The Gender Politics of ‘Mad Max’
Mad Max: Fury Road has been almost universally hailed by critics and audiences as a marvel; a miracle of modern Hollywood. It’s hard to believe a studio would get behind a property that hadn’t been touched for thirty years without rebooting it or slapping together a ham-fisted origin story. It’s hard to believe that they’d give George Miller the control and latitude to make something with such an apparently undisturbed vision. Martin even demanded unconventional cuts of the film be added to the Blu-ray edition–a black-and-white version and a silent version with nothing but the isolated score. No one believed this movie, essentially one long chase scene, would be so successful or overwhelmingly appreciated by everyone.
Well, not everyone. Twitter accounts belonging to certain ‘men’s rights’ activists were livid about the fact that Mad Max would ever take a (sometimes literal) backseat to a WOMAN. Why would he allow a WOMAN to drive? Why would he take orders from a WOMAN? Surely he’s the hero, he’s the titular character.
On the other side of the coin, people are quick to call this film the first feminist action film.
Mad Max: Fury Road is NOT a feminist action film. Nor is it in any way anti-male. Mad Max: Fury Road is simply a great action film that pays little regard to whether the characters are women or men, but puts them in a world where everyone is either butcher or meat. The characters of both genders are simply humans struggling to survive in a horrible world. There couldn’t be a weak, simpering milquetoast character or damsel in distress here. We witness several times throughout the film the result of anyone showing too much weakness or mercy, and it’s tragic.
Max is not the hero of the film; he’s just trying to escape and to survive. He’s mentally and emotionally broken. We’re not beaten over the head by just what it is he’s been through-that’s been covered in the other films, and if you haven’t seen them, it isn’ttoo important here. You just gather that he’s messed up. The hero of the piece is Furiosa–Charlize Theron’s Imperator character, whose goal is to rescue the women who’ve been consigned as breeding stock for the disgusting, amoral warlord Immortan Joe. Joe will stop at nothing to produce a healthy male heir, which leads him to pridefully pursue the escapees across a barren Australia, unmindful of the waste of precious resources.
Much has been made of the fact that Furiosa gives Max orders, but she’s the one who knows what needs to be done. She’s simply the one in the driver’s seat here, both literally and metaphorically, most of the time; a competent person trying to finally do one good thing in her life. Max just winds up along for the ride and grudgingly finds himself in a position to help. He does, despite his innate need to simply get away and survive, because it is at first in his best interest to do so. He is won over by Furiosa not in some lame, predictable romantic sense but because her tarnished, naive ideal is a light in the darkness. So, when (SPOILERS) her dream turns out to be fruitless, his better nature wins and he travels back to help the women secure a future. Max is basically just our entree into this greater story; he’s a wasteland wanderer who finds himself on the war rig, as he found himself in the Thunderdome or at the refinery in earlier films.
The women of this film are not treated as lame, feminist Hollywood archetypes of strong femininity. They’re done far better service than that. They’re treated as capable, strong people. Two of the most badass characters in the film are portrayed by Meghan Gale and Charlize Theron, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing the women involved taking a hit or (SPOILER) even being killed. When this happens, Miller doesn’t take the easy route, playing for shock value and audience sympathy because oh, no, it’s violence against a woman, someone save her! No – it’s simpler and more cruel – it’s violence against a person, and they’ve all got to save themselves before they can save anyone else. The cruelty of the world of Mad Max doesn’t respect gender; it is equally awful to everyone. Furiosa is handicapped not by being female, but by being literally handicapped. She’s missing an arm. However, she can’t let that slow her down, anymore than Max could if faced with the same dilemma, or their world would swiftly chew her up and send her mangled to Valhalla, all shiny and chrome, irrespective of their sex.
I won’t bother to quote any of the nonsensical tweets which have stirred so much controversy. They’re patently ridiculous and without merit. Mad Max: Fury Road is not a film about gender politics, but in its measuring of every character by the same bar of strength vs. survival, it makes its mark by treating everyone equally.