I am suspicious of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Deeply, deeply suspicious. And I've thought about this rather hard, but I don't think I'm simply reacting with sheer bloody-mindedness against the contextual responses - the buzz, the expectations, the claims of feminism, the gender slapfights. If half Teh Internets hadn't tried desperately to claim this as a Feminist Masterpiece, I might be less inclined to see its "feminism" negatively, but I don't think so. On the whole, panicked MRA horror at the thought that Girl Power Cooties might have got all over their cherished Man-Genre is largely irrelevant, if only because one shouldn't trust MRA insights with a ten-foot electric cattle prod1
. And I'm not really swayed by the acclaim of a lot of female viewers who share my desperation for representation in a male-dominated Hollywood. I don't want to negate their responses, but I think they could stand to dig a little deeper. I don't think this is a feminist
masterpiece. At best, its somewhat self-congratulatory attempts at feminism are deeply, deeply flawed.
They're also part of the overall sense in which this is a very loud
film, both literally and in its fumblings at message. I saw this in a cinema which had the sound turned up so far that it was itself an assault - the war rig engine note made my breastbone vibrate, and I emerged at the end of the film battered and literally shaking. This is not, however, an inappropriate response to the visual and conceptual assault the film offers. It's very much about violence, a far-future scenario of desperation and conflict, in which violence is both normalised and religiously ritualised. It's beautifully shot. The landscapes, the rolling sand and twisted rocks, the sense of desolation, are exquisite. The action choreography is breathtaking. A lot of it takes place at high speed, aboard fleets of perverse and unlikely vehicles speeding across the landscape - it's viscerally exciting, unexpected, demented, desperate. I liked the world-building, the random inexplicable detail, the bizarre social codes, the sense of all-out crazy as an up-yours in the teeth of despair. Why the hell there should be a rig specialised to a rack of giant kettledrums and a guitarist whose sole purpose is to supply a war-fleet soundrack of riffs from a flame-thrower guitar is anyone's guess, but it fits right into the post-apocalyptic aesthetic and it's effective as all get-out. In action-movie terms it's a hell of a ride. ( This bit is spoilery, so skip it if you haven’t seen the film. )
Overall, as an action film it's pretty darned good: it gets additional points for (a) not chopping its action sequences up to hell and gone with delirious camera movement so you can actually determine tactical cause and effect, and (b) doing it mostly For Realz, with minimal CGI (apparently about 90% of those sequences were actually filmed, they had Cirque du Soleil performers and Olympic athletes in there doing those crazy stunts). You can tell. It feels very real.
But really feminist? not so much. Let's, children, let's talk about representation.
So. Misogynist post-apocalyptic dystopia. Men are In Charge, women are "breeders" if they're attractive and not deformed, and mostly ugly extras if they're not. Until we meet the Vuvalini towards the end, Furiosa herself is the only beautiful, damaged and kick-butt exception. Which is, if you think about it, itself a problem. You can't say that instrumental femaleness resides entirely in your ability to be Charlize Theron, it kinda dooms the rest of us who weren't actually born in Bloemfontein. (Nor, in fact, should it reside in your ability to perform the hackneyed male genre role of violence, much less violent protection of helpless women). While the Vuvalini are less stereotypical and allow a sort of grizzled middle-aged agency, it's fairly limited: they're depicted as marginal in both the world and the plot, generally sliding into a decline and resurrected only by Furiosa's and, ultimately, Max's leadership.
There's a weird body-sense driving the film in some ways: clearly the frantic desire by the warlord for non-deformed babies is because of high radiation, mutation, the usual post-apocalyptic nastiness. But there's no attempt whatsoever to rationalise the fact that almost all of the men in the film are damaged or deformed in some grotesque way, while the rescued "breeders" are model-beautiful, unblemished, firmly within the contemporary media ideal. Even Furiosa herself is disabled (and that's nicely done, a kind of by-the-way normalised representation we don't see often, as this response
notes) but still beautiful, and her departure from the media body ideal is in terms of absence (missing arm) rather than impurity - missing arm or not, the rest of her is still very much Charlize Theron. The only non-deformed instrumental male character in the film is Max himself, whose damage is psychological; the icons of masculinity (warboys, warlords) are weird-looking or actively monstrous. The instrumental female characters are at worst aged, and a very high proportion of them are beautiful bodies. At the heart of the film is an unquestioning conformity to the old, ugly assumption of patriarchal Hollywood that only male viewers are important, and male viewers don't like to look at ugly women.
The cinematography is at least partially to blame for the weird beauty messages, because it works flatly against the film's superficial message of "woman are not things" to be ultimately objectifying. That initial scene with the escapee women, where they're gratuitously wasting precious water by hosing each other down, is shot and posed like an advert for, I dunno, boho punk clothing, or shampoo, or possibly girly hygiene products. Those are impeccably tanned, lithe, skinny bodies, their clothing a well-judged combination of revealing and femininely filmy and flowing. That camera gaze is as male and objectifying as hell. There's the same problem with the pregnant girl displaying herself to inhibit her pursuers - they try to co-opt the patriarchal objectification, to use their value as "breeders" against their pursuers, but as a feminist technique that's dangerous, running the risk of conformity to the tropes they're trying to subvert. It's a flawed strategy because in that moment, your gaze as audience is that of the girls' owners and rapists. Ultimately, it's difficult to see these as empowered women when the camera is complicit with their oppressors.
And the problem is that the narrative ultimately supports a view of women as reductionist stereotypes - not just the "breeder" trope it tries to overthrow, but both the "woman as visual object" and "powerful woman" images. Their power is either co-opted stereotypical male violence (Furiosa) or it's stereotypical female "power" which perceives their value as in their healthy bodies - their procreative ability and thus their sexuality. Hell, even the Vuvalini is a matriarchal all-woman group who stands for and holds the generative powers of seeds/life/birth. It's basically reductionist: the various women in the film are mostly rushing to embrace something that's simply another facet of the gender essentialism they're trying to escape. I invoke my patron saint, Angela Carter, to mutter "all myth is consolatory nonsense! Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods."
It really doesn't help the essentialism, either, to have a random romance flung into the middle of it all - mercifully they didn't try to ship Furiosa with Max, but apparently you can't have an action movie without someone getting a girl, however temporarily. It seemed to me to be utterly problematical to have one of the fleeing women suddenly turn around and romance, in terms of the visual and narrative coding of their interaction, a representative of the masculine war-cult which is out to capture her. If that was meant to be an attempt at exploring the damage of a misogynist war-cult does to its own male participants (which is itself a perfectly legitimate goal), it happened too suddenly and with too little scaffolding to be valid or likely.
This was not, I reiterate, a feminist
masterpiece. This was an extremely entertaining action film, which was self-conscious enough to try and subvert some of the gender poles of the genre by by surfacing and attempting to combat the idea of woman as object, and by inserting a woman into the classically male role. But not, you note, as the main character, a point this article
makes at rather more length. I don't want to take away from the film's success as action movie, as spectacle, as aesthetic - there were many ways in which I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it's not particularly subversive. I don't think it's more than the sum of its parts, and its parts, while they've been creatively re-arranged, have largely been hauled intact out of Hollywood's misogyny vault.
1For those of you who have been blissfully unaware of the recent cultural shenanigans in netspace, Men's Rights Activists, an icky, icky bunch who are doing their utmost to spoil notions of masculinity for the remainder of their (comparatively) innocent gender.
NOTE: I have mildly edited at a couple of points after mature reflection (hence strikethroughs), and to address the inherent problem in attempting to dictate what "feminism" is for anyone other than me. I think you can read feminist elements into this film, for a given and somewhat simplistic definition of "feminism", and it's certainly a hell of a lot better than the average action film in its positioning of women. But it's definitely not a feminist masterpiece, and it's definitely still problematical in a lot of ways. It's dangerous, I think, to accept its ideologies uncritically, and to think that that's enough, because of all the misogynistic baggage that's accepted in the process; and it's very sad to think that female viewers are so starved of representation that they'll swallow it whole.