Becoming Masters of Their Own Bodies
On Mad Max: Fury Road’s Active Deconstruction of the Patriarchy
*Beware of Spoilers*
When you think of the prototypical feminist film, Mad Max: Fury Road almost certainly is not what you imagine. We have by and large convinced our selves that the empowerment of women has no place in the Hollywood summer action. Thanks to films like The Avengers that have failed to take advantage of the opportunity to develop women that don’t fall flat compared to their male counterparts, the entire industry seems ok with continuing to marginalize women in the biggest movies of the year.
For this very reason, Mad Max: Fury Road is an incredible surprise. Instead of offering two hours of Tom Hardy blowing up cars in the desert, George Miller gives us a story about women refusing to accept the status quo and subsequently challenging the authority of the dominating male figures in their lives. The film places us in a violent and chaotic world, but manages to reinforce the notion that nonetheless, women are actually capable of radically shaping their status.
At the beginning of the film we are run through the prototypical images of tyrannical control: a repressed class of people, a swarm of unquestioning soldiers, valuable resources being rationed, and women in social positions where their bodies can be regulated and exploited.
I cannot think of any better description for what is happening to the women being milked in the Citadel. They are static, hooked up to machines that take the symbolic essence of their motherhood, a representation of the goal of Immortan Joe throughout the film. Rather than being treated as humans, these women have been reduced to the status of farm animal. Agency or control of their bodies is obviously outside the realm of possibly.
This clear disregard for women in the structure of the Citadel makes the character of Furiosa all the more perplexing; how can women be both features to be exploited and capable of leadership? The mystery is only exacerbated when we watch her defy Joe and take her convoy off course, the first in an unfolding plot of defiance towards Joe, his society, and the repressive regulations both place on women and their bodies.
The most important aspect of Furiosa’s defiance is the lack of a male mastermind or accomplice who makes the deception possible. Furiosa is acting independently, through her own free will. She has defied the orders of the ruling patriarch and assumed a freedom that appears to only be reserved for men of a certain standing. The physical turn East that she carries out symbolizes the radical nature of the physical revolt she is carrying out by repossessing her body.
However, we learn that Furiosa’s revolt is not in isolation. Five women that Joe claimed were his wives, but were actually sex slaves, have escaped, stowed away in Furiosa’s War Rig. Their flight is discovered through the absence of their bodies in their chambers, an ironic twist that emphasizes the fact that they were only able to escape because Joe did not think they could possibly conceive to. In leaving, these women are able to leverage their minds to reclaim their bodies and their physical agency, an action that fundamentally changes their relationship to Joe and their society more broadly.
With Joe giving chase, the remainder of the film is filled with violence as Furiosa, the women, and the titular Max, a former captive of Joe’s, attempt to find a safe home away from the control of the Citadel. Yet, this violence importantly breaks from the summer blockbuster norm in the way it comes to visualize and symbolize the women’s seizure of their bodies.
In particular, the moment where Splendid Angharad turns herself into a human shield and uses Joe’s desire for the baby she is carrying to prevent him from shooting Furiosa. In this instance, Angharad is able to shed the restrictive motherly archetype placed on her by Joe and use herself and her child as a weapon. He is threatened by her and the position she is placing their child. Of course, in turning herself into a weapon, Angharad once again demonstrates how she has become an agent in her own existence and obtain control of her body. In the new state of play, she is free to use it however she wishes, even if that means being a potentially bad mother and harming her child. So long as she is free of Joe’s control, she will be happy, a notion whose general form is uncommon in summer blockbusters.
Have we ever seen such an act of physical defiance in a major summer blockbuster? I certainly have not.
It is through this stand, not against Joe in the film, but also against the viewer’s expectations, that Fury Road’s feminism stands out. Generally, summer action films have had either unfortunately simple female protagonists, like Black Widow in The Avengers, or the reinforcement of the idea that men should treat and protect women better, as we see in some of the other super hero films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and Marvel’s Iron Man trilogy. Our experience with big action films has been that women are passive figures, even when the narrative tells us they are not. Our reception of them is one of the most important examples of showing outdoing telling. We always see women that either follow men or need to be saved from the world falling apart around them.
Yet, our expectations are unfulfilled in Fury Road. We see the women who should be passive, but they fight and they use their bodies and make decisions to make sacrifices, the way we would expect any summer super hero protagonist would, even though she is a supporting character! She forces us to reconsider our expectations for what a woman is possible of in cinematic fiction. Women do not need to be passive in their relationship with men or the setting they inhabit. Time and time again, Fury Road shows us just how female characters can embody the same roles and positions as male characters in a narrative.
In seeking out some of the criticism around Fury Road, I saw that some writers felt that the movie missed the mark in being a truly feminist film. One site in particular posted a piece that argued a number of points, including the notion that the women are relegated to breeders in the Citadel and that all of Joe’s warriors are men.
In this particular instance, I think its important to be open to changing perspective. Sure, we can all agree that it is not good that women are breeders and men are warriors in this society. However, as I have shown, the women that escape are able to actively change their status and become warriors. Obviously, it would be better if their were more young women being liberated in such a way, but we are left with the possibility that will become the case now that empowered women have returned and liberated the Citadel from Joe.
Nevertheless, I must concede that I would not call Fury Road the ideal feminist film. The story needs a lot of revision for that to even become a possibility, as the actual narrative arc relies to much on the archetypal adventure of a man saving young women, no matter how active these young women are in transforming their status in the world.
Further, we are still left to grapple with the issue of the symbolic suggestion that freedom is only available to those of a certain class or status; that is,we do not see the obese women achieving active freedom, only those who look like supermodels. Why not all women?
Honestly, the number of nuanced flaws in the film’s attempt at ideal feminism is rather large. If you want to get a better sense of the volume and variety of problems, just open up a new tab and google “Mad Max: Fury Road feminism.”
An important question remains then: can we live with this, a film that feels like it is trying to be the feminist film we want and need, but falls short? Well, yes and no. If this is the closest we have come to a true feminist blockbuster, then we must accept that. Yet, we can also accept that if a blockbuster that actively seeks to deconstruct patriarchies, then there is room for more big budget films to do the same and even to a greater degree. I won’t be surprised if in five years we are looking back at Fury Road as the first domino to fall in the improved representation of women in film, but only if we continue to demand and support films getting closer to the accurate vision we all want.