A Very Queer Apocalypse and the Uncanny Feminism of Mad Max (Part Two)
The Road Warrior (1981): The sinthomosexual and his catamite.
In the first post in this series, we covered some of the discussions surrounding the role and purpose of feminism in Mad Max: Fury Road. One thing is clear, there is as of yet no consensus or even settled terms of debate regarding this topic. For this post, we will review the first three films in the Mad Max quadrilogy. We will explore topics and themes that appear and overlap in these films. We hope, through our conversation, to open some possibilities for an analysis of these films that will provide context for, and point the way to, our upcoming remarks on Fury Road.
ROBERT: I think the most important thing to consider when starting a longitudinal analysis of the Mad Max movies is to recognize that they are not a sequential series of films. In other words, the films are not a series of sequels that follow from the first. Other than Max, the characters are all always entirely new. Even when actors are recycled, such as Bruce Spence, the characters are different. He is the Gyro Captain in Road Warrior and Jedediah the Pilot in Thunderdome. While it is true that he plays the only person who operates machines that fly in each of these films, this very fact is proof that George Miller is tinkering with the formula. I am reminded of Umberto Eco’s essay about “The Narrative Structure in Fleming,” in which he describes the consistent component parts of a narrative in the James Bond novels. Eco explains that “in Casino Royale there are already all the elements for the building of a machine that would function basically as a unit along very simple, straight lines, conforming to the strict rules of combination” (244). The success of this narrative device comes in shifting these combinations in service of the larger plot: “It is not imperative that the moves always be in the same sequence … often there are inversions and variations” (255). Of course, Miller doesn’t stick to fixed combinations in his movies either. For example, the flying pilot only appears in two of the films. Furthermore, the warrior woman (the general subject of this series of posts) doesn’t even start to appear until the second film. Also, the male death cult, which is a key element in Fury Road, isn’t seen until the second half of the series. It has been reported that similar to George Lucas, George Miller consulted with Joseph Campbell in regard to this film series. But unlike Lucas, whose Star Wars trilogy follows the steps of the mythic hero’s journey, George Miller is up to something different. Specifically, he is charting a new trajectory with familiar forms; he is deliberately attempting to make new myths. Roland Barthes’ Mythologies sheds light on this operation: “Mythical speech is made of a material which has already been worked on so as to make it suitable for communication: it is because all the materials of myth … presuppose a signifying consciousness, that one can reason about them while discounting their substance” (2). There is nothing inherently new about a death cult, or a woman warrior, or even a pilot. What matters is how Miller experiments with them. Of course, regardless of how well or how deliberately constructed, a myth only works as a myth when culturally appropriated. Analyzing Miller is only part of this operation. Cultural reception will prove to be just as important.
JAMES: I think you are right that looking at the Mad Max series through the lens of myth offers some useful insights. My first thought here goes back to how each of the films works according to repeating narrative devices, as you’ve pointed out. Roughly speaking, the plot of the last two films of the original trilogy—The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome—follows the same narrative:
Max, our (anti) hero encounters an obstacle to his neutral, solitary existence in the form of two opposing societies (sometimes based on biological family affiliation): one good, one bad (Pappagallo’s group vs. Humungus and company in The Road Warrior, the cargo cult vs. the rulers of Bartertown in Beyond Thunderdome).
Max agrees to aid the side of good in exchange for a return to his neutral way of life.
Max’s loyalty to his own survival above all others is tested in the form of a child (the feral child in The Road Warrior; the girl child who runs away from the cargo cult and the developmentally disabled and child-like Blaster, whom he spares in Beyond Thunderdome).
Max saves the child and returns to his old way of life.
These standard plot points and the archetypes that come to fill each role in subsequent films (the anti-hero, the good, the bad, the child) have much to tell us about how all four films function as a myth.
The first film in the series (Mad Max) can be understood as setting up the conditions of possibility for Max’s alienation from society (even ad hoc post-apocalyptic ones) and his psychological struggle to remain neutral and solitary when the life of a child is at stake. The first film, after all, is where Max, a mild-mannered police officer, loses his wife and young son to the biker gang that he and his fellow police officers failed to stop. The loss comes precisely at the moment when the film allows Max to enjoy a scene of domestic bliss (on holiday in the country with his family). From this point on, Max becomes a new man. He ditches both the police uniform and his Dad clothes for the leather and metal getup that will keep him intact as he goes on an obsessive streak of vengeance against the offending biker gang.
Thus, the destruction of Max’s nuclear family by an anti-social (and queer-coded) biker gang/family quite literally defines his character and serves as the driving force for the rest of the films. Each time, as if suffering from repetition compulsion, he will be drawn into the same good-versus-bad family struggle, at the center of which is a child—a stand-in for the dead son he could not protect. Furthermore, what was just rough country in Mad Max becomes a full-blown apocalypse in the second installment, The Road Warrior, which opens with the voiceover: “All that remains are memories…” Max’s (suppressed) memories of his wife and son and of his failure to keep them safe are put on par with the memories of a lost humanity. In this new world, “man began to feed on man,” and it is “only… in this blighted place that [Max] learned to live again,” this time as a “scavenger.”
So, what I want to explore as we move into the discussion of the fourth film is this question: Who fulfills each of the archetypal roles and more specifically, how are these roles gendered and sexualized? Who, in short, is the hero, the good, the bad, and—of most interest to me—the child? Finally, what do these films taken together as a complete myth have to tell us about the competing models of family and society they represent and the archetypes of which such families consist?
Mad Max (1979): The very queer biker gang arrives on the scene to engage in egalitarial sexual assault, roughhouse, and stir up some outback mayhem in memory of their fallen compatriot, Nightrider.
Mad Max (1979): Toecutter, the head of the biker gang, seeks solitude to mourn and take posession of Nightrider's casket.
Mad Max (1979): Toecutter keeps his troops in line with a not-so-subtle conflation of the threat of sexual assault and a good ole' fashioned shotgun in the mouth.
ROBERT: Miller toys with two themes in particular in the first three films, themes that will prove to be critical in the fourth. One, the theme of sexual assault, I will discuss a little later in this conversation. You already raised the other. Namely, the queerness of the biker gang in the first Mad Max is unmistakable. Toecutter, the head biker, arrives on the scene to avenge his lost compadre, Nightrider. Toecutter’s lamentations are not only excessive, they belie an obsessive desire. His destructive tendencies are fueled by this obsession. As such, Toecutter is the embodiment of a certain type of fictional character that Lee Edelman terms the sinthomosexual—an elaboration of Jacques Lacan’s Le Sinthome, the embodiment of the Death Drive that obliterates the symbolic order: “Though it functions as the necessary condition for the subject’s engagement of Symbolic reality, the sinthome refuses the Symbolic logic that determines the exchange of signifiers; it admits no translation of its singularity and therefore carries nothing of meaning, recalling in this the letter as the site at which meaning comes undone” (Edelman 35). The key concept opposed by the sinthomosexual is reproductive futurity, which “impose[s] an ideological limit on political discourse as such, preserving in the process the absolute privilege of heteronormativity by rendering unthinkable, by casting outside the political domain, the possibility of a queer resistance to this organizing principle of communal relations” (Edelman 2). When Toecutter mows down Max’s wife and infant son on his bike, it isn’t just a plot device, it is symbolic (or, rather, anti-Symbolic).
The sinthomosexual is, of course, representational. Screaming “fuck it” while riding the doomsday weapon down to the end of the world won’t cut it as a functional paradigm. However, when Miller modulated the queer biker villain for the second film, The Road Warrior, this muddling of morality allowed for a bent kind of anti-hero to appear on the screen. Though I don’t want to wander too far into the realm of the personal, I won’t forget the first time I observed Wez, a lieutenant of the primary villain in The Road Warrior, ride onto the screen with a catamite chained to the back seat of his motorcycle. The boy toy seemed content; he was a willing participant in this relationship. Wez is also the kinetic enemy of Max, the physical challenge to the hero battling to save the heteronormative community, the guardians of reproductive futurity. In the end, as Wez rides the front of the tanker truck to oblivion, he was at least worthy of his end. He was precisely the anti-Symbolic anti-hero that I didn’t know a very adolescent, very sad, and very lonely version of myself needed to see. Queer villainy persists as a component part of Thunderdome, though it is less significant as a plot device. However, Miller further experiments in merging queer villainy with the death drive to create the death cult in Fury Road.
Mad Max (1979): Toecutter's grief stricken misery threatenes just about every innocent bystander.
The Road Warrior (1981): Wez, the post-apocalyptic sinthomosexual, rides the front of the tanker truck to oblivion.
Thunderdome (1985): The sinthomosexual henchman pinned to the front of the last train out of Bartertown.
Moreover, I think that perhaps one of the most important elements of these films is the most problematic to discuss. Specifically, rape is integral to George Miller’s vision of the apocalypse. Indeed, as the first post in this series indicates, it is the driving mechanism for Fury Road. For my money, the very worst use of rape is in The Road Warrior, the film recognized by so many as being the best of the first three films (and possibly even all four). In this film, rape is used as a humanizing trope for the character of the Gyro Captain, who witnesses the event through binoculars. His facial expressions indicate that the Gyro Captain is, in fact, one of the good guys. The audience is also given a reprieve in this moment as the actual images of the scene are cropped to suggest that we are peering through those magnifying lenses as well, thus giving us some distance from situation. Interestingly, this is also the same film that introduces the amazing Warrior Woman (a woman of such innate strength that they couldn’t apparently come up with a name for her), who battles the villains atop the tanker truck during what is widely acknowledged—even by non-Mad Max fans—as one of the greatest car chase scenes in history.
That being said, rape is not an overt theme in Thunderdome, though it is certainly a menacing implication that permeates this somewhat ham-handed critique of 1980s capitalism. There is one scene where another queer-encoded villain--the one who will wind up on the front of the train--intimidates his conquered foe with a slow kiss on the cheek. This scene stands in stark contrast to the iconic performance of Tina Turner, whose Aunty Entity gestures to the promise (and limitations) of second wave feminism. Turner’s character, donning a chain-mail gown, is the natural descendent of The Road Warrior’s Warrior Woman and prefigures Imperator Furiosa.
Road Warrior (1981): ...known only as "Warrior Woman."
Ironically, the most egalitarian depiction of sexual assault is found in the original Mad Max, during which a young couple are dragged from their vehicle after being forced off the road by the biker gang. Both the young man and woman are dragged from opposite sides of the vehicle. We therefore assume they will meet a similar fate. Later, before the police find the woman cowering at the scene, they come across the young man, now pantless, and fleeing the scene. Jaime, I think you will remember that I mentioned the first time I saw Mad Max was on commercial (therefore edited) television. In that version, the scene that indicated the rape of the male had been cut. Apparently, American mainstream television audiences of the 1980s were only entertained by the sexual assault of women; the sanctity of the male body needed to be preserved. (I doubt much has changed.) What I do think is interesting, and really quite important, is the role that male rape, or the implication of male rape, plays—even if heavily encoded—in not only the first three films but also in Fury Road.
Mad Max (1979): A young man and woman are dragged from their demolished vehicle.
Mad Max (1979): The young man is later seen fleeing across a field.
Mad Max (1979): The young woman is discovered bound and in the vehicle.
JAMES: The issue of reproductive futurity is at the very heart of the Mad Max myth. As you point out, the killing of Max’s wife and son is indeed an “anti-Symbolic” device. In fact, it is the catalyst for the action in all four films, operating (especially in Fury Road) as a traumatic event to which Max compulsively returns. I’ll have more to say about the repetition of trauma as a structuring element of Max’s psyche and of the narrative in our next post. But for now, let me switch gears and think about how this initial trauma opens up the possibility of alternative communal relations.
With the apocalypse comes a need for affiliation—a need driven by survival. The establishment of community takes several forms in the trilogy: queer biker cult, the (partially) biological family-based community of Pappagallo, the cargo cult band of children. In each of the films, the queer biker cult is both a community itself and a threat to all of the other represented kinship units. Max is the converse of the biker cult, insofar as he distances himself from community affiliation, except for temporary and strategic purposes, and because his role is always that of savior and stabilizer of those threatened communities. So, if the biker cult represents an anti-Symbolic, death-driven foil to reproductive futurity, Max functions as both the protector of that futurity, as you’ve pointed out, and also as something else. Max has an uncomfortable and complex relationship to the concept of community in general, whether or not that community is based on blood ties, love, survival, or the protection of private property.
Max’s ambivalent stance toward community is clear when, in one of the trilogy’s strangest moments, he encounters a group of children who have been living in isolation for several years following a plane crash (Beyond Thunderdome). The children find Max after he has collapsed in the desert, and promptly drag his unconscious body back to their compound and tie him up. We learn that the surviving adults had left the children in search of help but died in the attempt. Upon waking, Max hears their story and it becomes clear that the children have mistaken him for the lost captain of the airplane, whom they have exalted to god-like status and whom they believe will one day return to take them to a utopia, “Tomorrow-morrow land.” Max quickly disabuses them of this notion, telling them: “You gotta understand that this is home and there’s no Tomorrowland.” And when the group’s young matriarch-in-training, Savannah Nix, announces her intention to go off in search of utopia, Max does something quite out of character: Max, the lone wolf exemplar and protector of children, punches the girl in the face to stop her from going it alone. Max refuses to be their god, but he will be their patriarch in this instance by violently punishing the girl for, as he sees it, her own good. Savannah eventually escapes, which leads Max to go after her (again for her own good), in the process losing yet another child. At the end of the film, Max sends Savannah and the other children off with the gyro captain, who takes them to the ruins of Sydney to begin a new life. The closing scene shows Savannah, now older and holding a baby, telling the “tell” of how they were saved by Max and how they might yet prosper. Yet again, it would seem, Max has made the world safe for reproductive futurity.
Thunderdome (1985): Savannah Nix tell the "tell" about "Tomorrow-morrow Land."
Lest we read this final image as hopeful, however, we have to remember that what was saved here was reproduction only, and not exactly futurity. The sign that hangs over Bartertown reading “A Better Tomorrow” can be viewed as an analogue to the children’s belief in Tomorrow-morrow land (the extra “morrow” perhaps indicating something even “better” lying beyond). Just as Bartertown is clearly not the way to a better society, little has changed for the raggedy group of plane crash survivors except that they are older. They still sit around telling tales about the better life that will exist in the future. As for Max, he has wandered off somewhere alone, as per usual. Couple this closing image with the soundtrack to the end credits (Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero”) and what you have is not so much a happy ending pointing toward utopia, but rather proof positive of what Max had earlier tried to convince the children: “this is home,” and your options are simply to live in it (as Max does) or to die in it (as the biker cult does).
Thunderdome (1985): "Helping Build A Better Tomorrow" - The utopian promise of slave labor.
Neither Max nor the biker cult, then, offers much in the way of a promise for the future. Rather, both are emblematic of the films themselves, which, as you, Robert, point out, never arrive anywhere new, but rather repeat the same basic narrative over again. Does the same hold true for Fury Road? My hunch is that it does, but within a new framework for understanding the politics of the post-apocalyptic world and Max’s place within it. The economic backdrop of the first three films moves from consumer culture and the protection of private property from internal threats (Pappagallo versus Humungus) to global capital and sweat shops (the multi-lingual market space of Bartertown and Master’s slave labor). The backdrop of Fury Road, as I’ll explain next time, is biopolitics. My question: does this new organizational framework account for Max’s much different role in the film, especially in relation to the central female character (and according to some) the real star of the series’ final installment, Furiosa?
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.
Edo, Umberto. "The Narrative Structure in Fleming." Popular Culture: Past and Present. Eds. Bernard Waites, Tony Bennett, and Graham Martin. London: The Open UP, 1981. Print.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleausure Principle. (1920). Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.
Mad Max. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Byrne. MGM, 1979. DVD.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Virginia Hey, Vernon Wells. Warner Home Video, 1981. DVD
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Tina Turner, Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence. Warner Home Video, 1985. DVD.