woman’s bodily autonomy away the moment she becomes pregnant.
My first summer job after college was in an office as a receptionist. After a few weeks, a new guy began working there and thought that as well as a company car, he had also acquired a teas-maid in me. It was minor really, I introduced him to the kitchen, the kettle and a thing called gender stereotype. I say it was minor, because a couple of weeks before I was due to finish my contract, the boss phoned me and asked me to meet him in a hotel. He’d booked a room. I was nineteen years old, he was in his forties and married with children. I was shocked, probably apologised for the fact that no, I wouldn’t be meeting him and wondered if I would get the sack. He never spoke of it again. I told a female colleague (who didn’t seem surprised) and we made sure that I was never left on my own in the office with him.
While living in Canada, I was walking down the street one afternoon to meet my boyfriend after work. A guy on a bike came from behind and grabbed my breasts. I tried to fight him off (my heart is beating fast now, just thinking about it), kept shouting ‘No, no, STOP‘ and after what seemed like a long time, he cycled off, leaving me stunned and powerless. He did turn around though and laughed at me. I’ll never forget that grin on his face. It said, I’ll take what I want, when I want.
There have been other incidents. Every girl has had her fair share of it. I feel like I’ve gotten off quite lightly, to be honest, but even that way of thinking doesn’t seem right. It changes your behaviour. You become acutely aware of your vulnerability, so you always act with that fear in the back of your mind. Threatened. But like I said, I feel lucky. Just a quick glance at the statistics for sex trafficking, rape and domestic violence on the Womens Aid website makes for sobering viewing.
1 in 5 women in Ireland who have been in a relationship have been abused by a current or former partner.
In Britain, one incidence of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute.
There were 695 disclosures of sexual abuse made to the Women’s Aid services in 2016, including 316 disclosures of rape.
1 in 7 women in Ireland compared to 1 in 17 men experience severe domestic violence. Women are over twice as likely as men to have experienced severe physical abuse, seven times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, and are more likely to experience serious injuries than men.
90% of domestic abuse offenders in 2003 were male, whilst 93% of complainants were female. Of the 1,418 arrests made in relation to domestic abuse, 1,203 were charged and 650 were convicted.
Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders. Approximately 80% of these people are women and girls and up to 50% are minors. The majority of these women and girls are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.
And these figures are from the developed world.
Obviously, it is not just women who suffer from inequality and gender stereotyping. I feel a lot of men are restricted by the idea of what it means to be a man. People the world over are constantly discriminated against for their race, religious beliefs and sexual orientation. How liberating it would be to be free from these limiting stereotypes and learn to see each other as people, first and foremost. We all have different strengths and vulnerabilities, but these are not necessarily dictated by our gender.
So, this is why The Power is so powerful. It makes you think, what if things were different? What if men were made to feel how we feel? What if women held the balance of power? Would the world change for the better, or as the British politician Lord Acton once said,
Would absolute power corrupt absolutely?
A recurring thought that I had whilst reading it was how women, with this new power, wouldn’t have to be ‘nice’ anymore. Implicitly, I think young girls are brought up to be ‘nice’ as some kind of defense mechanism, so on the rare and wonderful occasions when a woman isn’t nice, especially in the public eye, it almost challenges the status quo. We may not develop an electrifying touch at the tips of our fingers, but books like this can impart a different kind of power… the power to see things differently. Imagine, for a moment, a world where God is a woman, church and state are governed by women and men are the ‘weaker sex’. Is it a little bit frightening? A little bit exhilarating? However it makes you feel, it’s simply a reversal (albeit a science fiction one with super powers) of what is reality today for 50% of the population.
I don’t think women want to take over the world (who’s got time for that?!). But I do think we want to share it. And what’s more, I think there are men who want to share it with us. More and more I see men calling other men out on issues ranging from sexist comments to gender balance and through campaigns like White Ribbon, a male-led initiative to end violence against women. This is the future that our sons and daughters deserve, a world that they can shape and enjoy, equally.
Thank you Naomi for writing such an ‘electrifying’ book that has sparked my imagination and asked some very interesting questions. And to the Bailey’s Prize, for championing female authors. One woman who definitely doesn’t try to be nice and always seeks to challenge society’s view of what is acceptable behaviour for a woman, is Madonna (a coincidence or a sign?!) and I couldn’t help but be reminded of this song and video while reading this book.