Mad Max: Fury Road (Feminist Flicker’s 100th Column)

On 10th July 2019, the 100th Feminist Flicker column was published on Channillo:

Mad Max: Fury Road

mad-max-fury-road

When Mad Max: Fury Road hit cinema screens in 2015, it caused something of a storm in the realms of pop culture and movie fandom. With the Mad Max franchise being well established as a male-centric, dystopian action series, the prominence of women in its new instalment ruffled a great many feathers among male devotees who have held the character of Max Rockatansky as an icon of cinema, since his first celluloid outing in 1979. Apparently, many were hoping for another story about a traumatised, angry man who has been driven insane by grief, loss, violence and isolation, and is haunted by flashes from his past.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, instead, an expansion of the Mad Max universe, in which Max plays an important part in interacting with some new characters, who are women. But, in truth, this film is neither about Max, nor the women. It’s about the situation in which we find them. It is, specifically, about the structure of patriarchy, and the way it functions – with the giant, socially constructed columns that prop it up: capitalism, control of natural resources, and war.

The film is directed by George Miller, who co-created Mad Max with Byron Kennedy, directed Mad Max and Mad Max 2, and co-directed Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Here, he co-wrote the screenplay with Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris. What sets Mad Max: Fury Road apart from every other male-made dystopian action movie, though, (and what sets it apart from the rest of its franchise) is that this film purposefully tackles feminist topics head-on, in an unflinching and often furious manner. It is important to note that George Miller employed Eve Ensler (writer of The Vagina Monologues) to consult on the project’s feminist themes, and also to work with those playing women characters – to enhance their roles in keeping with those themes.

The result of this purposeful inclusion of a feminist lens is that we have a story told from dual perspectives – Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). The film opens with a gruff and brooding voice-over by Max as the camera creeps up on him, standing on a ridge, overlooking a vast expanse of sand. He is telling us all about his survival, and that his is a “world of fire and blood.” In short order, he is then captured by War Boys, taken to The Citadel, tattooed with care instructions (“keep muzzled”) and his status as a Universal Donor, and turned into a human blood bag. His purpose is to provide blood for a particular War Boy – Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

The War Boys are young men suffering the effects of nuclear fall-out (“they have become half-life”), who have been radicalised by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). This man is the self-installed leader of The Citadel, who has utilised patriarchal strategies to keep himself at the top of the ‘community’ structure. He has seized control of the local water supply, and rations it to the populace. He also oversees the growing of crops, and withholds them from the populace. He has also taken control of reproduction within his residence.

We learn about his ways of using capitalism to oppress those around him as he addresses the gathered masses. His residence – which includes the mechanisms for water control, growing crops, and women held for reproduction – is a great tower of rock that can only be accessed by a carefully guarded elevator platform. The area around the tower is inhabited by starving thousands who also suffer the effects of nuclear fall-out. As Immortan Joe appears on his terrace, he loudly decrees, “I am the redeemer – it is by my hand that you will rise from the ashes of the world!

He allows them a small amount of water, which is pumped from deep underground within the confines of his tower, but as he turns it off and hears cries of anguish, he advises, “Don’t become addicted to water – it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.” Then, in the very next breath, he announces that he is sending ‘his’ Imperator Furiosa, escorted by War Boys, to Gas Town to bring back gallons of oil. Once again the crowds are cheering.

This is central to the story. People in this Mad Max world essentially worship machinery, and are encouraged by Immortan Joe to cherish oil above all else – even life-giving water. This is key to the manufactured reality his character maintains in order to cling to power, and relates directly to the real world, today. Climate change is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced and yet, several countries in the world are currently led by people who publicly deny that this threat even exists. These individuals are devoted capitalists keen to profit personally from the continued use of oil – even to the extent of allowing human rights abuses by oil-rich countries. In other words, we already live in a world where those in power willingly allow the killing and abuse of human beings, for the chance to profit from oil. Oil is cherished above all else, even though it is proven to be destroying the planet that keeps us alive.

But, in Mad Max: Fury Road, Immortan Joe knows that this worship of oil is bad for the populace – that’s why he pumps clean water from underground and keeps control of the mechanism, while also growing tons of crops that he doesn’t share. He keeps these things for himself and those close to him, because he is aware that they are needed for survival – but as long as he can maintain this extreme ‘supply and demand’ social relationship with the general population, he can keep hold of all the power, too. He literally has what they need, and that’s why he stays at the top of the food chain.

This is Furiosa’s perspective, though. We have been introduced to the perspective of Max, with the camera running up behind him on the ridge, followed by his capture and enslavement. Now, as Immortan Joe makes his public address, the camera creeps up behind Furiosa, and we follow the back of her head as she strides to her large, intimidating War Rig. She all but rolls her eyes as she listens to him, before firing up her engines, and leaving The Citadel area. She heads out on the straight, desert route toward an industrial complex on the horizon – Gas Town. Leaders of her War Boys escort call her “Boss,” and listen to her orders. This is clearly a well-practised gas run. But, halfway to her destination, she goes “off road” and heads east. At first, her escort does not question her orders, but as they head into “enemy territory,” their suspicions grow.

Back at The Citadel, look-outs have spotted that Furiosa has diverted her War Rig, and have raised the alarm. Immortan Joe is contacted while in a ‘milking room’ – a large area in which lactating women are strapped to chairs with their breasts attached to pumps. Joe is inspecting the latest batch – monitoring it for quality – and offers a taste to his adult son, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones). When he is told of Furiosa’s potential treachery, he rushes through his residential complex to check on his “treasures”. We see him rush through lush rows of crops, through the water pump mechanism, and up to a vault door. Once he opens it, we realise that this is where he has been keeping his “Wives.”

Unlike the rest of the complex, the vault is filled with literature, comforts, and even a piano. But, there are no Wives – only an elderly Den Mother brandishing a rifle. The phrase ‘We are not things,’ is daubed on the wall, while the floor bears the graffiti, ‘Our babies will not be War Lords.’ Immortan Joe accosts the Den Mother, and asks how she could let Furiosa take them. The Den Mother replies, “They are not your property – she didn’t take them, they begged her to go!

And thus, the stage is set. Furiosa has struck at the very heart of Immortan Joe’s self-serving patriarchal structure, by helping his Wives escape his abuses and oppression – and he sets out to take them back. He mobilises his War Boys, promises them redemption and entrance to the mythical Valhalla if they sacrifice themselves for his cause, and then he takes off across the desert in hot pursuit.

There follows an action sequence in which Furiosa’s situation changes. As she first enters enemy territory – an area held by a rival gang – her War Boys escort is unaware of her treachery, and works to protect her and the Rig. She allows the War Boys and the rival gang to kill each other around her as she remains focused on the road ahead. The men, bent on violence, obliterate each other while she simply continues on her way. As the fighting intensifies, she intervenes only once, to protect her Rig.

But then, the escort party slowly realises what is happening as they catch sight of their fellow War Boys approaching from The Citadel, and they turn on her. Now, they are all focused on stopping her War Rig to prove their loyalty to Immortan Joe. In their discussions of the situation, the War Boys reveal their indoctrinated attitudes:

“She took a lot of stuff from him and he wants it back. Breeders. His prize breeders!”

We now know, in no uncertain terms, what is at stake. The fallacy that has been created to allow for this old, decrepit man to ensure his every need and desire is met – against the will of others – is laid completely bare. The way in which this terrible individual has risen to rarified status by engaging in disaster capitalism is absolutely clear to see. But, it is testament to the calibre of this filmmaking that we are not witnessing ‘torture porn.’ This film does not fall foul of the usual male-made stereotypes of women fleeing oppression.

The stereotypical male-made Hollywood tale of women escaping abuse has a number of elements. The women tend to be either meek damsels-in-distress requiring a male saviour (with whom they inevitably have sex), or they are unsmiling fem-bots bent on revenge. In either case, they are depicted as being defined by their ‘damage’ and in need of a Good Man to convince them that Not All Men are terrible. We are almost always made to sit through their abuse, though – either with glimpses of it in a flashback, or with them recounting it in distressed and affecting fashion.

This is one of the most common tropes of Male Gaze storytelling – laying out the abuse of women for entertainment. Even more insidious than that, though, this narrative trick is usually used to positively enhance the arc of the male heroes. Having women experience or recount their abuse is most often used to allow for the male hero to swoop in with comfort and ‘correction.’ Her abuse has led her to view men in a negative way, and he is there to disprove her theory. So she is both ‘damaged’ and wrong.

Underlying this tedious trick is its context. When it occurs onscreen, it is often in a movie with few women characters – and certainly in movies where women rarely, if ever, get to communicate with each other. In those instances, where the woman character is a Token Woman, the story perpetuates the fallacy that a woman must endure abuse to be of value; that only women who are ‘survivors’ have strength, and are worthy of time and attention. This is perhaps the most dangerous impact of this Male Gaze trope – the messaging that the experience of abuse might actually be beneficial in some way.

But, that’s how indoctrination works – through the media in our current, real society, and through the teachings of Immortan Joe in the world depicted in Mad Max: Fury Road. While this film accurately portrays this social system, however, it entirely avoids the use of that Male Gaze narrative trick. Writers are often told that power in writing comes from ‘show, not tell,’ and it has long seemed that the only scenario exempt from that is the abuse of women in Male Gaze cinema. That’s why it is the women characters of Mad Max: Fury Road that prove the fact that this is a story told through the Feminist Gaze. These women do not tell us about their abuse, and the only glimpse we have of it happening is the women in the milking room. Otherwise, it comes entirely from context clues. George Miller ‘shows’ – he doesn’t tell.

This approach allows for actual characterisation of the women. They are not a monolith, responding to their situation in uniform fashion. They are clearly bonded by their experience, and function as a defensive unit when initially faced with men – but they are also very different personalities, with very different opinions and ambitions.

The Splendid Angharad is heavily pregnant, and known to be Immortan Joe’s “favourite.” The other four revere her, with one recalling that Angharad called bullets “anti-seeds – you plant one, and watch something die.” Toast The Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) is much more comfortable than the others when it comes to handling guns and weapons, and she assumes responsibility for counting ammunition. Capable (Riley Keough) exudes compassion, and takes a more considered approach to situations than the others. It is she that comforts Nux the War Boy when he concedes his failure in impressing Immortan Joe. The Dag (Abbey Lee) is perhaps the most direct of the Wives, always being the first to lean over shout obscenities at the menfolk.

Cheedo The Fragile (Courtney Eaton), on the other hand, is actually keen to return to Immortan Joe at the first sign of problems in their escape. “Maybe he’ll forgive us!” she yells, as she runs back toward the War Boys when it seems that all hope of escape is lost. In the final action sequence, however, we see the change in her character through her actions, as she reaches out to Rictus, begging him to take her back, only to use the opportunity to help Max climb aboard and aid the group’s escape.

Collectively, these Wives do not need to recount their abuse – because we have understood it through context clues, and they are each well aware of it within their group. The only time they are called upon to express their motivations through dialogue is during their first confrontation with Nux. Angharad has persuaded Furiosa not to kill him when he infiltrates the War Rig cabin, but the Wives turn on him when he begins to preach his support of Immortan Joe. Wrestling him half out of the door while the Rig is in motion, they begin to yell at him.

“He’s a lying old man!” yells Angharad.

“By his hand we’ll be lifted up!” protests Nux.

“That’s why we have his logo seared on our backs,” she retorts.

“No, I am awaited!” exclaims Nux, in reference to Immortan Joe’s mythical Valhalla cult.

“You’re an old man’s battle fodder! Killing everyone and everything!” she shouts.

“We’re not to blame!” cries Nux, in defence of men.

“THEN WHO KILLED THE WORLD?!” she demands, before throwing him from the Rig.

This is a key moment, because it pushes home the final part of this takedown of the patriarchal structure. Those columns that prop it up – capitalism, control of natural resources, and war – are all the reasons why society in the world of Mad Max has broken down. We know, through the War Boys, that there has been nuclear conflict. We know that the Earth has been poisoned. We know that corrupt and dangerous men have seized control of natural resources and are using them to maintain their vice-like grip on power.

While there are a number of smaller tribes that Furiosa’s group encounter on their journey, there are three ‘towns.’ The Citadel, run by Immortan Joe, which hoardes clean water, crops and women; The Bullet Farm, run by The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), which manufactures ammunition; and Gas Town, run by The People Eater (John Howard) – the purpose of which is self-explanatory. Immortan Joe calls upon the assistance of The Bullet Farmer and Gas Town in retrieving his Wives, which leads to these three ‘Leaders’ heading up the pursuit.

These three white men are elderly, vulnerable and insecure in different ways. Each is reliant upon their army and machinery for personal survival. They are cosseted, unattractive, and belligerent. Most importantly, they have no personal loyalty to each other – they are only lending assistance to Immortan Joe to maintain the status quo. They seek to crush this act of rebellion, lest it threaten their own position of power.

“All this for a family squabble,” notes The Bullet Farmer. “Healthy babies. Tsk.”

While The Bullet Farmer is ultimately killed by Max, Immortan Joe does not hesitate to shoot The People Eater when he is trying to kill Max hidden behind him.

These powerful men – who demand that their subjects cherish oil above all else – cherish the patriarchal structure above all else, and will do anything to preserve it. This is because it affords them the ability to act with impunity; to live in comfort with every need and desire met; and to do so without concerning themselves with such pesky concepts as consent.

It is the poisoning of the Earth, by men and their patriarchal structure, which fuels Furiosa. Yes, she is smuggling Immortan Joe’s Wives out of The Citadel, but her goal is to reach The Green Place – the Land of Many Mothers. It is the home from which she was stolen as a child. Here again, she does not recount her experience. This is the only fact we get. What she must have endured since her abduction, to bring her to this point, is left to our imagination.

When the War Rig arrives in the area she believes included her home, they find a naked woman wailing on the top of an old windmill tower. Max correctly identifies the situation as “bait,” but Furiosa steps from the Rig to identify herself as a member of the community known as The Vuvalini. After reuniting with her people, she is told that The Green Place has been destroyed, and that she already passed it. The Earth was poisoned and nothing would grow. Furiosa is devastated at this loss of hope, and proposes they all push on across the salt plains on motorcycles.

It is Max who persuades her that the best course of action would be to return to The Citadel because, thanks to the corruption of Immortan Joe, that is actually the new Green Place. It has water and crops. His suggestion is that they beat the War Parties back there and essentially liberate it. They all agree, and return to the War Rig with the remaining Vuvalini to enact their new plan.

This is another key moment. In the analysis of Mad Max: Fury Road, there has been some debate (largely by men) as to its feminist credentials. As this moment in the film is widely considered to be the pivotal point at which everything changes, and it is precipitated by Max, some male critics have argued that this is proof of the film not being feminist.

Taken out of context, this could be considered accurate. If this scene had occurred within a Male Gaze version, in which Max had rescued a group of women from an evil and abusive tyrant (along the lines of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome), then that assessment would certainly be accurate. But that’s not what Mad Max: Fury Road is, and so this scene sees Max approach Furiosa, who is the leader of a group, and offer her counsel. He does not tell her what to do. He simply proposes an alternate plan, and explains why he thinks it is the better option.

Furiosa considers it, and ultimately agrees – which does not undermine her character in the way that such non-feminist analysis would suggest. Indeed, to suggest that in order to be feminist, women should never take counsel from a man reveals a gross misunderstanding of feminism. It suggests, for a start, that women can never be wrong or unsure, which is the ultimate Male Gaze version of feminism – that the perspective of women is only relevant when it is perfect and idealised, and can be shot through a goalpost that is constantly being moved by men; that the very definition of feminism fit the terms laid out by men. This allows for men to argue that, since feminism has yet to solve sexism, it must be ineffective and obsolete. A home-run for Patriarchal Enthusiasts, indeed.

Feminism seeks equality of the sexes and that, within the context of this entire film, is exactly what this scene gives us. Up until this point, Max and Furiosa have repeatedly saved each other’s lives. Furiosa has determined the course of their journey far more than Max has, however. When they arrive at her birthplace, they have completed Furiosa’s original plan. Unmoored, she then decides to press on across the salt. She seeks to keep running, in the hope of finding somewhere to stop.

Max’s suggestion that they return to The Citadel not only preserves the balance between men and women in the story, it also gives us a situation in which Max is urging Furiosa to get back in the fight; to get up off the mat; to finish it, once and for all. He does so, because there is no question that she is capable. He is confident that having her lead them back into battle is the best course, and she agrees because – as she stated to the Vuvalini upon their arrival – Max is “reliable.”

The third act then becomes a frantic race back to The Citadel, which means that the very structure of this carefully crafted patriarchal system is at stake. If Furiosa’s group – now including the Wives and the surviving Vuvalini – reach Immortan Joe’s tower before he does, they can overthrow his regime, and topple the oppressive status quo. It is literally a race between feminism and patriarchy, and it gets very intense, and very violent as the desperation increases. Many of the Vuvalini are killed – including the Keeper Of The Seeds (Melissa Jafar), who combined being a deadshot with being the community member responsible for a collection of seeds to re-seed the Earth. Her reverence for the seed collection mirrors Angharad’s previous comment that bullets are “anti-seeds.”

Furiosa – a brilliant character throughout – truly shines in this act. She is severely injured while saving Max’s life, but continues to drive the Rig. When Immortan Joe tries to stop them by pulling his vehicle directly in front of them, she hands control to Nux and climbs through onto Joe’s truck. As she fights her way forward, she appears in the window next to him, asks “remember me?” and attaches a chain to the breathing apparatus connected to his face. She throws it onto a wheel, and the apparatus is violently ripped from his skull, killing him instantly.

With the threat removed, they drive on to The Citadel, but Furiosa is close to death. Max tends to her wounds, and gives her his own blood. This is not the act of a male saviour, though. This – in the context of this movie – is a demonstration of active and effective allyship.

Throughout the film, Max has put his body on the line for these women, without the expectation of anything in return. That’s because he understands that his fate is entwined with theirs. He does not view himself as superior to them, or even detached in any way. It is simply the case that they are all fleeing the same patriarchal structure. This patriarchal structure oppresses both women and men, and Max has suffered abuse at its hands as well as the women. When they return to The Citadel, they do so together, as a unit, with the goal of toppling the regime that has abused them all.

The women have all put their bodies on the line for Max and for each other, too, but this is the vital point of Max’s allyship. In being captured and turned into a blood bag, he has specifically experienced abuse that is almost (but not quite) comparable to the women – which is to be stripped of personhood and reduced to a means of production. The difference here is that, in Hollywood movies about social breakdown and dystopia, it is rarely men that experience this, and almost always women. We know that, in the face of disaster, men reducing women to means of production is one of the first things we see.

In this film, we see it in the milking room, and in the reference to the Wives as ‘Breeders’. We see it during the scene in which a gravely injured Angharad lies in the back of Immortan Joe’s truck with Rictus tending to her. He tells his Dad, “Your girl’s breathing her last,” only to have Joe ask about the baby. Upon hearing that it has stopped moving, Immortan Joe instructs Rictus to “get it out.” We then see Rictus follow that order, though Angharad remains off-screen. All we hear is him slapping the dead baby down, before seeing him play with the cut umbilical cord.

Again the abuse of the woman here is not depicted for entertainment – it is not depicted at all, in fact. It is implied through framing and context, but still bolsters the idea of women as means of production: babies, milk, and sexual gratification – unless they can serve another purpose within the patriarchal system, like Imperator Furiosa.  This is the heart of the issue of feminism, and this is why Max’s blood donation is so important. He is now consensually using his ‘means of production’ to revive the woman that can topple the oppressive regime.

It enables him to show the population of The Citadel the corpse of Immortan Joe and for them to celebrate, and it enables Furiosa to lead her group up into the tower, and take the crowd with them. Max does not stay, and simply heads off into the crowd – not in a ‘my work here is done’ kind of way, but in the satisfaction that he has helped to remove the regime that abused him, as well as others. It allows him to find redemption within a story that is equally about the redemption of a woman.

So yes, folks – Mad Max: Fury Road is absolutely a feminist movie. Moreover, it is a dystopian movie that provides an accurate depiction of why feminism is so important to society, right now. It shows how very easily we can slide into such a situation, specifically because the patriarchal structures to cause it are already in place: capitalism, control of natural resources, and war.

We can see it happening now in certain U.S states as officials work to implement reproductive legislation that limits the freedom of women, and values foetuses over the life of the adults carrying them. We can see it happening now as Saudi Arabia can kill and abuse with impunity, because they are oil-rich.  We can see it happening now as giant corporations profit from water sold in plastic bottles to communities being poisoned by their own water supply. We can see it happening now as male leaders around the world rattle their sabres at each other to distract public attention from their private scandals, while profiting from arms deals…

Continue reading, over on Channillo: Feminist Flicker.

Channillo is a subscription literature platform that is home to hundreds of series in multiple genres. Feminist Flicker is a fortnightly column by Sarah Myles – now in its fifth year of publication – which decodes sexism in movies by analysing one film at a time. You can read Feminist Flicker for free, with a 30-day free trial membership.

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