I’VE GOT THE POWER: THE PROBLEM OF EMPOWERMENT

It’s funny how memory deceives us. I positively know that in the thrilling opening credits of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing (1989), Rosie Perez box-dances to Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power”, a call to Afro-American political action which Lee commissioned for the film. Yet, I associate Rosie’s punches not to Public Enemy’s tough male voices but, rather, to Pennie Ford’s black female voice shouting with glee “I’ve got the power!” in the chorus of German band Snap’s 1990 dance hit “The Power”. Perhaps because, after all, Lee’s vision of Perez’s sexy dancing is in itself patriarchal.

This rallying cry, “I’ve got the power!”, has popped up in my brain many times this past week, as I read Naomi Alderman’s controversial novel The Power (2016). I do not wish to write a full review nor to help this appalling fiction attract more readers. However, I do wish to discuss how dangerous the idea of empowerment is becoming, using Alderman as a prop for my arguments.

Just consider: in this multi-awarded novel we are told the story of how a genetic mutation originating in WWII gives all women a skein, located under the collarbone, capable of generating electrical discharges. First, only teen girls have the ability to unleash this mortal power but soon they manage to awake the dormant skein in all women. The author was apparently inspired by what eels can do and they even appear in her novel, in case we miss the allusion.

How do women use this startling bodily ability? They learn to control it, so that electricity can be used, for instance, for erotic play, which sounds fun (some men do develop a strong taste for that). Soon enough, though, female power is applied to more violent pursuits, from playground harassment of girls and boys to… the establishment of an androcidal all-women republic in Moldova (Romania). The victimized women revolt there against intensive sex trafficking as they also revolt against other political patriarchies in the world, such as Saudi Arabia, which leads to the threat of (all-male) war against the newly born state. I won’t go on, but just will mention that the anti-patriarchal backlash and sudden, literal empowerment turns women into feral beasts, quick to rape, torture and kill men. Even children.

Naomi Alderman jokes in her public presentations that The Power is only dystopian if you are a man. She has defended herself from criticism (mostly coming from women) claiming that nothing happens to the men in her novel that does not happen to women in real life. Readers who support her bleak vision of femininity invoke the classic (misogynistic) argument that a civilization dominated by women need not be better than a civilization run by men. And, as you can see in GoodReads, to the question of what would happen if a man had written The Power many readers reply that then we would be reading a history book. Curiously, Alderman presents her fiction as non-fiction written by a male historian about the events and then sent to her, which is, to say the least, an odd framing device. My personal opinion, if you care for it, is that Alderman’s novel is both a misogynistic and an androphobic ugly rant. I am specially scandalized not only because The Power has received any awards but also because it has been endorsed by Margaret Atwood.

Women’s power in Alderman’s novel is the approximate equivalent of men’s muscular strength. You might read The Power as a thesis novel in which the author answers the question of how would it feel for women to know that they are the stronger sex. The problem is that the author bases her thesis on the assumption that men’s average superior strength is applied all the time and against all the women. This is simply not true. I have no doubt that in ancient prehistoric times some men developed patriarchy when they realized that the violence used against animals when hunting could be applied to fellow human beings. In this way, the death race towards total empowerment began. However, despite the staggering amount of violence the world still sees on a daily basis, this is exceptional enough for its acts to be media news and recorded with increasing disgust in the History books. We do speak about violence, that is to say, about the abuse of the personal ability to hurt others, because we see it as anomalous, even in the regions of Earth were it is part of daily routine. And I would insist that most men never dream of using their muscles in the way most women use their (electric) power in Alderman’s novel.

This leads me back to my classroom last Wednesday. I was introducing my students to Masculinities Studies and explaining that one of the greatest challenges this discipline faces is the development of arguments to convince men privileged by patriarchal societies that it is in their interest to surrender (part of) their power. Power, so to speak, is a limited quantity and if minorities need to be empowered, then majorities need to accept disempowerment (think African Americans and American whites, if you want an example not about gender).

One of my male students asked the key question: why are we always talking about empowerment and isn’t the very idea of power suspect? I acknowledged that this is the limit of my own theorisation and that I want to believe that there is a difference between accruing power to abuse others (to use them as your own resources) and to help others (from a position which commands respect and gets positive things done). How about anarchism, then, he asked, and how does it fit our current discourse on power? Badly, I should say… Although there is the question of whether an absolutely equally empowered society would result in a form of (workable?) anarchy.

What my student suggested very intelligently is that the very idea of empowerment is a poisonous legacy of patriarchy, and I believe that Alderman’s novel proves this point. Personal experience suggests that nobody is empowered for good, and history has countless examples of extremely powerful patriarchal men who have lost everything overnight (think mafia). Current Western democracies are based on the peculiar principle that someone, usually a man, can be empowered for limited periods of time. At our current crossroads it looks as if WWIII might be triggered by opposite, yet complementary, examples of patriarchal empowerment in North Korea (a tyranny) and the USA (allegedly a democracy). Countless dictatorships and revolutions have seen people who felt secure in their power, from dictators to democratic judges, just to name opposite positions, be radically disempowered and even deprived of their lives. The road to empowerment is by no means safe.

As minorities struggle for empowerment and agency, these two keywords of our time, they are tempted by the patriarchal style of (ab)using power, or so it seems. I told my students how in Gus Van Sant’s film Milk, about the first openly gay man voted into political office in the USA, there is a very scary moment. San Francisco town councillor Harvey Milk wants to get rid of his political enemy, conservative councillor Dan White (who would eventually kill him), and threatens Mayor George Moscone–the very man who empowered Milk to be elected–with withdrawing his support. Moscone, taken aback, jokes that Milk sounds like a mafia boss and Milk quips “I like that, a gay man with power”. I was dismayed by this scene, as it suggested that in the end minorities are after what hegemonic masculinity has: the power to disempower.

Within hegemonic masculinity, an entangled concept which already two generations of Masculinities Studies scholars are failing to make sense of, things are by no means simple. The core of patriarchy is doing all it can to keep minorities at bay but sooner or later we will see white men mix with (or even be replaced by) other kinds of powerful human beings, not excluding at all women or non-whites. My dystopian future is not about women lashing out like eels but about the opposite of the Star Trek World Federation: an Earth dominated by a power-hungry elite, always vying for positions at the top, and combining the most ambitious individuals in our world. This elite will no longer be strictly patriarchal in the sense of being an exclusive male patriarchs’ club but, rather, a rainbow oligarchy. The rest of us, the ones who do not yearn for power, will be ruled (as we are), while those who do ambition power but have no means to access it will go on causing random violence, as private or public terrorists.

This is why I think that dealing with power along separatists lines in feminist dystopia or utopia makes little sense. There must be a middle-ground between the equally absurd propositions that women are all adorable, moral persons or evil wanna-be patriarchs, and we need to find it. I marvel at how 27 years after the publication of Judith Butler’s indispensable Gender Trouble (1990), which famously declared that gender is performative, the gender binary is still alive.

The question to ask in 2017 is not, most emphatically, how women would handle a sudden gift of power but whether power will be eventually degendered, particularly in the gender-fluid society that the young, in the West and elsewhere, so often promote as an ideal. Also, why disempowered minorities are not building tools for better agency, or why they are not being taught to do so. Reading about the women in Alderman’s novel, and in particular the politician who wants to run for USA President, a thought that often occurred to me is that some avenues for empowerment are already open–without the need for the electric skein. Hillary may have failed this time around but look at Angela Merkel. Or, more worryingly, at Marine Le Pen.

Most importantly, as my student suggested, we need to consider why power and empowerment occupy such central position in the ideology and agendas of the minorities seeking to gain more agency. And whether in the end even a gender-fluid society would be ruled by a hierarchy, rather than be a power-fluid civilization, that is to say, perhaps an anarchy. A word I believed to be until this week not part of my ideological vocabulary…

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