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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  • Katherine Nobles

    It’s a start. And if filmmakers see the reaction around the country, perhaps it will improve other movies. Probably not, sadly. However, you have piqued my interest, and I’m going to have to go see this movie now.

  • Spoilers: Did you notice at the end of the film, who the people were that turned the water on? Just sayin’ that saved it for me as far as #1.

    • Jessica Critcher

      Totally! Those things were important, especially the older women, who almost never get to be bad-asses. But it’s just kind of weird that thin would still be the ideal body type in a world defined by scarcity. I still really enjoyed the film, but would love to see more intersectionality in the future.

  • Do you think George Miller was trying to say anything when he showed water when freely given was always given by a woman?

    Powerful message.

  • andre paris

    I just thought it was great seeing a female lead, who could stand on her own two feet, MRAs are laughable in their position, it’s as if they don’t want to be taken seriously

    • scifi.guy26485

      I think MRAs are just insecure in their masculinity. Whiny little boys.

  • JC

    Uh, Furiosa isn’t the only protagonist with disabilities. You’re totally erasing the physical and mental disabilities of the titular character, Max. It was pretty explicit that he’s struggling with a form of PTSD. Please don’t judge a person by their physical appearance, they may be dealing with non-obvious challenges. But even then you’d be forgetting his leg brace. Like Furiosa’s arm, Miller doesn’t make a big deal of it, but it’s there. Ignoring that trait doesn’t make it go away.

    And what about Nux? Halfway through the film it’s pretty clear he has become a good guy. He requires blood transfusions and has visible tumors. He’s not villainous, helpless or pitiful at the end of his arc. Why leave him out?

    It’s a bit of a disservice to dismiss those two main characters when talking about protagonists with disabilities. There aren’t many Hollywood action movies (or movies in general) where all four top-billed characters have disabilities, three of which are protagonists.

    As for number 2, you’re also erasing Courtney Eaton’s Chinese, Maori and Pacific Islander heritage by lumping Cheedo in with the white characters. Yes, there should be more people of color, but please don’t erase those that are in the film.

    • Jessica Critcher

      Those are valid points, and I didn’t mean to gloss over them. To be honest, I could have gone on and on about this film, digging deeper into all of these things and more. I’ve since seen the film again, and I notice new things every time I see it. Thank you for further challenging me– it goes along with my belief that feminism is a constant learning process.

  • Lucy Thomas

    As a feminist, I personally loved the film. I think it is a giant leap in the right direction.

  • ComradeRutherford

    SPOILER ALERT, GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!

    #1, It was the milk women that turned the water on for The People, an interesting connection between their fluids being a treasure amongst Joe’s ruling clan and the water they release being a treasure of the poor that Joe has been toying with all these years. I felt that did redeem their role as ‘shock value’.

    #2, This was a HUGE disappointment for me. I was hoping to see more not-white people in this movie. I was modestly pleased that those that haunted Max were ‘aborigines’, with the idea that he had failed them in a time of need. I saw that in a Meta way, white man has most certainly failed the native human population in Australia (and just about everywhere else).

    #2 continued, However refreshing was seeing at least a few frames of Not-White people in Max’s nightmares, that was undermined by the Grinning Idiot at the very end. An obvious ‘aborigine’ with missing teeth was put right in front of the camera in what can only be shock value, since NONE of the rest of the crowd were anything but White people. Why were more of the regular people Not-White?

    #3, Joe’s baby-slaves were the best of the best, so no surprises that they are portrayed by Victoria Secret models. But, yeah, no underarm hair? In a post apocalyptic world? Where did they get razors and who would waste precious resources making razors in the first place. I think shaved armpits look weird…

    #3 continued: Clearly none of the baby-slaves Furiosa rescued had ever had a baby previously. I get that Miller wanted the women to be ‘perfect’, but…

    #4, Yeah, There’s Rictus Erectus who is incredibly strong but with diminished intelligence and an obvious respiratory problem, and his brother who is smart but in a tiny body. The people with disabilities are plot devices, not key characters.

    So kudos to Miller for realizing his short-comings and taking it seriously. I wish he had thought a little more about these things.

    That being said, GO SEE THIS MOVIE!!!

    • Seymour Brighton

      You’re missing the point. They could have used animatronics for the small guy. But that’s Quentin Kenihan, a severely-disabled Australian actor who has done nothing but prove how much he could achieve, regardless of his condition (In fact, in all honesty, I thought he had succumbed to his genetic disability years ago, so I was surprised and delighted to see him again in this movie).

      Whether it was the CHARACTERS thriving despite their disability (Charlize using her arm without prosthetic sometimes) or the ACTORS showing that they have plenty to offer the creative arts, regardless of their level of physical ability due to disease, deformity, obesity, etc.

      It was a victory for many reasons. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be more persons of colour in the next movie.

    • scifi.guy26485

      #2 Amen Comrade

  • Nyx Nax

    “especially since my expectations of an action film made by a white man were so low”

    I guess I’m a little confused by this statement.

    I agree with most your points though, but The scene with the large women being used as if they were dairy cows. in this particular movie I don’t really see how giving them lines would’ve fit. Like a lot of other things in the movie, they were briefly or not explained, merely implied. One could guess they are large because he did not allow them to move much, so no exercise plus lots of food to keep producing milk? Yes it was shocking, but was not used as merely shock value, like you said they helped add to the awful character of Immortan Joe and paint a world picture, but just because they were treated horribly by immortan joe doesn’t mean you need to force lines into the movie.

    • Seymour Brighton

      Because white men are the worst, and make movies that treat women as objects and black people as non-existent. Did you not notice this about the world already?

  • diggie

    One of the last reasons the movie got positive reception is because of ‘feminism’. The only people who praise it for that are sad desperate destitute women so bored with their lives that they cling onto some belief that they are treated wrongly (the victim mentality) and want to get their feel goods for ‘fighting the good (non existent) fight’. When I think ‘feminist’ I imagine someone who wishes they were born a man. A dyke who sits and watches orange is the new black with their cat. And deep down I think all of them can relate to that. They just hate being a woman and rather than embrace it, just decide to go against the grain.

    • Seymour Brighton

      If this is your latest draft of what you currently think of the world and women, then nah, you haven’t gotten the world figured out. As someone who considers themself feminist (a man) and enjoyed the movie (great writing, compared to other brain-dead movies) I would have to say that none of your comment is reflected in the reality of any feminists that I know. It’s like me trying to describe your life — I couldn’t because it would all be based on my misunderstanding of you and your personality. Well you trying to show that you’ve got feminism “worked out” is actually revealing how ignorant you are. Aren’t you embarrassed and humiliated to look ridiculous in front of grown adults on the internet (no you aren’t, you’re shameless. See? I can put obnoxious little brackets all through my comment too. You’re not clever.)

    • Rayane Rodrigues

      feminists dont wish they were born a man, they wish people like you didnt born so arrogant and dumb :)
      and, my dear, being a feminist is to love and protect women, embrace them.

    • Rayane Rodrigues

      feminists dont wish they were born a man, they wish people like you didnt born so arrogant and dumb :)
      and, my dear, being a feminist is to love and protect women, embrace them.

      • Brandon Perry

        It’s also about female superiority. :)

        I wouldn’t mind the feminist themes at all if they didn’t deliberately turn Max into a second fiddle. And no, I’m not referring to the fact that he’s not the protagonist of the film. I’m referring to the fact that they all but force him to take a backseat in the action sequences.

        Now, don’t get me wrong. Theron did an amazing job as the lead. But take note of the scene in the swamp/ruins of the Green Place, when Max is about to take a shot at the spotlight that was being used by the Bullet Farmers to track them. One of the few chances he gets at being the same badass we know and love him as, and he instead just hands the damned rifle over to Furiosa and lets her use him as a fucking cushion.

        And then, minutes later, when he gets ANOTHER chance to be badass by himself… the most we see is an explosion off in the distance and Max getting a bit of blood on his face. That’s it.

        I would’ve *LOVED* the film if it had at least stuck to it’s roots.

        • scifi.guy26485

          Dude, Max isn’t the goddamn protagonist, he is the narrator. And its Furiosas story that he tells. The fact that we don’t see that scene in which he takes out that tank thingy makes him even more badass, because he doesn’t need to tell you what he has done.Oh and he does a lot more fighting than Furiosa.

          Also, the entire first quarter of the movie is just him and some random minions.

          • Brandon Perry

            I know he’s not the protagonist.

            The entire first quarter of the movie is him being a victim to a bunch of random minions. Hardly badass.

            “A lot more fighting than Furiosa.” You mean running away from the War boys half the bloody time? Because we saw him fight for maybe 10 minutes into the movie, and then the next quarter was spent with him being a hood ornament and bloodbag for Nux.

            I know what you mean by his offscreen demolition of the remaining bullet farmers, since that is, in fact a trope. But from my perspective they minimized it by having it occur offscreen.

            And I don’t feel I need to mention the “Max-cushion” scene again.

    • Kristine

      Are you really this far out in your own little solitude of a fantasy world that you are so seriously clueless? Do you even understand the meaning of what the word feminism is? You think women hate being female or something? Did you come from a vagina? Because nearly every person living & breathing came from their biological mother. Do you have these conversations w/ her on how she really wants to be a man? Are you asexual, gay, trans or not human at all?

      • diggie

        Assuming from the pain in your words in response to my post, it’s true that ‘the truth hurts’ and I struck a cord. BTW, my post says nothing about a woman wanting to be a man. You are reading too much into it.

        • Kristine

          If you read what you wrote: When I think ‘feminist’ I imagine someone who wishes they were born a man. That basically is stating just that. No the truth doesn’t hurt, it just means that there are people in this world who are so far out there they don’t understand what is really going on, I feel sorry for you for having such a distorted view of the world. Even the language you use is so hateful, for what reason, does it make you feel better stating that you think women are “so bored with their lives that they cling onto some belief that they are treated wrongly (the victim mentality) and want to get their feel goods for ‘fighting the good (non existent) fight” as you so mentioned. you want to get into statistics we can do that but I would not want to bore you with the facts of the situations that women deal with. Feel free to stay in your bubble, one day it will burst with you in it.

          • diggie

            Woman wishing they were born a man, is not the same as a woman WANTING to be a man.

            “you want to get into statistics we can do that but I would not want to bore you with the facts of the situations that PEOPLE deal with.” <– Fixed it that you. Hopefully you don't see the world as just women and men, black and white, religious and atheist. That is pretty close minded.

          • Kristine

            Well if you want to mince words go ahead, either way no woman wants to be a man, that’s just silliness. The whole point is you not understanding what feminism actually is. You think I am close minded is a joke, as an activist in various movements I have done more in one month than you will your entire life. You’re obviously showing resentment & have issues with women.

          • diggie

            “either way no woman wants to be a man, that’s just silliness.” Excuse me? With all the ridiculousness about bathrooms in the news and you say that?

          • Kristine

            Oh wow, should I bow down to you & be impressed? Well I am not, at all, nor should anybody else. Big flippin’ deal, you have no debt, you’re not the only one. Oh right because you think activist=jobless. You are a bigger moron than I thought. If it wasn’t for people fighting the good fight we would be worse off than people think. Feel free to get off your high horse, while you’re at it, stop being an egocentric maniac.

          • diggie

            Fighting the good fight. Haha! Don’t get so red.

  • The cookie is a lie!

  • The Dark Knight

    Why do you even bother when you don’t get the point of the film? The franchisee has never focused on this so called “this things aren’t things”
    “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”- erm, because this is Australia? And the film takes place in a dystopian city… There aren’t many blacks in Australia, or let’s say even less in post apocalyptic Australia. And stop acting like black and white are the only races, I’m an Asian and I’ve never complained about whitewash unless it’s about an Asian/black or any other race character and it’s potrayed by a white.
    “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”- erm they’re well kept concubines of a tyrannical warlord.
    “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”- again you’re missing the point of the film, and villains=still badass! and it’s true that not all disabled are weak, but majority of them are. And those fat women did turn the water on if you haven’t noticed.
    The titular character doesn’t get many lines and focus and you care about those fat women not getting lines?

  • The Dark Knight

    also I like how you conveniently missed how all men were shown as raging self righteous monsters/animals of all your pointless feminist nitpickings.

    • Robert Keaney

      Hey Bats, funny seeing you here?

      So . . . I bet you must not be Super busy as of late. In fact I’m surprised how you got Back into shape so quickly. Wow, its so great of you to stand up to the Bane of- wait a second. You’re asian?

      Dang it, I just lost a bet. Oh jeez. There goes the last of my spending money. Dang it Batsy!

      • The Dark Knight

        wut? get a grip

    • Kristine

      Seriously what kind of crazy ass misogynist are you?

      • The Dark Knight

        What? I’m not a misogynist FFS. I believe in gender equality (but not in feminism). And I loved Fury road more than you fake phoney “fans”. And I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy of the author. On how she neglects the film degrading men as heartless monsters.

      • BuckyLaw14

        The men were all savage animals save for Max who started down a better path because women forced him into it. In contrast not one of the female characters was portrayed in a villainous manner. High marks for a part of the feminist community, but low marks for actual gender equality.

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  • scifi.guy26485

    Why do people that write movie reviews almost never watch the movie with the attention it deserves. Just to point out what I mean by that:

    #1: The “fat women being milked” do not get their liberation only as an afterthought. Yes it is only a short scene, but they take active agency in their own liberation. They are the ones that open the valwes at the end and give water to the people. Pay attention to the details.

    #2: Remember that Mad Max takes place in Australia, a part of the world where the most notable non white population,the Aboriginies are pretty much extinct today. We are shown the remnants of a mostly white society. This also is a part of the setting in the world of Mad Max.

    #3: The whole point about the women Furiosa rescued from their slavery is that their “owner” (what a shitty concept) values them for their health and beauty. If they hadn’t been that,the whole premise of the movie would have been gone entirely. Also the only scene where they where depicted in a sexualized manner is when Max, who is not a sidekick but the narrator, sees them for the first time. All of them take agency at some point in the movie, none of them is reduced to their physical attributes.

    Seriously, sometimes I think reviewers have watched an entirely different movie than I have.

  • scifi.guy26485

    Although I generally agree with what you wrote, I have a few points to add.

    The “fat women being milked” actually do have agency in their own liberation. It is them who open the valves at the end and give water to the people. Yes its only a short scene, but they aren’t main characters after all. I think its a nice way to give them agency in a way where they don’t have to resort to violence and as an anarchist I really respect their direct action approach.

    Personally I would have been a bit alienated if the remnants of a mainly white culture where anything else but mainly white. After all, Mad Max takes place in Australia and the Aboriginies are already almost extinct. Although I understand your sentiment, tons of colored people just aren’t part of the premise.

    The women Furiosa rescues need to be this slender and beautifull. If they weren’t the whole premise of the plot would be gone, their physical beauty was the reason they have been enslaved in the first place. Also they are only depicted in a sexualized way at one point of the plot, namely when Max (who is the narrator after all) sees them for the first time, and even then I couldmake an argument that it is about the water just as much as it is about the women.
    Andall of them take agency in their liberation at some point in the movie.

    Almost everyone in this movie had some sort of disability, PTSD in Max’s case for example. In fact the “breeders” weren’t just considered valuable by their slaveholders for their beauty, but also because they were healthy.

    P.s.: I’m not feminist, I’m egalitarian. Modern feminism has become way to divisionist for my taste.

    • diggie

      An anarchist? Lol, you 13 and just discover punk music?

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