Having viewed the film multiple times as of this writing, I can certainly see the point. In this latest chapter of Mad Max’s punk western universe, our titular hero plays second fiddle to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a tough, brilliant female warrior on a mission to rescue five beautiful sex slaves from a grotesquely deformed tyrant known as Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). What is exciting about the relationship between Max and Furiosa is how easily they step into their roles as allies, respecting each other as equals and relying on each other’s strengths. The fact that Furiosa is a woman is not really an issue for Max. Throughout the course of their adventure, Max anticipates that Furiosa (and by extension the five women they rescue) will be proficient and strong, even deferring to her without resistance (the rifle scene being a prime example, which I will discuss further down).
First of all, I think calling Fury Road a Mad Max movie is fine. Max may not be the protagonist, but he is the entry point into the film. We, the audience, view this world through Max’s paradigm. Of course this is still a Mad Max film. If we didn’t have Max to show us this world, how many men would actually see movie?
As far as the feminism arguments/observations, I think both sides may be a bit off-target. Granted, Eve Ensler was a creative consultant on Mad Max: Fury Road, but from my particular paradigm, the film is not so much a feminist proclamation as it is cultural vision. To call the film feminist suggests an agenda, almost reducing it to propaganda. I don’t see the Max/Furiosa relationship as one built on feminist agenda. Furiosa and the women she rescues are not fighting to prove they have value in Immortan Joe’s male-dominated demense (which is the motivation of women in most feminist films, G.I. Jane being a good example). The desire of these women is to escape Joe’s patriarchy entirely. They are driven by survival, not politics.
In contrast, when watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I got the sense that the husband-wife team of director and editor had a clear idea of how this film was supposed to look … and that is what they reached for. It’s almost a hunter-gatherer dynamic with Miller and Sixel. The man goes into the wilderness (filming location) to capture the beast (footage), and the woman “cooks” (edits) it into something resembling food. Okay, so I fell back on archaic gender roles to analogize the production. Sue me. The point is, Mad Max: Fury Road works because it has both a male and a female perspective in the finished product.
In a way, the male-female relationship on the screen is a reflection of the male-female relationship behind the camera. After a rocky start (to say the least), Imperator Furiosa teams up with Mad Max, and the two flow into a genuine partnership. They need each other to survive. They protect each other. They have each other’s backs. Furiosa trusts Max so much that she allows him to meet the last of her warrior clan, a tribe of motorcycle-riding women called the Vulvulini. Max trusts Furiosa so much that he hands her his guns while he takes the wheel of the War Rig. None of this seems overtly feminist to me. Rather, the alliance between Max and Furiosa is the most natural thing in the world.
Perhaps it is just my own personal experience but I don’t think, and never have thought, the feminist movement was about the kind of raw feminine power that we see in Mad Max: Fury Road. Call me an asshole, but one of the reasons I have always been at odds with feminism is because whenever I've been confronted with it, it has always come from a place of angry activism. It has seldom seemed to be about equality. It has most often seemed to be about bullying and emasculation.
That is an evolved world view. It is visionary. And crazy as it sounds, it is kind of like the world I grew up in. My mother entered the work force, not because she was a mighty woman trying to prove her worth to men, but because she wanted to work. Period. Dad supported her, not because he was an enlightened, feminized male, but because that’s what a man does in his marriage--he supports his spouse.
My history is littered with women like Furiosa, women who saw something they wanted to do and just did it. When I played little league flag football, my team was the first to have girls on it, three of them to be exact … and one of them was quarterback! When I entered the workforce, most of my supervisors were women. This wasn’t something new and unusual, and I didn’t go in with an attitude of “I don’t take orders from chicks!” They were my bosses, period. They had been there longer, they knew more than me … of course I deferred to them.
Perhaps the best way to summarize my attitude toward women in my youth is through something I recently shared with one of my best friends: When I was in college, if a woman asked me to help her move into her apartment, I expected her to pick up her end of the sofa … and where I come from, nine times out of ten she did. That tenth woman, the one who batted her eyes to get the guys to do all the work … well, suffice to say I didn’t help her move more than once.
Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of woman who picks up her end of the sofa. Perhaps that is feminist in its purest form, but unless there’s an apocalypse of the proportions that precede the world of Mad Max: Fury Road, I don’t think feminism will ever be so pure. There will always be crotch-grabbing cretins who want to hold women back, and as such there will always be feminists who are more angry than resourceful, the kind of women who mistake bullying for strength.
But that is not the world of Mad Max: Fury Road, and that is why I cannot call it feminist. Rather, it is equalist, perhaps humanist. Much has been said about the scene where Max lets Furiosa rest the barrel of her rifle on his shoulder while she shoots. What I love are the unspoken subtleties of that scene. The set-up is that the War Rig is stuck in the sand, and it is night, and the light of an advancing pursuer can be seen in the distance. Max takes the rifle, which is down to its last three shots, and fires at the light. Nothing. He fires again. Nothing, one shot left.
Furiosa crouches behind him, and the emotions on her face are amazing. She wants to help Max align this final shot, and she peers over his shoulder to help him sight it. Perhaps a part of her desperately wants to take the gun, but she trusts Max and she allows him to do his job. Max’s face indicates that he knows she is there. In less than three seconds, we see the entire thought process play out in his expressions: I may be a good shot, but I know she is a better one. Wordlessly, he hands the rifle back to Furiosa and lets her settle the barrel on his shoulder.The entire dynamic of these two equal warriors is played out in their faces. They recognize each other’s strengths. They are there to support each other. And they don’t feel the need to argue about it or prove anything to each other.
But I didn’t have much use for the women in those movies.
Most of the time, Sinbad’s women did little more than sit around looking pretty while Sinbad’s men did all the work. Granted, Princess Parisa (Kathryn Crosby) in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad does help Sinbad out of a couple of pickles, and Margiana (Caroline Munro) in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad has a tattoo that inadvertently spares Sinbad from becoming a human sacrifice.
For the most part, however, the role of these women was to get in trouble and get rescued. In Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the third in the Harryhausen/Sinbad series, Princess Farah (Jane Seymour), doesn't do much but scream and do a nude scene.
These aren't the most enlightened films.
As such, I was much more attracted to Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in the Star Wars saga, which first hit screens when I was 14. Leia is smart, resourceful, able to pull her own weight, and even though she does get captured, she doesn’t take any crap from Darth Vader or Grand Moff Tarkin. Once she is rescued by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, she grabs a gun and starts mowing down stormtroopers, and although both Luke and Han are a little surprised by her spirit, neither one tries to stop her.
Does this make me a feminist? I don’t care if it does. The clearest working definition of feminism I can find is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” I probably don’t fit that mold because I've never been an “advocate” for women’s equality; in my mind, that would be like being an “advocate” for the sky to be blue. Of course women are equal. Of course they are owed the same political, social, and economic status as men.
To me, it is a no-brainer, which is why radical feminism has always knocked me for a loop. I’m not talking about the movement as a whole but a small-but-vocal subset of unsophisticated feminism cut from the cloth of misandry. They no more represent the heart of true feminism than Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity.
They are the authors of such demeaning 1970s catchphrases as ALL MEN ARE PIGS and A WOMAN NEEDS A MAN LIKE A FISH NEEDS A BICYCLE, and remnants of this radical brand of feminism can be seen in the whole MALE TEARS crusade that permeates the movement today.
What we men do not need is to be demeaned. We do not need to have our opinions and ideas dismantled and destroyed. We do not need to be singled out and humiliated, accused of low-brow social atrocities, and lumped in with the real patriarchal monsters who truly oppress others. That’s like killing your father’s cat because he beats your mother. You may upset Daddy, but you haven’t done anything to make Mommy’s situation any better … and you hurt a blameless animal in the process.
What is most important here is that we all find ways to help each other grow. The one thing every man needs from his woman is for her to be a Furiosa, to look him in the eye, see the best person that he can become, and treat him as if she expects him to do the right thing. No, wait … Furiosa is not the right analogy because that would suggest that most men are Max, which clearly we are not.
If anything, we are more like Nux (Nicholas Hoult), the brainwashed Warboy in Fury Road who is willing to die for Immortan Joe’s despotic cause. Nux (whose name sounds like “Max” spoken through a gag), is almost feral and seemingly untamable, a crazed warrior indoctrinated by Joe into believing that his death in battle will serve the common good. Midway through the film, when he realizes that he has failed Joe, he retreats within himself, cowering on Furiosa’s war rig like a tortured lab animal. It is Capable (Riley Keough), one of Joe’s former slave “wives,” who discovers him.
Because of Capable’s healing nature, Nux joins this band and fights alongside Max, Furiosa, and the other women against insurmountable odds. The collaboration of these warriors, each contributing his or her strength to the cause, is one of the most exhilarating aspects of the film’s last half-hour.
What should we learn from this?
We should learn that while men may not be perfect, we do have something to contribute. Women have come a long way, baby, but as a people we all have much further to go. There are still plenty of Immortan Joes out there and not too many Mad Maxes. What's left over are thousands of Warboys like Nux, troubled young men whose loyalties can turn either way. Men who need a little guidance so that they can become allies.
Because in this vast cultural wasteland, feminists need all the allies they can get.