Why Mad Max Fury Road is a Badass Feminist Movie, and Why It Isn’t

Mad_Max_-_Fury_RoadMy friend Monet and I hang out about once a week when she and her dude come over with some other friends to watch The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones or whatever we’re into at the moment. We’re always talking about our latest movie/TV/media obsessions, and when Mad Max Fury Road came out, it was all I could do to hold my tongue after my husband and I saw it on opening weekend. Monet and TJ wouldn’t go see it until the next week. Before they went, Monet asked if all the hype about the movie being feminist was true. I said, absolutely! I was so excited to talk about it after she and TJ had seen it, but before we had a chance, Monet sent out a group text with her opinion of the feminist tendencies of the movie (SPOILER ALERT!):

Monet: There was nothing overtly feminist about that movie at all…if people can’t see why keeping women as breeders might be a problem…*kicks over a table*

Jaime: It’s the misogynistic male leader who keeps women as breeders and sources of milk. The male leader is the antagonist. But the movie is feminist because a woman is the hero and saves everyone including Mad Max. Plus the whole premise of the movie is the female heroine saving the breeders from subjugation by going back to the patriarchal society and taking it back from the misogynists. If that’s not feminist, I don’t know what is!

Monet: Yes yes Jaime! Technically all that is true but aesthetically it was super masculine and testosterone-filled and had no real storyline.

Jaime: Well, I’d argue that women shouldn’t have to be stereotypically feminine to be feminists and in charge of their identity. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, everyone would have to be badass to survive. Think Carol in The Walking Dead.

We thought this conversation was so brilliant it should be made public. (You’re welcome.) After deciding to turn this into a public conversation, Monet and I wanted to go see the movie again, together this time, to make sure our views were substantiated by examples from the film. We also thought we’d take our conversation away from texting and into a Google doc, so we can, you know, actually articulate longer thoughts and stuff. Here’s the rest of the conversation after seeing the movie twice:

Monet: There’s a scene where Max is trying to shoot out the searchlight on an oncoming enemy vehicle. He takes three shots and we know from a previous conversation there are only four bullets to begin with, so this last shot has to count. Max & Furiosa make eye contact, and they exchange a look and he gives her the gun. She takes it, balances the barrel on Max’s shoulder and takes the shot. The searchlight goes black. And somehow that moment felt like a statement.

The first time I saw Mad Max, I wasn’t so sure. The second time confirmed it, but Jaime, you thought so right away, yes?

Jaime: That the movie was feminist? Yes. For sure. The scene you just described is a great example. Max knows Furiosa is the better shot and he’s not too proud to give up the gun to her. If the movie was bound by patriarchal norms, even if the woman was the better shot, the man would have emptied the gun and then said something clever and charming to the woman when he missed. The woman would have rolled her eyes, knowing there’s nothing she could do about it, and that would be the end of it.

But I have to admit that there are some moments that made me cringe a little, when I wondered if the female subjugation stuff went a little too far. For instance, when they show the row of obese women hooked up to milking machines, or when one of the beautiful breeder women begs to go back to Immortan Joe, the egomaniacal leader of The Citadel, I thought, Goddammit! What is this? What are your thoughts about these scenes? Do you think they play a role in the feminist commentary of the movie (if such a thing exists) or do you think they’re superfluous or necessary for a different reason?

Monet: I think one could argue that in a post-apocalyptic world every person should have a role in society and if you just happen to be a woman, and you have the ability to provide milk then you could do that, right? But when a society forces and even imprisons a person into a specific role, specific to their sex, well then, it’s time to go Furiosa on them. When the breeder tries to go back, I thought that was spot-on, too, though probably more dramatic than it had to be. It was one of the few obvious moments in an otherwise subtle movie.

So now that we agree that the movie is a feminist movie, my question to you is why are there so few movies like Mad Max? Why aren’t there more movies where the sexes feel equal?

Jaime: You make a good point about how everyone should help out according to their ability (Karl Marx would agree.), but you’re right, it goes too far when people are forced into roles. The women are definitely subjugated, but I’d argue that the men are, too, which I guess is what you’re saying about the sexes being equal. Those poor War Boys who live to die for Immortan Joe are certainly not making informed choices about their lives. They think they are though. They’ve totally bought into the mythology that Joe is God, and they’re willing to die for him. That’s what scarcity of resources will do to people. The one who controls the water controls the world.

As for movie executives, they’re stupid and make decisions out of fear. Just kidding, I don’t know, but I suspect that that’s true. It’s all about money for them, so they only want to do what they know has worked in the past. They’re risk averse because one bad movie deal can hurt for a long time or even destroy a studio. Action franchises make big bucks, and most of those are male-driven narratives. In 2014, only two of the ten top grossing American movies featured female characters as the protagonists (Katniss in The Hunger Games and Maleficent in her self-titled movie). It’s interesting to note that both of these movies are targeted toward a younger audience, not adults, which might mean the studios have more faith in young people latching onto female-driven storylines.

I’m surprised that so few movies feature female protagonists since women buy half of all tickets sold and make up 52% of all moviegoers. This article also mentions that the international market has increased to 70%, which means that creative decisions are probably being made with China and other emerging markets in mind. I guess that could explain some of this, but this problem has a long history, so I’m not sure.

It’s interesting that this problem crosses over to literature. Supposedly, boys won’t read books that seem to be about girls. This article talks about how parents reinforce boys’ reading only male oriented books (and probably prompt this behavior in the beginning) and how a book like The Hunger Games, which is loved by boys and girls alike, wouldn’t have sold well to boys if the cover featured a girl rather than a symbol. And this article shows that this trend has been happening for more than a hundred years, starting with picture books for very young children.

So taking all that history into consideration when looking at Mad Max Fury Road, this movie is doing a lot to move film in the right direction, the direction of reality, by portraying women as strong, intelligent, capable members of society who can be interesting without being sexualized (at least Furiosa isn’t, the same can’t be said for the wives). The fact that women save The Citadel from Immortan Joe and provide its citizens with all the water they need sends an important message about the problems with, not only patriarchy, but all the traditional power structures that have gotten us into the mess we’re in. Does it go far enough though? I think so. Because revolution is messy and parts of the past will always plague the future.

2 Comments

  • Sara O. says:

    First, let me apologize for how late my comment is. I’ve been putting off reading your entire post until I saw the movie… I rented it a week or so a go, but couldn’t get passed the first 15 minutes… I can’t handle too much blood *shrugs.*

    Even having not seen the movie, I was fascinated by your points about feminism, misogyny, and patriarchy in films and literature. I was also very intrigued about your thoughts on the Hunger Games’ sales if the cover was a girl rather than a symbol. I teach elementary school and there’s been a trend of setting certain books aside and labeling them “for boys,” which always makes me cringe slightly, especially when the books are in a bin literally labeled “for boys” and I think about how many girls could have shied away from them because of that label alone. Very thought provoking conversation/topic. Thank you for sharing.

  • Jaime Wood says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Sara. Having a “for boys” bin would make me cringe, too. I don’t think we should pander to or reinforce biases, so if boys are attracted to a certain type of book, maybe the better practice might be to show them similar books that are a bit outside their general reading habits. Reading should help kids expand their minds, not solidify their tastes. I hope you’ll give Mad Max another try some day. There is some violence, but the movie is mostly action once you get past that intro where they’re setting up the conflict. And it turns out that it has an environmentalist message, too.

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