Originally published on the Fanny Pack blog.
Before 2015, when you thought about director George Miller’s Mad Max film series, you probably wouldn’t associate it with words such as ‘Feminism’ or ‘Female Empowerment’ as much as you would with ‘Cars’, ‘Motorbikes’ or ‘Mel Gibson.’
Skip forward to today, however, and you’ll find that Mad Max: Fury Road – the fourth installment of the long-running franchise – has proven to be a surprisingly divisive film for anyone interested in gender politics, hailed as either an instant Feminist classic or reviled as “propaganda” ruining a traditionally male-focussed franchise. I totally side with the former, and whilst it is not without fault from a Feminist perspective, I was incredibly uplifted to see such a big-budget blockbuster not only follow in the footsteps of female-lead action films of the past like Alien, Terminator and The Hunger Games, but also sport a very clear anti-Patriarchal stance. There is no subtext or subtlety about it: Fury Road is a bloody and biting call to arms for women everywhere with it’s unofficial tagline:
‘WE ARE NOT THINGS.’
Misogynists everywhere have been very vocal in their criticism of it, but after sifting through all the negativity lobbied against the film, there’s one in particular that bugs me the most. Men’s Rights Activists’ such as Aaron Clarey in his review on popular MRA blog Return of the Kings have popularised the idea that titular character Max [Tom Hardy] is criminally sidelined in his own film, leaving co-star Imperator Furiosa [Charlize Theron] to steal the show.
“Charlize Theron kept showing up a lot in the trailers, while Tom Hardy (Mad Max) seemed to have cameo appearances […] And finally, Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max. Nobody barks orders to Mad Max.”
The irony of this statement is that once I started to unpack all the ways Clarey was wrong, I inadvertently started to realise that the Feminist lifeblood of Fury Road runs far deeper than just the superficial ‘strong female character’ stereotype.
Throughout the Mad Max franchise, Max has always been characterised as a nomadic figure, drifting from one post-apocalyptic madness to the next. Fury Road’s narration consolidates this by quoting this from The First History of Man:
“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”
It’s true that the story of Fury Road could have easily happened without him, but by no means does this fact make him redundant as a character, and the entire course of the story would have been irrevocably different. The fact that Max is thrown by accident into Furiosa’s plans is also completely in-keeping with his status as an adventuring wanderer. After all, Furiosa may rightly call the shots in the first act of her bid for freedom, but it is Max who takes control in the second act of the film when he instigates their daring plan to recapture the Citadel where women are imprisoned, and Max who revives Furiosa with his own blood when she is critically wounded. They adapt to working together when they realise that a united front is the only assurance of freedom, and as such contribute equally as co-pilots to the steering of the plot.
These themes of cooperation, reinvention, and reclamation actually run deeper into the matrix of the film than you might think.
The primitivism of a world that has seemed to suffer a technological and biological man-made apocalypse in Mad Max is laid bare in the absence of plants, water, or urbanised environments. This planetary devolution has also seeped into human society as any scrap of hard-fought social changes have been stripped back to the patriarchal foundations our civilisation is built on. And the chosen few are not just surviving – they’re thriving.
Furiosa yearns to return to the place of her birth – the fabled all-female ‘green place’ that is just a distant memory to her now. This parallels the traditional affinity of women with plants and nature; juxtaposed against the dominant patriarchy who rely solely on machines and artificial materials. They are as much the adversary of nature as they are to the opposite sex.
This juxtaposition is then flipped on its head when you realise that to reach the ‘green place’, Furiosa and the liberated women must rely on a massive man-made behemoth of smoke and oil, fully customised with extra fuel, water, and… milk? Yes, you read it right. At one point in the story, Max – injured from a battle – washes the blood from his face using breast milk from one of the truck’s pumps. This milk is ‘farmed’ at the Citadel as an alternative to water. “Redemption is symbolized through human milk,” Coleen Martell explains in her article Sweet Nectar of the Matriarchy: Breast Milk in Mad Max: Fury Road. “‘Mother’s Milk’ anoints Max’s face after his first proactively selfless act in support of Furiosa and the ‘Five Wives.’” It seems that the truck has been secretly converted from a weapon of war to a nurturing body.
This body shares a bond with Furiosa that parallels the one she strikes up with Max. Her missing arm is replaced with a mechanised one that connects her directly to the driving mechanism; she even smears herself with its oil as war paint. More than a horse is to a knight; Furiosa’s steed gives her freedom, shelter, and life.
Furiosa, despite being born as woman of nature, has not only adopted the mechanised world of men, but she has repurposed and reclaimed it as a true Cyberfeminist would to use against them.
In the end, the women’s choice – aided by Max – to return and reintegrate themselves into society on their own terms seems far more victorious and satisfactory to me than finding peace in a separatist female utopia, which so many of the negative reviews would have you believe. This, to me, is the real Feminist message of Mad Max: Fury Road. Empowerment and freedom doesn’t always have to be fought for in blood, sweat and violence; it can also be won with unity, sympathy and nurture.