Fury Road as Feminism or Strong Female Characters ™

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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.

https://twitter.com/RoriComics/status/601254192762650624

by @roricomics

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.

Strong Female Characters from Hark, A Vagrant! http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

“Strong Female” caricatures, aka filtered through male fantasies of female empowerment. SRC: Hark, A Vagrant!

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.

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9 Comments

  1. How I feel about it: Mad Max: Fury Road had feminist (and other) themes, not enough PoC, and explosions, fire and violence. These don’t cancel each other out. They never do. They exist together, helpful, hurtful and neutral. This is the problem with deifying/demonizing art. Art is complex. Art is so complex artists don’t even know everything it’s about until it’s out in the world. In my view critique should help us unpack art, challenge us to question/think about it more, foster more critical thought, not set itself up as a hammer damned and determine to find a nail.

    I’m not on board with checklist critique and prescribing something “bad” or “good” based upon reducing it to it’s political utility. I feel this does not help in demanding more out of media in general, which I am so very on board with. This is my problem with a lot of Sarkeesian’s critiques (though I’ve never felt the need to threaten her, novel!)

    Also, focusing on the other themes to try and say “hey, not feministy, not really” is very sketchy.

    I could write so much more about this! Thanks for the article 🙂 Love this site, as always.

    • I have issue with Sarkeesian’s criticisms as well as she seems to hyper-focus on certain elements in this case that are perhaps relevant to her perception. That is all well and good for her Tropes vs Women where she is specifically targeting certain tropes, but I feel it is harmful in this case to completely write off this movie as NOT feminist. I don’t believe that feminists had suddenly decided to stop fighting the fight because Mad Max was the symbol of our perfect success, but it is a step in the right direction and should be credited for that, rather than completely discredited.

      Love your art!

      • Yes! It’s not perfect, but it’s a good step in that it shows what can be done if a creator is simply open to the type of critiques feminists have been making and willing to put in the time & effort to not fall into those old tropes and even challenge them AND to make a good movie while doing that. It can be said, look, this movie did many good things, with a minimum of dialog, in 2 hours, plus explosions; what is your excuse (esp. looking at you, tv series!)?

        To the second part of your comment, there seems a weird fear, when something is satisfying that, oh crap! people are gonna forget and move on when the work is not done yet! I don’t know where it comes from, sometimes I feel it too. :/

        And thank you ^_^

  2. First, as much as I love Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency, and Tropes vs Women, I have disagreed with her a lot. In a lot of her older videos, she did hold Buffy (and Joss Whedon) up as some feminist ideal which I think just perpetuates this idea of white feminism. I wonder, if Mad Max had been written by someone she deems an appropriate feminist writer, her review would be different? It is hard to say. I do like her, her work, but I don’t see how she can condemn the violence in this work and yet let it skate by in other things she’s reviewed. The violence in Mad Max is VIOLENT but it is important to note it’s not gendered violence. Like I don’t think the violence in the film was seen as fun in any way, shape, or form. I think it was incredibly tragic. And I think she really needs to read more on the male gaze in film making. I know she has discussed it before in her Tropes vs Women series but come on. To say the camera caressed the wives? WHAT? The only nudity in the film wasn’t even titillating or in any way pandering to the male gaze.

    Second, I can’t believe none of the feminist reviews I have read have discussed this. This movie has TWO leads with disabilities. Furiosa’s is right there, visible, and yet no mention is made of it. She isn’t serving as some inspirational piece for the others. And then there is Max, who clearly has PTSD to the point where he is almost non-functional. And again, he isn’t serving as an inspiration piece. They are both heroes, they are both disabled, invisible and visible. I can’t recall a single action myself (there might be some out there) where there was ONE disabled protagonist, let alone TWO. Why is no one acknowledging the feminism of that?

    Naturally, I think we needed WAY more WOC especially considering the messages and themes of the film, I felt. Here you have literally the whitest man on earth with his white progeny, who are steeped in toxic masculinity, misogyny, and violence. Like it would have been so amazing to have the WOC band together and defeat this white heteropatriarchy.

    • Awesome points. Team FemFreq may be off the mark on this one, and they have definitely said/liked problematic people and touted them as Feminists.
      I totally love what you said about Furiosa and Max not being inspirations pieces, and 100% agree. (I didn’t mention it here because -SPOILER ALERT- another writer is working on a piece about MM and disability AS WE SPEAK!)
      Thanks for posting your thoughts on this, they are bang on.

  3. Sarah Horrocks on

    I have a hard time seeing a film that is so explicitly about women overthrowing the patriarchy that it writes its themes on the wall in the opening act, not a feminist film. It’s not a perfect film, but it is an all-time great film, which does things that we have NEVER seen with women in this genre at this scale of pop culture. There are definitely still flaws, and I think specifically in terms of how the film treats race–though even on that front, I’ve read some excellent pieces talking about the three WOC in the principle cast, and what their representation meant to people. My issue on that front mostly had to do with the white supremicism at play in some of the iconography of the people at the Citidel, and how that could easily be used to encourage others to that viewpoint. The painted white skinheads of the citedel spouting romantic viking mythos as they pull off epic stunt after epic stunt, isn’t exactly condemning that stuff. You could absolutely cut the film together as a Neo-Nazi recruitment film, and I’m sure it will be done.

    But I think these complications of the film are good and I like that it is both incredibly progressive in some ways, and then problematic in others. That it would be a feminist film but also be really awkward with race, mirrors those same problems in white feminism outside of the film. So it’s not an unimportant discussion to have, and I think we should be able to discuss them even as we applaud the things that work in the film. Because we’ll probably never see anything like it for another 20 years. These things seem to go in cycles. Alien. Terminator 2. Now Mad Max: Fury Road.

    • Claire Napier on

      Mm. Discussing it immediately afterwards, I wasn’t into making any proclamations about whether or not it “was feminist”

      BUT, I was definitely up for fiercely enjoying how it wasn’t a step back from Terminator 2.

  4. Another piece of damning evidence against claims of this film being a “feminist masterpiece” is the ever present “mother must die” trope that has become all too familiar in nearly all forms of pop culture. As much as I adore this film (let’s face it, it’s gorgeous) I could have done without the traumatic death of Splendid and the downright horrible scene of a man forcibly ripping open her body to disrespectfully handle her unborn child like a piece of meat. This scene, though not overly graphic based on what we see on the screen, was upsetting, and in no way subverted the misogyny present in the film. As soon as I noticed that she was pregnant, I knew she was doomed. All mothers must die, and their deaths serve as catalysts for further action in a plot. Splendid was, it would seem, a thing after all. That being said, this film is a step in the right direction concerning depictions of women in action films. Though it has its flaws, like any film, I appreciate what Miller has done.

    • Splendid actually did die horribly, yes, but another one of the women, during a discussion with one of the older women, revealed that she was going to be a mother. She says “He’s probably gonna be so ugly”, to which the old woman replies “Who says it’s gonna be a he?”
      Afterwards, she shows her her seed collection. When the old woman dies, the young mother-to-be becomes the caretaker of the seeds, so she is literally AND figuratively the embodiment of potential motherhood for all involved.
      Side note: women are usually called ‘girls’ in movies. No one mentions the fact that all the men in Fury Road who are part of one army/faction or another are called “boys”…WARBOYS.
      [Edited to remove some quite sniffy criticism of Anita Sarkeesian, which you can find anywhere, but not here.]