Is "Mad Max: Fury Road" a Feminist Film?
Image Credit: Warner Bros, Village Roadshow Films, and Jason Boland
Spawned from the fertile mind of director George Miller, the Mad Max franchise is a collection of four action films set in dystopian Australia that consists of Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The thirty-year gap between the original trilogy and the recently released film marked a surprising transition of focus from Miller which was met with admiration as well as condemnation. It has been suggested by scholars, activists, members of the entertainment industry and the general media that Fury Road is a feminist film due to its emphasis on the freedom of women from a patriarchal society. Certain fans of the original franchise were upset by the political message the film projected in what was meant to be a "traditional" action film, whilst other fans denied that Fury Road was a feminist film altogether due to its blatant sexualization of the supermodel sex slaves and the glorification of masculinity throughout. Although Miller's Fury Road does in many ways present women through the male gaze—it indeed sexualizes them at certain points in the film—it should still be classified as a feminist film. Fury Road frequently invokes the concept of female empowerment and ridicules traditional masculinity, which is particularly impressive seeing as this film is a sequel to a successful uber-masculine franchise.
Fury Road is a feminist film on the basis that the central storyline is composed of sex slaves escaping from and fighting against an oppressive patriarch. Warlord Immortan Joe is furious when he finds that his wives have escaped from the locked chamber he keeps them in with the explicitly feminist words "WE ARE NOT THINGS" painted on the walls and goes on a rampage to get them back. Max slips into this storyline, rather than leading the storyline himself; by chance, he happens to cross paths with the escapees and eventually joins them on their fight against the patriarch. Although significant attention is given to Max and his perspective, it is these women, along with their warrior savior Furiosa, that the audience empathizes with and follows as they embark on this feminist mission.
One could argue that the wives are sexualized due to the fact that they happen to be played by beautiful actresses and models who have perfectly maintained hair and makeup throughout a tough journey and numerous battles. Laura Mulvey states that the male gaze dominates film by presenting women as sex objects who are "simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact" (837). Mulvey details how traditionally a man drives the narrative and makes things happen, whilst a woman is a passive "spectacle" (838) under his active gaze who has no power or influence over the film's narrative. Critics could argue that Fury Road embodies such warped traditions. This is particularly poignant on Max's first sight of these women when they are out in the desert, half dressed in shabby pieces of material and hosing each other down with water as if their purpose in the film is purely for male titillation. The mitigating factor in this scene is that Max is not titillated in the slightest; he is not phased by their obvious beauty and he does not sexualize them himself, even if the camera does.
Moreover, the casting of dazzling models and actresses does more than add some glamour and sex appeal to the film; it is logical because the reason that Immortan Joe, a deeply unsympathetic character, kept the five wives as his sex slaves was due to their profound beauty. He also would have chosen their provocative clothing for his own pleasure. The camera may luxuriate in their exposed bodies and beautiful faces, but the five wives are also presented as strong and intelligent, showcasing the idea that women can be sexy and still independent. Of course, considering this is generally understood as a "guys" film (as traditionally action films are), the reason for them appearing beautiful or sexy could have less of a feminist motivation and more of an appeal to male-dominated audiences. But this does not take away from their independent or strong representation. In actuality, Miller plays with the concept of the male gaze by using the five wives to present serious issues of feminism in attractive packaging without nullifying its content, alluding to third wave feminism.
Third wave feminism began in the mid 90s and includes the concept that a woman's appearance or beauty should be appreciated as being the independent subject of her own life, rather than as an object of the male gaze. For example, according to third wave feminists, wearing high heels or makeup or any other appearance-altering entity does not have to be seen as the result of our patriarchal culture forcing women into putting themselves on display for anybody else, but rather it is an individual choice to empower oneself. Third wave feminists believed it was possible to care about your appearance for yourself and not for a man, and to also maintain other qualities such as intelligence, strength and independence. In this sense, the five wives could be considered representative of the third wave of feminists whose beauty is an asset, rather than something to be ridiculed as anti-feminist. The camera may linger on their exposed, young, and attractive bodies, and the male gaze may very well be present, but the characters themselves are not presenting themselves for that male gaze; that is the vital element of third wave feminism. The five wives are confident with their bodies and their beauty without becoming mere objects of male eroticism. They actively affect the film's narrative and make things happen. They have their own minds, skills and strengths that the film fully addresses rather than lapsing into the old cinematic tradition of presenting an attractive woman for no other reason than to be looked at.
Additionally, the five wives were not dismissed in production as merely supporting roles; Miller put much thought into their characterization and the actresses worked hard for their roles to be played with taste and authenticity. Miller asked Eve Ensler, feminist writer and activist, to come to the set of Mad Max: Fury Road because of her knowledge of women's issues in the real world that are also present in the film. In an interview by Eliana Dockterman, Ensler admits she was surprised to be asked on set by Miller but thought it was a credit to him that he realized he needed a woman with experience in discussing these topics of domestic violence, rape, trafficking and feminism in general ("The Stronger Sex" 54). She also pointed out that the issues in Fury Road are relevant to today's world, stating that one in three women will be raped or beaten in their lifetime and 600,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year.
Ensler talked to the cast, mainly the actresses playing the escaped sex slaves, about what it would be like to be trafficked or to carry the child of your rapist and answered their questions in order to help them fulfill their roles with more understanding and authenticity. According to Ensler, Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist film and Miller himself is a feminist who wanted to create empowered characters, not victims, sidekicks or damsels in distress. For Ensler, the film's feminism is principally expressed through the females' characterization as fierce and strong, whilst also being compassionate and loving. Ensler was also grateful that Miller did not pair Furiosa and Max in a romance, which would have diluted the independence and fierceness of Furiosa. Inevitably, the romance would have come across as Furiosa giving up some of her power by falling in love with Max. Instead, Ensler is thoroughly satisfied by the feminist quality of having the male and female leads fight side by side with equal skill and equal screen time (Dockterman, "How Mad Max: Fury Road Became A 'Feminist Action Film'").
In fact, it could be argued that Furiosa is the true protagonist of Fury Road, with Max being merely an ally to her. Alexis De Coning claims that there is an unconventional portrayal of masculinity in the film; though Max has the masculine qualities of strength and endurance that are traditional for an action film protagonist, these qualities are shared with the female lead, Furiosa (175). Furthermore, De Coning suggests that the action surrounding Max is propelled forward by the plethora of female characters around him. A scene in the film De Coning pays particular attention to is when Max fails at hitting his target twice in a row and so accepts that his female companion, Furiosa, should take the shot because of her superior skill. To De Coning, this has much more subtle and powerful feminist undertones than more obviously political parts of the films, especially seeing as it is uncommon for the male hero of an action film to hand the reins over to a woman when women generally are the overly-sexualized sidekick in this genre. It is Furiosa who helps the women escape and protects them, and it is Furiosa's story we are following, with Max as a supporting character.
Cavan Gallagher describes the character of Furiosa as a traditional female action hero due to the fact that she is as strong and skilled as a man, but is also able to elicit real emotion where a traditional male action hero may not (Gallagher 50). Arguably, Max, the title character and action hero of the film, is meant to uphold the ideals of masculinity and male strength. He never shows real emotion, at least not on the scale that Furiosa does, which suggests that this is the way strong men should behave. Even if Miller has achieved a feminist film through Furiosa, perhaps there is still work to be done to challenge the traditional ideals of masculinity.
Nonetheless, Furiosa's increased capacity to elicit emotion does not present her as inferior to Max in any way. Furiosa has her hair shaved off, a bionic arm, grease stained skin and is never flirtatious towards or nervous around Max or any other man; she is not presenting herself for a man's eyes. The camera gazes over her but does not sexualize her; instead it admires her for her strength and grit, just as the camera admires Max. They share the screen in the same way and in that sense the film has achieved the ultimate feminist motive: a man and woman, portrayed equally independent, beautiful and strong.
This equal representation of men and women is unfamiliar territory for Mad Max films. Although there were female characters in the original trilogy they were never given as much weight in the storyline or as much depth of character as Furiosa and the five wives in Fury Road. The first film, Mad Max, does have some idyllic moments with Max's wife, though her character is not given any particular depth outside of her love for Max and she is set up by the narrative to meet the fate that she does. Max's wife and child are killed by the film's villains, a patriarchal motorcycle gang, and consequently Max begins to live up to the film's prophetic title as he becomes "mad" with revenge. Lorraine Mortimer argues that female characters are even less impactful in the sequel, Mad Max 2: Road Warrior. The Warrior Woman is on the surface a strong, independent character, being an archer for the Pappagallo tribe in the oil refinery, from whom Max firsts tries to obtain gasoline. The Warrior Woman is shown to be suspicious of Max and clearly sees herself as having authority even if Max does not treat her as having authority. She is confident, strong and skilled. However, in the end she and the tribe is essentially saved by Max, the uber-masculine hero, which returns the Warrior Woman to traditional damsel-in-distress status. Miller apparently admitted that the Warrior Woman was treated as a character, not specifically a woman, by the film's creators. Despite this, when she is violently killed at the end of the film her murderer shouts "Woman, woman!" reminding the viewers that it is patriarchy that is killing a woman, not just another character (Mortimer 150).
It could be suggested that the first real taste of feminism in the franchise is actually in Beyond Thunderdome through Tina Turner's character, an Amazon-like ruler of Bartertown named Aunty Entity, who has many of the same qualities as Max in that they are both strong, independent and resistant to change. However, Aunty Entity is essentially the villain of the film, being a tyrannical dominatrix with uniformly male followers and so is far from representing ideals of gender equality; this negates any feministic qualities represented by her own power and strength of character. As such, it is clear Miller has always been concerned with gender relations in previous Mad Max films; but Fury Road is the first of the series to present women objecting to and defeating patriarchy.
Although the original trilogy may not have made clear feminist statements, Miller did focus on the concept and the conventions of masculinity in our culture. The Feral Kid in Road Warrior, who Mortimer describes as androgyne, is an example of Miller playing with masculinity. The Feral Kid is a child with no family or apparent home who is taken in by the Pappagallo Tribe; he is fascinated by Max when he arrives and later we find that the Feral Kid is the narrator of the film who is telling the story of the mysterious Road Warrior (Max) who saved the tribe and himself. Although it is implied throughout and later confirmed that the child is male, there is nothing in particular that defines him as such. The indeterminate gender combined with the feral nature of the child suggest that the lack of societal conventions has been the cause of the child's androgyny, which perhaps exemplifies the frivolity of society's definitions of gender. It is not clear whose side the Feral Kid is on; the fact that the child is young presumes innocence whilst the child's barbaric nature alludes to the villains. This plays into the child's indeterminate gender which could be Miller making the statement that a lack of social constructs results in instability of character.
Unlike the Feral Kid, Max embodies normative masculinity in the original trilogy, as glimpsed in his accession to paternity in Beyond Thunderdome. Max accepts paternal responsibilities when he saves a group of orphaned children who tend to look up to Max as a leader and father figure. In his work on "The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia films," David Christopher describes Max in the original trilogy as a "patriarchal hero" and claims that the character is a pawn used by Miller to bring back and sustain the mythology of heroism (58). Christopher pays particular attention to Beyond Thunderdome because Max epitomizes traditional masculinity; he is presented as sporadically violent, sometimes selfish, and fiercely independent, but above all he maintains the traits of being paternal, strong, independent, and unemotional.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that Miller decided to make a new statement of masculinity through the channel of feminism in the subsequent and most recent film. Max is not entirely different in Fury Road from the earlier films but his qualities of masculinity are presented differently. In Fury Road the camera does not fawn over Max for fulfilling these "manly" qualities or actions; instead the qualities and behaviors Max exhibits are attributes of his character rather than his gender because many of these qualities and behaviours are shared with the female stars of the film.
Conversely, according to Gallagher, Immortan Joe is "a parody of male-centric militaristic glory" (54) due to his muscled body armor and medals, whilst under the armor he is old and diseased, embodying the idea of masculinity as maintaining the appearance of strength and power even if you are weak or falling apart underneath it all. Fury Road is as much a mockery of patriarchy as it is a warning; this dystopian wasteland is the result of a toxic patriarchal culture and is led by Immortan Joe who is essentially Miller's personification of patriarchy.
Furthermore, the personification of a matriarchy through the Vuvalini again presents this as a feminist film because both sexes are represented; Immortan Joe and his army of War Boys exemplify a patriarchal society whilst the Vuvalini exemplify a matriarchal society. The Vuvalini are a matriarchal tribe who have survived this far in the wasteland, fending for themselves without men. The members are all women of the older generation with wrinkled leathery skin from spending years in the desert in search of a new home after their previous home, "The Green Place," became infertile. Arguably, these old women of the desert are dismissively represented in the film as the archetypal old wise women, there only to guide the protagonists on their journey, without having any significance in the film other than as pawns to drive the plot forward. Then again, this characterization does not undermine their feminist qualities; they get involved in the battle just as much as the men do, without trembling with fear, screaming or hiding behind a man like so many female characters do in traditional action films. Despite this, the swiftness and detachment with which the camera depicts the Vuvalini's deaths in one of the first real battles with the War Boys suggests that their lives do not matter as much as the other more conventionally attractive women in the film. On the other hand, one of the five wives, Splendid Angharad, is also brutally killed off in the film. Not only does Splendid die but she is also heavily pregnant, Immortan Joe's favourite wife, and played by renowned supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley; she epitomizes the beauty, strength and hope of the third wave feminists represented by the five wives, so her death is a reminder of the destructive power of patriarchy and the possibility of failure in this endeavour to defeat it. Hence, the Vuvalini's abrupt deaths are not indicative of their insignificance to the narrative but rather, like Splendid's death, provide a statement about the violent pitfalls besetting feminism in general. Even though the Vuvalini are eventually killed, they carry with them the film's symbol of hope: the seeds. The first part of the film details Furiosa trying to take the escaped sex slaves to the Green Place, so when it is revealed that the Green Place no longer exists, it seems as if all hope is gone. However, the Vuvalini's seeds represent growth and new life outside of this dystopian wasteland. Perhaps the Vuvalini's search for fertile soil where they can grow crops is representative of their search for men who will join them on equal fertile grounds in order to produce the next generation, rather than on infertile patriarchal grounds.
New life is a prominent theme in the film, particularly in reference to reproduction and children, which is used to further emphasize Miller's statement of women's rights as well as the idea of redemption. Throughout the film attention is given to the aspect of this dystopian patriarchal world in which women are used as milk-producing childbearers and nothing else. Joe Immortan wants Splendid back in particular because she is carrying his child. Both are his "property." The wives are not merely sex slaves, but are used to produce Joe's children due to their fertility in a world where many have become infertile. Having a child appears to be extremely important to Immortan Joe, perhaps because paternity is essential to this facade of traditional masculinity.
Additionally, breast milk is used in the film as a symbol of women's oppression; women are chained up to pumping machines and their milk is traded for fuel. The breast milk is treated as a precious commodity whilst the women themselves are merely cattle. At the end of the film, it is the previously chained up milk mothers who open the floodgates and release water down to the oppressed masses below, highlighting the fact that it is the women who are bringing the people redemption. It is significant that the mothers and the five wives are the ones to save the day whilst Max walks off anonymously through the crowds, as it is these women who have been oppressed and abused so it should be these women who conquer patriarchy. Miller does not imply that matriarchy is a solution to patriarchy, but rather focuses on empowering the women who have been previously oppressed.
Furthermore, breast milk is used to infer redemption again when Max returns from a mysterious battle off screen at one point in the film. Max disappears into the abyss and returns to Furiosa and the five wives with blood covering his face which Furiosa knowingly informs us is "not his." Max goes to a pump on the truck expecting to find water but Furiosa tells him it's mother's milk; this does not deter Max from proceeding to wash the blood off of his face with the human milk in the most symbolically dense moment of the film. Max anoints himself with sacred breast milk as a symbol of rebirth and redemption, signaling Max's acceptance of Furiosa, the five wives and his feministic values of opposing the patriarch; from this point on, he is definitively on their side rather than superior to them.
Mad Max: Fury Road includes obvious feminist statements which does add to its clarification as a feminist film; but the real feministic qualities lie not in its representation of sex slaves refusing to be treated as property, but on the overwhelming presence and power of women in the film, standing alongside as well as against men. Both the female and male voice is heard, strong women are present without the dependency on a male counterpart, and patriarchy is openly criticized. The way in which Miller combines his feminist statement with the film's action and pace is a brave new leap for the franchise and for the action film genre. Fury Road presents strong female characters in a previously established patriarchal wasteland without an uncomfortable transition from the previous films. The power of film is that the ideas presented often reflect on and influence the audience and society as a whole. With films such as Fury Road, the hope is that audiences perceive the underlying feminist foundations and, eventually, these ideals of gender equality on the screen will seep into our culture.