Fury Road as Feminism or Strong Female Characters ™
If you are financially and physically capable of going to the movies and have chosen not to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I can imagine some legitimate reasons. I know that the excessive violence and subplot of sexual slavery promised in the trailer has left some concerned that the content could be triggering – and justifiably so.
What isn’t a legit reason to avoid the film is the fear of accidentally enjoying an evil feminist movie masquerading as a REAL MAN™ fare. Unless you missed it, a couple weeks ago some denizens of the Manosphere decided that because there was too much Charlize Theron in the promotional material, the film was a feminist Trojan horse, capable of seducing hapless Betas into thinking equal rights for women was a pretty neat idea because of all the explosions and pretty ladies escaping the clutches of a patriarchal baddie.
For many, Aaron Clarey’s cry to boycott the film was a knee-slapper, but he was right about one thing: Fury Road is a feminist film.
Over at Time.com Eliana Dockterman interviewed Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler, who acted as a consultant for the film, discussing sexual slavery with the actresses playing Immortan Joe’s “Wives.” Ensler remarks, “I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film.” She adds that to her one of the main conflicts depicted is “the rising feminine rebellion against the patriarchy.” What could be more feminist than that?
And for a while, it seemed like there was a general consensus that this could be a real feminist action film. Badass women, kicking butts and taking no guff–not even from the titular character. Critic after critic has remarked that the film should probably have been called Mad Max: Furiosa, or something similar, because of how prominently Charlize Theron’s character is featured. Max narrates, Max helps out, but Furiosa is captain of this ship, and that ship is called the S.S. Die Now, Patriarchal Scum.
But since the release there has been a rising commentary from notable feminist critics that, though there are a lot of great things about Mad Max, including the well-written female characters, it’s not a feminist movie.
Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency creator, and general badass in her own right, surprised a number of her followers when she posted the following:
There is a lot to unpack in that analysis, and when judging a film or a filmmaker’s ethical or sociological intentions, the plot and narrative only make up a portion of that analysis, and the grammar of cinematography can be tricky sometimes. Sarkeesian has the authority and experience to do so, but that doesn’t mean that there will be universal agreement.
Others have pointed out that though there are women in strong, active roles, maybe they resemble Kate Beaton, Carly Monardo, and Meredith Gran’s “Strong Female Characters” more than actual strong, female characters.
Non-diegetic issues have also been raised around the claims of Fury Road as feminist action film: despite the large cast, there are a total of three PoC characters. Stephanie of ComicGirl.co.vu and WittyGirl.co.vu remarks, “One of the most frustrating things about these types of movies and conversations is that there’s ALWAYS these white feminists that want to tell PoC that we have to overlook lack of diversity and basically ‘take one for the team’ (the team being feminism/woman).” If there are only a handful of WoC characters with a fraction of the lines, then that seems a very limited vision of feminism indeed.
Another issue raised is that of Eve Ensler’s participation as consultant and authority on sexual slavery. In her article “Actually, Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist; And It Isn’t That Good, Either,” Eileen Jones quotes Tahira Khalid who quite succinctly sums up the problem with Ensler’s feminist cred and job of speaking to the actors about sexual violence:
“I didn’t truly understand how Eve Ensler could imagine what it might be like to be a Bosnian woman during ethnic cleansing or a woman during the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan. I don’t even know how [she] imagined a vocabulary or a language for these experiences that she hasn’t had.”
Ensler is guilty of doing what a lot of prominent white feminists are guilty of doing: appropriating the experiences, expertise and voices of Women of Colour and profiting from them. By being a consultant on the reality of sexual slavery, she is positioning herself as an expert in something she has never experienced. Arguably, she has a great deal of experience speaking with survivors, but that does not entitle her to speak on their behalf.
What might be the most honest reading of the film is that instead of a genre-film depiction of feminism, what we’re actually seeing is a very vocal criticism of toxic masculinity and male violence. Arthur Chu notes:
“When trying to convince Nux to abandon Joe’s army they shout the slogan to him, “Who Killed the World?” No, Immortan Joe didn’t personally drop the nukes or use up the oil to kill the Old World, but he embodies the spirit that did—the spirit of bad people, mostly bad men, who only knew how to make their mark on the world through conquest and domination.”
At the conclusion of the film, instead of running off to build a “Girlz Only!” feminist utopia, Furiosa, the Vuvalini and the Wives battle to end the cycle of violence, poverty and pain that the “bad men” caused. Separatist feminists argue that the work of feminism is best accomplished by focusing solely on women and girls, but the destruction of Vuvalini clan seems to suggest that in this time and place this view is no longer feasible. Mad Max wanders off into the crowds and Furiosa, the Vulvani, the Wives, and Breeders (women kept pregnant in order to provide milk for Immortan Joe and the elites) throw open the floodgates and elevate the masses.
There is a lot to unpack in this film. Though you may or may not agree with Ensler, Sarkeesian, Jones or anyone’s view of the film (I personally think Jones is wrong about it being not that good–it’s FREAKING AMAZING) what we can all agree on is that it’s a step in the right direction.
Instead of lauding this film for being feminist perfection or a feminist fail, we should be thoughtful and attempt to avoid perpetuating the real “Joss Whedon Effect”: we’re so used to women, PoC, people with disabilities, etc. being written poorly that when someone comes along and does an okay job at it they are praised from atop the highest mountains and detractors are smite fiercely and terribly.
With that in mind, it might be wise to take a step back from a film with strong, well-written female characters and think a bit more critically about what we want from our feminism and our films.
Anyway, you know what most of us probably agree on? Nux. He’s pretty great.