Narratives That Leave Us Feeling Powerless


“I think it’s because the dominant story in our culture is one that creates a feeling of powerlessness, and it starts with this reductive understanding of human nature.”  Francis Moore Lappe

This is from the woman who wrote “Diet for a Small Planet” back in 1971.  That book started a conversation that is now a vital movement to reduce overconsumption of meat and increase plant-based consumption.

Her latest book Daring Democracy: Igniting Power Meaning and Connection for the America We Want correlates strongly with my own research into the narratives men and women recruit when deciding how to allocate resources and how to design power structures. Here is a quote from my proposal:

“Because female narratives don’t always follow male narratives about power we can better see how current systems might leave women in positions of power feeling powerless. Suddenly it makes sense that women don’t just want more power, we want to change the way power works.”

I’ve been gathering true stories men and women tell about their personal experiences with power.  And there is a theme.  Masculine narratives tend to define power as morally neutral.  Women preface their stories with clear distinctions of good power versus bad power. Francis Moore Lappe’s new book basically says the same thing without pointing fingers at gender differences. Here is another quote from her in the NYTimes article:

We took Charles Darwin, who in “Descent of Man” says that in primal tribal societies everything was judged good or bad solely as it affected the welfare of the tribe, and reduced him to survival of the fiercest.

Personally I think it is important to highlight that women are much more likely to live according to narratives that address the moral nature of power.  Mainly because I want to undermine the way women’s narratives are routinely discredited (attacked) as too emotional, unfocused, weak or my personal pet peeve as “utopian” by those who can only see through the lens of toxic male narratives. I think we need to do more to validate women’s narratives in order to strengthen and amplify women’s voices.

So … I think gender matters when we talk about these competing narratives.  What do you think?


10 thoughts on “Narratives That Leave Us Feeling Powerless”

  1. Anette –
    Very interesting article in the NYT and an interesting take on the concept of power. I always enjoy reading your perspectives because, as I say in the first paragraph of my book, you provide a story that makes me laugh or think or (as Arsenio Hall would say while putting his finger alongside his temple) makes me go hmmmmm!

    I think the issue you raise is less about “power” and more about influence. At least in my “toxic male narrative”, I see two kinds of power at work to influence how other people behave. One is the power of your power over others. By that, I mean the ability to give someone a benefit or a detriment depending on the will of the provider. For example, if you don’t show up for work precisely at 0800 Mon-Fri, you’re fired and have to find work elsewhere. That’s the power of one person over another’s livelihood (or Maslow’s hierarchy, if you will). The reason for the demand may be good or bad, but it remains a demand upon another.

    The other kind of influence is the power of your idea. So, if someone says to another, “There’s a hurricane coming and we need to board up houses, gather food supplies, and provide power for communications, so let’s get together and make it happen. The Johnson’s have a generator and they can hook it up to all our houses, but we need someone to run to the store for food and board up their windows while they connects us all to the generator.” That’s the power of an idea.

    For me, the difference is between tyranny and free will. A little bit of tyranny can be beneficial at times, and sometimes free will is messy and inefficient. It depends on the circumstances.

    I enjoy your takes on differences between male and female perceptions of the nature of power an how it is applied to allocate resources and design power structures. It would be interesting to see that research.

    My one nit with your presentation concerns your statement “I want to undermine the way women’s narratives are routinely discredited (attacked) as too emotional, unfocused, weak or my personal pet peeve as “utopian” by those who can only see through the lens of toxic male narratives. ”

    I believe we should try to understand ANY narrative that is different from our own as being potentially valuable and worthy of consideration. Lord knows I find the narratives of many men to be abhorrent and many to be virtuous. That is my value judgment. But you weaken your argument for having narratives deriving from female perspectives being disregarded in pejorative terms such as “utopian” by over-genralizing opposition to them as “toxic male narratives”. There have been plenty of utopian arguments by men and plenty of authoritarian arguments by women to so blithely imply a monolithic character to either. And toxicity is not solely a male characteristic.

    I believe that gender matters as it relates to understanding the perspectives driving the narratives and that all narratives deserve to be heard. But I do not subscribe to the idea that narratives are inherently better due to the gender of the originator but rather by the result of their application.

    1. Thanks for weighing in! I agree we need a balance between tyranny and free will – it’s just that we have to translate that balance with a combination of objective and subjective methods. I use the term toxic male narrative specifically to describe men who prefer a single story about power – specifically that of command and control. So not all male narratives are toxic – but the authoritarian narrative now threatening democracy is – IMHO – toxic. It could even lead to extinction of our species. Also I see the word “influence” as defining what power means to those who don’t have direct access to power and thus must use “influence” to reach single narrative insiders who hoard power. And while both are valid paths to power, the frequency with which women must use influence means our narratives about power frame power as something we have to get others to do. The men I’ve intervied do not report “influencing others” as often in their narratives. It’s not that both can report one narrative or the other…it is which narrative most frequently frames what they consider to be power. Women’s narratives are not “better” but they are increasingly missing as male-biased algorithms make more and more of our decisions for us. We need better balance and at this particular time..that means we need to find and apply some female biased algorithms..once we figure out what that means. Thats the task I’ve set for myself.

      1. I agree with the thrust of your position. Arbitrary power is usually corrosive. “Influence” in the form of the power of your ideas as illustrated by narratives can be extremely threatening to those who spend a lifetime accumulating arbitrary power. That is perhaps the genesis of the old saw, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

        I wish I knew the answer to getting the power of ideas to have a greater share of the uses of “power”, but I don’t. In the meantime, I try to spread the word that leadership is that kind of influence and that the best leaders are the ones who do not succumb to the arbitrary power paradigm. I guess that’s why your concept of stories/narratives resonates with me.

        You’ve set for yourself a daunting task. I would say, “Let me know when you figure it out,” but that will be unnecessary. Because if you do, everyone will know who you are and what you have done.

        I wish you not the best of luck, but the best of influence!

  2. Annette, I know that women see the world differently and so their narratives will be different. And I use the word ‘narrative’ in a specific sense. It means the collection of individual stories. Thus, individually, stories of men and women can look alike or not. But when taken as a collection, there are differences. Alas, I know that you are right when you say that women’s narratives are denigrated only because they do not follow the generally accepted interpretation of Darwin of the fittest succeeding. Darwin actually meant — the most flexible and adaptable were the survivors over the long haul. The narrative is different when you are reflecting adaptability rather than strength.

    1. Yes! and even Darwin embraced the good/bad judgments as vital to survival…After fifteen years of gathering women’s and now men’s stories I’ve started using the term narrative to describe divergent themes that run through each gender’s stories. Women’s stories about power include all the stories men tell but only half as often. The other half of women’s stories about power describe scenarios,strategies and goals that just don’t show up nearly as often in men’s narratives. Of course that makes sense for women who must spend half their time providing emotional labor, hyper competence, etc. to trade for indirect influence on the top influencers.

  3. ‘The Chalice and the Blade’ by Riane Eisler and all the rest of her work, including the offshoots like ‘the caring economy’. Yes, by now, gender became something that matters. In order to beat the ‘utopian’ claim, and because the in-power narrative won’t do the tedious work of trying to figure out other narratives, we need to be well-phrased in both narratives and do the translation work.

    1. Yes…also I’m writing about what it feels like to have your narrative invalidated. In my twenties, I remember thinking I understood how the world worked – then I moved to Australia. The Aussies had a blast illustrating how my assumptions weren’t the only ones! My “early bird gets the worm’ american narrative encountered the “tall poppy” narrative and I went through several phases I’ve seen repeated in other’s as they grow into multiple cultural understanding. It starts with an unattractive superiority “don’t they understand?!” as if they can’t see what seems obvious… then I moved on to feeling judged or misunderstood until finally it dawned on me that what I was taught to believe is laregly arbitrary. This is a psychological process that I think we do well to anticipate as we “translate” for the privileged who must embrace new perspectives. There is a process of “loss” and ego adjustment that precedes understanding.

      1. Annette –

        Nailed it again.

        Humility is a vital necessity to see things around you the way they are as opposed to the way you want them to be, the way they should be or the way they could be.

        Resilience is vital to overcome your own ego and see how “being brought down to earth” can improve your lot in life.

        Perseverance is a vital attribute that enables you to come through all that and continue on without falling into despair.

        Keep plugging.

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