When people speak of women’s power, they tend to think of three things. Political influence. Financial clout. And of course, sexual power. Three things that have one thing in common: these things generally serve a capitalist patriarchy, in which – with a few exceptions – a woman’s value is closely tied to her desirability.
In fiction, women characters tend to follow a similar trend. Young women still dominate in almost every genre; and although we expect more independence and drive from our fictional heroines than we once did, most protagonists are young, while older women occupy secondary, often domestic roles. Older women are mothers, grandmothers, their power passed onto their children. Older women are confidantes, or villains, or bosses, or sidekicks. Even the main protagonists of Naomi Alderman’s feminist fable The Power, in which women of all ages discover an untapped potential within themselves, are predominantly in their twenties. Only in the world of romance do older protagonists feature on a fairly regular basis, and there, all too often their journey is defined by the prospect of finding love.
The message is clear: youth is power. The energy that comes with youth; the power of untapped potential. The loss of this power comes – inevitably – with age. Middle-aged women in fiction are most often likely to be depicted – if indeed they feature at all – as envious, bitter or sad, or overcompensating for their failings, or defying convention with HRT, or living on through their children. George R. R. Martin’s Cersei Lannister is a case in point; although she occupies a strange and unlikely hinterland, in which she combines the power of a femme fatale with that of a ruthless political mind, whilst also remaining apparently unaffected by the ravages of time.
Nonetheless, older women protagonists are difficult to find in fiction, and when we do find them, they often appear either as convention-busting characters in their eighties or nineties (as in Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie), or as tragically postmenopausal figures like the protagonist of Bernice Rubens’ A Five Year Sentence, whose story is entirely driven by her lack of personal agency, and whose journey into madness is triggered by loneliness and despair. So where does a woman’s power come from, once her sexual power has been exhausted? And is the endless pursuit of youth (via HRT, or late-life romance) the only journey worth taking?
When I began to write Broken Light, I had just gone through the double shock of breast cancer and menopause. It made me think about the helplessness of women in the face of their own physical limitations, but also the power of letting go – of our own expectations, as well as those of society – and finding unexpected power in our limitations. Many menopausal women speak of the “relief” of having gone through menopause: freedom from menstruation; freedom from the male gaze. Being invisible has its advantages: in any other context, it would be a superpower. Which is why, when I began to tell the story of Bernie Moon – on the surface, an ordinary, middle-aged woman with an unremarkable life – I found myself writing something new: a thriller with some paranormal elements, centred round the theme of coming into power with age. I haven’t read Kirsten Miller’s The Change, but I can already tell that we share a common belief that change is not always a loss, and that women have more to offer than their sexual viability.
For Bernie Moon, it is a return to a state of pre-pubescent awareness and acuity: as if the hormones of puberty have eclipsed her sense of self. There’s more than a nod to Stephen King’s Carrie here; but whereas Carrie’s powers are directly triggered by the arrival of puberty, Bernie’s come with menopause, and her liberation from the impossible demands made of a woman by society. She learns to challenge her sense of self; her buried guilt; her relationships. She realizes that her whole life has been spent internalizing blame for the crimes of the men who have abused her. Her menopausal hot flushes (which is the most common UK term) become hot flashes of intuition and power, upon which she is able to act in defence of other women, and in order to improve her world. Unlike poor Carrie, Bernie learns to direct her superpower, to overcome her fears, to face her past and her childhood guilt, and finally to understand that she is not the monster.
But claiming power back from the world is not an easy thing to do. Like so many women, Bernie has been gaslit into believing herself powerless since she was a teen. And her power – a power she barely understands – comes at the cost of security. The change – and its revelations – affect every part of her life; every relationship. I can relate: change, and the freedom that comes with it, can be frightening; destabilizing. Its power can feel a lot like weakness. But acknowledging that; sharing it; owning it is a potent act. What has been broken can turn out to be more powerful that what is whole. After all, only by breaking light into its component parts do we get the rainbow.