Prompted by male tears, I saw Mad Max like any dutiful gender traitor. Overall it’s a blast, and George Miller remains one of the best action directors in the game. (The chase scenes in Mad Max 2, from 1981, feel like Christopher Nolan before his time.) I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected to – the sets, setpieces and effects are more spectacular than previous films’, but correspondingly less effortless. That said, there’s a lot to admire, from Tom Holkenborg’s score to Miller’s frame rate manipulation. It’s when it came to the feminist angle I wasn’t sure what to think.
Because full-time misogynists demanded a boycott, Fury Road prompted unexpected discussions about women in film. It’s since won praise for all kinds of reasons, many of which seem compelling. As Donna Dickens notes, this is a Bechdel-acing film with a focus on female characters – some of whom, like one-armed Imperator Furiosa and the grey-haired, gun-toting Vulvalini, are excellent – which deconstructs the lone male hero of action cinema. (In Max’s case, writes Dickens, ‘[this] status just about gets him killed’.) Unlike The Hunger Games or Divergent, Sasha James argues, it does this as ‘an action film that is not targeted specifically toward women – if anything, it’s marketed to men’ – and shows female characters, including rape and abuse victims, using the fact of their gender with agency. Writes James:
Untrained in the art of war, the Wives use their womanhood as tools [sic] for their own survival, weaponizing the stereotypes that would be conventionally used against them in a standard action film. For example, in [a] moment of bravery, Splendid transforms her body – the physical vessel for Immortan Joe’s son – into a shield for Max, Furiosa, and the Wives, recognizing her traditional role as a mother and actively using this to her benefit. . . . As an audience well versed in the often-misogynistic tropes inherent in action films, we expect Splendid to be a ‘damsel in distress’. Miller, however, inverses our expectation, transforming her into an empowered survivor.
The moment succeeds because it taps into something real, capturing the complexity of how people at the bottom of power structures negotiate them – something Hollywood’s tryhard attempts at feminism often miss.
And yet – and yet.
There’s been a feminist backlash against the plaudits in the last few days, much of it focused on the wives’ treatment. ‘”We are not things” is a great line,’ Anita Sarkeesian argues in a series of tweets, ‘but doesn’t work when the plot and especially the camera treats [sic] them like things from start to finish.’ In her review at In These Times, Eileen Jones agrees, writing:
The first full shot we get of the escaping women shows them standing tall against a gorgeous sun-blasted horizon, wearing white muslin bikinis and other resort-wear, and looking exactly like supermodels posing for a Vogue shoot in the deserts of Namibia. . . . That no primitive patriarch in his right mind would ever choose these particular women as ‘breeders’ to keep his colony alive is immediately apparent. One of them is so thin and pale as to be almost transparent and looks as if she’ll die in a photogenic way at any second.
It’s hard to escape the impression it’s Miller himself rather than Joe who’s dressed the wives to be leered at. (How is it, a friend asked, the Vulvalini ‘have a whole bikefull of crap they can donate to Max, but no extra clothes for the brides to wear?’ Is staying near-naked their preference in the face of death from heat exposure?)
Elsewhere in her critique, Sarkeesian seems close to opposing action films in principle, arguing it’s insufficient to let female characters ‘participate as equal partners in a cinematic orgy of male violence’. Is there something irretrievably male about bullets and fossil fuels? Ironically, other critics convincingly lambast Mad Max for buying into similar ideas. As Tracy King puts it, ‘the notion of men as natural warmongers and women as natural peacemakers [is] not dismantled by [Miller’s film], but reinforced. . . . A feminist masterpiece would not have bags of seeds handed from one ‘mother’ generation to the next.’ Jones again:
The women’s escape from the Citadel is a quest to reach the matriarchal paradise where Furiosa was born. They repeat as a comforting mantra, ‘We’re going to the Green Place!’ It’s the last stand of Mother Nature where, apparently, judging by the natives we eventually meet, no men ever lived. It’s an extraordinary thing, in this day and age, that we still want to believe in a lot of essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women. But apparently we do. In praising Fury Road, Eve Ensler says, ‘All the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.’ Whatever ‘inherent woman-ness’ is, I was afraid to find out.
I dreaded getting to the ‘Green Place’. Would everyone be doing yoga when we got there? And communicating softly and understandingly with each other? Or perhaps tending gardens all day, then doing fertility dances by the light of the moon? . . . In Fury Road, the lead feisty old woman clutches a bag of symbolic seeds for future tending when they resurrect the Green World matriarchy somewhere else. What’s so annoying about these motifs is that they bring us to yet another cliché: “primitive” women as akin to Mother Earth, vessels for seedlings, awesome in their mysterious fertility.
Watching Mad Max, I was reminded of that Doctor Who special with the literal mothership, Steven Moffat’s attempt to address his critics by empowering women through mystic womb-magic. (Did Miller’s clan of female bikers have to be named after vulvae?) The impression one gets is of a writer-director trying rather hard to be feminist, effort emphasising every shortcoming, and the potential is present for more than a few. Miller’s story of sex slavery might not feature sex scenes – lots of flattering comparisons with Game of Thrones have just been made – but parts were similarly hard to watch, and not just the glamour-shoot depiction of Joe’s harem. ‘The camera’, Sarkeesian writes, ‘caresses acts of violence in the same way it caresses the brides’ bodies.’ When takes linger (porno)graphically on women being milked like cattle and the fresh corpse of a pregnant woman being carved like a turkey, how much difference does leaving out actual rape make?
‘Viewers’, continues Sarkeesian, ‘get to feel good about hating cartoon misogyny without questioning themselves or examining how sexism actually works in our society.’ We’re invited to gaze long and hard on what Joe’s acolytes do, voyeurs taking moral refuge in revulsion, but not to see things through their victims’ eyes; to moralise but not to empathise. Fury Road‘s feminism feels like the kind to which well-meaning men are prone to lay hamfisted claim – if its plot epitomises one gender politic, it should be called a masterpiece of male feminism, exploitative and deeply self-unaware. (I realise, for my part, the irony of saying this as a man – equally, it seems just appropriate.) A feminist masterpiece, as King notes, ‘would be directed by a woman.’