As most of you have probably noticed, a little film called Mad Max: Fury Road was recently released in cinemas. The adrenaline fueled film has been met with almost unanimous praise by both critics and audience. The incredible action, the fantastic stunts, and the performances of the cast have been lauded by fans. However, not everyone is happy about the long-awaited continuation of Max’s journey through the Wasteland. The issue some people call out is the presentation of the female characters in the film. In the lead up to the film’s release Men’s Rights Activist groups called for their fellow men to boycott the film. They believed that Fury Road was an action film that would trick men into giving in to feminist propaganda. While the outcries of the MRA are perhaps the most extreme in this debate, they are not alone in taking issue with the representation of genders in the film. Some feminists argue that the women are being portrayed as masculine and violent. This portrayal shows women acting like men, and is therefore not feminist because they lose a lot of their feminine nature. As I watched the film, the thought of a feminist storyline struck me too. At first glance, the film does seem to be about a group of women rebelling against a male dominated society. The men are mad monsters and it’s up to the suppressed women to make a better society. But as I continued watching I realized that the film was about something else entirely. It was about something much more important: equality, and what men and women are capable of if we stand together as a unified force.
Spoilers from here on out.
We Are Not Things
Ignore the genitals of the characters for a moment and focus on their established backgrounds. The personal journeys they go through before banding together against the dictator Immortan Joe.
Max Rockatansky is the titular character of the film. In the very first minutes of the film he established himself as a survivor living on a day-to-day basis. He has lost everyone that he cared about, and as a result he has been reduced to nothing more than an embodiment of the will to live. He is not living for a goal, and ambition, or a person. All he has is his freedom and the will to survive. However, his freedom is taken from him as he is violently kidnapped by a band of War Boys, Immortan Joe’s personal brainwashed army. In their captivity Max is bound and caged. As kettle he is branded as Joe’s property. His back is permanently marked with information about his body and blood type, like the description of contents you can find on most wares in a grocery store. Like an animal in captivity he is forced to wear a steel muzzle. The War Boys have not only robbed him of his freedom, they are also taking away his worth as a human being. To them he is an object they own. He is their living blood-bag that they can put needles into in order to refill their own supplies as they see fit. Max has no control over his own body. It is used as a tool, ready to be discarded if he is no longer needed. This is further illustrated as he is later placed on the hood of a car like an ornament. He is still only there so that the War Boys can drain his blood as they are driving. With no regard to his safety he is bound with chains at the front of a car that races at high speed while bullets and projectiles are fired around him. If he dies, it is of no consequence. There are more blood-bags where he came from anyway.
The situation is very similar for the wives of Immortan Joe. The five women are being held in captivity in Joe’s Citadel. They exist only as objects of pleasure for Joe. They are there for him to have sex with and to be forced to give birth to his children. The clothes they wear are made to show off their bodies. They wear fanged chastity belts that are branded with his mark, illustrating that they are his private property and that no other person may touch them. Like Max, their freedom to control what happens to their bodies is taken away. Their worth as human beings is being stripped away as they are treated as objects.
Am I saying that being systematically raped and impregnated by a captor is the same as having your blood tapped from your veins against your will? No. Rape is one of the most horrifying and degrading crimes one can commit against another person, regardless of gender. What I am getting at is the similarities that are present in their situation as captives. The lack of freedom, the inability to control what happens to their bodies, the repressing of their sense of worth as they are viewed and treated as nothing more than objects.
The situation is slightly different for Furiosa, the female lead of the film. Her life resembles that of the War Boys more than it resembles Max and the wives’. As a young child Furiosa and her mother were kidnapped by Joe. While her mother died a few days later, Furiosa grew up to become a part of Joe’s hierarchy. She and the War Boys are the worker ants in his ant hill. It is their job to drive out in the vast desert to collect supplies that will support The Citadel. While Furiosa has the higher rank during these missions, she and the War Boys are all parts of the same toolbox. They are the instruments that are used to keep The Citadel running, while Immortan Joe sits back in his home and reaps all the benefits.
The War Boys have all been raised to see Joe as a sort of deity. Serving him and worshiping him is the meaning of their lives. Dying in his service is the greatest of honors and will earn them eternal life in Valhalla. Furiosa does not submit into this religion, probably because she knows of other and better ways of life. That is the defining difference between her and the Boys: she longs for the freedom that was taken from her while the War Boys accept their slavery because they don’t realize that they are enslaved. Furiosa plays along with Immortan Joe’s system to survive. She is a survivor like Max.
The main struggle, then, is not a battle of genders. It is not strong and pure women taking down the evil and power-mad man. It is a battle of people trying to win back their freedom and humanity from systematic oppression. The fact that Joe is male is not the point. The fact the Furiosa is female in not the point. The fight for human equality is.
Different Strengths, Different Weaknesses
One of the critiques that the film has received from its male audience is that Max is not being ‘bad-ass’ enough. I imagine that people who think that there are people who were hoping for a film that stayed true to the 80s and early 90s actions films. The protagonists in those films were overly masculine men who could accomplish almost any feat. They take a large amount of physical injury while still being able to save the day (and in most cases, the girl). While it is true that Max is a toned down character compared to his stereotypical counterparts, it is perhaps even more noticeable because of the equal amount of ‘bad-assery’ present in Furiosa. None of these characters have the characteristics of the immortal action heroes of the 80s, yet they are strong enough to beat impossible odds. This is because the individuals of the rebel group all have different strengths that they bring to the fight. Together they are stronger.
The team of runaways is an interesting mix. Max the kidnapped wanderer, Furiosa the rebel imperator, the enslaved wives, and Nux the War Boy. Because of the different lives they have lead, and the experiences they have, they each have different strength and weaknesses. None of them is the larger-than-life action hero that is more or less flawless in terms of skills. Throughout the film, the characters learn to trust each other and they learn from each other. They cover for each other’s weaknesses with their own strengths. When they learn to respect each other and see each other as an equal person, they become a stronger team.
There is one scene that stood out to me that I feel really illustrates this. It is perhaps my favorite scene in the whole film. In the scene, the crew has managed to escape the onslaught of Immortan Joe. However, they know they are being pursued. As day turns to night, their vehicle gets stuck in the moist sand. It is a battle against time as they desperately try to free the War Rig before their pursuers can find them. Nux devises a plan that can help them pull the car from the mud. Max quietly gives him a chain needed to execute the idea – the very chain that Nux had previously used to bind Max. The tool that was used for oppression is now used as an object that will help save their lives. It is a subtle but very powerful illustration of how the relationship has developed between these two characters. The bond between them is no longer that of violence and oppression, but of mutual respect. And by working together as equals, their chances of survival greatly increases.
Soon after, Max tries to fight off a pursuing scouting car. Nux and the wives are working together free the War Rig. As Max tries to shoot at the vehicle in the distance with a rifle, he is reminded by one of the wives (who has taken on the role of a Quartermaster of sorts) that he only has two shots left. He takes careful aim, but still misses. On the final bullet, Furiosa positions herself behind him. It is clear that she wants to take a shot, but she never expresses it in words. She never talks down to him or undermines his skills. Frustrated, Max gives her the rifle. She takes aim, fires, and serves a crippling shot to the scouting car. Her skills with the rifle surpasses that of Max, and some critics have taken issue with that. However, they fail to recognize what happens next.
As Furiosa returns to help with getting the War Rig running, Max decides to attack the scouting car head on. He wanders off, and a few minutes later a big explosion is seen in the distance. Max returns, covered in the blood of his enemies and with a large bag full of weapons and ammunition. It is perhaps the most ‘bad-ass’ thing that happens in the film, yet the critics don’t recognize it because it happened off-screen. Max singlehandedly destroyed a moving and armed vehicle and he came back with no more physical injuries than a layer of sweat. Still, the only thing some critics see is that Furiosa was the better shooter, which they deem to be ‘stupid’.
Now look at the scene in the context of gender representation. Some might say that it states that the woman is stronger than the man because of the sniper scene. I argue that if you look at Max’s actions after, it paints a whole different picture. The two different genders bring two different strengths to the fight, and only together were they able to succeed. Furiosa brings a feminine elegance and patience. With it, she uses her incredible skill with the rifle to destroy the lights on the pursuing vehicle. The car is driving blind (almost literally as one of the characters on the car is blinded by the exploding glass). Max follows up by taking advantage of the opening that Furiosa has given him. His actions are predominantly masculine as he charges towards them and manages to take down both the car and the drivers in it. The beauty of this scene is that the male and the female accomplished something together that they would not have been able to if they were alone. Max would almost certainly not have been able to hit the car with his last bullet. Without the lights off, he would then most likely not have been able to take the vehicle by surprise. Similarly, while Furiosa could hit the lights with her rifle, she could most likely not have followed up by completely destroying the car in the way that Max did. Their experiences in life have given them different skills, and they inhabit different qualities because of their gender. Had they been alone, they could very likely have ended up defeated, but together they were able to escape with their lives.
Learning From Each Other
As I briefly mentioned in the introduction, some feminists have argued that Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist film because it glorifies male violence. Women part-take in this violence as equals, but it undermines feminism as they are still playing by the men’s (violent) rules. The debate was started by Anita Sarkeesian via her twitter account, Feminist Frequency. While I do understand where her theory and opinion comes from, I respectfully disagree that the issue is not as black and white as she sees it. While the male aggression and violence affects the women and spurs them into action, the female tenderness and hope also affects the men.
The Wasteland in Mad Max is a harsh place. It is dominated by people who find their own ways of building new societies in desperate attempts to survive. These societies clash on occasion, and the result seems to always be some level of violence. Does that mean that the world is predominantly male? I don’t think so. The instinct of resorting to violence when threatened is present is every living being. Animals fight to their death to protect themselves, their children, or their flock. Humans also often resort to violence when pushed into a corner. There is a big difference between committing violent acts for fun or to attempt to control other human beings. While these heinous acts are true for Immortan Joe, they are not for our band of rebellious heroes.
Max, Furiosa, and the others are trying to escape from The Citadel and Joe. If there was a way for them to run away and avoid any confrontation I’m sure that they would have chosen that route. But as Joe closes in with intent to kill, they have no choice but to fight back as best as they can if they have any hope of surviving. Joe’s wives show the necessity of this development. They start out as frightened victims, but during the course of the film they find their bravery. While they start off as people who hide away from the violence, they soon start to partake as best as they can. This does not mean that they develop from female to male characters in terms of their actions. In one incredible and powerful scene, the pregnant Splendid Angharad uses her own body as a shield. As Joe is closing in on a kill-shot on the characters in the War Rig, Splendid climbs out of the moving car to obscure his view. She shows no sign of fear as she stares down her oppressor. She has taken control of her body and uses it to protect her unborn child and her friends. There is no violence in this action, yet it is a powerful way of showing her growth as a character. She knows she will have to part-take in the battle to increase their chances of surviving.
Later, the group meets the Vuvalini, a band of female survivors. They had a society based on motherhood and care-taking, but it fell apart as the earth died and became impossible to fertilize. These women have also been driven to violence as a last means of surviving. They are open about the fact that they have killed many people in order to get supplies. While they long of the peace they once had, they are now driven by survival instinct in the same way that Furiosa is. The very last resort is to kill, unless they want to just lie down and die. If we go along with the notion that violence is a masculine trait, then we can see how these women have been influenced by men. They have had no choice but to be a part of the violence that is running rampant across the Wasteland. The choice is to embrace this male trait, or to significantly reduce the chance of keeping their lives and their freedom. However, that doesn’t mean what their actions are predominantly male as their instinct to survive is a human trait we all have.
On the other hand, the dreams of peace, motherhood, and a better society seem to be feminine traits. These traits are very clear in the female characters. They dream of a society of compassion. It might be an impossible dream in the word of Mad Max, but it is still a better tomorrow to hope for. Their drive for this ambition clearly affects the male characters. It is perhaps most visible in the character development of Nux. He starts off as a loud and violent character. His life is connected to violence on a daily basis. He kidnaps people, fights the Biker Gangs, and hopes that he one day will die a violent death in service to Immorten Joe so that he can be granted eternal life in Valhalla. After failing an assault and humiliating himself in from of Joe, he breaks down and loses his will to fight. Despite having tried to kill the rebels, they decide to show him mercy and let him travel with them. Their act of compassion and acceptance changes Nux. He bonds with the characters and sees the world from a new perspective. He starts to show compassion and tenderness towards others, and starts to hope for a life away from Joe. This development shows a feminine way of winning the battle. Instead of defeating Nux with violence, he is being cared for and shown a different way of life. While he does resort to violence again, it is now under different terms and for other reasons. He wants to protect the people he has grown to care about. Again, it is a will to survive that drives him, not a desire for violence.
If you want to run with the argument that men bring the aggression and violence, and women bring the compassion and wish for peace, we can once again see that the different genders strengthen each other. The violent characters learn about compassion and the hopes of starting a new society. The helpless characters grow strong and learn how to fight for survival. Together they find common goals and hopes to fight for, and together they find the strength and will to make that dream come true. Together the male and female can achieve the impossible.
After my examination of the roles of the genders in Mad Max: Fury Road I am more excited about this film than ever (and I was pretty damn excited from the moment I saw it). It is a film that clearly speaks of the importance and strengths of treating male and female individuals equally. In terms of gender equality in action films, this might be one of the most important actions films that have been released. My hope is that one day we will live in a society where a great film like Fury Road can be made without so much controversy. That men and women can stand as equals, both in film and in our society, and it will be as natural for us as breathing air. There is no denying that men and women are different. We have different strengths and weaknesses. But together we are stronger and can accomplish great things.