Mad Max: Fury Road – A Feminist Film for Right Here and Now

Every once in a while a film comes out that really touches a nerve. When Avatar came out in December of 2009, the heads of conservative pundits collectively exploded while they denounced the film’s various progressive themes. Those efforts were in vein as Avatar clearly struck a chord with the masses, and it went on to become the highest grossing film ever. It was the right film at the right time.

While it probably won’t end up making $2.7 billion at the box office, Mad Max: Fury Road also seems to have touched a nerve. George Miller’s new film appears to be a piece of art having a profound political impact on society, igniting a fierce debate about women’s equality. Like Avatar before it, perhaps Fury Road is the perfect film for this moment.

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Prior to Fury Road‘s release, “men’s rights” activist (or MRA) Aaron Clarey published a blog post on the website Return of Kings warning men not to be “duped” by the film which appears to be a “straight-up guy flick” but might actually be a “Trojan horse” designed to “force a lecture on feminism down your throat.” This post went viral on the internet and the topic was picked up by many mainstream news outlets. Since then, Mad Max: Fury Road has become almost impossible to see without considering the political subtext in some way. 

Mad Max: Fury Road is the fourth Mad Max film George Miller has made, and the first since 1985′s Beyond Thunderdome. Fury Road is not exactly a direct continuation of the original series, nor is it quite a re-boot. Perhaps it could be called a “re-imagining” of the franchise, or simply a new stand-alone episode in Max’s life. But whatever it is, Fury Road is an immensely visceral and entertaining piece of cinema. However, while on the surface it appears to be a simple film, one that functions perfectly well as a straight forward action adventure, upon closer examination a very sophisticated piece of work is revealed. In fact, part of what makes it so entertaining, and so powerful, is that its momentum organically flows from a high-level understanding of the political terms involved in the struggle for women’s equality.

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Fury Road begins with Max alone in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Australia, surviving on his own, searching for a “righteous cause,” as the opening narration states, after failing to protect his family during the collapse of society. The film jumps straight into the action, and he’s quickly captured by scavengers belonging to a society ruled by a man known as Immortan Joe, a warlord who has established a patriarchal dictatorship centered around a worship of cars and the glorification death in combat. Immortan Joe hoards resources and puts a strict limit on how much food and water is distributed to the general population. It’s a cult-like society defined by masculine violence and the repression of women. With sickness and death rampant, Immortan Joe is trying to produce an heir to continue on after him, and so he keeps sex slaves who function as “breeders” imprisoned, separated from the rest of society.

By chance, at nearly the same moment Max is brought into the Citadel, a woman named Furiosa begins to carry out a plot to rescue Immortan Joe’s “Wives” by smuggling the five of them out under the false pretense of an assignment to acquire gas from a nearby town. Once Furiosa’s true intentions become apparent, a wild chase begins, which Max is forced into against his will. What unfolds is one of the most breathtaking and visually amazing action films in recent memory, in part because it’s so unlike most modern blockbusters. While films like The Avengers: Age of Ultron or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 are basically soulless products of a corporate assembly line, Mad Max: Fury Road is obviously the result of a singular artistic vision. But as visually amazing as this film is, George Miller clearly had something more than simply creating an awesome thrill ride in mind.

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It’s a film about a world in which women have been stripped of their agency by a warlord who champions macho violence, and uses religion as a tool of manipulation. The Citadel’s women appear to be kept mostly out of sight. They are used as incubators to produce more “war boys” and literally milked like cattle for the benefit of the elites. And even Furiosa, who appears to have some level of rank and authority, was originally brought into Immortan Joe’s society as a result of post-apocalyptic human trafficking.

Misogynists like Aaron Clarey fantasize about a world like this becoming reality and claim that women being forced into servitude and becoming nothing more than objects who need the benevolent protection of men to survive is the “natural order” of biology. George Miller’s film seems designed explicitly as a polemic against this idea, and it makes its case in a radical way.

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While the first act of Fury Road reveals the horror of a reactionary’s fantasy world, the rest of the film is carefully crafted to show just how unnatural and fundamentally unjust that kind of society is. The film is loaded with nuance that undermines misogynistic ideology. For example, the kick-ass female lead character played by Charlize Theron is something idiotic men’s rights crybabies have bemoaned as “unrealistic,” but, in all honesty, there’s nothing new about a film with a strong female lead. But what is progressive here is the way that Miller refuses to sexualize Furiosa. Theron isn’t rehashing her Aeon Flux role here, she’s playing someone who is every bit as grounded in reality as Max, someone who is simply a strong human being who happens to be female, not a male-fantasy action vixen in skin tight leather.

In addition to having a strong female lead, Fury Road makes a point to emphasize things that are supposedly evidence of women’s weakness, and it turns those things into strengths. The Wives turn their pregnancy into a weapon, using their bodies as shields to protect Max and Furiosa. Later in the film the group is joined by a band of elderly female warriors. In the end, they form a cohesive team of pregnant, elderly, and disabled women, supposedly the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, yet they prove to be a force to be reckoned with. Max stands along side them side by side as an ally, and an equal.

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Also, in a powerful symbolic statement Miller underscores the importance of women in society. “Mother’s milk” is one of the only viable forms of nutrition in the wasteland. In a world of insane masculine violence, women become a life sustaining antidote to the madness. Their emancipation is the righteous cause Max was searching for, and together both sexes stand against a system of patriarchal oppression.

But even while Fury Road has an obvious feminist theme, acknowledged by both reactionaries and progressives, there are also people on both sides of that ideological divide who want to downplay or flat out deny the the film’s feminism. There is one moment in the film that is frequently pointed to as evidence that the film isn’t as feminist as it may appear. After the first major chase sequence, Furiosa’s rig is stopped in the middle of the desert. Max, who had been thrown from a vehicle, wakes up and stumbles over to the rig. As he walks around the large tanker truck, all five of the Wives are revealed on screen for the first time, bathing from a hose attached to the rig.

At first glance it might appear that Miller is guilty of objectifying the women on screen, sexualizing the moment, but upon further reflection this isn’t the case at all. These are women who have just escaped from sex slavery and spent a couple hours stowed away in a sweltering metal truck. They are still wearing the skimpy outfits they had on at the time of their rescue. Should Furiosa have packed them a change of clothes before sneaking them out of Immortan Joe’s compound? And what exactly are these women doing at that moment out there in the desert? They’re using bolt cutters to free each other from the chastity belts they’ve been forced to wear, which are then kicked angrily into the dirt. Plus, the first moment Max sees what’s going on, everyone freezes and time seems to stand still for a few seconds. It’s a split second of humor in a film that hardly gives you a second to breathe.

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Miller seems to have orchestrated this moment as if to deliberately mock the kind of exploitative film he didn’t make. In a lesser film, the camera would have lingered on the beautiful bodies on display, but Miller quickly subverts expectations by turning it into a fight scene, and there’s nothing very sexy about it. So, the moment that is frequently sited as proof of the film’s non-feminism is actually a scene where emancipated sex slaves are literally removing the chains of their bondage, and fighting to maintain their new-found freedom. 

Mad Max: Fury Road has a bold, clear aesthetic and an obvious style that distinguishes it from most major blockbuster films of this era. It takes artistic risks. There are times when the film is sped up, paying homage to the look of the original Mad Max series, and Miller also uses a couple long slow-motion shots. The characters fully inhabit this post-apocalyptic world, thanks mainly to Miller’s savvy direction. People speak in a dialect that is just the right balance between understandable and realistically detached from modern speech. Charlize Theron in particular steals the show as Furiosa, and her performance is likely what will be most remembered about this film. Tom Hardy gets the job done as Mel Gibson’s replacement, though the few times he has to speak come off as a bit unnatural, perhaps intentionally. All the supporting roles are filled out nicely. Nicholas Hoult is memorable as the deceptively well-developed character Nux, and all of the women who play the Wives and the Mothers add interesting individual flare to characters that could have been generic in the wrong hands.

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Of course Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film, and the majority of the film is an extended chase sequence without much exposition. It could almost function as a silent film since the narrative is propelled primarily by the action rather than dialogue. 2013′s Gravity was similar in this way, and director Alfonso Cuarón actually thought about doing that project as a silent film. But Fury Road is perhaps better compared to another 2013 film, Snowpiercer. It is also a thrilling action film populated by characters pursuing a simple objective, and like Fury Road its narrative is defined by a sense of forward momentum. But Bong Joon Ho’s film also functioned as a highly sophisticated microcosm of revolutionary theory and could practically be used as a guide on how to overthrow a system of oppression. Indeed, BuzzFeed contributor Laurie Penny similarly describes Fury Road as “a feminist playbook for surviving dystopia,” and she’s right on the money.

The chase in Fury Road makes for very entertaining cinema, but the film’s central conflict is also symbolic of something much greater. It’s the struggle for what kind of future we want to have; one where women are the possessions of men, objectified, defined by their sexuality, and used as incubators, or a future where women are fully equal human beings with free agency to determine the course of their own lives. That is really what the women of Fury Road are fighting for, along with their male allies, and the action takes on a sense of urgency because the stakes are so critically important, both in the fictional post-apocalyptic future, as well as right here and now. That is why the Aaron Clareys of the world are so thoroughly threatened by this film, because what could be scarier to misogynists than a world where women not only refuse to meekly accept their cages, but where they are strong enough to dictate their futures on their own terms?

We live during a time in which the powerful would like the oppressed classes of the world to believe that the battle is over and that they have achieved victory. They point to Obama in the White House or female CEOs in the business world as proof that things have changed. But these are illusions that belie the continued brutality and discrimination women face because the system that perpetuates inequality and oppression is still in place, and the desperate struggle to achieve genuine equality is still ongoing.

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This is why films like Avatar and Mad Max: Fury Road are able to provoke such vile reactions from those who benefit from the oppression of others. These are films about the destruction of their reactionary ideology after the oppressed dare to stand up and say, “no more!” This message strikes a chord with society because the struggle is right now. Both Avatar and Fury Road feature a man and a women standing together as equals to resist oppression. The battles fought by Jake Sully and Neytiri and by Max and Furiosa reflect the very real battles being waged on the streets around the world right now, because they recognize not only the need not only to escape oppression, but but also the importance of defeating the system that perpetuates it. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road should be celebrated for infusing the complicated terms of radical struggle into their stories in such an easily accessible way, allowing them to resonate so profoundly with the masses through the power of pure entertainment.

[EDIT] Soon after publishing this piece I realized that I left out something very important I had planned on saying. Sometimes I get too close to my writing and forget to take a step back to make sure all the proper bases are covered, so I hope to correct that here, below.

There are people out there who have seen this film and think it’s awesome, but deny that it’s feminist. They want to enjoy the action without acknowledging that the film is putting forward an ideology they can’t stand, and so they make excuses and rationalize things. They say that it’s “just” an action film and that any feminism is a mostly accidental byproduct. Well, unfortunately for those people, that simply isn’t the case.

George Miller knew he was making a film with heavy feminist themes, and he wanted to make sure he got it right. So, to help him through the project he called in Eve Ensler, the feminist playwright and activist, to be a consultant on set. Miller wanted Ensler to speak to the cast and crew about the violence women continue to face around the world, especially in war zones. A Time Magazine interview with Ensler can be read here.

Miller also wanted the film to have a feminine touch in post production, and so he asked his wife Margaret Sixel to edit the film, even though she had never worked on an action film, or a film as large in scope. When asked why, Miller said, “Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie.” Clearly he was after something different than the standard action film, and it’s fair to say that was achieved. An article about Sixel’s experience on Fury Road can be read here.

Elysium & What Could Have Been

Getting overtly progressive big-budget films made in Hollywood isn’t always an easy thing to do, and successfully marketing them is even more difficult. Neill Blomkamp deserves a fair amount of credit then, not only for Elysium‘s existence, but for crafting a film capable of being marketed to a wide audience. Just last year, even though it was a far greater film, Cloud Atlas failed spectacularly at the U.S. box office, so Elysium‘s debut at #1 is nothing to sneeze at. However, while the film hits many of the right notes, especially in the first half, it fails to be the Science Fiction masterpiece it could have been.

Elysium‘s basic premise is that in the next century Earth’s wealthiest citizens flee the planet due to overpopulation and disease. They build themselves a “habitat,” as it’s repeatedly called by the principal villain, played in chilling fashion by Jodie Foster, called Elysium. It’s a massive space station which orbits Earth, complete with its own artificial atmosphere and lush gardens encircling perfectly manicured estates, far out of reach of the unsightly poverty stricken people below.

The film succeeds in depicting an extreme class division that accurately describes the brutal unfairness inherent in capitalist society. It’s a system in which the wealthy profit off the labor of the masses, hoard an ever increasing percentage of the total wealth, and then barricade themselves in mansions, protected by gates and a growing police state. Elysium simply takes the horrible reality already manifesting itself across the globe to its next logical step. When fleeing to the suburbs is no longer a viable option, space becomes the final refuge of the elite seeking to put distance between themselves and the people they exploit for profit. Elysium, the “habitat” for the elite, is the ultimate gated community.

In the film, which takes place in 2154, the whole of Los Angeles has become a massive slum, but it should be noted that there are already many places on Earth much worse than anything shown in Elysium. Point being, while Blomkamp certainly gets the point across, he could have taken the poverty depicted in the film much further and still been within the bounds of plausibility.

Elysium‘s perfectly integrated special effects shine brightest in the opening sequences. It’s clear that Blomkamp hasn’t lost his flair for building future worlds with an amazing sense of physical authenticity since his feature debut, District 9 (2009). The movements of the robotic cops are completely natural and life-like, making their vicious brutality all the more visceral, which allows the film to bring into focus the true role of the police under capitalism with unflinching clarity. They are agents of oppression who enforce the divide between the rich and the poor, and the film gets this exactly right.

Max, the film’s main character, played by Matt Damon, is beaten by the android police, his arm broken, simply because he told a harmless joke while being questioned about the contents of his backpack while on his way to work. The poor and working classes have to know their place, and a police baton to the skull is a crude but effective method used by the elite to maintain the established order. The lesson: don’t step out of line and don’t question your place, or else.

This lesson is applied even more harshly when a group of Earthlings aboard pirate shuttles attempt to make their way to Elysium’s high-tech healthcare pods, which can cure everything from broken bones to cancer in a matter of seconds. Elysium is protected by Delacourt (Foster), who serves as the sanctuary’s secretary of defense. She orders the shuttles shot down without hesitation. Life preserving technology is reserved only for those who can afford the luxury, and those who can’t are dealt with swiftly.

Max is badly injured while working his job in a factory, ironically building the robotic police force which oppresses his class, and he’s given a grim prognosis. With only days to live, he and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) seek out a local smuggler in the hope of buying a ticket to Elysium, where his life could be saved with the help of a medical pod.

Though while the opening sequences of the film lay the foundation for the possibility of a truly radical conclusion, Elysium ultimately falls short of this potential. Rather than taking the plot in a direction in which Max fights for the liberation of all people of Earth, Blomkamp’s story is one of self preservation. Max wants to get to Elysium only to save himself. This isn’t to say that Max isn’t generally a pretty good guy, or that he isn’t respected by his peers, but it is a reflection of the way people are taught to think under capitalism.

Max makes a deal with the smuggler and agrees to hijack information from an Elysium citizen’s brain in exchange for passage to Elysium. The job goes badly wrong, but the information is successfully downloaded into Max’s brain. And the rest of the film is a highly entertaining chase between Max and a ruthless former government agent named Kruger who has been dispatched by Delacourt to stop the fugitive at all costs.

During the action, Max protects his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse who has a young daughter dying of cancer. As children Max promised to take her to Elysium, but now she wants to get there so she can cure her daughter.

Elysium is definitely a progressive film. It’s obvious from its depiction of extreme class division that Blomkamp is attempting to make a point, not only about where society is heading, but about our world as it is now. Science Fiction has always been a genre that allows for the expression of political ideas through metaphor and allegory, and Elysium, like District 9 before it, is no exception. But Elysium fails to bring home the message that is really needed right now.

It focuses on an individual who aspires to the lifestyle of the elite. His whole life he’s wanted membership in their exclusive club, and he’s lived a life of crime looking for his way to the mountain top. Max was never a Robin Hood figure who fights on behalf of the poor and oppressed, he’s merely been searching for his ticket out of poverty. His life-threatening accident on the job only adds urgency to the quest he was already undertaking.

And in order for Max to accomplish his goal he unites with a band of smugglers and mercenaries, rather than rallying the masses to rise up and overthrow their oppressors once and for all. Elysium could have gone in such a direction, not only getting to the root of the problem, but showing a truly righteous course of action to overcome it.

It’s also disappointing that the film depicts such stereotypical gender roles. Max is the strong warrior who protects his woman, while Frey is cast exclusively in the role of nurturing mother. And Delacourt, the apparently childless power hungry totalitarian, serves as the negative contrast to Frey’s nurturing motherhood. Delacourt represents the wrong kind of woman, while Frey is upheld as the good kind who gets protected by the male hero.

In much more radical fashion, James Cameron’s Avatar envisioned a technologically inferior people not only resisting an invading capitalist-imperialist force, but soundly defeating them, and it sent a clear message about the type of revolutionary struggle that needs to be waged, including a breakdown of traditional gender roles. Neytiri is every bit the warrior Jake Sully is.

Had Blomkamp chosen to embrace that same revolutionary spirit, Elysium could have potentially surpassed Avatar in terms of political importance. It’s set here on Earth and features actual human beings struggling to survive under the very same system that rules over us right now. It’s a very entertaining film, but imagine how powerful and inspiring Elysium could have been to millions around the world had it actually shown the development of an authentic revolutionary movement here on Earth, especially one that successfully topples an unjust system based on exploitation that results in extreme class division.