Mad Max: Fury Road was not on my radar until I learned that Men’s Rights Activists were protesting it (sight unseen, mostly) because it was “feminist propaganda.” There aren’t many other phrases that will draw my attention quite so quickly. I knew it was an extremely violent movie, so I did a ton of pre-movie research. I quizzed a friend who had seen it, read dozens of articles about it, and googled “how gross is mad max fury road.” It wasn’t until a friend texted and said she was interested in seeing it (also because of its ties to feminism) that I decided to bite the bullet and go to the theater.
I needn’t have worried so much. It is definitely a violent movie, but I was relieved to see that the violence is mostly insinuated rather than shown. It also helped that, thanks to my research, I knew pretty much everything that was going to happen. Once I realized that the film wasn’t going to try to gross me out, I got lost in its story.
(So many spoilers ahead. You’re forewarned.)
This was easy, because the story is told beautifully. The cinematography is stunning, and combined with the costumes and set designs and props, the whole thing is incredibly stylized. Everything is heightened, and it’s a feast for the eyes. And the ears! The music was phenomenal, and for the first time in a long time I find myself tempted to buy a movie’s soundtrack.
But that’s all secondary to what I want to talk about: that feminist propaganda allegation. Is it? Well, sure, but only if you know what feminism is. When I talked to my friend about it last week, he said sure, it was a feminist movie because all the villains were men and the women were escaping motherhood in search of a land populated entirely by women. I was shocked to learn that this was his definition of feminism, and disappointed to think that Mad Max: Fury Road was propagating misogyny rather than feminism. But now, having seen it, I can declare that the film is feminist, complicated, and thought-provoking.
My friend assumed that feminism is anti-male and pro-female. It’s not. It’s a movement based on equality of the sexes. Where feminists do get a little judgey, as does Mad Max, is in gender roles. I think I can argue pretty persuasively that the film is anti-hyper-masculinity, and maybe even anti-hyper-femininity. Instead, the story and the characters show that we–as individuals and as a society–need to find a balance between the two.
Immortan Joe and the society he created is hyper-masculine. It is founded on war, destruction, and domination. He views women as breeders, useful only in their ability to give him what he wants. He views men as warriors, useful only in their ability to kill his enemies. This hyper-masculine worldview leads to death; Nux and the other War Boys happily pursue a bloody end because they think there is glory in destruction.
On the other hand, the women of the Green Place are hyper-feminine. They are a place of refuge, healing, and rebirth (via the plants they guard). They are experts at submission and self-sacrifice (the “bait”). However, this is also an ineffective way of living. When we meet the Many Mothers, we learn that the majority of their group is dead. Hyper-femininity, while not as overtly disturbing as hyper-masculinity, leads to the same place: death.
But then we get all these characters who are somewhere in between. The remaining Many Mothers are just as destructive as many of the War Boys. Nux sacrifices himself out of love. Furiosa is a better shot than Max, and Max’s heroic moment comes when he heals her. The film makes it clear that masculinity and femininity are not attached to men and women exclusively. Instead, they are character traits available to both sexes.
For instance, Max is a very stereotypically masculine man. He’s big, strong, and fights well. He’s also stoic and rarely speaks. When given the option to join the Many Mothers in fleeing across the salt lands, he decides he would rather go alone. This is the quintessential masculine hero: the lone wolf. But (at the prompting of a young girl, I might add) he changes his mind. He realizes that it is better for everyone if he, in this instance, embraces the feminine stereotype of community. He rejoins the group, and it is only together that they are able to take the Citadel. Then, when the battle is won and the oppressed are set free, Max slips into the crowd. He can be the lone wolf again, because that is what the occasion now calls for.
The film is complicated, and I love it for this. It doesn’t say war is always wrong; Furiosa and Max and the Many Mothers fight just as brutally as Immortan Joe. Instead, it shows that war and violence, in the name of domination and oppression, is wrong. There is a time for war, but not to take captive women and enslave them as objects. There is a time for healing and renewal, but not if it leaves you vulnerable to genocide. The Citadel is all male, and the Green Place is all female. Both wind up conquered.
What are we left with? A feminist Citadel, where women and men fight together to free the oppressed and bring water and life back to the hurting. A place where young men decide to help the returning women instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence. A place in between hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity, where men and women can both be either healers, warriors, or both.
I am still processing so much of the film. I haven’t even touched on how much I loved the lack of romance between Furiosa and Max, or how, on the other hand, I loved the beautifully simple romance between Nux and Capable. I also haven’t mentioned the awesome intersectionality of oppression that encompasses sexism, ableism, and racism (how fascinating that for once, the bad guys are painted in shades of white and the good guys are shades of brown or black). But for now, I think these are my main thoughts.