by Linnea Kennedy
I can’t recall now what first piqued my interest in Mad Max: Fury Road. I either watched the trailer for it and swooned hard over Charlize Theron’s buzzcut or I heard some vague rumblings on the internet that men’s rights activists were boycotting the film because of its feminist overtones. Either way, I was intrigued. Flash forward a few months and I was finally sitting down to watch it at the second string movie theater in town that was also playing Pitch Perfect 2 and Insidious: Chapter 3. I was trying to keep my expectations low, as I had been exposed to a lot of second hand Mad Max hype (good and bad) in two months and was worried about it not living up to expectations, notwithstanding Theron’s haircut.
While watching Mad Max, I was surprised to find that my great mass of accumulated complaints, logged over many years of movie watching, were swiftly addressed. Not just check marked off of some indignant feminist laundry list- Female character has more lines than male character? Check! And score one for feminism! #Yay – but actually integrated into the fabric of the story in a way that went above and beyond any expectations about what a “feminist” action film might look like.
Mad Max features Strong Female Characters, but they do more than wield weapons and spit pithy one liners in the face of danger. The women of Mad Max are written as fully fleshed out, agential beings- not eye candy or anyone’s sidekick. There is a noted lack of sexualization of their characters; their bodies are shown as varied, dirty, broken, severed, bloody, strong, and fleshy. Their history as sex slaves is implicit, left to the audience’s imagination. In passing we hear them referred to as “[archvillain’s] prized breeders”, but screen time isn’t spent sensationalizing the sexual violence they’ve endured. With the exception of the brief romantic interest between Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and Capable (Riley Keough), there is also a noted lack of a love story in this movie.
The older women who feature prominently in the latter half of the film as the octo and septuagenarians of the Vuvalini tribe (kinfolk to Theron’s character, Furiosa) are BADASS, independent warriors- not aged punchlines or burdens to be shouldered by the rest of the cast. The environmental catastrophe(s) that predate the beginning of the film have rendered the earth “sour”, to quote one of the Vuvalini women; their tribe relies on plant based medicines and knowledge to survive. How the earth became “sour” isn’t explained through heavy handed exposition or flashbacks; rather the film begins with a short clip of trees blowing in gale-force wind and rain, with various overlapping voiceovers of newscasters speaking about oil shortages, lack of water, the land being poisoned, and other environmental disasters. The Vuvalini’s plant based knowledge is posited as society’s hope for redemption and renewal.
In tandem to this cautionary tale against capitalist destruction of the environment, the film also turns a critical eye towards war and hypermasculinity. The whole film can be neatly- albeit reductively- summed up as an extended car chase. The “War Boys”, the young, excitable males of this futuristic society, are groomed from birth to dream of fighting, dying in battle on their “war rigs” (souped up, decked out, monster trucks), and heroically arriving at the mythical gates of Valhalla. The War Boys are depicted as rowdy and childlike; Nux, arguably the only other male lead aside from the titular Max, is first shown to us fighting with his brother over the chrome steering wheel that will drive their war rig into battle.
War and masculinity are exposed as performance. One of the war rigs leading the pack into battle showcases a massive, towering stack of repurposed speakers of different sizes, complete with a live guitarist suspended from bungee cords and a grid of a half dozen drummers pounding out ambient music to keep the boys amped and bloodthirsty. One of the warlords from neighboring Gas Town, after totalling up the monetary loss expended in battle, remarks acidly, “All of this for a family squabble!”
The male characters in Mad Max take a literal and figurative backseat to the female characters. Noticeably enough that a Mad Max “Hey Girl” Tumblr was created. (Thank you dear Internet.) We repeatedly see Nux depicted as ineffectual and inarticulate (until he finds female acceptance and is redeemed near the end of the story), and Max utters a handful of words the whole movie.
There is literally no explicit mention of gender politics in this movie, but it is so gender political. No one ever makes a pointed remark about women being less than men; their subservience is just understood to be the norm. It’s interesting then that as much as Mad Max has been touted as a box office success and garnered favorable reviews in many media outlets, it has also courted a comparable amount of controversy due to the boycotting of the film by men’s rights activist (MRA) groups.
One such anti-Mad Max review titled “Why You Should Not Go See ‘Mad Max: Feminist Road’” is particularly informative. The reviewer deigns to enlighten us dupes about how the makers of Mad Max have “kowtow[ed] to feminism” and have “trick[ed] me and other men into seeing this movie.”
Unintentionally satirical tone aside, it would be foolish to dismiss this review and the wider opposition to Mad Max: Fury Road as a few (vocal) disappointed moviegoers. Many of the anti-Mad Max reviews have pointed to the aspects of the film that I have enumerated above as some kind of cop-out; the markings of a lesser movie, a sign of Hollywood liberalism run amok in its over the top efforts to be more “PC”, or mere (feminist) propaganda to be dismissed and not trusted.
I would argue that creating an action film that deviates from what we’re accustomed to seeing in that genre- whether that means featuring a female character more prominently than the titular male lead, or centering environmental concerns at the heart of the story- does not automatically disqualify it as “liberal propaganda”. Innovation, inversion, and reinvention are key to the continued creation of movies that are worth watching. It is good and necessary for films to develop and grow beyond the use of limiting stereotypes and overused tropes- especially in a genre so notorious for making use of them ad nauseum.
Linnea Kennedy is a humorless feminist living in the redwoods north of San Francisco. She received her Master’s degree from Roosevelt University in Women’s and Gender Studies, and enjoys grant writing and strongly vaginal artwork.