Imagining Violence: ‘The Power’ of Feminist Fantasy


Wikimedia CommonsCaravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1598–1599

It can’t be a coincidence that one of the novels getting international attention this year is about women hurting men. In Naomi Alderman’s bestseller The Power (2017; first published in the UK, 2016), adolescent girls discover they have a devastating electrostatic force in their hands that they can use to shock, torture, and kill. It comes from a striated muscle near their collarbones that alarmed scientists call a skein, and that they can observe through MRI scans of newborn baby girls. The teenagers can help older women activate their Power, too.

Beginning in Saudi Arabia, and moving to other countries, women seize political control, and take violent revenge on the men who have enslaved and abused them. They use the Power to defend and liberate themselves, and it changes their view of themselves. “If you were able to live your life as if you were able to cause hurt when you needed to,” Alderman told NPR, “your life would be so different, even if you never ever had to do it. That makes you less afraid all the time.” A girl electrocutes the foster-father who has been regularly raping her: “He spasms and pops out of her. He is juddering and fitting… He falls to the floor with a loud thump.”

But the Power rapidly corrupts, and some women become predatory and cruel. A female officer on guard feels obliged to make an example of an aggressive young male resister. “His scalp crisps under her hand. He screams. Inside his skull, liquid is cooking… The lines of power are scarring him, faster than thought… The body tumbles forward, face first into the dirt.” And men fight back with even more brutality; they try to destroy or steal the Power surgically, to blind and confine the women, to use heavy weaponry against them. Yet, despite the consequences, Alderman believes that being able to hurt and kill would be transformative for women: “If I could go and give to women being sex trafficked right now today in some dirty basement, waiting to be raped,” she said in the same interview, “—if I could go and give them the power to electrocute people at will, even knowing that this might end badly, I would give it to them.”

This bold and disturbing novel received the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, was listed among the top ten books of 2017 by The New York Times Book Review, and was even named by Barack Obama as one of his favorite reads of the year. But it’s not just a book of the moment. The Power is a major innovation in the overlapping genres of feminist dystopia/utopia, science fiction, and speculative fiction. Traditionally, these women-authored stories have been nonviolent and visionary.

One of my favorite early examples is “A Dream of the Twenty-First Century,” a story published in 1902 by the American writer Winnifred Harper Cooley. In her dream, the author is visited by a “healthful, glorious girl” of the future, “the product of a century of freedom,” who describes the utopia to come in the United States. Among the ills repaired are poverty, disease, sexual inequality, ignorance, crime, and war; but the maiden also reports that an enlightened population has finally reformed “an absurd electoral college” that “registered the votes of States instead of counting the majority of all the people.”

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic Herland (1915), three American male adventurers go on a scientific expedition to find a legendary Ladyland or Feminisia, and land in an all-female country led by women who are beautiful, wise, maternal, cooperative, nurturant, and calm. Each of the explorers falls in love with a Herland woman, but not all of them can adapt to a society which is opposed to violence, based on collectivity rather than competition, and averse to “killing things.” When the most aggressive man shoots his gun into the air, he is anesthetized, and eventually deported. But if women in a feminist utopia have a physical, intellectual, or strategic power advantage, the author generally finds a way for them to share it with deserving men. In Gilman’s sequel, With Her in Ourland (1916), the most successful male convert gets to take his wife back to the United States just after the start of World War I, and to learn from her. She even concedes that “men are people, too, just as much as women [are].”

The surge of feminist utopian fiction in the 1970s, including Dorothy Bryant’s communal, spiritual The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (1976; first published as The Comforter: A Mystical Fantasy, 1971), and Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1976), in which the male invasion of a matriarchal planet  introduces killing, continued Gilman’s pacifist themes. Indeed, female resistance to male power in these tales is very rarely physical, violent, or military. Even in the most famous feminist dystopia of the twentieth century, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), women do not rise up against the men of Gilead. They do not attempt to kill the Guardians, Commanders, Eyes, or Angels. Indeed, their only attack on a man occurs when a male Mayday spy is captured and is about to be torn to pieces; a Handmaid saves him from this fate with a quick kick to the head. Despite the infinite possibilities of imagination, most feminist speculative fiction could display the humane tagline: “No men were harmed in the writing of these books.”

Rage and the desire for revenge against male oppressors, however, has emerged in women’s dystopian writing during periods of feminist protest and uprising. We can see it during the first wave of the suffrage movement. Inez Haynes Gillmore, an American writer and suffragist, wrote, “When the first militant in England threw the first brick my heart flew with it. Thereafter I was a firm believer in militant tactics.” In principle, Gillmore believed, militant women should use the actions that had always worked for men: “rebellion and violence.” Yet she was also thinking about suicide as a suffragist tactic in practice:

A young woman, able, successful, happy kills herself in Boston, leaving a note “I die because women are not free”… Next week another young woman commits suicide in New York leaving a similar note. The next week it is perhaps Chicago… Washington… Seattle… San Francisco… New Orleans… You can imagine what a terror, what a horror would spread across the nation, as parents would ask themselves and each other, “will our daughter be next?”

Indeed, in feminist speculative fiction, suicide is much more common than brick-throwing, let alone homicide, as a form of protest. These contradictions between self-defense and self-sacrifice appear dramatically in Gillmore’s largely forgotten novel Angel Island (1914). A precursor of Herland, it tells the story of five men shipwrecked on an apparently deserted South Pacific island who discover that they are being visited and observed by five magnificent winged women. At first, the men are smitten and awed, but they soon decide that they must capture the women and force them to mate and breed: “The future justifies anything. If these girls don’t come to terms, they must be made to come to terms.” With mirrors, scarves, and shiny jewelry plundered from the ship, they lure the women into a hut they call the Clubhouse; lock them in; tie them to the walls with “their hands pinioned in front of them”; and then, as the women struggle and scream, cut off their wings with shears they have been sharpening in preparation.

The Angels survive, but without their wings they are tamed, docile, and helpless, barely able to walk on their vestigial feet, and totally dependent on the men. They marry their captors and have children. But when they realize that the men are also planning to shear the budding wings of their little daughters, their leader Julia decides that “we must stop wanting to fly, we women. We must stop wasting our energy brooding over what’s past… we must learn to walk.” In great pain, they learn to hobble, then to run, on their tiny feet, and to fly on their stubby wings (reshorn every six months). In a triumphant scene, they escape with the children. But the book doesn’t end there. They don’t drop a boulder on the Clubhouse, or go home to their mother country. Instead, the men apologize and successfully persuade the women to return, promising to shear no more. Indeed, the Angels are overjoyed to be reunited with their husbands and, having won this concession, are ready to share their power to fly with the men. Soon, Julia bears a son with wings.

Ursula LeGuin, who wrote the introduction to a reprint of Angel Island in 1988, pointed out that Gillmore handled the shearing scene “evasively”; it’s not shown as a “general sadomasochistic orgy.” Moreover, “the women don’t even act angry. They weep. They go a bit crazy and come out of it.” They don’t plot to fight back or wield some shears of their own. Nonetheless, LeGuin concludes, underplaying a bloody scene and avoiding a bloody response was to Gillmore’s credit. “By giving us neither, Gillmore leaves herself room to show… a real, effective anger, which does not express itself in violence.” LeGuin argues that Gillmore wanted us “all to fly, together”—an uplifting and utopian feminist ending to a very dystopian book.

Not until the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s was the question of female violence really considered in feminist fiction. At a women’s congress in New York in 1970, the short-lived radical group called The Feminists sold a story called “The Twig Benders,” which they ironically described as “feminist pornography.” Signed by “Wilda Chase,” mimeographed on pink paper on the back of a flyer for a pro-abortion rally, and costing twenty cents, “The Twig Benders” reversed the gender roles of sadistic male pornography. In it, women get explosive sexual satisfaction from humiliating, beating, raping, and killing boys and men. The point, of course, was not to titillate feminists, but to reframe and make shockingly visible the violent abuse of women in pornographic writing by men. The author, whose real name was Wilda Holt, was a survivor of incest and sexual abuse. Rage and despair had driven her mad, and in the mid-1970s, she blew her brains out with a handgun.

Never published, or even submitted for publication, “The Twig Benders” survives today only in a few academic archives of feminist history, but it’s uncannily similar to some of the scenes in The Power and a few other feminist fictional texts of the 1970s. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree, and so women writers imagining violence copy the themes of men’s writing. Holt’s work was one of a very small number of feminist stories and novels—a significant, if aberrant, undercurrent in that decades’s placid stream—that explored women’s fantasies of violent resistance and retaliation. In Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), set on the women’s planet Whileaway, a female human-animal hybrid, Alice Jael Reasoner, unleashes her concealed personal power—sharp talons and steel teeth—to kill a Manland invader threatening her with rape. “Was it necessary to go that far?” her friends anxiously inquire. “I don’t give a damn whether it was necessary or not,” Jael replies. “I liked it.”

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) is one of the classics of 1970s idealist feminist fiction. In her introduction to the 2016 edition, Piercy located the book in the second wave of the women’s movement when “feminist utopias were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have at a time when change felt not only possible but probable.” Her protagonist, Connie Ramos, is a Mexican-American woman from Spanish Harlem who has been confined in a mental hospital much like Bellevue, where, heavily drugged, she has a vision of an egalitarian utopian society of the future. Her real life, however, is a dystopian hell of poverty, abuse, and powerlessness. In the final pages of the novel, waiting on the ward to be lobotomized, Connie puts weedkiller into the staff coffee pot. “I am not sorry, she thought, her heart pounding terribly, and she sat on her bed, waiting.”

Sheel, a Riding Woman in Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas (1978), is a tough scout who guards the borderlands between the open plains and the male-ruled Holdfast, which keeps “fems” enslaved and sends warriors out to capture them. “She had killed a total of seven men during a dozen patrols in her lifetime: four from a distance with a bow when she had been sure of her shot, three close-up, bursting from cover on horseback to drive home her hunting lance.” Sheel is one of the rare fighters in feminist dystopian fiction who seems to have succeeded; ultimately, the women are hopeful that the “Holdfast is a dead place and men no danger.” But the reader can’t be sure.

In 2007, the British writer Sarah Hall made feminist counter-violence the theme of her novel Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army). In a post-apocalyptic dystopia set in the far north of England, a small number of women calling themselves Sisters volunteer for a long, excruciating training in guerrilla warfare in order to attack the urban stronghold of the male Authority. In their spartan enclave, Jackie Nixon, their fanatical leader, subjects the women to pain and deprivation in order to make them strong. “What do you think, Sister? Or is that the province of man?” she taunts them. “Are we innately pacifist? A softer sex? Do we have to submit to survive?” The novel was well received in Britain, where it won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and in the science fiction community, where it received the James Tiptree Jr. Award. But in the United States, reviews were mainly negative, and the New Yorker review did not even mention the woman-warrior theme. 

Perhaps a younger generation of feminists has become impatient with the passive female victims of dystopias. Belatedly discussing The Handmaid’s Tale in 2008, Jessa Crispin wondered, “OK, so when do these women start stabbing people?” Now in The Power, the violent feminist dystopia has become a lot more mainstream, and Margaret Atwood is its godmother. At the end of 2011, Naomi Alderman won the opportunity to be mentored by Atwood in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a competition established in 2002 to “ensure that the world’s artistic heritage is passed on to the next generation.” In one of her most quoted lines, Atwood quipped, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” Alderman takes this epigram seriously. The Power begins with the premise that “much of women’s lives are… circumscribed by the male potential for violence.” Having the ability to kill men, as well as laugh at them, therefore changes both women’s self-image and their opportunities.

Alderman wanted to show readers how women’s lives would be different if they were not afraid. As she told a Literary Hub interviewer, she hoped they would ask themselves:

What would this be like in my life? How would this change things for me? How would it change things for my daughter? How would my work be different? How would my trip back home from the office late at night be different? How would my schooling have been different? How would that encounter I had this morning have been different?

Yet she also forcefully dramatizes the futility of violence, and its inevitable escalation ending in Armageddon.

So why this fantasy now? Alderman is reflecting and channeling the anger of a young generation of feminists who will not forgive, excuse, cover up, and accept male abuse. It’s significant that the Power comes first in adolescence, and that girls make older women aware of it. For decades, there has been a lot of rhetoric about politically-aware third-wave feminists criticizing “naïve” second-wave feminists, and fourth-wave feminist millennials looking down on talky third-wave revisionists. But this round is different.

Women are willing to use their public power to destroy men’s careers, to break up their marriages, even send them to prison. They are not willing to share their power with any man who apologizes and wears a Time’s Up! button. If, as Lindy West wrote recently, “feminism is the collective manifestation of women’s anger,” this feminist wave is a tsunami. Alderman sees herself as part of that wave. “Some of the news has sort of caught up to the book in this very strange way,” she told the Times. “Both have been part of a growing anger over the past decade, which, to me, related to the increasing visibility of certain kinds of misogyny.”

Is The Power the start of a literary trend? It is too soon to tell, for Alderman’s novel also may prove to be an exception to the feminist literary tradition. But the anger is not going away. It seems clear, at least, that no feminist wants to return to Angel Island.

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