Around the same time that the highly anticipated action/sci-fi/dystopia Mad Max: Fury Road hit theatres, Aaron Clarey posted a blog article that received some attention urging men to “[n]ot only REFUSE to see the movie, but spread the word to as many men as possible” because it is a “Trojan Horse,” designed to trick men and “force a lecture on feminism down [their] throat[s]” (Clarey). Predictably, this sparked a debate in the blogosphere that ran the gamut, including everything from level-headed responses to more of the same misogynous vitriol, as well as, curiously, the Men’s Rights movement denying any formal association with either Clarey or the attempted boycott. Clarey himself is not to be taken seriously. A self-described “misanthropic, hedonist, nihilistic, cynical” resident of “the mano/androsphere,” he argues with a straight face that the idea that women could be equal to men in anything, much less “logic,” is feminist propaganda that will “[ruin] women for men, and men for women” (Clarey). His accusation that Fury Road forms a part of this propaganda is based on his observation that “Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers, while I don’t think I’ve heard one line from Tom Hardy” (Clarey). That’s right. He hadn’t actually seen the movie yet. But everyone knows that a woman shouldn’t talk too much, otherwise, feminism! Regardless of these and other dubious arguments contained in his post, I believe that Clarey is picking up on some gender portrayals in the movie that are interesting and worth looking at. His hysterical sense of intimidation aside, Clarey’s rant raises engaging questions: is Mad Max: Fury Road a feminist movie? What is a feminist movie in 2015 and how would one recognize it? I would like to think about some possible answers to those questions here.
One place to begin is to examine what has in the past been considered as specifically feminist storytelling in the fantastical genres, such science fiction. Feminist stories within these genres are classified as such because of their emphasis on themes that explore the construction of gender identities, gender roles, and the organization of society around those gender roles. According to Jenny Wolmark, since the 1970s, female authors writing stories with explicitly woman-centered and feminist content have tended to “explore the Utopian possibilities of separatist, women-only communities” which “identif[y] gender as a culturally constructed phenomenon” (158). They may explore any other societal structure that is not patriarchal or not based on the hetero-nuclear family, or they may explore nontraditional relationship formations, like polyamory, homosexuality, or species with more than two genders. In other words, what has been traditionally considered as the defining characteristic of a feminist work is its focus on imagining alternative possibilities for gender in society. A story that avoids these considerations has not traditionally been called “feminist,” regardless of whether or not it was written by a feminist. What is more, the presence of one or more intelligent and capable female characters is not sufficient to call a work feminist.
By this criteria, Fury Road does not resemble a feminist work. The movie is more focused on showcasing fast-paced action scenes and a strongly stylized appearance (which is not meant as a criticism) than it is on explaining how gender roles are assigned or organized in this particular world, and as such, there are only a few clues as to the social structure of the settlement. Those clues include the fact that the villain, Immortan Joe, keeps a small harem of young “wives” against their will for his endless enjoyment and procreation, his soldiers, called “War Boys,” are all male, and the few people that we see with any amount of power and resources are men. So far this just looks like traditional patriarchy. Admittedly, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) does not quite fit in this age-old patriarchal organization, as she begins the movie as a trusted employee of Immortan Joe, working out in the field transporting “guzzeline” alongside the War Boys. Her status as an equal is symbolically represented in the fact that she possesses her own, uniquely designed steering wheel, which functions not only to allow her the freedom to drive, but is also a sign of rank within the group of men that conducts the collective’s business. It is never explained how Furiosa managed to attain her position, but neither is it implied that she is exceptional or unique in holding it. Also, we cannot know what life is like for the other women in the settlement because we don’t see any of them, so we do not have much information to draw on to form an understanding of what women’s roles are in this society more broadly.
The other outliers are what I will call the Old Lady Motorcycle Gang (OLMG), who live in an isolated group in the desert. It is briefly alluded to that these women represent the last of an all-women group, but the reason they express for being segregated is the necessity to hide from Immortan Joe, not some a desire to live out an all-women utopian dream. If they did have a feminist utopia once upon a time in the “green place” where they used to live, they explain very little about it, as they have relatively little screen time, meaning that it would be a gross mischaracterization to suggest that the movie promotes or advocates for the superiority all-women societies. Therefore, while Furiosa and the OLMG do not fill the usual roles we might expect of women in action and science fiction movies, or in patriarchy generally, this is not enough to make Mad Max: Fury Road a feminist story in the traditional, albeit somewhat narrow, sense of this term.
Perhaps all it takes is the inclusion of some non-stereotypical women with assertive personalities to make the movie seem, to some, uncomfortably feminist. Patriarchy has traditionally argued that biological gender is one of the single most important components in shaping character and that biology’s affect on women is to make them “naturally” passive, receptive, emotional, less intelligent, and thus only well suited to housework and children (Ortner 72). This stance acts to justify keeping women in the home and reserving positions in the community with any importance for men. Today, science and psychology discredits this oversimplified, deterministic view of gender, but the work of many, many feminists over the last hundred years has gone a long way in applying political pressure to bring about that change. Although there have been some feminist schools of thought that have argued for essential gender characteristics (such as the eco-feminism of the 70s and 80s which promoted gender difference, arguing that women have a greater capacity for “humanism, pacifism, nurturance, and spiritual development”) most branches of feminism in the twentieth century have fought vehemently against this belief (Wajcman 6). Not only is gender essentialism demonstrably untrue in a large percentage of the population, but it has also been observed that rigid ideas about what constitutes as acceptable masculine or feminine behaviour often comes with social and psychological consequences for those who do not conform and that, therefore, this rigidity is potentially harmful to any member of society (West and Zimmerman 23). Now in 2015, most feminists agree that women display a wide range of characteristics and aptitudes and as a result, defy the notions of biological determinism, but it is not necessarily true that anyone who agrees with them on this largely self-evident point is therefore a feminist.
Fury Road’s representation of women is complex because, as I will argue, they at times deliver on the expectations for formulaic action movie characters and, at other times, they subvert them. For example, the women of the OLMG are particularly unusual for typical action movie fare, even as bit-part characters. This is because ordinarily, if older women appear at all in movies not made specifically for their demographic, they tend to be highly stereotypical: grandmother figures who are frail, harmless if not doddering, sweet if not bitter and crone-like, and always irrelevant. By contrast, Fury Road’s group of women-of-a-certain-age are tough, strong, and capable, surviving in the desert on their own wit, resources, and motorcycles. However, while they are non-stereotypical in some very important ways, they also display qualities that are gender essentialist and recall some of the ideas of eco-feminism. The OLMG were the last ones to live in the “green place,” the last healthy ecosystem in the area, and after it succumbed to the unexplained threat that destroyed the rest of the environment, these ladies attempt to preserve what life they can for the future by safeguarding a collection of seeds and small plants. In this way, the movie presents these women as being naturally more peaceful, in-tune with the environment, and concerned with the propagation of species. On the other hand, they are willing to entrap and kill anyone they deem a threat to their group. On balance, I would argue that they mostly defy stereotypes.
Immortan Joe’s wives also present a mixture of both expectation and difference. The handful of them are predictably young and beautiful, with the look of runway model waifs. They are scantily-clad in cream-coloured gauze that only barely manages to cover what it must, and their fertility is emphasized by the fact that one of them, apparently Joe’s “favourite,” is visibly quite pregnant. My impression is that this over-sexed presentation is intended to be somewhat parodic. This is because our first view of them is from Max’s (Tom Hardy) perspective, as he first catches up with Furiosa’s truck and comes around the other side to discover them spraying each other with a hose in their wet gauzy nothingness, like a slow-motion, wet T-shirt or car wash scene. I cannot recall exactly, but I do not think the scene was in fact in slow-motion. It did however create a similar impression with the way the camera slowly panned over each of the nubile, nearly-nude barely-legals. This effect of course reveals a “male gaze” or perspective on the women as sex objects for male consumption. However, the effect was so blatant, so incongruous in colour and texture with the rest of the movie’s aesthetic, that it can be read as a parody of the expected sexualization of women in action movies. This sense of satire worked to greatly undercut the exploitative quality usually associated with such voyeristic scenes. After this initial unveiling, the girls turn out to be brave and capable in their own right. They routinely crawl along the outside of the speeding truck, handle weapons, and generally contribute to the overall success of the mission to rescue them, all the while portraying personalities more similar to typical young girls than to either hardened female action heroes or cinema sex objects. In sum, they borrow aspects of the stereotypes of teenage girl, sex object, and female action hero, yet differentiate themselves enough from any one of those to remain, on the whole, non-stereotypical. The movie’s self-conscious exhibition of their sexuality can be enjoyed either for its irony or as eye-candy, whatever be the proclivity of the viewer.
Furiosa’s character is set off in contrast to the wives. Where they are light, she is dark with her grease-painted face and dark clothes. Where they are sexualized with perfect, exposed bodies and long flowing hair, she is not: her clothes are neither remarkable nor titillating, her hair is shorn, arms toned, and more visually striking, she is missing a limb. She denies patriarchy’s expectations and valuations for women both in her non-eroticized appearance and in the fact that her role is not contingent on a man, for example as a mother, wife, or romantic interest. The fact that Furiosa does not engage or appear to be about to engage in a romantic relationship with Max is an important departure for Fury Road, because it further emphasizes the fact that Furiosa’s role in the movie is not in any way connected to sex. Instead, the story depicts a development of trust and respect between the two, as is signified by Max’s willingness to tell her his name near the end, but there is no suggestion that there will be anything more than that between them. In these ways, she is different from the stereotypical female action hero.
In other ways, however, Furiosa does follow a well-beaten track. She is unflappable, unsmiling, fearless, capable of incredible stunts both in high speed chases and the exchange of fire, all the while never taking a bullet or running out of ammo, the likes of which we have seen many, many times before. Theron herself starred as the gun-toting, ass-kicking lead in the 2005 sci-fi action flick Æon Flux, not to mention Milla Jovovich’s similar leading roles in the 2006 Ultra-Violet and the Resident Evil franchise, to name a small few. I seem to recall that these are speaking parts, and yet I do not remember the movies being accused of smuggling a feminist agenda. For the Men’s Rights types, the important difference might be in the complexity of the image of femaleness that Furiosa and the other women of Fury Road present. Unlike most of the two-dimensional, eroticized females in action movies, Fury Road’s women demonstrate a range of characteristics. Perhaps it is this modern conception of the woman as a whole person that rankles Clarey so.
In conclusion, I find Mad Max: Fury Road neither “feminist” in any formal sense of the word nor anti-feminist, but instead reflects a refreshingly contemporary view of women as whole people. Although feminists have long advocated for women to be recognized as such, I cannot accept the idea that the movie is intentionally sending a message about “the possibilities for women,” or something along those lines, and it is this lack of intentionality that precludes me from seeing the movie as having a specifically feminist ideology or agenda. Instead, it presents women in this way almost incidentally, as if it is just a reality about people that it has incorporated into its storytelling. To my mind, this is the perfect balance and, ironically, it is perhaps the perfect vehicle for the communication of feminist values. John Cawelti, writing about the function of formulaic storytelling in the transmission and maintenance of shared ideas within culture, says that the evolution and change of formulaic storytelling are “process[es] by which new interests and values can be assimilated into conventional imaginative structures” (Cawelti 34). He gives examples of how the evolution usually takes the form of adding new elements that fit within an otherwise familiar and formulaic environment and storyline, such as with an African-American cowboy or superhero, or in the case of Fury Road, by making the hero a non-stereotypical woman (34). Cawelti writes that in their ability to assimilate new meanings and ideas into traditional narratives, formulaic storytelling is able to “ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural continuity” (36). The debate that has risen up around Fury Road is a good example of this phenomenon at work. Our society is currently still in the slow process of evolving away from traditional patriarchal ideas about women, meaning that it is possible to find people at every point on the spectrum of belief about gender and biological determinism. Many will enjoy the movie without ever stopping to question how gender is portrayed. On the other hand, those clinging to the old views may be made to feel uneasy by the way that Furiosa “barks orders to Mad Max,” as Clarey certainly is, for example, possibly putting them under tremendous pressure to defend their position as they watch it dwindle more and more into the minority (Clarey). But increasingly in the minority they are, as the blockbuster success of Fury Road attests to. As Cawelti rightly points out, for a story to be well received by the public, there “remains a need for author and audience to share certain basic feelings about the world” (32). This would indicate that Fury Road’s popularity demonstrates a hunger in the action flick-consuming public to see rounder characters and suggests a boredom with the stock characters that Clarey insists upon. I will agree with Clarey that I find the idea of an ideologically driven, message-heavy feminist movie largely unpalatable. In an ideal world, we would live in a kind of post-biological-determinism, where ideas about what men and women “are” or should be no longer exist, thus almost making feminism unnecessary. Mad Max: Fury Road suggests we are making progress getting there. Clarey and his ilk remind us we have a ways to go.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.
Clarey, Aaron. “Why You Should Not Go See Mad Max: Feminist Road.” Return of Kings. Kings Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 12 June 2015. http://www.returnofkings.com/63036/why-you-should-not-go-see-mad-max-feminist-road
Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Woman, Culture, and Society. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974. 68-87. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA, 1991. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
West, Candace and Don Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” The Social Construction of Gender. J. Lorber and S. Farrell, eds, 13-37. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991. Print.
Wolmark, Jenny. “Time and Identity in Feminist Science Fiction.” A Companion to Science Fiction. David Seed, ed. Malden, MA, Oxford, UK and Victoria, Australia: Blackwell, 2005. 156-170. Print.