The Power – winner of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and critically lauded as The Handmaid’s Tale for the millennial generation – is a dystopian novel that imagines a world where women, particularly young girls, develop an electrical power that has the ability to maim, heal, or kill. Our contemporary social structure, the patriarchy, founded on the idea that men are physically stronger than women and thus the dominant sex, is inverted as women become physically more capable than men and gender roles become reversed.

Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), which imagines an Amazonian, all- women society, and the 2017 film, Wonder Woman with its women warriors on the island of Themyscira, The Power creates a matriarchy. However, unlike Herland and Wonder Woman, Alderman’s society of powerful women is as problematic as our contemporary patriarchy. Institutes of the patriarchy – religion, government, schools, the media – invert as girls start bullying boys with their power resulting in gender segregated schools, dubious female politicians getting into power, and violence and rapes against men increasing astronomically. Alderman subtly flips everyday sexism on its head: a male news anchor become the eye-candy while his female co-star is asked to wear glasses to make her more authoritative, men apologise profusely in emails while women are aggressively assertive, and a male author is asked to publish under a female pseudonym.

Despite being dystopian, The Power is novel rooted in 2017: not only is it concerned with gender dynamics and power, but it is also a book about the internet. Social media is how news of the power spreads – teenage girls share tips about how to wield their new powers on YouTube, like dystopian contouring how-tos – long before traditional news outlets start reporting on the phenomenon. Published just twelve days before the American presidential election, The Power is rooted in the post-truth era:

“It turns out the voters lied. Just like the accusations they always throw at hard-working public servants, the goddamned electorate turned out to be goddamned liars themselves. They said they respected hard work, commitment and moral courage. They said the candidate’s opponent had lost their vote the moment she gave up on reasoned discourse and calm authority. But then they went into the voting booth in their hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands, they’d thought, You know what, though, she’s strong. She’d show them.”[1]

Change the pronouns from she to he and Alderman could be writing as a political scientist the day after the results from America’s 2016 presidential election.

In Alderman’s novel, it is teenage girls that first experience the power, as Roxy, the teenage protagonist, notes:

“Something’s happening. The blood is pounding in her ears. A prickling feeling is spreading along her back, over her shoulders, along her collarbone. It’s saying: you can do it. It’s saying: you’re strong.”[2]

The empowerment and strength coming from the electricity surging within her is not only physical but also a mental and symbolic power. The electricity in the novel can be read as a metaphor for female empowerment more generally.

The 90s Girl Power culture, rooted in third-wave feminism and post-feminism, and best expressed by the Spice Girls, has morphed into contemporary “empowerment feminism”. Girl bands and pop singers, such as Little Mix, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift, have promoted empowerment feminism as part of their brands, and while some, like Beyoncé, have used their branded feminism to highlight Black Lives Matter and intersectional feminist issues,[3] others, like Taylor Swift, more cynically appear to don feminism when it is useful for their personal gain.[4]

Leslie McSpadden holding a photograph of her son, Mike Brown, who was shot by a police officer in Ferguson. Image from the video for Beyoncé’s Lemonade

Celebrities, like Kim Kardashian and model Emily Ratajkowski, have established the naked selfie as empowered and feminist. Following criticism from right-wing media, including a suggestion from Piers Morgan that Kim Kardashian is too old to pose naked, the women posed together and Ratajkowski wrote in a Instagram post:

“We are more than just our bodies, but that doesn’t mean we have to be shamed for them or our sexuality. Even if being sexualised by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be. Why demonise female sexuality if only to keep us in the dark about the power and beauty of our bodies? #liberated.”[5]

But is a naked selfie a feminist act? Is empowerment feminism? The descriptions of the power in Alderman’s novel – the feeling of autonomy over one’s body, the ability to express one’s emotions, the strength the women feel when they use their powers – sound similar to how women describe feeling empowered. Second wave feminists have repeatedly lamented empowerment, or capitalist, feminism as an appropriation of the word “feminist” for individualistic and neoliberal gains, as Hadley Freeman wrote for The Guardian: “when Kardashian tweeted a topless selfie last month, she claimed that she was empowered by her sexuality and, thus – via the media of her iPhone and her breasts – she was striving to ‘encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world’. Anyone who queried this philosophy was shouted down as an out-of-date loser who encouraged ‘body-shaming’. Empowerment has become the cover for doing whatever the hell you like.”[6]

There’s no clear-cut answer to the issue of empowerment feminism. Like in Alderman’s novel, nothing is simple: when women experience the power, they are able to free themselves from oppression; however, gendered power dynamics invert and instead men become oppressed. Naked selfies and empowered sexuality is a middle finger up to the male gaze which has sexualised women’s bodies for centuries; yet, there is something uncomfortable about promoting feminism through celebrities’ ideal, thin bodies.

Throughout The Power, protests and riots repeatedly occur as women take to the streets to spread the message of Mother Eve, a cult leader who promotes the power as a religion.

“There are sixty women who walk down the street together towards the police station… They walk quietly but quickly, and they’re filming everything – that’s the word they’ve passed around the women in the convent. Document everything. Stream it if you can. Put it online

[…]

There are maybe two hundred and fifty here now. The news of what’s happening has passed from door to door. There have been text messages; women have seen it online and left their houses and come

[…]

Roxy can feel the power crackling in the air around her. The women here are hyped up, excited, angry. She wonders if the men can feel it, too. The policemen with their rifles are nervous. Something could go bad here very easily.”[7]

Alderman draws on how contemporary protests are mobilising the internet and social media as a platform for social issues. Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March in January of this year are two recent major civil rights movements which used Twitter, Facebook, and hashtags to spread new information. The shooting and killing of Philando Castile in July, 2016, was streamed on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, who was in car beside him as he was killed. The video evidence sparked outrage as it served as proof that the shooting was unprovoked.[8] The police officer who killed Castile was acquitted of all charges earlier this month.

Protests have gone pop. Musicians, particularly female pop stars, have used protest imagery in their music videos as part of their brand of empowerment feminism. Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” features military clad women (and a lion) facing off in a gender segregated dance battle, while Little Mix’s “Power” features generic slogans on signs while the lyrics advocate for Girl Power: “Baby, you’re the man / But I got the power.”[9]

While protest imagery featuring in music videos can feel tactlessly commercial and over-produced, it can be argued that they are introducing civil movements to young women. However, when advertisers and companies appropriate protest movements for capitalist gains, things become much more dubious.

The many protests which followed the American Presidential election and Trump’s inauguration in January, has led to protest imagery dominating advertising and media. The infamously disastrous Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner was accused of trivialising Black Lives Matter, while Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Budweiser, and Heineken have also released advertisements this year inspired by protests and social justice movements.

Similar to protest imagery, brands have also adopted empowerment feminism to sell products. Beauty company, Dove, have repeatedly branded themselves as an empowerment company, and have run campaigns such as Real Women (in which they photographed six “real” women), its Self-Esteem Project which aims to empower women through buzz words, and, most recently, its “Real Beauty” packaging which is meant to emulate a woman’s curves.

While Dove’s campaigns appear harmlessly patronising, the company’s promotion of “real” women and empowerment projects are hard to swallow when Dove, and its parent company Unilever, monopolise on beauty, anti-ageing, and anti-blemish products, and, most concerning, skin whitening products.[10] Unilever also own Lynx (braded in America as Axe), a brand for which the advertising campaigns routinely appeal to male fantasies of bikini-clad women throwing themselves at men. Fashion stores, like Topshop and New Look, have also monopolised on selling products inspired by social movements, selling t-shirts that state “Feminist,” “The Future is Female,” and “Girl Power.”

In her novel, Naomi Alderman shows how empowerment, especially young women’s empowerment, and the Power – the government, religion, the media – are intertwined. Individual empowerment can develop into a larger, more institutional system of power, as young women who feel like they are capable of doing anything are much more likely to push themselves towards traditionally masculine careers. Empowerment feminism is a problematic issue into which Alderman delves with intriguing results. Young women feeling like they have agency over their own bodies and minds, and being assertive or proactive is a positive force; however, in her novel, Alderman shows how empowerment can morph into something more insidious and intoxicating when used against others. While The Power dramatizes the conflicting arguments for and against empowerment feminism, one thing is certain in the novel: teenage girls are “strong as fuck.”[11]

 

[1] Naomi Alderman, The Power, (London: Penguin Books, 2017): pp. 168-9

[2] Ibid. 9

[3] Andrea Peterson, “Beyoncé is a powerful voice for Black Lives Matter. Some people hate her for it”, The Washington Post, 10th July, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/07/10/beyonce-is-a-powerful-voice-for-black-lives-matter-some-people-hate-her-for-it/?utm_term=.8e7bc743bc5d

[4] For an in-depth look at Taylor Swift’s history with branded feminism see Ellie Woodward, “How Taylor Swift Played The Victim For A Decade And Made Her Entire Career”, Buzzfeed, 31st January 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/elliewoodward/how-taylor-swift-played-the-victim-and-made-her-entire-caree?utm_term=.psWG1eE3z#.hqwj9GqRA

[5] Heather Saul, “Kim Kardashian and Emily Ratajkowski share nude selfie and vow to never say sorry for their sexuality”, The Independent, 31st March, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/kim-kardashian-west-and-emily-ratajkowski-remind-the-world-they-will-never-apologise-for-their-a6960911.html

[6] Hadley Freeman, “From shopping to naked selfies: how ’empowerment’ lost its meaning”, The Guardian, 19th April, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/19/from-shopping-to-naked-selfies-how-empowerment-lost-its-meaning-feminism

[7] Alderman, The Power: 116-7

[8] Ciara McCarthy, “Philando Castile: police officer charged with manslaughter over shooting death”, The Guardian, 16th November, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/16/philando-castile-shooting-manslaughter-police-jeronimo-yanez

[9]Little Mix, “Power”, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw8B1q1tKgs

[10] Esca Ac, “Dove Isn’t Just Sexist, It’s Racist”, The Mic, 8th November 2013. https://mic.com/articles/71921/dove-isn-t-just-sexist-it-s-racist#.mXUiEV3Mz

[11] Alderman, The Power: 329