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BooksDecember 18, 2017

The sixth best book of 2017: The Power by Naomi Alderman


All week this Christmas week we countdown the six best books of 2017. Number six: Naomi Alderman’s feminist sci-fi novel The Power, described by Andra Jenkin as a metaphor for the #MeToo movement.

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power has a fantastic premise: women are suddenly able to inflict pain and death at will. They can shoot electricity from their fingers, and direct them at men. Those who had been victims become stronger than the men who had abused them, and are able to conquer their oppressors. Suddenly powerful men have to face the consequences of their actions…. Sound familiar? Right now, men who have used their power to victimise women are facing repercussions like never before. All of a sudden women are being believed when they say some creep copped a feel, flashed his junk, or attacked them.

It’s not like women haven’t been saying that sexism and assault is a thing for a long time now. So why, all of a sudden, are we being heard?

While Harvey Weinstein is now the poster violator for sexual assault, Bill Cosby’s accusers started the landslide in 2014, with over 50 women eventually coming forward to report his pattern of abuse that included drugging and rape. Social media was far less forgiving than the regular media which benefitted from the output of famous sexual predators.

The Hollywood casting couch is a cliché that needs to be burned like manky furniture at a student flat party, and the irreverent denizens of Twitter are happy to set fire to whatever is handy. Anonymity bred contempt and the news went viral.

Cosby’s crimes were reported and finally the world was watching. The women who stepped forward were no longer singled out as fame whores due to both their sheer numbers, and the fact that many didn’t need this kind of publicity. They were famous and powerful already. Once his evisceration at the hands of keyboard warriors everywhere began, all women (and men too) saw that the landscape had changed. There was power in numbers and women who had been powerless and vulnerable finally had the chance to speak out. With enough women speaking, the noise was deafening.

Between Cosby and Weinstein, a man who claimed of women that he could “grab ‘em by the pussy” without consequences became the American president. Women were angry, but not surprised. When I think of the atmosphere of dystopian menace evoked by The Power in which sexism is pervasive and dangerous, I know it’s a world women recognise. After America voted that being great again meant misogyny, the imbalance and the threat ramped up a few notches and the peril became more immediate. Women all over the world wondered when their rights would disappear, when they would be attacked again. It was a feeling we knew only too well. The fact that men are afraid to go to prison for the same reason women are afraid to walk to the shops after dark should reveal that we live in demonstrably different societies.

The day after the election of a man who when talking about women actually said “You have to treat them like shit”, women objected. Rightly furious about being treated like shit, they marched, all over America and the world.

They met each other on the marches. They saw that they were legion, that they had allies in men who did want to understand and change the inequalities in the system, and the protest movement spawned as a backlash against the narcissist in chief, galvanised women.

So when the New York Times published an article about three decades of abuse that Weinstein had dished out, the internet exploded. We couldn’t get enough.

For the first time, no man was too important, too rich or too famous to be taken down. Be you a darling of comedy, social media, family values or blockbuster films, the message is that if you fuck with women, your career will be fucked right back. Women who had been powerless and vulnerable finally had the chance to speak and be heard. Like in the novel, it was men’s turn to be afraid.

That constant underlying threat explored in the novel became palpable in real life. Men I know who are in the public eye are asking me if they’re at risk. What if someone accuses them of something they didn’t do? I assure them that there are plenty of men out there who most certainly are predators who will be accused before innocent men are lined up.

Naomi Alderman

Now that women do have the chance to be heard, they don’t want to waste it. They are using that chance to tell the truth. Men are beginning to question boundaries and fear reprisals. They’re finding they must adjust to new limits or face serious consequences.

Up until now, those with the penises have been able to feel safe, valued, respected and listened to; those without, not so much. Men haven’t had to understand the constant relentless vigilance that women must apply to situations both hypothetical, real and beyond their control. That even in the most familiar of situations, there is always the risk of facing an assault, which will then be deemed their fault because they were not vigilant enough. Silly girl.

I recently had a marathon three-day argument with a man who attempted to convince me that western civilisation would come to an end because women of his acquaintance would no longer approach his car if he wanted directions. The original post was from one of those women who stated in the #MeToo landslide that she was sexually harassed when she had approached a vehicle with a male driver. Other women, including myself, pointed out that many women in that circumstance have been assaulted and raped for doing exactly that.

There were women who defended men’s privileged position. I counted two during #MeToo. The first attempted to placate the man unable to google for directions, seemingly out of an ingrained politeness that required deferential treatment of men. The other banged on about how men were victims too, which while technically accurate, wasn’t the point of the #MeToo campaign. In this instance even men were replying that they didn’t face even a tiny percentage of the fear, victimisation and assault that the women they knew were reporting. Theirs was not a world under constant threat.

In The Power’s matriarchy, it’s the men who are on the receiving end. The #MeToo movement acts that out in real life, and shows just how ready women are to claim their power.

The scenes Alderman describes in The Power are representative of the zeitgeist. Women would be angry and outraged and violent if they suddenly developed the ability to shoot electricity from their hands. After weeks of being mansplained to during #MeToo, I was furious. Had I some tame lightning at my disposal, the burned and twitching corpses would be piling up.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, $26) is available at Unity Books.

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