Who Killed the World? – The Complicated Feminism of Mad Max: Fury Road

by | May 26, 2015
filed under Pop Culture

Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy photo from the Mad Max poster

Mad Max: Fury Road has been getting a lot of praise, but more interestingly it has also drawn intense criticism… from misogynists. If Men’s Rights Activists hadn’t thrown such a tantrum, I probably would have skipped it altogether. So, thank you, MRAs. Thank you for exposing me to a fantastic film that spoke to me on such a visceral level. I’ve already seen it twice and I’ll probably see it at least two more times, if only to counteract their boycott. This is the best action film I’ve seen in years. Possibly ever.

The premise of the film is that Imperator Furiosa absconds from the harem of her warlord boss, Immortan Joe, with his prized wives. Immortan Joe wants his property back and chases her entourage across the post-apocalyptic desert. Mad Max is there, but in more of a sidekick capacity, getting less macho as the film progresses. It’s a spectacular action film. The world building is economical, the motivations of the characters are clear, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the action never stops.

The feminist themes in the film aren’t subtle, either. Furiosa is not just a “strong female character” (a weak phrase I personally detest and wish we could officially retire because it’s usually code for a “fighting fuck-toy” or used to excuse the fact that there is only one woman in a film opposite dozens of men). Furiosa rescues women from slavery, and their final act of defiance to their captor is to scrawl messages on the walls of their cell, most notably: “We are not things.” I’ll admit I got chills.

Yes! Women are not things! It’s true! I was so thrilled to see this as the driving force behind an action film. But “women = things” is not just the stuff of fantasy, believed only by comically evil people. We’re treated like things all the time. Our images are hacked apart in the media or in advertisements that we’re forced to look at every day. Our politicians compare us to animals and try to take away our reproductive rights. We’re beaten and sexually assaulted at appalling rates across the world. This film had a lot of feminist themes, and the parts of it that I enjoyed, I enjoyed for feminist reasons. But as much as I loved this film and rooting for Furiosa (who, let’s face it, I kind of want to actually be) I can’t give it a full “feminist” endorsement. Not quite.

“Women are not things” is women’s rights 101. I doubt George Miller needed to consult with Eve Ensler to learn that. He doesn’t get a cookie for understanding this. But if he’s truly committed to making feminist films, or at the very least, treating women like people instead of things, he probably doesn’t want that cookie anyway. (Wanting the “decent human being” cookie makes you unworthy of the cookie. The cookie is a trap.)

As cathartic as it was to watch Furiosa kick everyone’s ass for two hours, a few things in the film didn’t quite measure up to the feminist hype.

For example, here are a few themes that could have been treated more delicately:

  1. A few scenes briefly show fat women being milked. I understand that this is used in part for worldbuilding, and to show how evil and gross Immortan Joe actually is. People live off of (and barter with) this unlimited supply of breast milk and these women are being exploited. He treats women as things and resources, and he’s awful. But these women weren’t given any lines or agency in the movie. Their liberation was an implied afterthought. Their pain was little more than shock value. Fat women aren’t things either.
  2. Almost everyone in this film (and certainly almost everyone with lines) was white. Only one of the women regarded as beautiful and valuable was black. White women are not the only women who aren’t things.
  3. The women Furiosa rescues, the women with whom we spend the most time, are thin and conventionally beautiful. Women are not things, and human beings have varied appearances. And in the post apocalypse, they probably also have underarm hair. Women who do not fit traditional western models of beauty are still not things.
  4. Furiosa is missing an arm, and it doesn’t stop her from being awesome. But other than that, characters with disabilities are portrayed negatively as either villains or helpless rabble to be pitied. People with disabilities aren’t things.

But here’s the thing. George Miller told Vanity Fair that he “can’t help but be a feminist” after making this film. And being a feminist in a position of privilege means learning from your mistakes and doing better next time. It means learning how much you still have to learn. I’m a better feminist than I was five years ago, and I’ll be an even better feminist five years from now because I try to educate myself and not contribute to the oppression of others. It’s hard, and sometimes it’s embarrassing, but it’s necessary.

This film is an important effort, especially since my expectations of an action film made by a white man were so low. It is also a huge improvement over the “women in refrigerators” problems of the franchise’s earlier films. George Miller is flexing his feminist muscles and I hope his work continues to evolve. If only for the selfish reason that I want to keep seeing films that get me as pumped as this one.

It is my sincere hope that George Miller and other filmmakers don’t despair at these criticisms, or regret calling themselves feminists or throw feminism under the bus (like someone else we won’t talk about). Because I for one really want to see what comes next. In a time when Maggie Gyllenhaal was told that 37 was too old to play the love interest of a 55 year old man, and women were barred from the Cannes film festival for wearing flats, and Hollywood is currently under investigation from the ACLU for being generally awful, (the list could go on, and on) I think we can all agree that change is long overdue.

And who knows. Maybe if enough white men keep insisting it, Hollywood will get the message that women aren’t things and put women behind the camera as well as in front of it. Oh what a day, what a lovely day that would be.


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