📚 Naomi Alderman's "The Power" and the end of the #girlboss era

I read Naomi Alderman’s The Power very quickly (well, what passes for quickly now that I’m a mom) over the past week or so. I found it riveting; it was the first fiction book in a while that actually kept me from going to bed at a reasonable time.

The framing device is that one writer, a man living 5000 years from now, has written a historical novel set in roughly our time, and has asked his colleague, a woman and another writer, to read it and give him feedback. A quick bit of epistolary writing introduces that set up; the book then immediately jumps into the novel proper. In the history of this world, sometime around our time, teenage girls began to discover that they had the power to discharge electricity from their bodies similar to the power electric eels have. They are also able to awaken the same ability in adult women. And, as you might imagine, this changes the world a fair amount.

It’s an interesting book to read in the middle of a pandemic and widespread protests; each step of the way you see how the world is changing due to this new power, how a paradigm shift happens. It often felt like I was reading about right now, though of course the details are different.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is how it begins as a bit of a power fantasy.

I mean, just imagine. Imagine being able to walk down a dark street alone and not fear for your safety.

I didn’t realize until I had read this book that I never feel safe doing that. (What a privilege to have this fear at the back of mind than at the front, I know.)

As I read it more, this seemed more and more like a power I would like to have. Oh, I wouldn’t use it except in self-defense, I would tell myself.

I don’t want to spoil much, but as you might imagine, a lot of things that currently are things we expect of men become, in this book, things that women do. (What’s that saying about absolute power? Oh yeah, it corrupts absolutely. Though maybe it doesn’t, according to the study described in the linked article. But in this book, it definitely does.)

Layer upon layer of recognition settled in as I read the book, even close to the very end, constantly saying “Oh, THAT is a parallel to THIS thing that happened in our world…” and as I read, it reminded me of a recent Atlantic article, The Girlboss Has Left the Building (as well as The End of the Girlboss Is Here in the Medium publication Gen).

When I read the Atlantic piece, I highlighted this quote:

…when women center their worldview around their own office hustle, it just re-creates the power structures built by men, but with women conveniently on top.

And that’s what we watch happen again and again in The Power. It begins as a fantasy and ends as a dystopia.

More quotes from the Atlantic article:

Slotting mostly white women into the power structures usually occupied by men does not de facto change workplaces, let alone the world, for the better, if the structures themselves go untouched.

Being belittled, harassed, or denied fair pay by a woman doesn’t make the experience instructive instead of traumatic.

Making women the new men within corporations was never going to be enough to address systemic racism and sexism, the erosion of labor rights, or the accumulation of wealth in just a few of the country’s millions of hands—the broad abuses of power that afflict the daily lives of most people.

And Amanda Mull, the author of the article, concludes:

Disasters disrupt the future people expected to have, but they also give those people the space to imagine a better one. Those who seek power most zealously might not be the leaders people need. As Americans survey a nation torn apart and make plans to stitch it back together, admitting this, at the very least, can be an easy first step in the much harder process of doing the things that actually work. Structural change is a thing that happens to structures, not within them.

I have never been all in on the hustle, but I’ve had a waxing and waning admiration for girlboss behavior. The idea of making your way to the top appeals to me; the idea of treating your employs poorly - of firing them for becoming pregnant, harassing them, berating them - that appalls me. The Power is entertaining as can be, and also a reminder to watch myself. Watch myself for the ways that, when I want to dismantle a structure, I might end up reinforcing it instead. Watch myself for the ways I can use what power I have to help rather than to hurt.

Still would love to walk down the street at night with no fear. I don’t think the dismantling of the structure that prevents that will be finished in my lifetime.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh