Mad Max has a Feminist Hero for (Almost) Everyone

I know. Pretty well every woman with a computer has written about how great Mad Max: Fury Road was. I actually meant to write about it last week, but then I decided that I needed to address the news about the Duggars instead.

Not only am I late to the Mad Max conversation, but when I went to write about this post I came across the video I’ve included below, which succinctly summarizes many of the points I was hoping to make.

Even though Rowan Ellis beat me to the punch with several of her points, I loved this movie too much not to add my two cents. I also wanted to dig deeper into some of the feminist identities offered in the film and how they impacted me as a female viewer. Spoilers, obviously.

Furiosa: The Tough, Capable Woman

Furiosa is, of course, the first person anyone is going to think of when I say “strong female character”. She is a brave, intelligent, and capable character. I also love that she isn’t sexualized by the camera angles, and that we aren’t forced to view her through the male gaze.

As much as I absolutely love Furiosa, she doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. We’ve already had hardcore, confident female leaders like Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley since the 80’s. And as much as I want to be like Furiosa, I don’t always feel myself reflected in these kind of figures. Sometimes that’s okay, sometimes all I want is to escape into the kind of fantasy where I can imagine myself kicking ass and taking names. However, it can be discouraging when movies only have one type of “strong female character”  to offer. While I absolutely love female heroes like Furiosa, I really loved having less capable heroines in Mad Max as well. Heroines who were well-rounded and brave in spite of their weaknesses and fears.

Fragile, Splendid, Toast, Capable, and The Dag: More than Just Survivors

I loved that the victims of Mad Max were not just victims [the names in the title refer to the wives -Evan]. Their victimization had shaped each of them uniquely. Splendid’s experience made her fearlessly determined to escape. She refuses to be victimized anymore, and she encourages the other women to follow her as they attempt to escape. In contrast, the youngest wife, Cheedo the Fragile, is so afraid that she almost returns to her abuser after Splendid falls to her death. Then, near the end of the movie, we witness her overcome these fears when she distracts one of the warboys so that Furiosa can finally kill Immortan Joe.

Even though this movie was action heavy and pretty light on the dialogue, the survivors’ few lines helped them establish their characters as unique individuals rather than damsels to be saved or prizes to be won.

This was one of the shots that gave me shivers. So intense.

According to Cinema Blend this was an intentional move on the part of director George Miller:

“Miller brought a rather curious consultant onto the set in Eve Ensler, the playwright behind The Vagina Monologues. She was tasked with coaching the quintet to help channel emotions in their performance related to the effects of sexual abuse. Having worked with rape victims in the Congo, Ensler reportedly shed a brutally real context onto the characters, which, according to Rosie Huntington-Whitely, helped shape critical background for each of the sister wife characters.”

Miller also moves away from sexualizing the survivors through his style of filming. While the women have obviously experienced sexual violence, Miller only pans to their bodies in moments that subvert titillation with a disturbing subtext. In his article comparing Mad Max to the Transformers Franchise, Colin Stacey points out that “even as scantily clad women bathe in the desert, Miller doesn’t allow his camera to leer as other action directors may; instead, he emphasizes simple details that reveal character.” For example, when the Dag snips off her chastity belt, or when Splendid’s dress clings to her bulging stomach you are given an uncomfortable reminder of what the women experienced.

Art by Kate Leth

The Vuvalini of Many Mothers and the Keeper of the Seeds: Protectors and Nurturers in a Masculinist Wasteland

Mad Max consistently asks the eerie question, “Who killed the world?” The juxtaposition of the community of mothers, and the framing of the film itself, seems to point towards toxic masculinity. By that, I don’t mean men in general (see below), instead, I mean the pointless machismo that glorifies power for power’s sake.

As a direct contract to the centralized dictatorship of the Immortan Joe, we are offered the “green place” of the many mothers and a society that functions like a family. Not only do these women refuse to live within a society that will subject them because of their sex, they are still fighting to preserve nature and nurture new growth.

Art by Daryl

 

This impulse to nurture extends beyond the earth and into their relationships with one another.

Taking the time to mourn.

I think I feel particularly drawn to this idealistic society because it represents stereotypically female characteristics as heroic. In this way, I found the Vuvalini characters more groundbreaking than Furiosa, or even the escaped sister-wives.

Max: The Feminist Ally

I’m a big believer that men can be feminists. I also think it is helpful when men can see male heroes who knows when being a hero means giving up the limelight. It’s a beautiful thing when you see someone recognize their privilege and choose not to use it because it would be to the detriment of the community as a whole.

What I also love is that a young “cool” actor was selected to portray this character. Then, not only did he portray this kind of feminist character, he also seems to embrace a similar attitude in real life.

Nux: The Reformed Masculinist

There is a reason why Nux is the internet’s newest favourite. If you don’t believe me, try searching “Mad Max” on Tumblr and let me know who you see show up most often in the movie’s fan art.

I think what struck a chord with so many people was Nux’s vulnerability when he began to change.

Admittedly, this change was tied to the not very fleshed-out love plot between him and Capable, but I still feel like his sudden shift away from negative aggression is worth celebrating. Any move away from toxic masculinity takes vulnerability, and vulnerability is a necessary part of rejecting the dysfunctional male pressure to be abusive or violent.

The “Almost” Part

I love the dialogue that Mad Max has opened up. The thing about a great dialogue is that it always comes with important criticisms. When I originally wrote the “almost” in the title of this post, I was just referring to the very few opportunities for people of colour in the film. However, after reading a variety of articles while writing this post, I’ve come across some more thoughtful critiques of the film. Some, like Stephen Maher’s piece on Mad Max as “a clash of civilizations, in which the West must win out over everyone else”, even levelled criticisms that hadn’t even occurred to me.

See that’s the great thing about a good movie. When it’s fantastic, you care to find the spots where it could have been even better.

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4 responses to “Mad Max has a Feminist Hero for (Almost) Everyone

  1. I also really enjoyed this movie, though to be perfectly honest, I found it difficult to stomach at a couple points largely because this is the first movie I’ve watched that addressed motherhood and fertility after becoming a mother myself. It’s …quite a different experience.
    I think that generally we all find a character we identify with in movies and kind of experience the storyline through them, and if I’d seen this movie at any other point in my life, I would have tried to make that Furiosa. No, I can’t reeeaaallly identify with her (not being particularly badass, and having difficulty with posts in parking garages, never mind driving a war rig) but I could dream at least. This time around though, it was pretty early on when I found the place I’d be in this world. You know those obese women hooked up to breast pumps? Yep.
    See, I can only assume that after giving birth once or twice, depending on how well their bodies hold up, that’s where the “breeders” end up. And I’ve already produced a child (a daughter no less, which I can’t imagine goes over well with Immortan Joe), and by Rosie Huntington-Whitely standards, my body definitely did not “hold up.” It was a weird, intense, and visceral experience, seeing how these women are prized for their… functionality… and knowing that by that definition, mine is done. Plus I’d just breastfed my daughter barely half an hour earlier, before dropping her off with the sitter.
    So yeah, that’s what really hit home with me. And of course it was all tied up in a broader discussion of things like bullets vs seeds, etc. Water, food, people – life itself really – were just tools to help Immortan Joe secure and wield power.
    Now before this movie came out and all those MRA dicks were going on about how it’s not “realistic” that a woman could be empowered in a world like this (obviously in harsh social climates they’d entirely depend on men for provisions and safety!) I was joking that if you wanted to nitpick about realism in Mad Max, gender roles were not the place to start. How about how they value gasoline over water? But then the movie addressed this with my previous point: You value power over life. Water keeps you alive and grows your food, but gas powers your war rig. Immortan Joe is allied with a man called the “Bullet Farmer” instead of an actual farmer after all!
    My only real quibble with it was that it was an infant son Max lost in the first one, but he keeps seeing his young daughter die. That could have used some explanation… Did that happen between Thunderdome and now? Is this more of a reboot than a sequel? Inquiring minds want to know!

    • Yeah, I think it is really important to point out the women being milked at the beginning. One of the articles I linked to in the last paragraph gets into that aspect, and how it is problematic. But I like how Rowan Ellis points out in her video that these women are actually the people who take control once it is clear that Immortan Joe is dead. That final scene kinda gives back some of their power that was taken away.

  2. While I do agree with all of your points one of the things that really bothered me about the film was the scene where the mothers were introduced with one of the mothers naked on the tower because it really didn’t make much sense for them to do that and immediately struck me as something a man would write into a movie and that was a low point for me in an otherwise excellent movie

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