Those of you who know me know I’m not much of a movie person. You also know that I’m even less of an action movie person. So you may be surprised to learn that last night found me at the cinema with several feminist friends, purchasing tickets to Mad Max: Fury Road.
Trust me, you’re not as surprised as I was.
But, you see, I’d heard that the movie was enraging men’s rights activists, who were decrying it as feminist propaganda disguised as an action film, so I had to give it a shot.
And I have to say, I see their point. At the heart of this loud, violent, testosterone-laden film is a message about sisterhood, nurturing, and the potential superiority of a female-led society over a male-led one.
Read on for my full review. Obviously spoilers ahead.
Also, please excuse my ignorance of previous Mad Max films. Apparently I should have gone into the movie expecting a two-hour chase scene. I did not, which explains why I was a little baffled by the fact that the movie was a two-hour chase scene. My only previous experience of Mad Max movies was being 7 years old and thinking it was cool that Tina Turner was in a movie (and loving her outfit!).
The film begins in a post nuclear world, with pale-skinned “half-lives” being worked into a primal frenzy by their saggy-skinned leader, Immortan Joe, as he promises to lead them to redemption. The titular Max is being used as a blood donor, hooked up to Nux, a young man who embraces Joe’s persuasive message and fanatically hopes to be taken to Valhalla.
Also, nothing will make you feel old like watching a nuclear wasted religious zealot speak in primitive, grunting sentences and suddenly realizing he’s the kid from About a Boy.
Imperator Furiosa, played by a bald, one-armed Charlize Theron, is driving a War Rig to another city to get gasoline. However, a few minutes into her trip she makes a quick left and goes off course. She’s able to briefly convince her guards that the detour is legit, but it’s quickly realized at home sweet Citadel that she has smuggled the “breeders” out of their enclosure.
At this point, my friend turned to me and whispered, “so it’s like a louder version of The Handmaid’s Tale?”
She wasn’t far off.
As we discover after what seems like days of loud, explosive chase scenes (featuring a flame-throwing electric guitarist bungee-corded to a two-story stack of amps piled on the back of a hummer? I don’t know), we finally see these “breeders,” played by supermodels and offspring of confirmed beautiful people, as they rinse themselves off with precious water from Furiosa’s rig and defiantly cut off their chastity belts with bolt cutters.
Now, by this point I was feeling a little duped. Yes, Charlize Theron was playing a bad-ass rebel risking her life for other women, but supermodels (one of them gorgeously pregnant) draped in virginal white spraying water over themselves? This was the “feminism” that had the MRAs up in arms?
But as the film progresses, it becomes more clear. It turns out that Furiosa is taking the women (who we find out were Joe’s “wives”) to “the green place,” which sounds at first like a myth. However, it turns out that it’s Furiosa’s homeland, the place of “many mothers”.
What follows is another interminable chase scene in which the women display courage, solidarity, and unromanticized self-sacrifice to defeat their all-male attackers. Max is a total side character, as he’s used to basically do smaller tasks while the women run the show.
At one point, after wasting two of the three precious bullets in the largest gun they have trying to destroy the vehicle of an important enemy, he offers Furiosa his shoulder so she can use it to rest the gun and take the final, vital shot. She makes it.
Their society, while decimated, appears thoughtful and sincere, as opposed to the mindless devotion Joe demands from his desperate and destitute followers. It’s pretty obvious which type of society we’re supposed to side with.
While it’s implied that the many mothers (also known as the Vuvalini) prefer a nonviolent existence, it’s made clear very quickly that they are adept at fighting. The journey BACK to the Citadel (at which I was like “really? We’re doing this again?”) is another chase scene where the Vuvalini and wives fight side by side.
This time, I was struck by the ways in which the old, weather-beaten Vuvalini and young, impossibly gorgeous wives became one clan. The surface differences, which in a more typical movie would be used as signifiers of actual difference in value or social worth, become inconsequential as the women fight and sacrifice for each other in the name of a better future.
The tropes and themes of the film are surprisingly pro-woman, avoiding many of the more predictable action movie pitfalls. The wives are beautiful, scantily clad, and presumably have been made to endure countless sexual assaults, but their sexuality is not presented as their defining characteristic.
In a world where the quickest way to give a female character depth appears to be by tossing a rape into her past (often with a gratuitously graphic flashback to the event), these women are not defined by their suffering. We are not shown their victimization or humiliation – only the strength and solidarity that it engendered.
In fact, the film is devoid of any sexual encounters; the one romantic relationship that comes from the film is between one of the wives and Nux (remember Nux?), and is characterized by soulful glances and a little hand-holding.
When Furiosa is gravely wounded, instead of reviving her with some meaningful, passionate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Max uses the transfusion line that had previously connected him to Nux to give her his blood.
Personally, I saw this refusal to sexualize any of the women as a pretty deliberate choice.
Furthermore, the theme of women as central to the life of a society ran through the film in a way that seemed to subvert the potential essentialism that such a theme could carry. It’s the cruel, male-centric Citadel society that only values women for their reproductive capacities, as they use genetically superior women as breeders. There is also a brief scene, near the beginning, where women are shown hooked up to milking machines, dehumanized and used.
The film, however, values the women’s potential to continue the society in ways that see them as more than just baby-making machines. The Vuvalini quickly take the younger wives under their wings, treating them with kindness and sharing stories of their lives.
One of the elderly women carries with her a satchel of seeds that she’s saving to plant trees and fruit and flowers when she finds soil that will take it. When she is killed, one of the wives takes on the responsibility, safeguarding the bag to bring it to the citadel.
Even the women who were being used for their milk are given their agency; at the end, they are the ones who throw open the floodgates and allow water to flow to the parched people below. The symmetry is touching; instead of having life-giving liquid forcibly removed from them, they are choosing to provide a life-giving liquid to others.
The film ends with the women being raised on a platform, presumably to take control and lead the Citadel to a better, more humane future. Max disappears into the crowd, giving Furiosa a nod of respect as he leaves.
If depicting a world where rampant masculinity has left everyone miserable and the only hope comes in the form of giving women a shot at leading is “feminist propaganda”, then the MRAs are totally right. I’d probably just call it a refreshing twist on a done-to-death genre.
What do you think? Did you see Mad Max: Fury Road? Do you intend to?