A Very Queer Apocalypse and the Uncanny Feminism of Mad Max (Part One)
Spoiler Alert: We are going to talk about the latest Mad Max movie. There’s really no way to do this without discussing some major plot points. We state from the outset that we like the Mad Max franchise. We believe there are some very high points in these films. We furthermore believe that at its worst, the films at least remain interesting and worthy of discussion. In brief summary, Fury Road deals with the battle-hardened Imperator Furiosa, played to shaved-headed perfection by Charlize Theron, who absconds with a warlord’s harem of breeding concubines. During this escape, they are joined by the titular Max Rockatansky for the narrative-long chase across a color-saturated wasteland. The first in a three-part series, this post will review a sample of the arguments about this film.
The Pro-Feminist Argument
So, is Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in the Mad Max Quadrilogy, a feminist masterpiece? Is it at least an exercise in feminism? One would hope such messaging would come across considering the fact that Eve Ensler, author and performer of the Vagina Monologues, was brought on as a consultant as the film was being made. In an interview with Eliana Dokterman for Time, Ensler describes her reaction to reading the script:
“One out of three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime—it’s a central issue of our time, and that violence against women relates to racial and economic injustice. This movie takes those issues head-on. I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”
Ensler further explains her discussions with the women who play the concubines of Fury Road’s resident megalomaniac and bad guy, Immortan Joe: “…after you are raped, your body becomes a place that you dissociate from, a landscape of terror. I wanted to give [the actors] context. We spoke about the Comfort Women, who were kept as slaves by the Japanese, and about rape and violence in places I have spent a lot of time like Bosnia to Congo to Afghanistan to Haiti. We spoke about sex trafficking in America, which is rampant.”
We think it is worth noting at this point (and in light of Ensler’s comments) that the concubines are perhaps the least feminist aspect of the film, at least overtly. True, the neglected plight of threatened, exploited, and abused women represents some of the worst aspects of our species. Nevertheless, it may not always be clear when viewing Fury Road whether the film succeeds in representing this circumstance since the film is also arguably exploitative by virtue of this depition.
However, just about everyone can agree that Imperator Furiosa is pretty much a total bad ass. She is the force that obliterates the patriarchy. In her column for The Guardian, Jessica Valenti summarizes Furiosa’s threat: “…it’s not feminist because Theron’s character gets to engage in as much violence as any other action lead, but because the world director and writer George Miller has created shows the horror of sexism and the necessity of freedom from patriarchy. That is what’s truly terrifying to some men—not that Theron has more lines that Tom Hardy.”
The Men's Movement Calls for a Boycott
Almost immediately upon release of the film, calls to boycott came from men’s movement voices like Aaron Clarey’s oft-cited “Why You Should Not Go See ‘Mad Max: Feminist Road.’” In addition to directly questioning Ensler’s bona fides in regard to her work on women’s issues in the Congo, Clarey makes an overt claim about the influence of feminism in Hollywood films: “The truth is I’m angry about the extents Hollywood and the director of Fury Road went to trick me and other men into seeing this movie. Everything VISUALLY looks amazing. It looks like that action guy flick we’ve desperately been waiting for when it is one man with principles, standing against many with none.”
Clarey’s argument (perhaps unintentional) reveals two issues with the movie industry overall. One, with all the misogyny that so permeates mainstream films (after all, how many films fail the Bechtel test?), American cinema is still not producing movies that fulfill the needs of a pro-masculine audience. Two, Mad Max: Fury Road is an extraordinarily competent action film. So competent, in fact, that it would have fulfilled the hopes and dreams of man fans everywhere had it simply not contained a non-submissive woman.
Feminist Push Back and Critique
There is, of course, plenty of push back against the role of women in Fury Road from feminist sources like Ramona Depares, who challenges any degree of pro-women messaging with a ten point list:
“10. Women are Relegated to Breeder Status
9. Furiosa Follows Max’s Lead
8. They Look Ready for the Catwalk
7. The Level of Sex Appeal is Off the Charts
6. They Had to Put in a Love Interest
5. All the Warriors are Men
4. The Vuvalini are not that Badass
3. The Vulnerable Women Trope is Maintained
2. The Man Saves the Woman
1. …And Then He Dumps Her"
Within her article, Depares does parse out these points with critical nuance. But of course as with any ten-point list, some points are stretched to fit the arbitrary numerical category of the list while others are duplicated. For example, points seven and eight go hand in hand. There are lots of pretty people in the movie, but that also includes Tom Hardy and Nicholas Hoult. In addition to the copious modelling work done by these men, their physical attributes are hardly obscured on the screen. The distinction about warriors being men whereas the Vuvalini (a self-sufficient community of older women) display inferior combat skills requires not only an essentialist understanding of what it means to be strong and weak, but also heavily obscures the very complicated presence in the film of the war boys, who are ostensibly a death cult. The so-called love interest is also not so clear cut. It almost seems like George Miller is familiar with Lee Edelman’s work because every time the hope of reproductive futurity is raised it immediately gets driven under the wheels of one war machine or another.
As we alluded to above, the key point raised by Depares, the point that must be reckoned with, is the presence of the breeding concubines within the narrative. She argues that a film that celebrates women would not include these depictions at all; she argues that women should be represented as warriors. And there are examples of this type of movie. James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) features women that kick a whole bunch of phallic-mouthed alien ass. Moreover, our responses to Depares’ arguments are not meant to be definitive. We offer them as proof that many aspects of Fury Road are debatable.
The Not-So-Breit Perspective
In fact, the men’s movement can’t even agree about the messaging within the film. In his article on Breitbart.com, Milo Yiannopoulos argues from the perspective of gender stereotype: “... Theron is hardly the picture of feminine virtue: she looks, acts, thinks and talks like a man. Is that the best Hollywood can do? It’s not like there aren’t brilliant templates for female heroes out there, if you care to look: the great triumph of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that Sarah Michelle Gellar’s strength is derived from quintessentially feminine character traits: sensitivity, vulnerability and otherworldly conviction.”
The Middle Ground
Some middle ground that supports a pro-feminist (or anti-misogynist) message can be found in Adi Robertson’s excellent article titled “Misogynists are totally right to be mad at Mad Max.” Robertson compares the representation on women in Fury Road with the rather rape-inflected depictions in Game of Thrones. She returns her argument to some of the established terms and forms of feminism: “Fury Road, though, explicitly balances Max’s journey with a story about women and women’s agency. Furiosa is almost a red herring here, because any piece of fiction can assimilate a single powerful female character. The real threat is that even the women who are everything anti-feminists smugly predict—enslaved, fragile, sheltered—can be brave and competent. For all the complaints about women being too physically strong, the really ‘unrealistic’ difference is that they’re not broken or terrified.” But perhaps most importantly, Robertson references the evolving role of women throughout the Mad Max film franchise.
It is at this point that we begin our analysis. We will address two central themes that are lost in the current, heated debate. One, George Miller is up to something much more nuanced and much more interesting than an overt political statement about feminism. Our approach to uncovering this agenda (or experiment) will begin with a structuralist analysis of all four films. And two, the product of this analysis may also demonstrate a problematic trend within feminist discourse in popular culture.
Our analysis will take the form of a conversation that will unfold over two more posts. The next post will deal with first three films in the Mad Max quadrilogy. The final will focus on Fury Road. This conversation will be informed by theorists like Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Laura Mulvey, Gilbert & Gubar, and other. We hope that you will join in this conversation.
References Not Directly Linked in the Post:
Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy. Warner Home Video,