‘Mad Max’: Fury Road Is a Fun Movie. It’s a Solid Action Flick. But Is It Feminist™?

 

[caption id="attachment_21225" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road' Mad Max: Fury Road[/caption]

This guess post by Rebecca Cohen previously appeared at Rebecca’s Random Crap and is cross-posted with permission.


Many who devote ourselves to the struggle for gender equality want to claim this movie as our own. Others have said feminists need to demand more from our entertainment than Mad Max: Fury Road actually delivers.

To wit:

They’re right. Our culture glorifies violence, equates strength and power with violence, and attributes that strength and power to men. While violence may sometimes be necessary in self-defense or in rebellion against oppression, the glorification of violence is distinctly patriarchal. We can’t fight patriarchy’s values by adopting them. We can’t simply substitute a woman in the place of a man, giving her strength and power according to patriarchy’s narrow definition, and call it feminist. There’s nothing revolutionary about masculine power fantasies, even with a woman at the center of them.

But. They’re also wrong. They’re wrong about Fury Road and exactly what’s going on in that movie.

I want to say, as a side note, that there’s nothing wrong with fantasies of violent rebellion against violent oppression. When you experience the frustration of being dehumanized and marginalized and discriminated against, you need catharsis. It’s exhilarating. It’s fun. It’s necessary. But, OK – maybe if we want to narrowly define what makes a “feminist film,” we can say it’s not, strictly speaking, feminist.

However, I’d argue that Mad Max: Fury Road contains more critique of patriarchy and entrenched inequality than critics or even some fans have given it credit for.

Yes, the villains are caricatures, or at least, they’re cartoonishly exaggerated – as everything in the movie is. The whole thing is basically a cartoon. But we don’t have to read the movie so literally. To say that a narrative must literally portray the dismantling of realistic social and economic systems is setting the bar too high. A message about social justice, like any message, can be conveyed symbolically or subtextually. Science fiction has always done that. Sometimes a flame-throwing guitar is NOT just a flame-throwing guitar. Well, OK. It’s just a flame-throwing guitar. But some of the other stuff has meaning.

Fury Road depicts a patriarchal society controlled by a small and very powerful elite. It’s not accidental that all the warlords in the movie are older white men. They even have ailments that make them each of them physically deformed and weak – Immortan Joe has visible abscesses all over his back and requires an apparatus to breathe – highlighting that their power doesn’t rely on their own physical strength. Their power is systemic. They control others through religion/ideology (promising the War Boys honor and entry to Valhalla) and hoarding of resources (most obviously water). The 1 percent, if you will, keep the rest of the population in line by forcing them to rely on whatever meager allowance of resources the warlords dole out. Men and boys are exploited for labor and as foot soldiers. Women are exploited for their sexual and reproductive capacities. No, it’s not subtle, but it’s not empty action movie nonsense either.

The narrative is driven (heh) by women exercising their agency. It’s easy to see the central plot as an old, sexist trope: rival characters battling over possession of damsels in distress. But Fury Road turns the trope on its head; it’s the damsels who engineer their own escape. “We are not things” is the memorable line, but their scrawled message, “Our babies will not grow up to be warlords,” is the key to understanding Fury Road’s critique of patriarchal systems. The “wives” want more than just escape from sexual slavery; they want to stop contributing to the oppressive systems around them. The repeated question, “Who killed the world?” implies a larger critique as well – it was a male-dominated society which created this apocalypse and men who are responsible for current conditions.

Another trope that gets turned on its head is the contrast between society and wilderness. Traditionally wilderness is understood as a dangerous place for women, who are too weak and vulnerable to withstand its dangers. They need the protection of society. But in Fury Road, society, i.e. The Citadel, is the dangerous place. The women experience relative safety only when they reach the wilderness. The Vuvalini, Furiosa’s matriarchal tribe, may struggle to survive in a barren wasteland, but they’re still better off than women living under the protection of a warlord, who protects them only from other men. Away from male-dominated society, they’re safe.

The most feminist yet least talked about aspect of the film might be Nux’s story. He starts out happily ready to die in glory on behalf of Immortan Joe, but he learns that there’s another way. When Capable discovers him hiding in the War Rig, she treats him with tenderness instead of vengefulness. Nux discovers something to live for, rather than something to die for. He finds a bit of the redemption Max and Furiosa are also seeking.

Ultimately, Furiosa’s rebellion isn’t just an escape or revenge fantasy; instead we see an exploited people liberated. So the film asserts the need to overturn oppressive systems, and depicts a whole society benefiting from feminism – men and women alike.

Of course, there are problems. Nux’s rejection of warrior ideology might be more powerful if he had been allowed to live. Instead, he simply dies for a better cause, and the movie misses the chance to affirm that death isn’t really glorious. Also the “wives” aren’t the developed characters they could and should be. The narrative revolves around them, yet they barely assert individual identities. It’s hard to accept the claim that they’re “not things,” when they’re beautiful but rather anonymous for most of the movie. The role of the Vuvalini is also a bit disappointing; they appear in the narrative, strong and capable, possessing nearly forgotten knowledge and values… only to die one by one. They might as well have been wearing red Star Trek shirts.

So maybe this isn’t a feminist movie? Fantasy violence probably doesn’t help dismantle patriarchy. It really doesn’t. But then again there is more to Fury Road than that. It offers more than a tough woman killing cartoon misogynist bad guys. There is a narrative about social structures and the nature of power.

OK. In the end, we’re not going to liberate anyone from oppression by driving fast and skeet shooting motorcycles. Action movies are not ever going to be a serious and meaningful way to talk about feminism, in the strictest sense. But perhaps we should differentiate between a feminist movie, and a movie feminists can really enjoy. Fury Road is definitely at least one of those two things.

 


Rebecca Cohen is the creator of the webcomic The Adventures of Gyno-Star, the world’s first (and possibly only) explicitly feminist superhero comic.

10 Comments

  • Eric J. Baker
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    This is an excellent take. Very similar to a point made on Twitter by Bailey from Bailey the Bookworm (https://baileythebookworm.wordpress.com/ ; @the_author_), that it’s not as useful to label bits of pop culture as definitively “feminist” or “not feminist” as it is to break down what parts of it promote a feminist philosophy. There are a lot of things in Mad Max: Fury Road that absolutely fall in line with feminist philosophy, but there are other things that do not. It’s reductive to force it into an either-or situation.

    That said, on the critical side, it’s interesting seeing the differences between Anita Sarkeesian’s method of discussing the movie with her Feminist Frequency co-writer’s, Johnathan McIntosh. More specifically, it was interesting that Sarkeesian made well-reasoned points about specific subjects without judging the work as a whole. I disagree with most of her points, but they’re well supported and articulately conveyed.

    McIntosh, on the other hand, felt more like the insufferable film students that ultimately convinced me to change my major from Film to Geology. He called people who enjoyed the movie “filmically illiterate,” which is the pinnacle in pompous wording, one that I can’t imagine a sane person typing with a straight face. Then he was shocked, shocked, when people took it personally that he called them stupid for liking a movie he didn’t.

    All in all, I love outlets like this that take the time to construct nuanced critiques with shades of grey that don’t claim to be definitive.

    • Owen Schuh
      Posted June 2, 2015 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Honestly I really think McIntosh showed alot of humbleness in apologizing for what he said and in his response to Tony Zhou. I respect that alot.

  • Owen Schuh
    Posted June 2, 2015 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Good Article.

  • Into soul winter I fly
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The depiction of the bad guys is also probably ableist.

    • Posted June 5, 2015 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes, this definitely occurred to me although I didn’t get into it. The film clearly codes the warlords’ disabilities as grotesque, and Immortan Joe’s sons as “freaks” because of their physical and intellectual differences. At the same time, Furiosa has a disability. But does that balance it out? I tend not to think so.

      • Into soul winter I fly
        Posted June 6, 2015 at 1:02 am | Permalink

        I think its problematic because people with disabilities are depicted as freakish and grotesque in our society.

  • Romantic Placebo
    Posted June 6, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    For me, this article about the “feminine desert” really feeds into what you’re saying when you talk about nature vs society.

    https://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/1052-the-feminine-desert-of-mad-max-fury-road/

    Also, YES, Nux’s death is glorious, but as the end of his arc it’s both cliche, and overly concerned with the kind of patriarchal “last stand” ideology that is constantly used to make male characters seem noble (Such as the abusive father in “Running Scared”) Mad Max is definitely great, and has the aspiration of feminism, but it’s greatness is only great if we TRULY critique that feminism not just for what it means to us, but to future generations of women and men struggling to change the world.

  • Aaron Radney
    Posted June 10, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    This was a great article to read and I’m glad I found this space. It’s actually got me writing my own piece after I saw the movie. Long story short I’m not positive I’m willing to call the movie feminist but in the end that’s not a distinction I feel I get to be an arbiter of anyway.

    I do think that calling the movie anti-patriarchy is a suitable third path though as I’m not sure anyone can argue with that assessment.

  • Catorvine
    Posted June 10, 2015 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    While I don’t know about any “patriarchy” that you are talking about
    (even in interviews, when asked Miller and Theron said it had nothing to
    do “patriarchy”) I do believe there is plenty of literally content to
    this movie that many have missed.

    The movie treats the viewer far smarter than most action films of today
    do, thus it may have been difficult to pick as we are so used to
    transformers and Ninja Turtles ruling the screens.

    Subtext is key here, this isn’t a movie that’s about spoon-feeding
    themes and ideas, aside from the very obvious survival and desperation
    thematic elements. Looking at this simply as an action movie is doing it
    a total disservice. Yes of course the action is front an center, yet, a
    lot more is happening going on in the background than many have given
    it credit for.

    I find it interesting how it was mentioned that this movie is a cultural
    throwback, but I don’t necessarily agree. If you look to places in
    central Africa and some areas in the Middle East, this isn’t too far off
    from being reality. (different locations, yet lets think thematically
    here) George Miller has discussed in great detail, things such as how
    many different cultures are able to make beauty from certain situations,
    referencing impoverished areas in India and Pakistan. Even in extreme
    poverty or extreme deprived circumstances, people create, people find
    deities, people create hierarchies, all of this is there, yet never
    especially told to the audience. We are left to come to our own
    conclusions.

    There are a number of interesting religious parallels going on here,
    where the radiated wastelanders view Imortan Joe of somewhat a God
    figure or redeemer of their “Sin.” (He gives them life though water and
    must maintain his image [plastic armor] to keep the people in check) The
    illusion continues. . . About the cars, the are particularly worshiped
    as they are seen as these artifacts of a prior age that somehow survived
    the apocalypse. Once again with subtext, this is never outright stated,
    but we infer this from the way they are viewed and a single line about
    “almighty V8” which is very poetic in nature. Yes the cars are over the
    top. But you know what else could be considered “over the top” from an
    Alien Cultural Perspective? The Pyramids, The Statue of Liberty, the 8
    wonders of the world, the crucifix or any other number of cultural
    artifacts. It’s fairly shallow minded to write this off.

    The awesome looking Guitar player and the drummers are all also part of
    the culture and have a very real basis in reality. Just look as recently
    as the American civil war, army’s would carry instruments such as
    flutes and drums into war. Go back further and this is seen everywhere.
    In a cultural that worships kinetic energy and must survive the heat of
    ruthlessness of the desert, people need things equally as ruthless and
    heat bearing to to keep spirits high.

    And I’m not totally sure that biker culture is a product of the 1980’s.
    Yeah it was more prevalent in American media then, but by all accounts
    biker gangs have grown over the past few decades, the mainstream media
    no longer focuses on them. Heck just a few weeks ago there was a massive
    biker shootout in Texas which has only served to show just how ruthless
    they can be. Calling this a product of the 80’s just sounds fairly
    uniformed.

    I find the “characters being too thin” excuse to be totally missing the
    point here. We are informed about these characters by what we known
    about them, but also by what we don’t know. Mad Max is a myth, with
    keeping in the tradition of the last 2 films, the movie is told though a
    different characters perspective, in this case Furious who is seeking
    redemption, by which Max is able to find it as well and reclaim some of
    his humanity. The story is one of learning to trust, how to respect and
    gender unity is far more powerful than division and “destroying the
    patriarchy” (which is a silly and outdated notion at this point) as
    obviously about sacrifice.

    Now this isn’t to say that I think this movie is some literal
    interpretation of what a future might be like. But to view it as such is
    basically missing the point, don’t look at the movie you want about a
    literal interpretation of the future, but the one we are given, which is
    more a fable. This is compounded by every shot in the movie looking
    absolutely stunning. I could take screen and hang on my wall and call it
    art.

    Interestingly George Miller had this to sum up Mad Max. A few years
    back, there were Gasoline shortage in his native Australia. People were
    restricted to filling up once a week and normal gasoline (guzoline as
    it’s called in Mad Max) was could only to be used regularly for
    emergency vehicles. It took just ten days for the first shot to be
    fired. He wondered what the world would look like if that had continued
    10 years, 30 years, 50 years and so on. He wondered how would society
    react? how aggressive would we become> What would happened? etc. . .

    People focusing on “Feminism,” “Patriarchy,” and other silly words that
    have become so widely used that they no longer have any real meaning,
    are missing the point just as much as those saying this movie has no
    story.

    Just my thoughts.

  • Bob
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    An interesting take but I really feel that you are applying substance to a film that has very little, Mad Max is an action movie in the purest sense. The story of which there is very little simply serves to ground the film in some kind of setting, in the same way that a porn film may stick a stethoscope around someones neck to indicate that the people you’re watching have sex are doctors.

    The film when creating the bad guys that Max is running from, took its cues from multple sources but primarliy I would say from religious fanatics like ISIS which were all over the media at the time, you see them represented in the War Boys which are basically suicide bombers and in their attitude of women being nothing but sex slaves these are our(as in society) current fears, and they used them to basically make an enemy army for Max to fighting against. The film has little to say about religious extremist or the role of women in society it’s all just to inform the viewer as to the nature of the people that Max is running from.

    I would add I would rather have watched the film if indeed it did play closer to your take as It would have been a far more interesting, but as it is, I found it boring and shallow and basically a film about some one driving to a location and then driving back.

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