It’s a few days since I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, and I’m still rolling it around in my head.
I can’t even.
[The following contains much necessary swearing and also pretty much all the SPOILERS. Do like Margo did and watch the damn movie first.]
Other people have written and will continue to write about this movie as feminist science fiction, and its do-or-die Fuck the Patriarchy attitude. Furiosa is, let’s face it, the action heroine we’re all still going to be talking about in twenty years time, because men and women are like are punching the air about her. She’s our new Ripley, our 21st Century Sarah Connor.
Watch Furiosa load a shotgun. Watch Furiosa punch Max in the face, with her nubbins. Watch Furiosa drive a semi tractor trailer. Watch Furiosa fire a long shot, using Max’s shoulder to stabilize the gun barrel, as an alternative to using two hands! Watch Furiosa do anything you can do, but better, and with half the number of fingers.
I want to write about my personal reaction to the movie, because I’m taking this one personally, it’s got under my skin in a way almost nothing in a cinema has in a long, long time.
My partner took me for my birthday – I’d already started reading the feminist commentary, so I was all in, whereas he was mostly there for, you know, the Mad Maxness of it all. But afterwards what we talked about was gender and patriarchy, performative masculinity, rev-heads and rigs, feminist film gaze.
We talked about the “Max lusts for water not ladies” scene, and the symbolic use of bolt cutters, and how many women there were on the screen like, all the time, and my creeping worry through the film that Furiosa was going to die, and whether I would still be okay with the film’s revolutionary portrayal of women if she did.
He said at one point “I wasn’t sure ahead of time if it was going to be… your sort of thing,” and that was a viable sort of worry really, because I’ve been very bleh about cinema generally in recent years (I get my emotional narrative from TV where the writers live) and on the surface, this film was not a Tansy sort of risk. Given that he had taken me for my birthday, he wanted me to enjoy it…
Heh, little did he know that I had already pre-gamed with the feminists of the internet, even if I had managed to do so without too many spoilers. I knew going in that Kameron Hurley thought they hadn’t fucked up, and Anita Sarkeesian hadn’t approved of it but most of the rest of Twitter feminism disagreed with her, and that Liz Bourke was a little in love with it (her analysis of the Max/Water scene was the reason I was all in).
I’m an Australian which means I have watched all the Mad Max films, it’s one of those things like Vegemite and Neighbours that you have to have some kind of opinion on. My opinion was ‘eh it’s a thing, I get it, the second one was the good one I guess but now Mel Gibson has ruined everything retrospectively anyway’ but I wasn’t especially invested in it as a creative brand. My reaction to them bringing the franchise back was roughly on par with how I would feel if Crocodile Dundee went for another round. (omg if they did that now they would totally cast Chris Pratt, wouldn’t they?)
And then the movie started.
Here’s a thing you maybe didn’t know about me: I used to love action movies. I have seen Terminator 2 approximately 25 times. There used to be nothing I enjoyed more than a guns and explosions movie on the big screen. I genuinely enjoyed Under Siege. But liking action movies always felt like I was a tourist in a world that didn’t belong to me, and certainly didn’t see me as its intended audience. With very few exceptions (Rene Russo matching Mel Gibson scar for scar in Lethal Weapon Somethingth comes to mind, and The Long Kiss Goodnight with Geena Davis and every frame of Linda Hamilton in T2) action movies felt like I was staying on someone else’s couch. That got less and less comfortable as I grew older, and eventually I stopped bothering.
I still don’t know if I can put into words how amazing it felt to see a movie like Fury Road that was not getting it wrong. It wasn’t just putting one strong, powerful, interesting woman into a genre that so often uses women as scraps and baggage and window dressing. It was telling a whole story where women were the centre, women were everywhere you looked. Different women. Surviving terrible things and living to tell the tale, or sacrificing themselves nobly for other women.
This movie is a giant screw you to the Michael Bay era of action movies (the casting of Megan Gale as a dust-caked matriarch Valkyrie makes this very pointed), to every poster or film that focuses on an actress’ butt instead of (or at the same time as!) her face, to every sexist joke that the female viewers have had to endure in order to watch some explosions on a big screen.
I could (and maybe will) write essays and essays and essays about the women in this movie, about Imperator Furiosa (holy hell, let me unpack the significance of that name) and the Splendid Angharad, Toast the Knowing and Capable and Cheedo the Fragile and the Dag. About the Valkyrie, the Keeper of the Seeds (SOBS), and the rest of the Vuvalini. This movie and its women are worth talking about.
“Patriarchy, it turns out, is prettiest when it’s on fire.”
Laurie Penny, Buzzfeed.
But right now, today, I want to talk about the men.
Max Max is an extraordinary figure of performative masculinity in this movie. He is lone hero, as he always has been. He is shaped by loss and sacrifice and he escapes a horrible, traumatising and dehumanising imprisonment to reach a poor substitute for freedom: a hellish two hour chase scene in a desert. He is our male everyman, our action hero, facing down the post-apocalyptic nightmare into which he has fallen, and putting one beaten, bruised and bloody foot in front of the other.
He is also a badass feminist ally. He doesn’t mean to be, at first. He is completely out for himself. He starts out entirely selfish and only gradually becomes invested in the survival of the women who have – with Furiosa’s help – already rescued themselves. He doesn’t bother to stop and view them as sexual objects because he has more important things to worry about. He is never a sexual threat to these women, and I was never for one second afraid that he might be, despite their early vulnerability and the fact that it took them a long time to accept that about him.
It takes Max and Furiosa and the wives a hell of a long time to fully trust each other, but it is an earned trust based on the shared experience. He leaves them three times in the film. First because he doesn’t give a damn about them (and is prevented from stealing their rig only because Furiosa is smarter than him). Second because they have reached their planned destination, even if it isn’t what they thought it was going to be (and he returns to them because he has a crazy idea that just might work, allowing them to get something closer to their original dream). Third, because they are finally as saved as they’re ever going to be, and it’s time for him to move on.
This is not actually his movie, and Max himself is well aware of that.
It’s fascinating to watch the use of male strength in the film, mostly as a violent threat performed by vicious, testosterone-fuelled revheads (many of whom are very young men) and their vile overlords who sit in positions of power and rule by fear. Compare this to Max, who is male strength and power personified, and begins the story barely able to function as a human himself but, once he makes a connection with the women he is on the run with, never thinks of them as anything other than human and important.
How do you set up a grizzled lone hero archetype to protect five escaping former sex slaves without patronising them? Like this. Max and Furiosa work as equal partners right from the start, as it becomes evident they have equivalent past trauma and bad ass skills. He defers to her experience and capability where relevant, and they pool their resources. Both of them assume the wives will not be equivalent to their own physical and martial abilities, but insist that they pull their weight – that the younger women attempt necessary tasks that will help the group. Max never assumes they are useless because they can’t afford to be; when one of the young wives steps up and volunteers for a more challenging or potentially violent task, Max (and Furiosa) trust them to give it a go.
One of my favourite moments in the film involves Max shooting one of their pursuers with a long range rifle of some kind – Toast the Knowing (seriously the names of these characters are fabulous) has been counting the bullets and warns him how few this gun has. When he is down to the final bullet, he pauses and then hands it to Furiosa, knowing she has a better chance of making the shot than he does. She uses him as her gun rest, and makes the shot count.
An action hero who makes the shot every time isn’t nearly as interesting as an action hero who is secure enough in his masculinity to defer to a woman’s experience and capability.
From here all the way through to the final scene where Max disappears into the crowd, it becomes obvious that he is not the protagonist of this film. The Mens Right Activists were right – this is TOTALLY covert feminist propaganda masquerading as another bloke-centred explodey action movie, while revamping one of the blokiest franchises of all time. And as this fantastic review notes, it gets away with it because it’s a bloody awesome movie. Entertainment goes a long way.
If you’re going to bring feminist propaganda to the masses, there are worse ways than in a giant exploding truck covered with knives. In case you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, it’s two hours of seat-clutching, wall-to-wall explosions, giant art trucks covered with guitars that are also flamethrowers, howling Technicolor vistas, and blood on the sand. When the credits rolled, I felt like my eyeballs had been to Burning Man without me. I was thoroughly entertained.
Max is not the protagonist. He’s the helper. He’s Obi-Wan and Gandalf and the (good) Terminator. He’s in this story to assist Furiosa on the way to her destiny. She’s the one with the verbalised backstory, the one with a dream they are heading for, the one who is bowed but unbroken before the mighty final act. Max is Santa Claus, handing out practical gifts of swords and healing cordial to the Pevensie children just before shit gets real. He’s not the hero – he doesn’t even want to be the hero. But he recognises something in Furiosa and her quest to find a good life and safety for the wives, and he decides to help her attain it before he goes back to his grizzled angry life as a barely-hanging on survivor who doesn’t care about anything but his occasional angsty flashbacks.
Most of this is unspoken, which is probably a good thing, because Tom Hardy’s changeable “Aussieish” accent is the flaw in the Persian rug of this otherwise perfect Road Trip From Hell. I choose to believe this is because his trauma at the hands of the war boys means he has basically forgotten how talking works. Max doesn’t speak much, in any case. In fact, he spends a good chunk of the first act of the movie tied to the front of one of the war boys’ souped up muscle cars like a mermaid figurehead, and even once he escapes that, he’s wearing a scold’s bridle for a really long time.
I didn’t say this movie was AT ALL SUBTLE in challenging gender conventions in SF dystopia and the action genre. Sure, the girls have to cut chastity belts off themselves, but he wears a SCOLD’S BRIDLE and needs the assistance of the women to get free of it.
The other fascinating feminist ally and unusual male character in the film is Nux, played by an almost unrecognisable Nicholas Hoult (it took me three quarters of the film to figure out who he was under all that white paint), who is set up as one of the out and out crazy war boys early on, and who I would have been quite happy to see violently killed at any point in the first half of the movie. Nux redeems himself through the expression of emotions, through one of the most gentle cinematic romances of all time, and through keeping his mouth shut long before the single act of sacrifice that is his final redemption. Max and his scold’s bridle and his rejection of gender norms in action films may not be subtle, but Nux provides us with a remarkably subtle and underplayed story of a young man who has been immersed in a grossly sexist culture his whole life, and is shocked into a new awareness that a) he has been complicit in a world that is designed to destroy women and b) it’s literally killing him too.
Another gorgeous, meaningful sequence: Furiosa is talking to Max about her quest, about her needs, and about how she is driven by a need for redemption. The camera then pans very slowly to Nux in the back seat with his new girlfriend Capable, and we see him nod to himself that yes, redemption is also what he’s after. He doesn’t need a whole scene to establish this; he simply responds to hers. Furiosa gets the focus and the gritty dialogue; Nux gets a thoughtful facial expression.
This is a ghetto-blasting, adrenalin-pumping, violent angry action movie in which the good guys are often silent while listening to women talk. What the everloving fuck.
[Also the cars, this movie made me care about cars and trucks and mechanics and desert sands in a way I never imagined before – Furiosa’s war rig is basically Atreu’s horse in The Never-Ending Story, it’s the TARDIS and Warehouse 13 and Serenity and Moya and and every mode of transport I’ve ever loved before, but it’s gross and oily and made of weapons; I will love it forever. Also the doof doof electric guitar rig with the massive speakers is the most Australian thing I’ve ever seen in a movie, this is our cultural heritage and our VERY SOUL. But hey let’s talk about the fact that Max’s car, the symbol of his survival and masculinity and freedom; the symbol of everything he has gone through to get here: his car is taken from him at the beginning of the movie and used against him as a weapon and he never gets it back.]
The feminism of this movie is subtle and unsubtle. It’s loud and funny and damaged and broken and sad (because dystopia is always sad) and it kicks patriarchy in the face, over and over again. Mad Max is right there, lending a boot for the kicking, and even Nux gets a couple of kicks in.
Because one of the messages of this film is, no fucking kidding here, that patriarchy hurts men too. They live in a terrible world, and everyone is hurting, not just because the environment is actively trying to starve them out, but because the society they have built is even more soul-sapping than the poisoned mud on the far side of the desert. Whole generations of young men (called War Boys and, tellingly, War Pups) have been bullied into a toxic gang mentality and rewarded with the dodgy panacea of awesome cars, Significant Steering Wheels, a religion based on being somewhere other than here, and being sprayed in the mouth with silver paint (what the FUCK, movie?). They are part of a culture that makes them think they can win, while the privileged old men still take everything they damn well want and to hell with anyone else.
At least the women in this movie know that their life is unendurable – the War Boys have been tricked into thinking that they’re on the top of the food chain, when they’re really just another mouthful of grass. That’s why, even though Furiosa is (and should) be the character in this movie who takes on a transcendant pop culture status, we also need to be paying attention to Nux.
Nux’s heartrending discovery that everything he believed in – religion, culture, great cars, protecting pretty ladies instead of shooting them off war rigs – has been a lie almost breaks him, and the women who threw him off their rig earlier in the movie (as was only right and proper) give him a second chance that he almost doesn’t deserve – to make amends, to do better, and to grow the hell up. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Fury Road is a road map (pun absolutely intended) on how to reinvent and interrogate genre along gender lines: you can’t just let the female characters do all the work, though it helps if there are LOTS of women, and a diversity of characters so not all the pressure is on a single character to make up for all the ladyfail of the genre to date. To achieve something like progress, you don’t just write “strong female characters”, you have to play around with the narrative tropes of male characters as well – challenging the paradigm and the audience expectations from every angle.
Furiosa is extraordinary. She’s action hero and maternal guardian rolled into one; if Max is the masculine feminist ally and Nux the reluctant but redeemable feminist ally, Furiosa is that even more important figure: a woman who is strong and powerful enough to transcend the sexist bullshit of her society, a woman who has shot and punched her way through the glass ceiling, and then stops to help other, less powerful women along the way. We need our male allies in feminism, but we need our powerful women to be allies too, and not all of them are.
Too often, the female action powerhouse character is the only “strong female character” we get, and she is surrounded by men in order to emphasise her unusual status, and to make it clear that she is exceptional; that makes her less of a threat to patriarchal norms. A movie in which Furiosa was the only woman might still have been good, but not great; a movie in which she was the only ally and helper of the five wives would probably have been awesome, but might not hold the same symbolic resonance as one in which Max and Nux volunteer to be vehicles for the destiny of these women.
I’ve seen a lot of people comment on the fact that the person who wrote, directed and steered this film, who made so many of the choice decisions (including the deliberate choice to hire a woman as editor as insurance against him screwing this up) is a 70 year old white dude. You know what this means? This means there are no excuses for any creator of any demographic to keep perpetuating old fashioned, boring, and unchallenging genre traditions out of nostalgia, or ignorance, or an inability (unwillingness) to be flexible.
There are just as many outmoded, broken, severely damaging tropes about men as there are about women across many, many genres of film, literature and art. Let’s burn them all down, and find what new stories grow out of the ashes.
Roll on the George Miller imitators. May you all jump on his coat-tails for a while, and see where they take you.
I’m riding with Furiosa.
Tansy Rayner Roberts @tansyrr
I think that inspiring @margolanagan to go see Fury Road today is the best thing I have achieved this month.
Margo Lanagan @margolanagan
Me too! *sobs, falls on your neck, passes you bag of seeds*
SOME LINKS (to be updated as I find more):