After hearing many things about Mad Max: Fury Road and how wonderful and feminist it is, I finally got around to seeing it myself. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but I do think the reviews that fall over themselves to praise the film as a groundbreaking feminist work may be slightly reaching. That’s not to deny the film’s appeal for women, however, as Fury Road is certainly very feminist in the sense that it puts women on nearly equal footing with men, in a genre that has traditionally been rooted in the concept of masculinity. I have heard from many women that simply knowing female characters exist in Fury Road as subjects and not objects was enough to get them to the theatre, and that says a lot about the dearth of options for women interested in exciting action films. But perhaps the best example of how the portrayal of women in Fury Road stands to positively affect representations of women in media comes not from audience reactions or box office sales, but from the film itself.
In the mythos of the post-apocalyptic hellscape that serves as the setting for Fury Road, the people worship “Immortan Joe,” because he is the one who controls the means of survival. The people clamor for Joe’s favor and the deeply fanatical will follow him into war with a smile on their face, if he so much as looks at them and acknowledges their worth. Some oft-uttered phrases by Joe’s “Warboys” are “Witness me!” and “I am awaited in Valhalla!” These boys go happily to their deaths, content to merely have been seen (and therefore glorified,) to have been made real in the eyes of the powerful and proven to have purpose.
What a great, concise metaphor for media representation. We all look for ourselves in the media consume because to see ourselves and be seen by others is to know we are real. So it’s not surprising that women have historically not been the largest consumers of action films, as they often don’t feature prominently in the genre as anything more than at-risk wives/daughters/girlfriends, sexy villainesses, or nameless, voiceless bodies draped around the hero to display how awesome he is. Why would we dedicate ourselves to a genre that regularly dismisses and limits us for the benefit and of men?* And though it’s only really the Warboys who call out to be witnessed, the presence of women in the film is indeed an announcement, one that is impossible to ignore.
Despite the name “Mad Max” and the initial focus on Max (Tom Hardy) himself, the story of Fury Road really belongs to Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. She is the impetus that drives the story forward. Her bold attempt to take Joe’s “wives” away from him and take them with her to the “green place” where she was raised (and stolen from as a child) is what truly sets the action in motion. Further, it is Furiosa’s commitment to protecting her passengers at all costs that keeps the film’s momentum going.
But one badass main female character is hardly new to action, right? What does Fury Road have that the Terminator franchise doesn’t have? Or Alien? More women, as it turns out. Because it’s not only Furiosa who is featured prominently in Fury Road, but the wives (who all have names, though they aren’t individually introduced) and Furiosa’s former clan, the Many Mothers, aka the Vuvalini. The wives range in age but they are mostly younger women, while the Vuvalini are all at least middle-aged, if not elderly. A group of older women who are treated not merely as wise shamans but badass, resourceful warriors is almost unheard of in action films. And when they finally meet, these two distinct groups of women aren’t at odds with each other at all, but eager to work together and learn from one another. Protecting their own and preserving hope for a better future is their modus operandi.
It’s important to note that while women are fully present in Fury Road‘s action and violence, they are not merely treated as men in order to justify it. Almost all the women in the film are coded as different from the men they encounter. Equal in terms of intelligence, mechanical skill, strength, and competence, but still unique, having a different perspective on life than the men around them. It is clear from the beginning of the film that Immortan Joe’s way of life is brutal, violent, grandiose, and unsustainable. The Vuvalini on the other hand, represent hope, rebirth, and community. Women in Fury Road‘s post-apocalyptic world are literally the hope for a future without cruelty or inequality. Furiosa is the fulcrum, the way out for a group of women trapped in a life of abuse and servitude; the wives (some being pregnant) are the hope for the future, the fire of resistance and youth, determined to live their lives on their own terms; and the Vuvalini are the wisdom and patience it takes for a community to survive and thrive. So not only do women kick ass and take names in Fury Road, they do so while being shaped and influenced by their femininity and difference from their male counterparts.
And in the end, the story’s focus remains on the women. In the midst of their exaltation, Max shares a look of solidarity, understanding, and respect with Furiosa, before simply turning and fading away into the crowd. What a lovely day, indeed.
*Of course, there are female fans of action films out there. I would definitely consider myself one of them! But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that actively ignoring the objectification and commodification of women is regularly necessary for me to enjoy most mainstream action films. I don’t believe I am alone in this process of compartmentalization.