I congratulate the makers of Mad Max: Fury Road. Half the world seems convinced they made a movie inspired by feminism, about threats to our society and environment. In truth, they made a live-action version of Wacky Races, but with lots more violence and skin. How did they get away with making a film that ticks all the necessary boxes for teenage boys, whilst persuading others they had reimagined Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex in a post-apocalyptic desert setting? What prompts people, who take themselves too seriously, to write things like this:
The film does not judge its heroines on age and beauty: Together (sic), all of these women give the lie to the notion that there is any proper way to be female on film. Supermodels and white-haired warriors with faces like withered fruit fight side-by-side under a leader whose beauty is in no way sexualized. Together, they are formidable.
…the world director and writer George Miller has created shows the horror of sexism and the necessity of freedom from patriarchy. That is what’s truly terrifying to some men – not that Theron has more lines than actor Tom Hardy.
We need to support those game developers, film makers and creative types who are helping to diversify geek culture… With the widespread critical acclaim of the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road… perception is starting to change.
And worse still, what makes some idiot men think things like this?
I respect the ‘perception’ of these armchair critics much less than I admire the ballsy bravado of the makers of Mad Max: Fury Road. The latter know how to entertain audiences by showing them what they want to see. The former see what their prejudices instruct them to see, and little else. Here are five observations about Mad Max: Fury Road that should make some feminists, and anti-feminists, think again.
(And yes, spoilers do follow. But as the plot involves driving in one direction for two-thirds of the movie, and then driving all the way back for the final third, nobody watched this film for the story.)
1. Women are young and pretty, old and haggered, or middling and fat.
Some people wrote how Mad Max showed a diversity of women. They must be as mad as Max. These are the stunning women we mostly see on screen:
Later on, we briefly see old women who look like this:
Notice how the old women are more conscious of skin cancer than the young’uns. You might think that, freed of men, they would let it all hang out, like the final group of women we only occasionally glimpse in the background:
That is the Mad Max menu of female role models: young strong supermodels in the foreground; tough old crones in support; and obese docile women-as-cows in the background. The diversity of women presented in this film is almost as lacking as the diversity of men.
2. Sometime between now and the future, women became really pathetic.
Who runs the Bullet Farm? A man. Who runs Gas Town? A man. Who runs the Citadel? A man. Who owns lots of sexy young supermodel ‘breeders’? The man who runs the Citadel. Who owns a shitty bit of desert beyond the bit that used to be an oasis but was ruined because they did not build irrigation channels? Women.
In our present era, women run things and own things. Instead of portraying women as strong and capable, this film is predicated on the idea that women are unable to protect what they have. To realize the supposedly feminist victories of Mad Max, women would first need to relinquish every single gain made by feminism. They must allow themselves to fall victim to a level of sexism that was uncommon even amongst savages.
If you want to present women as successful, it might help if you start from a position where they are not so utterly inept. One criticism of the ‘patriarchy’ is that it succeeds by encouraging low expectations for women. The same could be said for this film.
But perhaps this version of the Mad Max universe contains other, more civilized human settlements, that may still be run by women. We know of Bullet Farm and Gas Town, but judging by their skin, nails and teeth, the supermodels must sometimes visit Spaville, Cosmetic Village, and the Dentistry Hamlet.
3. Mothers can be feminists, and even a patriarchy needs children.
Where did all those warboys come from? It seems the demographics of the future involve a lot of young men, a smattering of other age groups, and no children whatsoever. We see women with bulging pregnant bellies, but there is scant evidence that any woman is a mother. Perhaps the crones of the former oasis were mothers, though none gave birth to a son. Or if they did, they relinquished the child to someone else’s care. Only Max behaves like someone who might have been a caring parent, though if he had children, they must have died.
Most men and women are motivated to make babies, at least at some stage during their lives. By not dealing with this most fundamental of human drives, the film skips the need to address the consequences, for both men and women. You do not need to be familiar with A Clockwork Orange to know young men want to screw. It beggars belief that an army of warboys could be conditioned to think of women as property, whilst never seeking to obtain property rights of their own. And stripped of the desire to procreate, it is harder to understand why these characters care so much about their survival. Did none of them read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, prior to the apocalypse?
4. Charlize Theron’s character is not just a badass. She is also a dumbass.
Apparently, this was the feminist plan, as literally driven by Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa:
- Steal a truck and bundle some supermodels into it because they are incapable of escaping without your help.
- Intend to reach safety by simply outrunning the thousand trucks driven by homicidal crazies who are right behind you.
- Race toward a destination you vaguely remember from youth, in the hope that a society exclusively composed of women has learned how to sustain themselves without the help of any men. Rationalize that all they need is some more women of child-rearing age, one of whom is pregnant with a boy.
- Arrive at your destination, fortuitously ahead of the chasing pack, only to discover your fantasy oasis turned into somewhere really awful.
- Go home again, turning the tables on your pursuers by arriving back before them, allowing you to take control of the place you were fantastically lucky to escape.
5. This is what a strong woman looks like.
I have a one-word riposte for everyone who thinks Mad Max: Fury Road is a turning point for women in science fiction films. The word is: Ripley.
Ellen Ripley flies spaceships, fights like a marine, wins the respect of an all-male prison colony, and is not afraid to tell an alien queen that she is acting like a bitch. More importantly, Ripley is brave enough to show her mothering instincts.
Furiosa can drive a truck, and shoot a gun. She shaves her head and comes up with lousy plans. If your life depended on it, which one would you pick to fight for you?
To top it all, Alien was released in 1979. That undermines the theory that Mad Max: Fury Road is some kind of feminist breakthrough. Ripley is a science fiction hero who is also a rounded woman and believable character. She can fire a grenade launcher, operate heavy machinery, save a fallen soldier, and still find time to wipe a dirty kid’s face. She does all this whilst also being a pain-in-the-ass who riles both male and female crew-mates. Ripley takes on a string of fearsome opponents – extraterrestrial, robotic, corporate and criminal – and bends her knee to nobody. But none of her confrontations lead to a caricature battle of the sexes. Ellen Ripley showed us that a female SF hero can be the equal of any man, proving they do not need to be semi-naked or restricted to twelve lines of dialogue. Most importantly, Ripley’s gender was a part of her character, without ever being allowed to overshadow her character.
Though she smears grease across her forehead, Imperator Furiosa is essentially clean, and simple. She says little, and thinks even less. Her solution to the problems created by men is to run away from them. In contrast, Ellen Ripley is a complicated woman who deals with the messy realities of what life throws at her. She fights tenaciously for her life, and the lives of others. Ripley is also prepared to sacrifice her life for the greater good. She overcomes because she is organized, principled and quick-witted, in addition to being brave and hardy. Furiosa is a cartoon character, no more sophisticated than Penelope Pitstop, though drawn for a different age. Whilst three decades have passed since Alien, it is Ripley who continues to personify how strong modern women can be heroes to all.