The powerless power

A year or so ago I read the quote from Helen Mirren. It was her answer in response to an interview question about growing older and trying to avoid the “sexy” label:

“I’m still trying to wriggle out from under that label. […] Being a sexual object is mortifying and irritating, yet it’s giving you power–an awful power that you’ve done nothing to deserve, a powerless power. I think some young women fall in love with that power, and it’s really objectifying. And when it starts falling away, it’s an incredible relief.”

Nora’s post on objectification got me thinking about this again. It’s one of my favorite concepts – the powerless power, the power others give you, but that you yourself neither own or control. The quote is talking about sexual power, particularly the over sexualization of very young women, barely more than girls, that our culture thrives on. We take these lovely girls and give them power, media power, money, attention, and then wonder why the sixteen-year-old can’t handle it.

Of course, stars are a bad example, they had to have some kind of talent to get where they are. But think of girls you knew in high school, the really pretty ones. Think about all the women whose main talent in life is being lovely, because being lovely got them everywhere they wanted to be. Who these women might have been with out the free ride of good genes, we’ll never know. But, we all know what happens when their beauty starts to slip, and the power fades away. Several billion dollar industries are funded by women trying to salvage their beauty, and the power tied to it, from the ravages of time, but in the end, it’s futile, because the power was never theirs to begin with. It was always given to them for reasons outside their control, and love of power you do not control is the most dangerous obsession of all.

Which brings me back to fantasy. Fantasy novels are full of people clinging to powerless power, which, in fantasy worlds (places which tend to be populated by kings and born magicians)  encompasses a lot more than just sexual objectification. Tons of fantasies (mine included) have people born with strong, innate magical power. It’s like winning the genetic lotto, you came out an archmagus while your brother got the large nose. Or take the prince, born into fantastic power by virtue of primogenitor. Both of these are powers the person holding them did nothing to obtain. The prince didn’t struggle to better himself, win the hearts of the people, and claim throne. He didn’t even take it by force, at the head of a conquering army. Similarly, the born mage may have to train so as not to blow themselves up, but with that much power she probably didn’t have to work very hard to be at the top of the heap, magically speaking.

It’s not uncommon for a fantasy to be full of people born into power, be it royalty, magical powers, inheritors of some great artifact of a lost age, chosen child of a god, etc., etc., I am endlessly amazed at how decent most authors depict these folks turning out. Compare your average fantasy land princess to anyone an American tabloid would call a “princess,” one saves the kingdom by teaming up with the unlikeliest of companions, the other is up to her nose in cocaine. This is a gross generalization on both counts, but you get my drift. We like our fantasy MCs powerful and good, but when that power comes from anywhere but their own hard work, especially if it comes at birth, you’ve got to take into account how that power warped a young mind notoriously unable to responsibly deal with power on that scale or risk creating a cardboard character.

It all goes back to my post waaaay long ago about letting people be people. If you have individuals born into great power, most of them won’t handle it well, because it’s not their power. It’s power they were given through no deserving of their own, and though you don’t generally age out of great magical ability, I don’t imagine most child prodigy wizards would end up any better than child prodigy actors. Of course, this is where the clever author could start turning things in interesting directions. How many times in fantasy have we seen the young boy born with terrible power, who, though a loving foster parent (since his own are dead, natch), learns to fear and control his own magic and then goes on to do wonderful things. It’s going to take a lot of originality to sell that plot. However, how interesting could it be to have that same child mage become world famous as a magical prodigy, and then lose his power? Everything he’d been handed by life would vanish, and he’d be left with what precious little he’d done for himself. What lengths would he go through to get it back? How would he support his magical coke habit? What if magic itself was addictive (and you know it would be, once you’ve had world shaping power at your fingers, life can never be the same), how would he deal with the withdrawl?

Everything comes down understanding the difference between power a person earns and power they are given. Knowledge, skills, friendship, determination built on your own goals, magic you learned through hard trial, these are real powers, earned, not given, and can not be taken away. But powerless power, especially when it comes at a young age, is never truly the character’s own. Because of this, I think powerless power can be one of the most volatile and interesting elements in a story. Provided, of course, your characters react to it like people, and not like train cars on the plot railroad.

3 Responses to “The powerless power”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    May 22, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Ok, not being obsequious here but that was a KILLER article. Nicely done. You wrote: “But think of girls you knew in high school, the really pretty ones. Think about all the women whose main talent in life is being lovely…” Yeah, that was me, and it did a lot of damage. I spoke three languages, but was I smart? No, I was pretty. I could kick a football better than the place kicker on the football team, but was I atheletic? No, I was pretty. I was the fastest girl on the track team, but ended up quitting because whenever I ran, the boys would say things that made me…not want to run anymore. I want to say that I consciously saw where my life was going and did something about it, but I didn’t. I ended up getting there, but it took a loooooooooong time and a lot of introspection.

    This probably explains why the only gloriously beautiful characters in any of my stories are secondary ones. All my heroines? Either plainish or uninterested in their looks. I also have a hard time writing ‘weak’ women. They are always strong in some way, even if quietly so. Men–yeah, I don’t have too much of a problem giving them flaws. 😉

    All kidding aside, it is easier for me to develop a male character with issues than it is for me to give such issues to the women. I’ve been working on that. Hopefully, I’ve made progress.

    I really love your notion of taking the power away after it has become WHAT the person is rather than part of his/her makeup. Very interesting. I have a character who does NOT handle his innate power well. It gets out of control and he does a very, very bad thing with it; so bad that it drives him mad. Once he comes to terms with what he did, he spends many years fearing that power he can’t give back, can’t somehow free himself of. Taking that the other way around? Fascinating. Really, really. I shall have to play with this.

    Again, thanks for the great article. I’m printing this one up and saving it.

  2. 2 rachelaaron
    May 23, 2009 at 4:22 am

    Glad you liked it so much!!

    I love books where a character has a great power, but just can’t get it right. Good luck on your novel! It sounds like you’ve got some cool stuff going!

  3. July 2, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Hey, this is a great point. Reminds me of some criticism of Harry Potter (how he doesn’t earn his abilities, he’s simply born a powerful mage). We’d probably all like to be the born prince/princess/mage. A story about someone who had it all, loses it, and has to rebuild would be great.

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