“Who run the world? Girls”, announced Beyoncé back in 2011. But the declaration always felt more rah-rah than reality.
The years since haven’t exactly been a joyride for girl power and the female cause. #MeToo, the media trials of Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, the persistent pay gap, the uneven share of the domestic load between men and women. The fact that older women are at heightened risk of homelessness, having spent a lifetime caring for others. And these are the issues you’d prefer to have, compared to the plight of women elsewhere.
If you’re a woman, the world marches to a male beat. But what if the weaker sex ended up on top? That’s the delicious thought experiment of The Power, Naomi Alderman’s best-selling novel and now an Amazon Prime series.
In Alderman’s telling, women the world over wake up one day with the ability to electrocute others at will, courtesy of a skein — a strip of muscle strung across the collarbone of the female sex. All baby girls are now born with the power and younger women can wake it up in the older.
Can you imagine? Sparks fly as women set about overthrowing the powers that be. Trafficked women kill their captors. Breakfast TV’s frothy female presenters gain gravitas. Electricity flickers across the fingers of a slip of a girl as she tells a man to “smile”.
Alderman’s novel also stages a female-led revolution in Riyadh, sparked by the honour killing of two 12-year-old girls playing with their power. If the scene recalls ongoing protests in Iran — also prompted by the deaths of two teenage girls at the hands of the morality police — then, yes, fictional wish-fulfilment has never felt so satisfying.
But more shocks await. To those who imagine that the world would be a kinder, more peaceful place if women were in charge, Alderman is bound to disappoint. In The Power, today’s victims are easily tomorrow’s oppressors. Women remake the world, putting females first. Justice slides into vengeance, equality into domination of one sex by the other. Essentially, women abuse their newfound power.
The novel’s haunting question: Why? Alderman’s answer: because they can. “That is the only answer there ever is”, she writes.
For Alderman, gender isn’t the real problem, but power. Reverse the roles of the powerful and powerless and Lord Acton’s famous observation still applies: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If you’re powerful, Alderman believes, you’ll use your prime position to punch down on everyone else. We probably agree.
Which is why it’s near impossible to imagine the powerful not crushing the weak or promoting their own interests. But Easter weekend offers the strangest counternarrative on power — one that bucks every cynical take we have about it.
Christianity rests on the bewildering claim that the one with all the power chose to forgo it, becoming human and dying the death of a nobody.
Easter presents a gruesome spectacle: Jesus’s tortured body hanging from a cross — or tree, as the Bible also calls it. As a mode of execution, crucifixion was unbelievably brutal, reserved for the lowest of slaves. That it should be the — mark this, willing — fate of the so-called “son of God”? Inconceivable. Power is supposed to insulate from every shock, not expose someone to it.
Yet Christianity rests on the bewildering claim that the one with all the power chose to forgo it, becoming human and dying the death of a nobody. Why? Because, among other things, God is the original bleeding heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” as John’s Gospel puts it.
Also buried in that line: the possibility that love propels the biggest ever power move — that power, at its best, is used for the benefit of another. For us, power tracks upward and bestows entitlements on the powerful. Here, power descends and risks itself for the vulnerable. This isn’t power as we, or the characters in Alderman’s The Power, typically know it.
In Alderman’s grim dystopia, once you’re on top, you get to call the shots. The world is yours to do with as you like. The women of The Power wind up blasting their enemies, leaving them marked with fern-like scars. It’s why the novel opens with the line: “The shape of power is always the same, it is the shape of a tree.”
The Easter narrative imagines power differently. It says: the shape of power is not so much a tree, but the person hanging upon it.
Justine Toh is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.