“I cannot make liberty my aim unless I make that of others equally my aim.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers and possibly PTSD triggers. Please proceed with caution.
I was already excited to see George Miller’s return to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max after a 30 year hiatus, but when I read that so-called “men’s rights activists” were getting their tighty whities in a bunch over the feminist subtext in Mad Max: Fury Road, I was positively chomping at the bit. Now that I’ve seen it, I have to say the subtext is more like…you know…text. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
Don’t get me wrong, Fury Road is still one hell of an action movie. It assaults the senses with a spectacle of gorgeously photographed destruction, infused with enough high octane energy to make me feel like I had gulped down a dozen pots of coffee long after the lights came back up. ‘Splosions! Pile-ups! Testosterone! Oh my! But woven into Miller’s fiery masterpiece is a feminist narrative told with such a brilliant economy of storytelling that it’s clear there’s a meaning behind this spectacle and its consequences.
Let’s start with the primary conflict of the film. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted leader within the ranks of the sickly, villainous, patriarchal dictator, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played baddie Toecutter in the original Mad Max), has smuggled five of Joe’s concubines away from his mountain fortress in an attempt to rescue them from a life of sexual slavery. Prior to the start of the film, these women had not existed as human beings. Their identities were bound up entirely in their reproductive organs, their value measured only by their ability to breed the next generation of patriarchs to carry on Joe’s dynasty of greed and subjugation. They are forced to wear chastity belts so that their power to conceive is controlled literally by lock and key.
Furiosa’s mission, therefore, is to save them and their babies from this patriarchal power structure. The women make a mad dash in the direction of “the Green Place,” Furiosa’s childhood home. We later learn that her life with Immortan Joe began when he kidnapped her from this place. There are small but glaring clues about what that life must have been like. She’s missing an arm. She’s branded on the back of her neck. It’s clear she’s been brutalized. It’s a wonderful example of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, and it’s all that’s needed to explain the profound conviction behind her decision to swerve their truck off the road and go AWOL, risking all their lives to raise their children in a peaceful oasis nestled within a broken world.
It brought to mind the times of uncertainty and upheaval during my childhood, when my mother would load me and my brother and sister into the car, and take us to her parents’ house to get us away from my father. Particularly when Joe demands where his “property” are being taken, and the answer is “Far from you!” But I digress…
The feminism in this film goes far beyond the lip service of worshipping women as baby makers. Not one of them is reduced to a damsel in distress, and not one of them serves as another character’s love interest. The women in this film are true heroines. They kick ass. Asses, I might add, in dire need of a good kicking. Fury Road‘s feminist message is no accident. Consider that Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, was hired as a consultant to provide inspiration for the actresses playing Joe’s concubines with stories from the real world about man’s aggression against women. When a director puts his money where his mouth is, you know he’s speaking with sincerity.
The concubines ask a blunt question: Who broke the world? The answer to this question is as blatantly obvious as the answer to the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Men broke this world. Men broke it with their money, their oil, their bullets, and their bombs. Men broke this world with their rape. These men are symbolized by Immortan Joe and his henchmen.
Immortan Joe’s desert empire is the patriarchy writ large. In addition to enslaving viable women as his property, he hoards all the wealth and power within his grasp. Of course, in this setting, wealth and power means food, water, strong backs, fertile wombs, and “guzzoline.” There are no human beings, no natural resources, only assets to be controlled (think about that the next time you hear the phrase “human resources”). The people under Joe’s rule consider themselves blessed if they are able to scramble over each other and snatch up the scraps from his table, and he exploits religion and superstition to great effect to keep them under his control. He doesn’t have friends in his army, he has fanatic martyrs. It’s a classic case of an abusive codependent relationship. In this film, as in the real world, fear has always been the most favored leash of the oppressor.
However, Joe does have a couple of allies to the extent that he has nearby neighbors just as interested as he in preserving the status quo. Though it’s never shown in the film, I’m certain these “allies” would abandon him if their own power structure came under any threat. They are the People Eater (John Howard) and the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), representing the banking and judicial systems respectively. The People Eater is an obese, tumor-ridden, pig of a man wearing a pinstriped suit and a false nose, and he takes inventory of Joe’s expenses on their little hunting safari. He thinks only about money, no matter how many people are consumed in the pursuit thereof. The Bullet Farmer is a thin, skeletonized man in a barrister’s wig made of machine gun ammo belts, and at one point he is blinded by Furiosa. His blind justice takes the form of shooting indiscriminately into the dark, and his pet term for bullets is “anti-seeds: plant one in something and watch it die.”
The rest of Joe’s war party are cock-rocking caricatures of musclebound bros tweaked out on testosterone and religion. One gets the impression that Miller’s intent is to mock the very things that draw in the bulk of his audience. That’s if you can look at it lightheartedly. When you scratch the surface to look at the symbolism of these villains, you’ll see rape on wheels.
Max (Tom Hardy), who goes unnamed until nearly the end of the movie, is dragged into this situation, and is at first an unwilling participant. The only thing that turns him around to Furiosa’s side are the ghostly hallucinations of a child from his past whom he was unable to save.
I want to pause here briefly to address the men’s rights activists: What you boys fail to understand is that the patriarchy makes victims of us all. We finally get a name for Max’s madness in this film. In our time we would call it post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ve all known men like this. If not, you could walk down the block and meet one. They are our grandfathers, our fathers, our sons, and in some cases ourselves. Men from every generation in recorded history who’ve been broken by the horrors of patriarchal greed. Who is to blame? Who cultivated this atmosphere in which men who are abused by women (or, for that matter, abused by anyone) are afraid to speak up about it for fear of being labeled a “faggot” or some such thing? Who raised us to compete against each other under a volley of insults like “you hit like a girl”? Who expects us to ignore the seriousness of our childhood abuses with statements like “my old man beat me and I turned out just fine”? Who sends us to war and makes us their cannon fodder? Who broke this world? Men did. And they’re breaking us all along with it.
My father was a victim of the patriarchy every bit as much as he was a living perpetuation of it. His parents beat him cruelly, and he did the same to his own children. Violence begets violence. Victims beget victims. My father tried more than once to grow out of the pattern. I’ll never know for sure why he always reverted back to his old behavior, except to guess that he was unable or unwilling to confront the pain he carried with him. But he deserves credit for trying. It takes a boatload of awareness to recognize the cycle, and even more conviction to stand firm as a roadblock in its path, to start being a survivor rather than a victim, and to say No more. Perhaps it takes more than some of us are capable of. I know I’ve stumbled too. But you have to be aware of what you’re rebelling against. Women are not the enemy. It’s not a matriarchal culture that has us fighting each other like wild dogs. Men of the MRA movement, if you truly have any compassion for your fellows, get interested not only in caring for each other, but in turning a critical eye toward yourselves. Start asking yourselves, “What can I do to undo this damage?” You are your brother’s keeper.
Are there women who abuse and terrorize men? Sure. Let me show you my last long-term relationship. Are there women who are just as corrupt as men? Sure. I’d much rather vote for Elizabeth Warren than Hillary Clinton. None of that changes the fact that we are living in a man’s world. In any struggle for equality, you have to acknowledge in which direction the scales are tipped, and these scales are most definitely tipped toward the masculine.
In Fury Road, male privilege is represented by vehicles and weapons. Men made these things, but they are only good or evil inasmuch as the people wielding them. Furiosa’s escape rides on engines and guns, but so do her pursuers. And there are times when men take the steering wheel to help. These are beautiful moments that illustrate what it means to be a feminist ally, to help drive toward the goal of true equality. There are some cynical elements out there who would have us believe that “equality” means stamping everyone down to the lowest common level. No. It means lending a helping hand to the lowest of our fellow human beings, lifting them up to the same level as ourselves. To say that men are privileged is not a curse. Rather, to acknowledge that truth should be seen as a blessing, because it is an invitation to undertake a noble act: to use that privilege to lift up those who are less privileged and less powerful.
The most beautiful example of this in Fury Road is when Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a young man who had believed the noblest thing he could do would be to serve Immortan Joe and return his concubines, instead finds his destiny in sacrificing his own life to barricade Furiosa’s pursuers. Or perhaps the most beautiful moment is when Max literally gives up his own blood to save Furiosa’s life. I honestly can’t choose a favorite. But the message is clear: patriarchal society has dominated the global culture for millennia, and it has done so while gorging on the blood of women, children, and the Earth herself. It is high time that Men began to at least share in the sacrifice. And when I say sacrifice, I mean that in a cooperative sense, not just flinging ourselves at other men, women, and children in war and calling it heroism. No. Heroism isn’t killing. Heroism is helping your fellow human being to live.
The resolution of Fury Road emerges from the most devastating plot point. Furiosa’s “Green Place” has been reduced to a muddy wasteland. Man’s rape of the Mother Earth she once knew is complete and absolute. And yet from this tragedy is birthed the ultimate victory of the story. Max suggests that there is no choice but to turn back and conquer Immortan Joe’s stronghold, passing by him and his men along the way. Granted, to some that may come off as a bit mansplainy, but he does it in a way that is more cooperative than simply taking the reins. Furiosa is still very much the HBIC.
What follows may look like our heroine is under attack again, but make no mistake, Furiosa is on the offensive. She personally dispatches Immortan Joe with two final words: “Remember me?” Punctuated with…YANK! My god, there goes his face. Furiosa literally tears off his ability to speak, and with it his ability to poison any more minds. She mutes him as he has muted so many women and children. I effing cheer-cried. Because I was immediately reminded of a friend here in Milwaukee, a woman who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint and refused to take it lying down. She fought the bastard off and lived to tell the tale, becoming a heroine and a symbol of defiance in the face of male aggression, and the entire community has rallied around her. (Alena, this article is dedicated to you.)
George Miller has described his Mad Max character (perhaps his alter ego?) as a man who briefly spends time as a guest within the story of other characters, and then disappears. Fury Road fits within this template even more so than the previous Mad Max films. The story is told from Max’s perspective, but he’s never the hero in charge. That role is Furiosa’s. When they finally arrive back at the fortress’s drawbridge, she and the former concubines are welcomed in amid the cacophonous chants of the people shouting “Lift them up,” tying with those words the final bow on Miller’s feminist message. Furiosa assumes Joe’s role as leader of the community, the hoarded water is released to the populace, and Max fades into the background. Roll credits. Some people are confused by the ease with which she walks in the front door, but I wonder if those people were watching the same movie I was. As I pointed out before, Furiosa is a leader with authority in the community, and the people love her. She doesn’t have to do much more than be next in line for the throne in order to take over. In this way, she serves as an example of a feminist ally almost as much as Max and Nux. She and Max are both motivated by their individual quests for redemption. It could even be argued that Furiosa represents the old wave of feminists.
To ask who broke this world, we must also answer the question of who will fix it. In some ways, fixing it means getting out of the way of women and others with less privilege as they grasp toward the upward mobility that is the right of every human being. In other ways, fixing it means standing in the way of the oppressive patriarchal elements that would rather keep everyone else down. And while we’re on our way toward the women of this world to offer a helping hand, to use our privilege for a nobler purpose, we had better be willing to get down on our knees and beg their forgiveness.