Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015), is surely the biggest surprise in cinemas so far this year. George Miller‘s return to his post-apocalyptic wasteland is a frenzied, heavy metal affair â€“ where the action does not let up and nor does it disappoint.
However, Fury Road’s biggest shocker is the prominence that it affords its female characters -‘The Wives’ and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). These women, inhabiting Miller’s wasteland, are more than just ‘eye-candy’; they’re more than just the catalyst for Mad Max’s (Tom Hardy) adventure. They are the adventure.
Leading this rag-tag band of female, soon-to-be-warriors is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Revealing Miller’s feminist qualities, Furiosa might as well be nicknamed ‘Furiosa the Road Warrior’ because she’s Max’s counterpart in almost every way. She easily -and with clear intention -upstages the film’s ‘natural’ hero, Max, scene after scene. And, in an interview with Vanity Fair, speaking about his family life, Miller explicitly alludes to his feminist streak: ‘I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.’
Furiosa then, like Buffy, Xenia or Tank Girl, is the perfect antithesis to the Disney princess. Furiosa, and these characters alike, vehemently refuse to be simpering victims. They will not play second fiddle to any man, they all have their own agenda, and more importantly, they each have agency over their own destinies.
The name given to the group of women known as, ‘The Wives’, implies marriage or a relationship but the reality is far grimmer. This is a group of women have been trafficked, enslaved and raped by the film’s antagonist, Immortan Joe.
Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t weigh in to discuss the aforementioned crimes -they’re merely hinted at or alluded too. But, what’s important to note here, is that Miller doesn’t glorify or sensationalise these atrocities. By not showing the crimes, he avoids trivialising their nature, while also preventing any chance of titillation being derived.
That’s a feminist at work right there, that’s a man who understands how the female form is typically exploited and abused, particularly in ‘mainstream’ cinema.
Further support for Fury Road’s feminist credentials, comes from feminist activist, Eve Ensler, who was hired to work as a consultant on the film. Ensler met with the actors who played ‘The Wives’ to give her perspective on violence against women, particularly in war zones. And, in an interview with the BBC, she gives a wonderfully succinct description of feminism: ‘It means women are equal. We have equal roles, equal rights, equal pay.’
Furiosa is just that: she’s every part Max’s equal whether it’s fixing a car, shooting guns or fighting hand-to-hand (no pun intended). That’s why Fury Road should be celebrated, for its equality.
Fury Road has also been heavily praised for its depiction of womanhood at its various stages. Theron has commented on this, saying: ‘There’s a lot of women in this movie, like three different generations of women in this story, and I think they’re represented really well.’
The women we see fighting for survival range from their 20s to their 60s. The issue of age is of particular pertinence in ‘mainstream’ cinema because, arguably, female actors reach their 40s, then simply disappear from our screens. As Ensler says: ‘When do we even see older women in movies? The older women get, the more amazing they get. And in culture, they get more and more erased.’
It’s time for a change
At this year’s Cannes film festival one journalist asked Tom Hardy this question:
Journalist: ‘Tom, I’ll preface my remarks by saying that I have five sisters, a wife, a daughter and a mother, so I know what it’s like to be outgunned by oestrogen. But I just wanted to ask you, as you were reading the script did you ever think ‘why are all these women in here. I thought this was supposed to be a man’s movie?”
Hardy’s deadpan, no-nonsense response is priceless.
Hardy: ‘No. [Audience Laughs]. Not for one minute’
I’m not suggesting the journalist is a misogynist -and clearly by the way he prefixes his question he was keen to avoid such accusations â€“ but his question does illustrate how gender affects society at large -not just cinema â€“ and how we interact with the world based upon our concept of it.
Theron clearly grasps this and articulates it in an interview with Catherine Shoard, when speaking about the roles she’s offered. ‘You’re either a really good mother or you’re a really good hooker. The problem with how movies represent women goes right back to the Madonna/whore complex. You can’t be a really good hooker-mother. It’s impossible.’
The roles given to women are typically written with incredible simplicity and a lack of breadth and this justifiably frustrates Theron, who rightly argues, ‘We’re more than just nurturers, more than just breeders.’
We need to remember that gender isn’t permanent, it isn’t pre-defined -it is a construct. Children are taught how to be little girls and boys, later becoming women and men. We start on an even playing field, but invariably, we are taught that femininity is inferior to masculinity.
I want to live in a world where equality is the norm. I want to go and watch a film in the cinema where it turns out that the female protagonist is the primary focus, not her male counterpart, and for that to not be an issue.
Stories that revolve around women are just as interesting, enjoyable and without doubt -at this moment in history -more important than ones fixated upon men.
Blockbusters like Mad Max: Fury Road should be celebrated for attempting to address these issues, it may not succeed every step of the way but it’s trying. And after all, it’s a film that has the potential to reach far more people than a polemical that merely preaches to the converted. Fury Road isn’t a feminist masterpiece* but at least with Furiosa at the wheel, we’re on the right highway.
*It’s definitely not and Tracy King explains why not, perfectly, in her article for the New Stateman’s, ‘No, Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist masterpiece (but that’s OK)‘.
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