Mad Max: Feminist Road?

At first, the excessive hardcoreness of skulls, flame throwing two neck guitars, explosions and war on wheels in Mad Max can be a little in your face. It really doesn’t get more metal than this movie. When you get over the initial shock though, the design reveals itself as bizarrely brilliant world-building: In this post-apocalyptic toxic wasteland, cars have become a religion, worshipped and driven into battle by the Warboys –  an army of white painted teenagers raised by warlord Immortan Joe, and fed with his ideologies of reaching Valhalla if they die in battle.

Immortan Joe, the typically crippled villain, is guarding the last big water source and routinely distributing goods to the poor, just enough to keep them alive, but never enough to make a difference.

Mad Max (Tom Hardy) is captured and brought to Joe’s lair – a maze of caves and tunnels in the mountains – in the beginning of the movie. Here he is tattooed, almost branded, and used as a ‘bloodbag’ for one of the sick Warboys called Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

The oppression and exploitation of human beings is a central theme carried on throughout the movie, as Joe’s general Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the unquestioned gem of this movie, abducts Immortan Joe’s wives/sex slaves in the back of her War Rig. The five women have been chosen for their exceptional health and beauty, and forced to live with Immortan Joe and carry his children, and their agency is clear: like every character in this movie, they want to survive. They want freedom. They want a home far from the oppression and abuse of Immortan Joe. When Joe goes checking their chambers and finds not his wives but graffiti in white paint on the walls – We are not things – the Warboys are promptly sent out to retrieve what Joe still calls his ’property’.

Nux chains Max to the front of his car to supply him with blood, and the mad chase on Fury Road begins. It won’t end for two hours, which is also the length of the movie, and though there are quiet scenes in between, they are few and just long enough to keep you from having a heart attack. So strap in for a bumpy ride and don’t forget to consciously relax at every chance you get.

Surprisingly for a movie throwing around people, cars and more than a handful of fire, there is less use of green screen than one might suspect. For shooting, the cast flew out to the Namib desert, with over 150 stunt and Cirque du Soleil performers, who enabled a supposed 90% of the effects to be practical. The continuity editing of the action is overwhelmingly neat, more than the usual jarring sequence of rapid cuts and thus never creating confusion as to where and in which direction characters are moving. Cinematographer John Seale explains this is in part owed to George Miller manipulating the frame rate to below 24 when he could not understand what was happening.

It is also a compliment to Miller’s excellent storytelling how little the movie relies on dialogue for exposition. We know the environment is toxic because there are two-headed lizards running around, because most of the people inhabiting it are sick and disabled, as are the Warboys searching for their chance of glory before bodily ailments get the better of them. We can see that Max and Furiosa are tough and stoic because the environment they grew up in forced them to be, and they don’t need to spell it out for us. We can see a tentative friendship growing from their actions and their need to work together, and draw connection from their shared goals.

What sold the movie for me was the way it treated its characters, how it humanised them and allowed them to be more than plot devices, to step out of their templates to show more vulnerable sides. I was overwhelmed by the number of women among the cast.

Furiosa as the disabled but capable hero looking for redemption, whose stump of an arm is never explicitly drawn attention to, making the statement that disability does not mean weakness even more powerful.

The wives as characters possessing clear agency and the will to fight for their freedom.

The Vuvalini – a group of elderly women on motorcycles who are the last of a matriarchal society.

All these are treated with the respect they deserve, and I’m not joking when I say I left the cinema feeling warm and loved and represented.

Now, there’s been quite a debate going on about whether Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist movie or not. I’m going to wage in, and there’ll be spoilers, so I suggest you watch the movie first before you read on.

Mad Max: Feminist Road?

One of the people who has called attention to the question of whether this movie is feminist or not is Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the platform Feminist Frequency and recently famous for being attacked and harassed over her Youtube series “Tropes vs. Women in video games”. I have so far been a supporter of Sarkeesian and found her videos informative and worthwhile, but on the topic of Mad Max, I disagree with her.

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There is much to say about the choice to use Twitter for starting this debate, but that aside, I simply do not understand why violence in movies and feminism should stand in opposition to each other. Why should women not get to be violent on screen? Why should we deny that some of us have violence and darkness and cruelty in our hearts? Pulling that *** is exactly what the patriarchy has pulled on women for years: telling them that they should not express their more violent feelings openly. It’s exactly what makes people passive aggressive and self destructive.

No thanks. This is not what we should aspire to as a society. Not for women, not for men.

Another of Sarkeesian’s tweets describes the violence in Mad Max as being framed as ‘awesome and totally fun’.

Of course there are appropriate ways to deal with violence. Nobody’s saying that it’s okay to outright hit and shoot people in real life. But this is a movie, an outlet to project and vent and discuss what we can’t normally experience. The ‘fun’ of seeing people fighting here doesn’t derive from blood-lust, it derives from watching people free themselves of oppression, and it’s not framed as mindless killing. Let me say that again: Furiosa and Max don’t kill for fun. 

The Warboys might, but I do think that the circumstances of their upbringing as human cannon fodder and their cult around Valhalla, as well as Nux’s moment of reflection is critical enough of this mindset to make it abundantly clear that this life is not desirable.

When you equate the depiction of something that’s morally questionable in the real world with a desire to act on it, you’re basically saying that the dramatic choreography of a plane crash on screen signifies and causes a desire to crash planes in the real world. The same claims have been made about the effect of video games, while there is yet no study that proves this. Most people who do actually run amok have been driven into desperate situations by their social environments. Blaming movies seems like a cowardly thing to do, especially when you’re an educator.

Also, if I was in Furiosa’s place I would do the same. There is no imagining a Mad Max universe where evil could be simply convinced with reason and love to let off slavery, or whatever Sarkeesian has in mind when she tries to re-imagine concepts of power.

On another note, I also want to stress that Mad Max is not a sadistic movie. We can imagine what Immortan Joe’s wives went through – we can imagine rape and domestic abuse and torture. It’s there but we don’t have to see it. Unlike some shows on HBO, Mad Max does at no point stoop to a sadistic pain fest and focuses instead on the characters’ journey towards freedom.

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feministmadmax on tumblr

Another writer I want to reply to is Eileen Jones, who teaches film at the university of California, and who wrote this article for Inthesetimes:

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She repeatedly criticises Mad Max for its depiction of women, especially the five wives:

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Wives – Yeah, that was my face reading that

I was pretty baffled by this statement and I still struggle to find words to approach the vitriol in it. For one, these women are about the healthiest you will see in the movie.

When Max meets them for the first time, they’re not wearing much, but the camera doesn’t draw attention to their body parts, except for Angharad’s pregnant belly – another sign of the abuse the wives had to suffer. The first thing they do is wash themselves, as any rape and abuse victim would do, and get rid of their chastity belts by cutting them off themselves with a pair of pliers later used to cut Max’s chains as well. This is a beautiful metaphor in itself.

Here’s what Sarkeesian says about that scene:

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That Eileen Jones describes this scene as right out of a Vogue shooting, and that Sarkeesian believes the camera is ‘caressing their bodies’ might speak for their own sexualised view of female nudity. But this isn’t Transformers. There are cars, yes, but nobody’s leaning and stretching over the hood of one to show off their perfect midriff. From the dozens of opportunities the movie has of catering to the ‘male gaze’, I didn’t catch any of them being used. I might be wrong and inattentive here, but I did notice that we meet the wives after the abuse happened. I noticed that when one of the wives climbs across the war rig and it seems like the wind is going to blow her clothes away any second, there’s a lens flare and a cut. I noticed that none of them are ever considered as objects by Max but people who need help and who can help him, that none of them become love interests, that when they perceive Max as a threat at first, they don’t try to seduce him but instead kick the shit out of him like any reasonable person would do in that situation.

Jones complaints about Charlize Theron as Furiosa are that she’s too pretty and has got a tiny nose.

It seems to me like a much of the issues here with the women is that they are pretty. Why? Can’t you be pretty and a feminist? Does being pretty automatically mean you’re catering to the ‘male gaze’? That conventionally pretty women can only be objectified? I hope not.

Jones has another issue with the theme of fertility:

When the wives escape, they plan to go to ‘the green place’, Furiosa’s birthland ruled by matriarchy. The green place doesn’t exist anymore, but they meet the Vuvalini (oops, I always want to write Vulvalini), a motorcycle gang made up of elderly women, one of whom carries a bag of seeds around and later gives it to one of the wives to care for. Back at Immortan Joe’s lair, a bunch of fat women are kept as dairy cows, supplying the elite with mother’s milk. The same women later open the floodgates to make water available for everyone.

Jones says:

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This is gold. Sarkeesian blames the movie for women being too violent. Jones blames them for being too fertile and nurturing. It seems like ya’ll have pretty clear ideas about what women should and should not be. Does that sound familiar?

So, on one hand women are expected to be peace loving, rational creatures who solve problems with their heads rather than their guns. On the other hand they can’t be too nurturing, or it’s not feminism. Why not allow them to be both?

I don’t know if this connection is adequate, but it reminds me of the racial uplifting programme that the Harlem Renaissance sought to abolish by writing complex and complicated black characters instead of loveable, devout and morally stable ones pandering to white audiences.

Feminism on screen, for me, means that women get to be depicted as complex characters, not as ideals.

But let’s examine how Mad Max treats its male characters, which are, you know, not exempt from a vision of feminism.

It’s notable how the male protagonist of this movie almost becomes a sidekick, while Furiosa takes centre stage and makes most of the decisions. It is her and the wives who free themselves of the oppression of Immortan Joe, rather than being saved by a man. This does not, however, devalue Max. He is part of their troupe, a valuable asset, a friend, and fellow prisoner.

The movie shows on various occasions how it’s not just the women who are suffering, but how the system they live in is harmful to all of them. While some of the women are exploited for their bodies and wombs, others are exploited for milk, and Max is exploited for blood, while the Warboys are used for their physical strength and thrown into battle like pawns. It shows all of them imprisoned, just like saying: Hey, maybe this isn’t good for any of us.

My favourite scene is without question the one that has Max missing their target with two of the three sniper bullets they have left, then handing the rifle to Furiosa, knowing that she’s a better shot. There are no jokes about giving the gun to a woman here, and Max even lets her prop the rifle on his shoulder to aim. And she hits.

What I saw here was a willingness to work together, unimpeded by ego, to take a step back and help rather than try to be the lone hero, and I could only marvel at the self confidence Max displays.

He shows the same ability later, when Furiosa is dying of blood loss, and he gives her his ‘bloodbag’ IV that he kept. Max, the Cowboy, the tough, gritty rover of the wasteland, gets an opportunity to be nurturing, keeping Furiosa alive through the umbilical chord of a blood tube.

Well done, Miller. Well done, Max.

Charlotte was listening to the war drums.

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