Inequality is everywhere.
Evidencing inequality is the easy part. Exposing the injustice and ridiculous consequences of inequality is important. But, understanding the reasons for its ongoing hold on social life is where it gets difficult. This novel Naomi Alderman’s The Power runs with the suggestion that the reason for gender inequality is as banal as physical strength.
I choose “banal” because whilst reading The Power for pleasure, at work I am reading Domestic Homicide Reviews and Hannah Arendt. Arendt is one means of understanding some of my discomfort in reading Domestic Homicide Reviews. She gave social theory the phrase: “The Banality of Evil” in her discussion of the trial of the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann. A key argument of Arendt’s thesis is that Eichmann was not a monster, but average, ordinary, lacking inventive thought. His principle skill was unquestioning bureaucracy. He is a thoughtless man. This lack of imagination provided the right environment for atrocity. Banality suggests baseless and dull; but it is not intended within Arendt’s use to suggest benign.
In similar terms, the atrocity of domestic homicide can be rendered invisible through banal, bureaucratic language. This banal language stops me in my tracks, because reading review after review I become appalled by the lack of imagination. The document’s bullet points and numbered recommendations appear thoughtless – “something by no means identical with stupidity” (Arendt, 2006 (963: 285). Expected outrage is somehow contained by templates and terms of reference – the reports are banal.
The Power, however is far from dulling. The writing sprawls outside of the conventional novel form and sets of sparks of thought and connections. In Alderman’s novel, the imaginative leap is to expose the banality of physical attributes as a means of stratifying society. What if women were to rediscover their strength? Even better, what if it were young women, teenage girls who had learned to harness strength? So that rather than their existence, their lives, their choices being demeaned, they become feared. They have the power to release electric shocks from their fingertips. This reversal of fortune is total:
“They separated the boys from the girls on the fifth day; it seemed obvious, when they worked out the girls were doing it. Already there are parents telling their boys not to go out alone, not to stray too far.” (page 21)
It is a delicious premise in which girls have power and they are ready to abuse it. The book is frightening as revenge is exacted and some of the sexual violence is hard to read. For example, Tunde, a young, attractive, male journalist starts his story confident in his charm and his talent. He shows how the power can be used to combat overt misogyny and exploitation. However, he falters and falls as he learns what living as the weaker sex really means both professionally and personally.
The reason, however, that the book is called The Power, rather than Gender Wars, or Women’s Revenge is because it is not just about exploring the role reversal of men and women, but what real power means. How physical strength and violence can be misconstrued as other forms of might. How the strong get to make the rules. Margot is a middle-aged politician. She has learnt to control her power, to hide it from view. She knows she must not appear to have this new gift, that to flaunt it would be politically wrong. Yet she delights in it:
“Nothing that either of these men says is really of any great significance, because she can kill them in three moves before they stirred in their comfortably padded chairs. It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.” (page 71)
But of course to lose control in public would be career suicide for a politician. She must not scare the voters. So when provoked about her family and this happens in a televised debate:
“That’s enough and her arm reaches out and her knuckles connect with his rib cage and she lets it go. Only a tiny amount really. It doesn’t even knock him over…” (page 167)
Her political career should be over – just as clearly as if she had said that she thinks it is o.k. for a star to “grab pussy”. The polls look bad, but…
“It turns out the voters lied. Just like the accusations they throw at hard-working public servants, the goddamned electorate trunked out to be goddamned liars themselves. They said they respected hard work, commitment and moral courage. They said that the candidate’s opponent had lost their vote the moment she gave up on reasoned discourse and calm authority. But when they went into the voting booths in their hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands they’d thought, You know what, though, she’s strong. She’d show them.” (page 168 – 9).
Importantly though, gender is not presented as a monolith. The book is not simply about stronger women and weaker men. There is recognition that gender is not a binary experience. Margot’s daughter, Jos, struggles with her weaker power; she is a flat battery, a pzit. Her first love is a boy who also has some trace of the power.
“After a long while, Margot says, “I still think we can find some help for you. If we could find someone to help you… well, you’d just be able to like normal boys.” (page 192)
Gender is never just one thing. It should be seen to intersect with other axes of oppression, ‘race’, nationality, economics, background, etc. However, I would argue that this is one of the weaknesses of the book. There is a sense that somehow despite the global reach of the book and the diversity of characters, there is not enough discussion of differences between women and the very real consequences of racialized and colonised structures. But this is a symptom of the banal premise. We are not unequal simply on the biological basis of strength. It is also a result of the relationships we have with reproductive rights, economic distribution, historical position and geographic location.
Intersectionality should lead us to an opposite of banality. It should engage us with our imagination. So, when I read a domestic homicide review, I should not just see a tick box response to bureaucratic categories, I should read a sense of a life lost and a real attempt to understand that loss in all its complexity.
And when I read The Power I could engage with the wonderful, imaginative fantasy of revenge for abusive men, rapists, traffickers, but I also see the limits of this revenge. Inversion of power can be a powerful (or comic) tool for explaining the absurdity of a lopsided power relation, but it will not lead to peace. Alderman’s key thesis is that people will do bad things because they can – that goodness is not innate in biology and I would add that to look simply to biology is a banal reduction of humanity.
Alderman, N. (2016) The Power London: Penguin
Arendt, H. (2006, 1963) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil London: Penguin Classics