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.

Twerking for the Man: Fallout from the 2013 VMAs

During this year’s wild Video Music Awards on MTV, there was a brief interlude about a third of the way through the broadcast where comedian Kevin Hart talked about the show’s performances up to that point. His main contribution to the show was his surprise that Lady Gaga had such a big ass. He commented that he had been checking it out during Gaga’s show opening performance, which featured the performer going through multiple costume changes on stage, ultimately ending up in just a tiny thong and a seashell bra. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hart then went on to discuss the most controversial performance of the night: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s rendition of Blurred Lines.

Though he was going for humorous effect, Hart stumbled onto a serious element of truth with his analysis of the duet. He said that Miley should probably get a pregnancy test after grinding on Thicke during the performance, and that other young girls should stay away from Thicke unless they want to end up on an Amber Alert. Given what had just transpired on stage, let alone the fact that women are still kidnapped, raped, and killed by men at a horrific rate, it definitely wasn’t funny.

But even though Hart’s critique of the performance was crude and inappropriate, at least he found the right target, Robin Thicke, unlike the mainstream media and social media universe. Following Cyrus’ performance, in which she brought “twerking” fully into the mainstream, Twitter exploded into a frenzy, setting a record for the most tweets per minute on a given subject at over 300,000, which is even more than the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, most of the Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as the reaction from the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on Cyrus. There was lots of “What was Miley thinking?” and “Should your daughter be watching Miley Cyrus?”, plus all sorts of extremely derogatory name-calling through social media.

Granted, while it is unfortunate that Miley Cyrus bought into this performance and allowed herself to be brought down to such a low level, the truly awful aspect of it was the way it illuminated the double standard women face under this system. Almost none of the negative reaction went toward Robin Thicke and the performance of his extremely misogynistic song “Blurred Lines,” a song that is all about pressuring women into sex. The chorus “you know you want it” (which is often the last thing a woman hears before she gets raped) repeats over and over. The song’s music video features topless women prancing around for men’s amusement, and during the VMAs Miley Cyrus essentially played that role. She stripped down into a skimpy two-piece outfit and twerked and grinded in front of Thicke.

It’s extremely telling that in our society a man can sing a song with lyrics that compare women to dogs and promotes a misinterpretation of “liberation” in order to pressure women into giving over their bodies for a man’s pleasure, and then when a woman actually does exactly what the man wants, strips down and dances and grinds for his pleasure, she’s instantly labeled a “bitch” or a “slut” or a “whore.” Meanwhile, the man who pressures women into a subservient, objectified role and benefits from the kind of behavior that Cyrus demonstrated doesn’t get criticized at all. It’s the male privilege under this system to exploit women sexually and skate away clean, while women must endure and defend themselves against the backlash that results from daring to be openly sexual. The Cyrus/Thicke performance has perfectly demonstrated the double-standard women face on a daily basis.

Again, it’s unfortunate that Cyrus participated in a performance that reduced her to nothing more than a sex object for a man’s pleasure, but to be clear, the villain here is the patriarchal system of male privilege that allows men to encourage the objectification and the exploitation of women, and then turns around and viciously attacks women who actually conform to those demands. “Don’t be such a prude,” followed by, “You’re such a filthy slut!” Under this system women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Miley Cyrus was damned because she did, taking all the backlash that should have been aimed at Robin Thicke.

However, while the 2013 VMAs will forever bare the black-eye of the Cyrus/Thicke performance which was controversial for all the wrong reasons, there were some positive moments from the broadcast.

Justin Timberlake cemented his status as the coolest human being alive with an epic greatest hits performance that featured a brief reunion with his boy-band N*Sync. Taylor Swift’s fantastic video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” won the award for Best Female Video, and Jason Collins, the first active athlete in a team sport to come out as gay, introduced a great performance of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s song “Same Love” which puts forward a powerful pro-gay message. And the show ended on a strong note with Katy Perry performing her hit “Roar” for the very first time.

It’s interesting to contrast Miley’s performance with Katy Perry’s. Cyrus is a huge star in her own right. She developed a massive following while performing as Disney’s Hannah Montana, and she successfully transitioned into a career under her own name. She is one of the wealthiest young people in the world with a media empire dwarfing that of her father’s, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. And yet, all that wealth, power, and industry clout was meaningless on stage during the VMAs. Instead of taking her career to even new heights and solidifying herself as a powerful female mega-star, she took a back seat to the up and coming misogynist Robin Thicke. It was a degrading performance that in one stroke showed how good it is to be a man under this system, and how difficult and complicated it is to be a women.

Perry’s performance on the other hand was much closer to what Miley’s should have been. She was sexy without objectifying herself, dressed up as a boxer, and in an extremely well choreographed performance lit up the night under the Brooklyn Bridge with a display of raw female athleticism, power, and talent. She didn’t take a back seat to any man or play the part of the slut, she sang a good pop song on her own terms and ended a controversial award show on a generally positive note.