Mad Max: Fury Road’s Feminism Isn’t What You Think

Mad Max: Fury Road proves you don’t make a feminist omelet with ‘girl power’ additives, you just remove the sexist fat.

A hurricane phenomenon has built up around the release of Mad Max: Fury Road, stemming both from the fact that it’s 98% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, and also the buzz surrounding the plot, which has the female lead, Imperator Furiosa, transporting female prisoners away from a manipulative patriarchy. So imagine my shock when this ‘feminist’ masterpiece wasn’t some grandiose statement about vagina power–it’s just a great action movie devoid of all the bad writing that naturally stems from the sexist Hollywood milieu.

Maybe this is the best way to phrase it: Fury Road feels like the first kid in middle school mature enough to read aloud the phrase ‘doing it’ without giggling.

Fury Road knows that men and women have genitals, but it doesn’t let that knowledge taint its execution, despite having such a heavily gender-based plot. That, more than the volcanic action sequences, made me lean forward in my seat.

The feminism of the film is most notable because it’s imperceptible. Don’t let the ‘feminist’ label fool you, this is a ‘man’s’ movie, complete with razor-blade battle guitarists, BattleBots-esque vehicular destruction, the whole shebang, so where is the feminism? It isn’t what writing consultant Eve Ensler (Vagina Monologues) adds in–it seems to be what she took out.

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The perfect example of what Fury Road triumphed over is the faux-feminism of Gamorra’s character in Guardians of the Galaxy, which had short-sighted feminist critics pumping their fists every time she pumped her fist, while completely ignoring the baffling scenes in which this intergalactic war-maiden was led doe-eyed through a space prison while the male inmates leered at her from every side. It was completely out of character, and reneged on her premise as the daughter of Thanos (the man who tried to marry Death and seized the power of the Infinity F***ing Gauntlet) and was put in simply to dangle a damsel-in-distress and get a male reaction. There were other offenses in the movie, but none more confusing than this.

Fury Road isn’t a feminist masterpiece because it had ass-kicking women (though it did); it’s a transcendent action masterpiece because inadvertently sexist idiocies (like the aforementioned) are completely absent.

I’m still trying to explain this voodoo to myself. For one thing, how the hell did it avoid being heavy-handed when the plot is literally about wresting women away from a possessive man? The narrative judo here is that, yes, it’s about this cargo of women being used for breeding and milk, but… well, strangely, there are no scenes where these women are abused. In fact, the Brides are completely revered by this society and all the chalk-bodied, skull-faced Warboys in antagonist Immortan Joe’s crew. Consequently, there is no chivalric revenge-porn to be had here, a fact which heavily defuses any chance of a save-the-princess faux-pas as that committed in Guardians of the Galaxy.

brideshelping

Also, what really makes the conflict universal rather than gendered is that they don’t harp on about being female objects throughout the movie; it’s mentioned once, when one of the brides attempts to make her way back to Immortan Joe, while her fellow escapees hold her back saying over and over, under their breaths, “We’re not things, we’re not things.” That’s it. There are no pseudo-feminist one-liners (compared to “I’m always cleaning up after you boys”), that’s it, it’s just one line, one piece of the cinematic whole. In other words, feminism is incorporated into the greater themes of freedom and want.

There’s also a near-complete absence of male gaze in the film. For a movie full of women dressed in bedsheet bikinis, that’s absolutely astounding. There are no moments of a warboy leering at the sexualized, feminine form of a bride. There is no romance whatsoever in the film. There’s a moment where Max cradles an injured Furiosa, but Max respects survival, and Furiosa proves beyond any doubt that she is a survivor. There’s a moment when the brides shield the war rig from gunfire with their own bodies, playing on the Warboys’ fear of harming them, but the moment is surreal rather than pornographic–chalk-painted warriors held in cessation in the face of the necessity of procreation and nourishment. It’s a question of survival, not sexuality; they can’t mistreat these women if their future depends on them, and upon a new, mutation-free generation of Warboys.

Maybe the perfect word for Fury Road‘s feminism is ‘utilitarian.’ The women are empowered only insofar as they relate to the plot, which eliminates the chance of inadvertent sexism. Most of them aren’t battle-trained and are relegated to taking the backseat most of the time, but they get out and fix the truck, add scrap to the wheels for traction in the mud, reload guns. They do what they can–they are damsels in distress in a literal sense, but just like everyone else in the movie, including Immortan Joe himself, they’re trying desperately to survive.

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Finally, there’s this accusation that by supplanting Max in favor of Furiosa as the lead protagonist, George Miller made an unnecessary cop-out for feminism’s sake. But a second glance over the Mad Max tetralogy reveals that Max himself was only ever a framing tale. Max is clever and capable, but he doesn’t really have a mythology behind him except as an outsider, drifting into communities, then being left behind, again and again. He hasn’t been a heroic center since the first film; he shared the central conflict with a community of oilers in the second, and with feral children in the third. He’s our cameraman, a character through whom we get to see post-apocalyptic humanity.

With the exception of the first film, the Mad Max movies were never dominated by Max; we aren’t relentlessly quoting Max’s one-liners or imitating his character tics; what we remember is “MASTER BLASTER OWNS BARTER-TOWN,” and “THE. NIGHT. RIDER.” We remember the societies in Mad Max, not Max himself, and that’s still true in Fury Road. And maybe that distance between Max and the rest of the film lets Fury Road be a movie about people, when it so easily could’ve been about machismo and bedsheet bikinis.

Mad Max: Fury Road should disarm any fears that men’s rights activists have about so-called ‘feminist film.’ It isn’t bowing down to a pink gun held to your head that says ‘Let the woman throw a punch,’ it isn’t submitting to some list of demands. Feminist cinema is the absence of blunders like Gamorra, unnecessary panty and cleavage shots, romances for their own sake. When it’s done correctly, feminism is just lean and effective film-making.

5 Comments

  1. On using Gamora as a contrast point for “appropriate feminism”. How is suggesting that a female character who gets caught BRIEFLY showing mild concern after being placed in a co-ed prison where – A. the guards don’t care what the inmates do to each other, B. she has no allies and C. is unanimously hated for her affiliation with a galactic murderer who has enemies on the inside – not an appropriate, and even toned down, reaction? The author makes it seem as though when she walks in the prison all you hear are catcalls, she bursts into ‘little ol’ me’ tears and it’s supposed to make Pratt’s character seem like more of a hero for being able to save her later. What you really hear are a bunch of death threats aimed at her, you see Pratt get sexually harassed by an alien and nearly made a bitch (something that doesn’t happen to our female lead) and the only one who has any idea what they’re doing in the prison is a RACCOON. I fail to see how that portrayal in any way is a dis-service to women. In real life this would be like if someone said “Let’s put Rhonda Rousey in a co-ed Alcatraz and then relegate her to a negative character archetype because she seemed distressed while walking to her cell.”

    1. I also didn’t find the prison scene bothersome (with the caveat that I saw the movie only once when it first came out), but that wasn’t the only misstep with Gamora. A baffling and egregious moment was when Drax called her a whore. I’ve seen multiple explanations given for this — from the benign “he heard someone else say it and didn’t know her yet and so thought it was an accurate job description” to the way-to-prove-the-point “in the comics she slept with every member of the Guardians, sooo”. The fact remains that if people are still debating justifications for it, it wasn’t well-justified in the film. What we saw was our “strong female” heroine targeted by a sexist (in this context) slur by an unimpeachably honest hero.

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