Or, is Mad Max: Fury Road too heavy-handed to be feminist? Is it too obvious?
Yes, this topic is a little bit old. But I just saw the movie for the first time, and since it was involved in a lot of Oscar discussion, I’m gonna pretend it’s still relevant. OK? OK.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a two hour explosion-filled car chase action movie about a badass woman named Furiosa and five sex slaves attempting to first escape from and then overthrow the evil Immortan Joe. Also, there’s a guy called Max.
It is, even from that description, the most overtly feminist action movie that I’ve ever heard of. It’s got a huge cast of female characters, of all ages, the leader of whom has a visible disability. It’s literally about their fight for freedom from the man who controls them.
But the movie’s been criticized, most notable by Anita Sarkeesian, for being faux-feminist. For having heavy handed, overt “feminist” themes that attempt to distract us from the deep flaws beneath. And it’s true that the movie is often heavy handed. It has lots of female characters, yet the armies our heroes fight against are 100% male. It’s literally the story of sex slaves/”wives” running for freedom. There’s an elderly woman who is the keeper of the seeds, and so of potential new life after the apocalypse. The movie really isn’t attempting subtlety here.
But that, I think, is the right approach. Mad Max: Fury Road is an action movie. Everything about it is big. Characters can have subtle moments, but the action is smack-you-in-the-face. The plot has to be simple enough to allow for minimal dialogue and many explosions, and yet expansive enough to allow us to feel real danger and thrill. This is not the place for small and subtle discussions of misogyny. If Mad Max: Fury Road is going to be different, if it’s going to be a feminist action movie, it has to fit feminism into that context. The feminism needs to be big, it needs to be loud, and it needs to be simple.
Anita Sarkeesian and other critics disagreed. As Sarkeesian said, the movie is about “resisting a cartoonish version of misogyny. But that resistance takes the form of more glorified violence…. It lets some women participate as equal partners in a cinematic orgy of male violence…. Mad Max’s villains are caricatures of misogyny which makes overt misogynists angry but does not challenge more prevalent forms of sexism.”
I want to look at this, one piece at a time. First, the idea that Mad Max isn’t feminist because it glorifies violence. Two things here: does Mad Max glorify violence? And is that violence necessarily un-feminist?
You could argue that, visually, Mad Max does revel in violence. It is a fast-paced action movie, after all. It doesn’t take that dark and gritty tone of “everything is awful and everyone is miserable” (even as everything is awful and everyone is miserable), but uses bright colors and high saturation to give the movie a fun vibrancy. There are lots of explosions, and we’re clearly supposed to enjoy the thrill of this non-stop car chase. But the violence is never treated as a good thing in the story. The very existence of a character like Nux, one of Immortan Joe’s war boys, disproves that. He ends up questioning everything he’s been brainwashed to believe, he sacrifices himself to save everyone in the end, and his violent past and violent death are both points of extreme pathos for the audience. He becomes one of the most sympathetic and compelling characters, because violence is not a good thing in this world. It’s a necessity, but it’s not one without cost.
And it is necessary. These women are not going to liberate themselves by holding a protest. The high-stakes, dramatic set-up of the action movie needs a high-stakes, dramatic response, and that means that violence ensures. And since this is a fun action movie, that violence is portrayed as nail-biting, their victories as cheer-worthy.
But, as my friend pointed out to me as I watched, the movie doesn’t revel in actual violence. There’s very little blood splattering. There’s no gore. Extreme acts of disturbing violence always happen off-screen, implied but not shown. And some might say this glorifies violence by removing the reality, but I think it shows respect for the audience. They’re here to have fun, and the movie recognizes that gory violence, especially violence against women, is not fun. It has cruel characters as part of the plot, but it doesn’t revel in their cruelty.
Next, the idea that this is a “caricature of misogyny.” Again, I think that both is and isn’t true — and that’s not a bad thing. Everything in the movie is big and dramatic and apocalyptic, but it’s hardly a caricature to say that women can be kept as sex slaves, or that they can try and fight for freedom. It’s an extreme form of misogyny that all but the most outspoken misogynists will easily argue against, but it’s not completely outside the realms of reality. The caricature part, perhaps, arises in how the plot unfolds, in how big and overt the struggle becomes. But, again, this is an action movie. It’s fitting feminist themes into the promises of the genre. Viewers can watch the movie and imagine themselves along with Furiosa, and feel the thrill of everyday struggles written large, and defeated.
We have serious and subtle movies that can challenge insidious forms of misogyny. And as much as we’d love to say that stories like Mad Max are pointless, because no one would disagree with their message, plenty of people did disagree.
Anita’s argument, at its core, seems to imply that feminism means taking down the genre of action movies, rather than changing them to become more inclusive. I’m not an action movie person, which is the main reason it’s taken me so long to actually watch this, despite everyone’s rave reviews. But many people are fans of action movies, people who don’t necessarily revel in gore and violence, but who like fast paced movies with lots of thrilling set pieces and special effects. Movies that grip you and make your heart race. And as much as people need subtle and thought-provoking discussions of misogyny, sometimes women just need to watch something and go “hell YES!” One article sticks in my head about a mother whose dinosaur-loving little girl was obsessed with Mad Max, but was meh about Jurassic World, because there weren’t any female heroes for her to emulate. People who like the action genre, people who want badass female inspiration, deserve them. As any reader of this blog will know, I’m not a supporter of the idea that all female characters should be butt-kicking badasses. But some should be, especially in the butt-kicking badass genre.
And Mad Max tried really, really hard to be different. To be feminist. They had Eve Ensler as a consultant on set. George Miller specifically wanted his wife as the editor because her non-action movie, non-male perspective would bring something fresh and feminist to the movie. Its message was far from an accident. It was crafted with purpose. And yes, it’s heavy-handed at times. But almost everything is heavy-handed in the action genre, and that overt, simplistic story of feminist liberation has a lot of depth beneath it. This is an action movie with intrinsic feminist themes — not just a Strong Female Character who’s actually there to be ogled, but an entire story with feminist resonance.
Subtlety isn’t always effective. Subtlety doesn’t have misogynists up in arms and everybody talking. Sometimes you need to be big and dramatic. And when it’s a Mad Max movie, combining a whole bunch of explosions with a whole bunch of badass women is pretty much the perfect way to do it.