Is Mad Max: Fury Road Too Feminist to be Feminist?

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.

06 comments on “Is Mad Max: Fury Road Too Feminist to be Feminist?

  • Stephanie , Direct link to comment

    Yes! Thank you for writing this review. Even if it’s a few months too late. You put into words exactly how I felt about the criticisms against this movie.

  • Kali , Direct link to comment

    It’s never too late to talk about Mad Max: Fury Road! I love the points you’ve made here, it’s exactly how I felt about some of the think pieces surrounding the feminist themes of the movie.

  • Mila , Direct link to comment

    Very good points. Also, it’s nice that the movie didn’t show the badass butt-kicking character as the only possible role a female character could take. Most of the wives didn’t fit the description (even if they picked up skills along the way), but none of them was presented as less worthy or weaker because of that. And the wives somehow managed to have different personalities despite the extremely limited dialog.

    I think Mad Max had to deal with some very high expectations. Discussions about Mad Max feminism started long before the release date (mainly because of guys complaining how feminism would ruin the movie.) And after people saw it, suddenly the movie was lauded as some sort of a pinnacle of feminism, which was a large burden to bear. Ultimately, Mad Max is as feminist as an action movie can be, but as you said it yourself, the genre has limitation. It is a necessary movie, and it and can give young fans enjoyable role models, but if we want subtler messages, we have to look in other genres.

  • Deidre Dreams , Direct link to comment

    Yes! Great article! I understand all Anita’s points, but I agree with what you wrote here. I am an action-movie person on quite a few occasions and this movie is something that I’d love to see more of. Sometimes you’re in the mood for subtle, sometimes you’re in the mood for big and dramatic and when that last mood strikes, I’d rather watch a movie that has lots of cool female characters, none of which are fighting fuck toys and just crazy fun while also not requiring me to turn off my feminist eye.
    And as you said, hoo boy, there were plenty misogynists up in arms about this film, so clearly it’s needed!
    Also, what happened to the women in this film happens to 1000s of women in this world every day, there’s nothing unrealistic about their situation except for the specific situation that their society is set in.

  • Ivana , Direct link to comment

    Is there any female character or female-driven fictional narrative that Anita Sarkeesian actually likes and considers worthy and feminist enough? I stopped watching her videos a long while ago because she seems to have a very narrow and limited idea of what feminist fiction should be like and finds fault pretty much every female protagonist, with arguments I often find baffling. It almost seema like, if it was up to her, there would be just one type of female character and narrative around that she approves of (even though I’m not sure of what exactly it is – I have only seen her be negative about things).

  • Carol , Direct link to comment

    I agree that the movie has lots of feminist elements that are very welcome. But overall I tend to agree with Anita Sarkeesian on her criticism of violent genres. It’s not about action itself, because not all action is violence, but about the masculinization of violence. It’s like it’s men’s helm, and when women perform on it in those movies crafted like that, they’re tapping on that helm. And, like Sarkeesian, I think this movie glorifies violence more than it should. Maybe the characters aren’t having much fun with it, but it’s designed for the audience to love it. I especially hated when the older women are killed, but nobody else I talked to seemed to care, they’re just there for the fun of the explosions and the killing…like it’s something fun to watch. I think that’s problematic in itself.

What do you think?

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