Thursday, December 7, 2017

The POWER (book review)

When I look at this image I see a clitoris with finger poised...

...and so I thought it an apt image to accompany my post on The Power by Naomi Alderman, the 2017 Women's Prize for Fiction winner that I've just finished reading.

The actual book cover doesn't do much for me personally, and if I had the power I would suggest this image replace it for the next reprint. Alas, I do not have the power.

Alderman's dystopian feminist(ish) novel asks: "What might a world look like in which women are the ones to be feared?" as one reviewer puts it, fairly accurately.

As a freelance political theorist who has given a good amount of thought to the question of what the world might look like if women had power equal to or more than men, I am always interested in this question and, as it happens, am currently engaged in writing my very own fictional answer to it.

But feared? I'm not sure this is the answer, or rather the question we need to take our feminist mission forward. Surely fear is what we want to move beyond.

Alderman's book essentially flips the balance of power in favour of women by giving women greater physical strength than men, and suggests that with that strength women would end up, eventually, after righting a few wrongs, just as violent and frightening as men have become in our world.

Just as men have appropriated their superior physical strength to use against women in the real world - the last thing nature surely intended it for - so, Alderman speculates, womankind would do the same with their power, even to the point of losing the nurturing instinct and inflicting pain on children and the vulnerable for the fun of it, because they can. Because it makes them feel powerful. Power corrupts absolutely.

The mindflip Alderman achieves by putting the reader in a world where men fear women and women don't have any need to fear men, is kind of satisfying to read and very effective for highlighting the injustice of men's ongoing abuses of power at women's expense. But unfortunately the price to pay is that women's power has to turn, eventually, into a comparable corruption where fear and violence rule and the gentler virtues of compassion and empathy are lost, or rather that men become known for these gentler virtues and women for their aggression and ambition.

Perhaps there is something in the idea that it takes an oppressed person to feel compassion for those who are suffering, which might help to explain why women are responsible for three times the amount of charitable donations as men are, despite the gender wage gap working in men's favour. And perhaps men denied their sense of power and entitlement might too develop more sympathies for the oppressed and vulnerable.

Still, this gender flip is too absolute and too convenient to send an effective feminist message, in my view. Women in power have shown an ability to retain their compassion and fight for justice, not all of them of course, but a far greater percentage of them than men in positions of power. Albeit these women have never had as much power as the men in the same positions, as male power has always been backed by the pervasive institutions of cultural patriarchy that make even the least powerful of men feel more powerful than women.

So there is no way to look at our world, past and present, and say what female power would look like. So speculation is required.

But it seems to me it is too easy, and not at all fair to speculate, as Alderman essentially does in this book, that power would go to women's heads and make us just as violent and power-mad as it has made men.

Let's bloody hope this is not the case, at least.

Still, I reckon men who are in any doubt about the abuses of power that they have perpetrated against women, could benefit from reading this book. Unfortunately I suspect it will have a mainly female readership, if for no other reason that men don't often read books written by women, least of all a book billed as feminist.

Ignorance is power.  But perhaps not ultimately. I'll get back to my book now to try and prove that; power to the pen.


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