Beyond Furiosa: The Unsung Heroines of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
An action movie’s surprising ode to femininity.
I’d like to take a moment to thank all the Men’s Rights Activists who made sure I saw Mad Max: Fury Road when it came roaring into theaters this weekend. When the trailer for the film was released, some disgruntled dudes expressed their rage over co-star Charlize Theron’s ample screen time. Apparently it’s inconceivable that an action movie marketed towards men might treat female characters as human beings rather than objects to be saved, raped or won.
Their fuss about the film being “feminist propaganda” whipped up controversy like a sandstorm in the desert, and undoubtedly thrust the movie into the minds of those who may not have otherwise rushed to see it opening weekend.
I’m glad I did. As many reviewers have pointed out, the protagonist of this movie isn’t actually Tom Hardy’s titular Mad Max, awesome though he may be.
It’s Theron’s “Imperator Furiosa.”
Furiosa is a warrior with a prosthetic arm, shaved head and grease-smeared brow who more than lives up to her name. The movie, which is basically one long car chase, revolves around her mission to save a harem of wives from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a white-haired villain with some serious skin issues and a creepy, Bane-like mask across his mouth.
Furiosa has rightly been hailed as the one of the best action heroines since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien films. I’m going to go one step further and say she’s one of the best action heroes ever. Furiosa is a fierce fighter who relentlessly pummels those around her (again, with one arm) yet somehow maintains a sense of genuine hope and compassion — no small feat in hellish, post-apocalyptic Mad Max world. Equally important: She may finally destroy the myth that women can’t drive.
But I’m actually not here to talk about Furiosa.
I’m here to talk about the other, less obvious heroines of the film: Immortan Joe’s five wives.
When we think of action heroines, we tend to think of women who can match men in shows of sheer masculine strength — women like Furiosa. This is all well and good, and Fury Road absolutely deserves props for not treating its female fighters like some sort of fetishized shtick.
Case in point: Theron, who is gorgeous, and who is going to be gorgeous even with a buzz cut and some oil on her forehead, is never sexualized in the film; there’s no gratuitous nudity, no lingering crotch shots (ahem, Gravity), nor half-assed third-act attempts to turn her into a love-struck damsel in distress (ahem, Gamora). She gets the movie’s meatiest narrative arc, and she gets to be the one who beats bad guy.
But where Fury Road really surprises is in its genuine respect for the five women Furiosa is trying to save. They are beautiful, generous and kind — deliberately feminine traits that have allowed them to survive as long as they have, and which the movie refuses to treat as a burden or incidental.
In a society (if you could call it that) that alternately milks women like cows and uses them as human “breeders,” they also exhibit a striking adherence to a revolutionary belief: “We are not things.”
“Where did you find such creatures?” one wizened lady-biker asks Furiosa upon meeting the group in the desert, noticing how out of place the wives— with their soft skin and billowy muslin outfits — are in the orange wasteland. Having spent their lives coddled (to the extent a person who has been enslaved by a tyrannical war lord can be coddled) on a fertile sort of mountain top called the “Citadel,” the wives certainly don’t look like the wiry-haired, dust-coated people of the Earth below.
They don’t act much like them, either. After a bullet grazes one’s leg, for example, she complains that it hurts.
“Out here, everything hurts,” Furiosa, who has just engaged in ferocious hand-to-hand combat with Max, coolly responds.
There is little patience for delicacy in the Waste, and, at first, Fury Road dares its audience to dismiss these young women for not immediately thriving when thrust into a barren world of death and violence. Because despite their empowering mantra, it seems they wouldn’t last five minutes on their own.
Furiosa has packed the wives into the belly of her war-rig to help them escape from the patriarchal hell of the Citadel. They’re physically weak and unused to battle, so their main job is to hide. Of course, things rarely go according to plan. The wives can’t breathe while stowed inside the truck, and they soon find themselves in the middle, and in the way, of an attack.
At one point, “Toast” (Zoe Kravitz) can’t reload a gun fast enough to be of use. Furiosa barks at her to hurry up, and in this moment I, too, felt annoyed with Toast’s clumsy attempt to ready the weapon, as if I, or anyone else in the audience, could have done better with a gun at my back.
Nevertheless, Furiosa always views these women as worthy of respect and protection. And as the film unfolds, it chastises us for not believing in them too.
Like Furiosa, the wives are brave, loyal to one another and caring — by any measure, good people. It’s clear masculine violence is not the way these women are going to defend themselves, but it also doesn’t have to be. Furiosa may embody elements of both (stereotypically) masculine and feminine strength, but the wives must rely primarily on their femininity to survive.
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Immortan Joe’s favorite wife The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) uses her very pregnant body to shield Max and Furiosa from a wave of gunfire from a group of War Boys. As Joe’s preferred toy and the mother of his child, she knows his lackeys won’t shoot her.
To be clear, this scene isn’t playing into the trope that “women and children’s” lives are more valuable men’s (which, friendly reminder, is a consequence of patriarchal gender roles, not feminism). Men fight women without hesitation in Fury Road, and were she anyone else, Splendid would be mowed down before you can say “what about the menz!”
Splendid is valuable only in her value to Immortan Joe. That’s why it’s thrilling when she subverts everything that has been used to oppress her — the lack of agency over her own body, the denial of her reproductive freedom — in order to fight back.
Splendid is very much a hero in this moment. When she later narrowly avoids being side-swiped off the rig (for the time being), even the taciturn Max gives her a thumbs up of approval.
It’s pretty fantastic to see such acknowledgement of varied forms of heroism in an action film, especially one marketed so heavily towards men. As I’ve written before:
The female characters we tend to applaud typically adhere to a particular formula for strength, one that breaks the patriarchal mold of how a woman should behave. This can be empowering, but the constant regurgitation of this one type of ‘strong female character’ limits the kind of women we value on screen and dismisses the merits of those who prove themselves in a different way.
The wives further exemplify a recognizably feminine sensibility when they insist Max and Furiosa spare the life of Nux, one of Joe’s skeletal War Boys who has attacked them, because they don’t want any “unnecessary killing.”
At the top of the film, Nux, played with demonic glee by Nicholas Hoult, is possessed by both a cultish love for Immortan Joe and the belief that his death in service of his master will earn him a one-way ticket to ride forever with the heroes of old in “Valhalla.” Thus he is willing to do anything — including killing himself — to re-capture the wives.
But after his second failed attempt to do just that, Joe rebuffs him, and one of the wives, Capable, finds Nux huddled in the back of the war-rig. Instead of hurting him, she treats Nux with compassion. This mercy eventually saves all their lives, since Nux becomes a crucial sidekick and offers invaluable assistance to the group on more than one occasion.
It’s only beyond the bro-tastic atmosphere of the Citadel barracks, where he is first seen with the other War Boys, that Nux finds humanity and becomes the martyr he always wanted to be; being willing to die because you think it’s a fast-track to heaven isn’t as brave as being willing to die to save your friends and ensure a better future for the human race.
Through the strong and sympathetic Nux and Max, Fury Road also makes clear that #NotAllMen are the problem. Tyranny, greed and the stripping away of others’ dignity and personal agency are.
But perhaps one of the most refreshing things about Fury Road is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of empowering only those women who best fit societal ideals of beauty.
From Buffy to Katniss, strong female protagonists are very often supple young ladies with flat stomachs, long legs and pretty hair. Not so here. The wives are indeed conventionally lovely, but in the latter third of the film we’re introduced to a gang of badass matriarchal bikers appropriately called the Vuvalini. While welcoming to the wives, they are so much more than a “wise old lady” stereotype, and prove physically invaluable in the climactic battle against Joe and his War Boys.
Most importantly, they understand that saving humanity relies in not in enslaving mankind, controlling resources and using women like cattle or fields, but in tending to Mother Earth. To this end, they carry what appear to be some of the few actual seeds left on the planet, which are then passed on to the wives.
When they (now four, RIP Splendid) and Furiosa make it back to the Citadel, they carry with them this hope for the future, along with the lifeless body of Immortan Joe. The message is clear: Physical force got them this far, but the ability to nurture is what’s needed once they’ve reached the end of the road.