• What is The Power Trying to Say?

    Without the Novel’s Allegorical Framing, the New Adaptation Feels Like a Hollow Empowerment Fantasy

    It is an exceedingly grim time to be a woman on Earth.

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    It’s grim for the young; it’s grim for the grown. It’s grim for Black women and Hispanic women and AAPI women. It’s grim for Indigenous women, and for women seeking asylum. It’s grim for poor women (especially if they’re mothers on welfare) and for women who are queer (especially if they’re bisexual). It’s increasingly grim for those in the US who either don’t want to or can’t safely give birth—and it’s just as mountingly grim for those who desperately do. (And for Black women, multiply that grimness by a factor of three.)

    It’s grim for trans women (and especially trans girls): The Equality Federation is currently tracking 362 anti-trans bills across the US; trans and gender nonconforming cis women are being singled out for exclusion from athletic competition; and in 2022, about 95 percent of the trans and gender nonconforming victims of murder globally were trans women or trans feminine people.

    (Meanwhile, America’s paper of record continues to commit such an outsized portion of its editorial resources to inflammatory anti-trans talking points that its coverage is regularly cited in ongoing anti-trans legislative campaigns.)

    It’s grim for women who are fat. It’s grim for women who are famous. It’s grim for women who work in call centers and in (or around) sports and in politics (both in the US and around the world).

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    It’s all just… grim.

    It’s not so surprising, then, that Prime Video’s adaptation of The Power—which was written, directed, and produced by a majority female creative team—reads like a cathartic power fantasy aimed at the billions of women whom 2023 is so violently failing.

    Here’s mother-of-three Seattle mayor Margot Cleary-Lopez (Toni Colette), struggling not just to be present as parent and spouse while running a large American city, but also to perform her job with enough femininity that the men in power around her—Josh Charles’s sexist state governor Daniel Dandon, in particular—continue to take her seriously.

    Cathartic, right? the series all but stops in its tracks to ask the audience every time its lead characters take another empowering step.

    Here’s Jos (Auli’i Cravalho), Margot’s disaffected teen daughter, alienated by her classmates and her family in equal measure, incapable of finding joy unless she’s trolling her mom’s social media comments or blasting Olivia Rodrigo and Dora Jar through her headphones loudly enough to drown out the world.

    Here’s Roxy Monke (Ria Zmitrowicz), the working class secret half-daughter of a London mobster, left out of the family business in favor of her harebrained half-brothers.

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    Here’s Tatiana Moskalev (Zrinka Cvitesic), a former child bride/almost-Olympic gymnast, now First Lady of a fictional Central European country, beaming vacantly alongside her vicious boor of a husband as he doles out death sentences to just about any class of woman he can think of.

    Here’s Allie (Halle Bush), a Black teen who’s spent her life bouncing around the foster system in the American South, who’s now experiencing selective mutism after years of being raped by her aggressively white, aggressively Christian foster father.

    And here, at last, is the twist: Overnight, Allie, Roxy, and Jos—plus, if we follow the math, presumably another billion teen girls the world over—develop a brand new organ whose only apparent function is to generate and transmit electricity. Called a skein and explained alternately as the product of a spontaneous evolution triggered by some combination of estrogen and gender-derived stress (the medical take), or as God/the Devil personally taking the wheel after too many millennia of a patriarchal society mucking things up (the deus ex machina religious take), this new organ almost immediately flips humanity on its head.

    Planes go down; the internet breaks; (male) heads of state the world over lose their goddamn minds. Within short order, the balance of physical power is sharply, violently shifted, and the world is set on a whole new path. Only this time, it’s women who have the upper hand.

    Cathartic, right? the series all but stops in its tracks to ask the audience every time its lead characters take another empowering step. Allie’s struck down her abuser! Cathartic, right? Roxy’s shown her dad she’s a force to be reckoned with! Cathartic, right? Margot’s shoved Dandon’s political seniority up his own ass! Cathartic, right?

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    And definitely don’t forget the downtrodden women of Saudi Arabia now able to start an uprising, or the victims of sex trafficking now able to fight back, or the queer girls thrown out by homophobic parents now able to keep themselves safe. Where girls’ and women’s lives were once ruled by a prey animal’s understanding of (to quote one of Allie’s new friends later in the season) being born on the “shit team,” now the balance of power has completely flipped.

    Cathartic, right?

    Of course, if you’ve read the 2016 Naomi Alderman novel on which this flashy new streaming series is based, you already know catharsis isn’t what the book is about. Nor is it about fulfilling some kind of feminist power fantasy. Honestly, it isn’t even about Allie, Roxy, Margot, Jos, and Tatiana at all.

    What it is about is power. Specifically, physical power. Even more specifically, the base flaw in human nature that makes it inevitable that—according, at least, to Alderman’s original text—any meaningful difference in physical power between the sexes will ultimately create a world as grim and full of gender-based violence as the one in which we already live.

    “[M]en rule over women because they can,” Alderman told Lit Hub in an interview about the book (and her then-new gig in the writers’ room for the Prime Video adaptation) in 2017. “[T]he logic of the matter is that if you have the capacity to enforce your will with violence, somebody will do it. So it starts philosophically from that.”

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    In the novel that philosophy launched, though, it isn’t the story of Allie et al’s flashy electrical evolution that Alderman uses to make her point about the inevitability of gendered brutality—it’s the much bleaker future-historic epistolary framing device she builds around that story. Because here’s the thing that will surprise any viewers who haven’t also read the book: in Alderman’s original take on the story, the reality-shifting evolution that Allie, Roxy, Margot, Jos, and Tatiana are caught up in isn’t the central plot of the book called The Power that you, the reader, are holding.

    Rather, it’s the engine of the book called The Power that exists within that book, which is itself the first draft of an experimental spec-fic manuscript written by (fictional) historian and first-time novelist Neil Adam Ardon. And it’s through this made-up dude named Neil—and more specifically, the provocative correspondence he engages in with a woman named Naomi, his (just as fictional) mentor—that Alderman ultimately channels her philosophically bleak thesis about power.

    Because here’s the other thing: in Neil’s world, the skein isn’t some fantastical invention—it’s real. Or at least, it has been for the last 5,000 years, after a near civilization-ending event called “The Cataclysm” wiped out all recorded history of the world that came before and knocked humanity back to the stone age. Which, thanks to the undeniable physical power that women are able to wield over men as a result of their unique anatomy, set all social, political, and cultural development on the path to a matriarchy.

    The medically gendered origin of the skein is still the albatross around The Power’s neck.

    This means that, in the “real” world Alderman sets her story in, it’s women who have always been the more physically powerful sex, and therefore it’s women who have been coded as strong, dominant, and flush with a capacity for violence. And this, in turn, means that it’s men who have been coded as gentle, passive, and nurturing, and men who have been suffering from gender-based violence and discrimination for millennia.

    Which is the exact gender-flipped dynamic that makes the “present day” correspondence between Neil and Naomi so bleakly effective: Neil fawns; Naomi condescends. Neil tries to lean on his academic bonafides; Naomi calls him so cute for thinking of putting boy soldiers, boy cops, and boy criminal gangs in his story. Neil tries to underscore his message about the hollowness of the gender binary; Naomi suggests that if he wants his work to be taken seriously, maybe he try publishing it under a female pen name?

    It’s bleak! But it’s also what makes Alderman’s project compelling. Because while the fictional manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book is a flashy, thrilling read, if it didn’t have this philosophically depressing epistolary framework holding it up and underscoring its function as an allegory over which Neil and Naomi can mount a gender-charged discourse, a “flashy, thrilling read” is really the best it could hope to be.

    Which brings us back to The Power as reimagined for the small screen. Anyone who’s been watching these past few weeks will have noticed it features nothing even close to a “metatextual” framing, never mind one set in some distant, gender-flipped future. Yes, the pilot opens with a montage of increasingly violent scenes from the rest of the season, Colette’s Margot intoning ominously about how women had no idea how the world would be changing for them overtop. But as the title card that follows that montage neatly establishes for us, this voiceover isn’t from 5,000 years in the future, but a mere six months. And then bam: we’re back in our world, but women have evolved skeins.

    Gone is Neil Adam Ardon; gone, Alderman’s sexist alter ego. And gone, too, is any sense that the dark empowerment fantasy literally embodied in this new organ called a skein could—or even should—serve as anything more than just that. An impressively cast, compellingly acted, expensively produced dark empowerment fantasy, to be sure! Those sparking lightning effects are astonishingly realistic, and that fake archival pre-Olympic footage of Tatiana circa 1999? Incredible.

    But the rhetorical ambition that set up The Power as something worth talking about all the way back in 2016, in that heady period when we felt like we were on the cusp of electing the United State’s first female President, despite the viciously sexist crucible of a campaign that was being mounted against her—a crucible which would, in fact, boil over in 2017 and kick off the mainstream #MeToo movement? The Power doesn’t know her. And so despite the fact that it’s 2023 and our conversations about gender and inequity and power are significantly more complex now than they were seven years ago, all we’re left to work with is flashy, thrilling vibes.

    Without that built-in distancing tool, all we’ve got is a made-up gender binary left irresponsibly uninterrogated.

    If I didn’t know any better—by which I mean, if I didn’t know that Alderman herself was part of at least one early iteration of the series’ writers rooms (it reportedly had many, along with multiple delays from COVID, multiple showrunners, multiple reshoots after two lead actors left, and a total re-envisioning of the first two episodes after award-winning Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano split from the project following reported creative differences)—then I’d say that these were all signs of a show that doesn’t trust its own source material.

    Or, I guess, doesn’t trust its audience. Because once you strip The Power of its signature meta text, it’s just not the same story. And while I’ll always be excited to see an adaptation twist its source material to make the story on the screen more complex—like the team behind The Big Door Prize has so deftly done over on Apple TV+—it’s a hard sell when the complexity ends up reduced.

    Of course, personal mileage may vary on whether an adaptation’s complexity relative to its source material is a potentially disqualifying factor. But in the case of The Power, if you drop the rhetorical complexity from its source material, what you’re left with is a story that comes preloaded with a fundamental flaw: it demands that both gender and sex be fundamentally, biologically binary. Which, on both counts, just isn’t based in reality.

    In the book, this thread of unreality manifests in the fact that the skein is tied explicitly to womanhood first by the epochs of abuse perpetrated by the patriarchy uniquely against (cis) girls and (cis) women, and then by a pair of double-X chromosomes. Alderman feints at imagining what consequences this bioelectric evolution might have beyond Ardon’s unreal gender binary: one character, a boy Jos starts dating after they connect on an internet forum for “deviants and abnormals,” is described in one half of one sentence as having a “chromosomal irregularity,” the complicated, shame-filled, and invariably deadly implications of which are given less than half a page before the story turns back to Jos and her own complicated (but unnamed) relationship with her uniquely glitchy powers. But… that’s really it. That’s as close as the book gets to acknowledging even the existence of trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming people at all, never mind the abuse they’ve historically suffered at the hands of the patriarchy. It’s not great!

    To be fair, it’s also a baseline that The Power’s (many) creative team(s) improved on in adapting the “women be sparking” half of Alderman’s book for the small screen. Trans people exist in their world, for one thing: early in the season, Allie is rescued by a nun named Sister Maria Ignacia (Chilean actress Daniela Vega), who belongs to a radical convent in coastal North Carolina that became officially ex-Catholic after breaking with the church over its refusal to accept Sister Maria Ignacia as a trans Sister in Christ.

    And as was revealed in the latest episode (“Sparklefingers”), Jos’s boyfriend, Ryan—a chill skateboarder played by Nico Hiraga who’s been elevated to a series regular as Jos’s longtime crush and classmate—didn’t get his skein due to some vague “chromosomal irregularity,” but rather as a result of having been born intersex, a revelation that’s treated with as much care and intention (and, eventually, narrative complication) as any good coming out scene could hope for—at least from a production with as much chaos happening behind the camera as this one seems to have had.

    It’s a grim world out there not just for women, but for everyone caught up in the close-minded impulse to shove humanity into a made-up gender binary.

    And yet, the medically gendered origin of the skein is still the albatross around The Power’s neck. Because Ryan and his atypical estrogen levels are the only meaningful swing the series takes at interrogating what, with humanity being as biologically, culturally, and socially complex as it is, the broader effects of an estrogen-fueled electrical evolution might actually be. Which, here in the ninth year of the Right’s escalating war against trans existence, isn’t just confounding, but a failure of thoughtful storytelling.

    As it is, the only way I can see any biology-based binary come close to making even a shadow of sense in a story like The Power is if it operates—like it does in Alderman’s novel—as an allegory. And not just any allegory, but one with the kind of distancing tool that makes it clear that it isn’t the impossibly binary story itself that holds meaning, but rather the (bleak) social construct-dismantling discourse to which it belongs.

    Without that built-in distancing tool, all we’ve got is a made-up gender binary left irresponsibly uninterrogated. The only people who will resonate with that story are the reactionary bigots, the anti-trans legislators, and the bad actors at the New York Times who’ve made that false gender binary their entire raison d’être.

    Now, having only seen the first eight of The Power’s nine Season 1 episodes (which was all that Prime Video provided critics for review before the series premiere), I can’t say for certain that the finale won’t feature a wild Neil Adam Ardon-shaped twist. And I hope it does! But at the same time, when it comes to episodic television, saving any critical rhetorical development for the eleventh hour is just counterproductive.

    If you want your audience to follow along, you have to give them the right tools early on. And in this case, The Power came with those tools! So dispensing with them for, in the best case scenario, a big finale twist—that would be the opposite of useful. Because in the meantime, it leaves any of us trying to make sense of the series’ message grasping in the dark.

    As it is, what I’m left feeling about the message The Power is getting across—that is, while power might corrupt indiscriminately, the womanhood that most matters is rooted in estrogen—is perhaps best countered by Neil Adam Ardon himself, late in his correspondence with his intransigently obtuse mentor. “Gender is a shell game,” he tries convincing her, as she continues to misunderstand the point he is making about the corrosivity not just of physical power, but of the gender binary itself. “What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not. Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”

    It’s a grim world out there not just for women, but for everyone caught up in the close-minded impulse to shove humanity into a made-up gender binary. I’m tapping on The Power’s shells to figure out what they want to say about it, but I can’t hear anything there.

    Alexis Gunderson
    Alexis Gunderson
    Alexis Gunderson is a writer who left the academic world of Russian Literature to join the secular one of television and cultural criticism. Her work appears regularly at Paste Magazine, and has also been found at Birth.Movies.Death, Syfy Wire, and Screener TV. She lives in the DC area.

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