As part of my continuing effort to catch up with all the summer movies I missed (my home theatre is more comfortable, equal in quality and a whole lot cheaper than going to a theatre, so I usually wait to see new releases), I recently finally got a chance to screen Mad Max: Fury Road. Normally I wouldn’t be much interested in a post-apocalyptic action movie. It simply isn’t my taste. I haven’t seen any other Mad Max film all the way through (although I did try to watch Beyond Thunderdome, mostly for the sake of seeing Tina Turner) and I have only a passing knowledge of the franchise’s premise. But this one was recommended to me by a friend who stressed that it had “interesting feminist elements” in it. This intrigued me, as someone who was well-educated in feminist film theory back at Exeter. So, I gave it a spin.
The film has been well-covered elsewhere on Sequart so this piece isn’t really a review, as much as it is an answer to the question “Is this is a feminist film”? The short, and glib, answer that I would give is, “Sort of”. To paraphrase Dr. Evil, it’s quasi-feminist. It’s the diet Coke of feminist. But it’s interesting.
My answer is borne out of an academic understanding of feminism, from a social theory perspective, not from the way most people usually think of the movement (if that’s the term). In my experience, most people’s understanding of feminism is stuck in a 1970s-1980s conceptual era, sometimes called the “second wave” of feminism. That’s the feminism of “Anything boys can do, girls can do better!”, putting down men, vilifying sex (particularly if it’s heterosexual) and essentially trading gender-normative roles and tropes. Ripley, from the Alien franchise, is usually the poster-girl for this, with her “tough girl” tropes, hoisting a machine gun like Rambo. And there’s certainly a lot of that kind of thing here in Fury Road. But that’s simply not what modern feminism is about, at least not how I understand it.
The modern version of feminism is about simple equality, but that equality is not possible unless the underlying structure of society – the patriarchy – is dismantled or at least challenged. Ripley, for example, is just acting “like a man”, but she’s still operating within a patriarchal structure in which she is obliged to protect children above all. Because she’s a woman, she must be maternal. That’s a patriarchal notion. Also, the men in those films have to be gruff, cut-off, emotionally distant (with the interesting exception of the android characters) – another expression of a patriarchal imperative. In a truly post-patriarchal society, people would be free to create their own unique identities, free from gendered expectations of behaviour and values. Sexual agency and sex positivity would be celebrated, with everyone participating equally in that (rather than silly notions that “only men” are into it and women are just looking for a husband). Aliens, in particular, is a classic case of a film that seems feminist, but isn’t really.
In terms of film theory, feminism is an outgrowth of post-structuralism and post-modernism, that most of all has the imperative to change the perspective of the audience, and alter the art-audience dynamic. Just as post-structuralism taught us that it doesn’t matter what the auteur “intended”, but rather celebrates a constantly evolving meaning derived from the conversation art has with its audience, feminist film theory emphasizes contemplation of the “Gaze”, and invites us to think of films from a different perspective, to be specific, one that is not the perspective of a straight, white man. (PS If you have any cognitive dissonance over the fact that this article is written by a straight, white man, I refer you back to the definition of feminism.)
As for Fury Road, it certainly has feminist elements, and they should be celebrated. It passes the Bechdel test, for example, and features, if anything, more leading female characters than male characters. It avoids the cliche of having the leading man and the leading lady be obliged to fall in love. Most importantly, it hints at the creation of a post-patriarchal society in the end, although it leaves the details of that transformation in question. So, this is a film with some virtues. But it also has several problematic elements that hold it back from being the poster-child for modern feminism (I still think Buffy takes that prize).
But Fury Road fails some of the other important tests for true modern feminism. For one thing, it’s clearly made for a male gaze: every woman in the film, even the Furiosa character played by Charlize Theron, is obviously bereft of the slightest hint of body hair from the eyebrows down. (A patriarchal imperative.) Though the “wives” of Immortan Joe, the female characters with whom we spend the most time in the film, are dressed and act in a way that’s obviously design to titillate the heterosexual male gaze for good narrative reasons (they’re escaping from a harem), they’re costumed that way for the entire film nonetheless, only eschewing their provocative posing and dress at the very end. There are no equivalent exhibitions of the male physique, although Tom Hardy gets his shirt off for the briefest of sequences near the start of the film. The group of women the heroes meet about 2/3 of the way into the film from the former “Green Zone” are very interesting characters, but they still seem to be trading feminine traits for masculine (as is Furiosa herself) rather than create a new paradigm. There are a few important exceptions to this – such as the character who keeps her valuable trinkets from a better world in her purse – but for the most part, these are pure second-wave man-hating stereotypes, right down to the method they use to lure men to their deaths. (Heck, that trope has been with us from as far back as Homer.)
Furthermore, a truly feminist film would present us with more than one sympathetic male character, in this case Max. Not that Max is some sort of feminist hero, but he at least respects the women he finds himself with, takes up their cause and leaves the victory to them, without trying to actually have a romantic relationship with any of them. That’s impressive, and shows real progress. But other than Max, the men are reprehensible swine, with bodies literally falling apart and enormous odes to their own phalluses everywhere, from the cars they drive to the insane heavy metal guitarist in his red PJ’s. We must re-iterate: feminism is about a balanced perspective that celebrates equality, not celebrating one gender at the expense of another. There’s also a telling lack of LGBT representation, which would also be a part of a true modern feminist film.
Yet, in the final analysis, there’s much to like about Fury Road, and perhaps its bravest choice is not the gender representation but the ages of the characters. In a world where the Fantastic Four is cast with teenagers, it’s profoundly refreshing to see grown adults starring in an action movie. All of the major characters are played by actors over the age of 35, and many are substantially older than that, including many of the women. It’s very rare indeed to see women in their 60s and 70s acting heroically in this genre, although in the context of the film, their ages are perfectly logical. Part of the reason for that choice might be the age of director George Miller himself, who, at 70, still throws himself energetically into high-octane action scenes and bold rock-and-roll sequences. As Kevin Smith said, “The director might have been 70, but there were clearly no responsible adults on the set of this film.”
So, yes, Mad Max Fury Road is an imperfect but noble example of filmmaking in 2015 that at least strives to incorporate the imperatives of modern feminism. The sad thing is how rare that is, particularly in mainstream cinema. It isn’t perfect, but Miller and company get their A for effort.