/ 27 July 2023

‘The Power’ – unleashing of feminine agency upends gender norms

The Power
Female gaze: Toni Collette plays mayor Margot Cleary-Lopez in the Prime Video series ‘The Power’. (Katie Yu/Prime Video)

Released in March and based on the 2016 Naomi Alderman novel, The Power is a gripping, thought-provoking Prime Video series that skilfully weaves psychoanalysis and feminist ideologies to explore multiple themes. 

Created by women and featuring a diverse cast of strong female characters, it offers a bold exploration of gender dynamics and the profound consequences of power imbalances. 

It delves into themes of systemic oppression, women’s agency and the potential for both constructive and destructive forces when traditional power structures are disrupted.

I found it a captivating examination of human complexity, with layers of symbolism and nuanced character development that invite viewers to reflect on the deeper aspects of their own consciousness. In this way, it can be reviewed through a plethora of philosophical frameworks.

The central premise is the sudden ability of young women to generate electric shocks from their fingers. 

This electrical current can be transferred from teenagers to older women, which occurs frequently in the series, suggesting the new generation has developed this genetic mutation through the necessity to survive after centuries of women being oppressed and forced to mask their immense inner power from the patriarchy.

This sudden shift in power dynamics is symbolic of the real-world struggles faced by women, where they are often marginalised, silenced, and oppressed both by the system and the men close to them.

Unlike many Western-focused series, this narrative challenges many traditional gender roles by flipping the script, revealing a diverse world where women are the dominant force  and men must grapple with new forms of vulnerability and inequality. 

As a sceptic of recent programming that aims to hit us over the head with pedantic and gratuitous female-centric plots, I was rather delighted at the notion of women gaining — or possibly re-gaining — a superpower that actually serves them. 

The idea of not being afraid to go out alone at night and to walk through forests without the anxiety of being attacked by a man is most appealing, as is the notion that widespread domestic violence could be kept in check with this superpower.

To add to my delight, the characters are multi-dimensional and showcase a wide range of women’s experiences — not limited to just one stereotype or archetype. The individual storylines are told through a woman’s lens and reveal the complexities of the feminine, a far cry from one-dimensional male projection and fantasy.  

The diverse paths women may take when empowered are showcased in plausible characters. From charismatic leaders to abused and broken souls seeking revenge, a wide spectrum of responses to newfound power are depicted, reminding viewers that women are not a monolithic group. 

While The Power serves as a feminist critique of societal norms, it doesn’t shy away from portraying flawed characters. The temptations of power can lead some women to perpetuate the same behaviours they once fought against, exploring the idea that power itself may not be inherently good or evil — it’s how it’s wielded that matters.

For example, mayor of Seattle Margot Cleary-Lopez represents an authoritative figure in the political sphere. Her position exemplifies the traditional gender norms associated with leadership roles, where women are often up against men who predominantly occupy positions of power. 

However, with the emergence of the supernatural power that grants women control, the mayor’s authority is further magnified, highlighting the potential for women to challenge and reshape traditional power structures. 

On the opposite side of the world we meet the character Tatiana Moskalev, a Romanian woman who, as a teenager, was forced into marriage to an older man who later became the president of the country. Tatiana represents a complex and multi-faceted exploration of power and its potential consequences. 

Given the supernatural ability by coercing her personal assistant into sharing it with her, she uses it to control and manipulate others. Her use of her power to kill another woman to cover up her own crime underscores the show’s exploration of power as a morally ambiguous force. 

While the superpower initially seems to empower women, it also raises questions about the potential for power to be misused or abused, regardless of gender. 

Tatiana’s actions highlight the dark side of power and the danger of individuals succumbing to the allure of dominance and control. Her character challenges simplistic notions of empowerment and exposes the complexities and ethical dilemmas that come with wielding power over others.

In contrast to both the mayor and Tatiana, another protagonist, Allie, who becomes Eve, a black American teen, represents a central figure embodying the transformative potential of women’s empowerment and the awakening of female agency. 

Her journey from abuse in foster care and her arduous escape and subsequent actions symbolise themes of liberation and resistance against oppressive forces. 

As the emerging leader of a movement seeking to empower women, Eve challenges the patriarchal and racial norms that have historically kept women suppressed and oppressed. Her actions become a rallying cry for female empowerment and the rejection of submissive roles.

The Power - First Look
Ria Zmitrowicz appears as Roxy Monke in he Prime Video series ‘The Power’. (Ludovic Robert/Prime Video)

In addition to the intersectional premise for the film, poststructuralist feminist elements shine through the diverse and authentic portrayals of female characters in The Power. The series focuses on the importance of embracing the feminine aspects of language and expression, challenging gender norms and breaking free from monolithic stereotypes. 

As the women explore their desires and assert their agency, the concept of écriture féminine (feminine writing) becomes evident, celebrating the multiplicity of women’s voices and narratives. The series invites audiences to reflect on the power of storytelling and how marginalised voices, such as Eve’s, can disrupt and transform dominant narratives.

The series embodies the framework of feminine jouissance such as Helene Cixous’s call for women to reclaim their bodies and desires from the male gaze. Female characters unapologetically expressing their sexuality challenges conventional notions of power and ownership over women’s bodies. 

The Power presents a rousing narrative that encourages self-acceptance and the rejection of patriarchal norms that seek to suppress women’s agency and sexual autonomy.

Besides the obvious feminist premise, it is hard to resist delving into a psychoanalytical framework through which to understand the depth of meaning and intent in the narrative. 

The multifarious storylines certainly compelled me to journey into Freud’s notion of the realm of the unconscious mind and this perceptive series exemplifies his theory of hidden desires and repressed emotions that influence human behaviour. 

The emergence of the supernatural power granted to women serves as a powerful metaphor for the liberation of unconscious fantasies and desires. Freud’s concept of the Id also becomes palpable as characters embrace their newfound abilities, seeking to fulfil their deepest wishes and asserting their agency. 

The Power masterfully depicts the tension between conscious control and the primal instincts that shape human actions, raising questions about the interplay of power and the darker facets of human nature.

A peek through the lens of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan enriches the interwoven stories with layers of ideological critique and the exploration of transformative acts. 

Here supernatural power serves as a radical irruption of the Real, disrupting the symbolic order and exposing the underlying fantasies and desires that sustain existing power structures. 

The series confronts viewers with the Sublime, as the characters encounter an overwhelming force that defies comprehension, provoking reflection on the limitations of reality and the potential for radical change.

The Power also engages with contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s concept of ideology and fantasy. It unveils the hidden ideological constructions of power and gender dynamics, prompting audiences to critically examine their beliefs and assumptions about power relations. 

It challenges the censorship of critique and urges viewers to confront the complexity of power dynamics, beyond simplistic binaries of good and bad.

On the whole, with its engaging narrative and multifaceted characters, The Power invites audiences to explore the depths of human psychology, the liberation of marginalised voices and the transformative potential of confronting unconscious desires and ideologies. 

This provocative series is a testament to the potential of digital film programming to challenge and expand our understanding of power, gender and the human condition.

Gillian Schutte is a writer, social critic, independent filmmaker and activist.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.