Per usual, I am late to the party (and we will continue this trend when I review Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train later this month, so, fair warning). When the first trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road was making its rounds, I had zero interest apart from Charlize Theron making intense faces. My frame of reference for action movies is basically the genre’s triumvirate: car chases, violence, and misogyny.
Pacific Rim may have lifted my mood considerably, but I am tired of sitting through movies where women play damsels/window-dressing with a maximum of one line of dialogue for every thirty of the protagonist’s. I am sick of this representation being used as a frame of reference for how women are “meant” to be side characters, how women are supposed to act or look in real life (which: whoa), and how sexuality and women are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable.
No, thank you.
And then it happened: Men’s Rights Activists group, Return of Kings, lost their shit and called for a boycott of Mad Max: Fury Road because it was a…feminist film?
The internet went pretty crazy. The result? A lot of people came out of the woodwork and flocked to the film — including me. By now everyone has covered the feminist angle pretty thoroughly, and I thought I wasn’t going to try, but there’s still more to say. Yes, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa was the baddest of bad-asses. Yes, “we are not things” is one of the most powerful mantras declared repeatedly by a strong female cast in recent history, especially in such a male-dominated genre. Yes. Yes to all of this and more.
But, since OKP exists to discuss media representation, let’s really talk about the total representation in this film: feminism and gender, visibility of disabilities and a range of ages, racial diversity, and sexuality.
- Furiosa: The Real MVP.
A lot of reviews for the movie like to frame the same argument of “though the movie bears Max’s name, the real main character is Furiosa (as played by Charlize Theron).” This has mostly rubbed me the wrong way because, while Furiosa is profoundly important to the plot and overall movie, she is still not the main character.
The movie is bracketed around Max’s arc. We see parts of his backstory, while we see none of Furiosa’s, though we can piece together her background by what little she does share and her relationship with the Vuvalini. Still, Max moves a lot, if not most of the action and conflict on-screen, and he still provides the turning point in the movie by (SPOILER ALERT) suggesting Furiosa and the Wives turn back from their plan of action, i.e. riding out into the desert, away from Immortan Joe’s chase and “sanctuary.”
I get that Furiosa is Mad Max’s equal, (their names are basically synonyms; also sometimes she is even shown to be his superior in certain traditionally masculine skills), but the movie is still Max’s, and I imagine this still has a lot to do with Hollywood being iffy on allowing a female protagonist to run the entire show. As Charlize Theron says:
“I think it’s such a misconception that women don’t like the genre or that they don’t wanna go and see these movies. I just feel like women have been so misrepresented in these films. We’re like, ‘Why do we have to go and see the genre every single time with the girl on the back of the frame with a push-up bra.’ Why isn’t there a girl that’s standing on the same playfield with the guys? We don’t wanna be guys, but… in a post-apocalyptic world, we will survive!”
Most if not all post-apocalyptic stories still follow male leads across media: TV’s The Walking Dead, Revolution; video games like Halo and The Last of Us; and books like The Road and I Am Legend. Furiosa is undoubtedly an important and amazing character — women helping women! — but I think it is overstepping to say she is the lead character. I’m convinced we will not be seeing her as anything other than a cameo in future installments of the franchise. Her story is not one we are meant to ultimately follow.
In the end — (SPOILER ALERT) — Max saves Furiosa ultimately, which is enough of an almost damsel twist that I winced. I mean, he pretty much saves all the women, let’s be real. We then see Max ready to move on from The Citadel. Furiosa has reached the “end” of her redemption arc by saving the Wives and ridding the world of Immortan Joe, but we are clearly going to be following Max’s adventures from here on out. He, evidently, still has a story to tell and more people to “save.” (I can’t be the only one who wants an entire trilogy of Furiosa dealing with The Citadel and all the surrounding cities?)
Furiosa’s role in MM:FR is an important transition point for film from here on out. Will others follow in director George Miller’s footsteps and allow women to carry actual action movies? Only time will tell.
- The Real MVP is Also Disabled
One of the most amazing aspects of Furiosa’s representation, besides her being a badass feminist icon, is the fact that she is visibly physically disabled. There’s a great post from a woman born as a fetal amputee reacting to Furiosa here, which I think sums up the importance of this representation best.
“Watch Furiosa load a shotgun. Watch Furiosa punch Max in the face, with her nubbins. Watch Furiosa drive a semi tractor trailer. Watch Furiosa fire a long shot, using Max’s shoulder to stabilize the gun barrel, as an alternative to using two hands! Watch Furiosa do anything you can do, but better, and with half the number of fingers.The effortless manner in which this film has presented a character’s disability is incredible. I literally could not ask for anything more. It’s ubiquitous. No big deal. Her body is never a plot point. It is simply allowed to be.”
As mentioned before in OKP’s post on Writing Disabilities, just because a character is disabled does not mean that their entire story arch as to revolve around said disability. Furiosa’s representation of this knocks it out of the park.
- But Why is Everyone White?
Here’s where things get a little iffier. Now, I have a lot of feelings about both the Wives and Vuvalini, and a lot of these feelings involve hearts in my eyes and cars blowing up in fountains of pink and gold sparklers — in my soul. Still, it does not pain me to begrudge Miller and everyone involved for whitewashing pretty much the entire cast.
As Nashwa Khan puts it in her article “MM:FR and the Glaring Whiteness of Post-Apocalyptic Films:”
“Many have claimed the film put women ahead—but which women? Certainly not women who are very visibly racialized through curves and features. “Ethnically ambiguous” seems to be the only type of racialized woman who makes it to the end of the world. [Zoe] Kravitz and [Courtney] Eaton’s characters do survive the film, and having a person of color standing at the end makes Fury Road a rare unicorn within the post-apocalyptic genre. But that’s a very low bar.”
Even my very favorite character, The Valkyrie (played by Megan Gale, who is part-Maori), is pretty “ethnically ambiguous.” The crowds of poor workers in The Citadel are also whitewashed, to say nothing of the sickly-albino War Boys. Where Miller gets so many things right with Furiosa and the Wives’ characterizations as women, visually it is far too easy to criticize what is clearly a deliberate choice in casting in regards to race.
Why is this so important if the movie was so successful in so many other ways? Think of it this way: This movie has become so important to so many women because it is the first action movie in a long time to put women ahead with such respect despite the genre convetions — but consider that it would be even more revolutionary for women of color to be able to see themselves in such pivotal roles in such a mainstream movie, too.
- Age + Sexuality
Lastly, let’s touch on two important factors that received important representation despite my concern over lack of racial diversity. The Vuvalini in the movie are a nomadic group of women, most of whom are unabashedly older than Hollywood usually showcases. They are shown as strong and capable, in the same vein as Furiosa. They are able to protect themselves and others, and do so with the ferocity equal to their male counterparts.
The ageism in most visual media is usually pretty blatant. Older women are relegated to grandmothers or wise women/shamans, defined mostly by their compassion, wisdom, or fragility. It was more than amazing to see the Vuvalini fighting alongside Furiosa and Max, with all characters trading off on strengths and weaknesses.
Older women in movies and TV seem to be especially rare for the same reason that young ingenues are a dime a dozen these days: sexuality.
Sexuality is handled subtly in this film, especially because all the Wives are still pretty scantily clad after escaping Immortan Joe’s clutches, (they are “breeders” in his harem.) I was concerned by the initial shots of the Wives cleaning themselves with water and the close-ups on their body parts. But then something interesting happened: The second those chastity belts came off, the sexualization stopped.
The Wives’ purpose in The Citadel is purely related to sex and reproduction: they serve Immortan Joe’s pleasure and birth his sons. Free of his control they are free to be whole people. We see each woman showcase their capability throughout, as well as their weaknesses, forming a whole, complex picture of who they are and who they want to be, despite severe dialogue restrictions all-around. Bonus emphasis on the wraps and shawls all the Wives continue wearing throughout, as though they recognize that the costumes they are put in were purely Joe’s fault (male gaze).
The lack of objectification and sexualization of these characters, and indeed all of the female characters in the movie, is largely why this movie has been hailed as feminist, and also why so many female audiences are in ecstasy over this representation. These women are their own people — not the standard Girlfriend in an Action Flick, not damsels, not Fridged Loved Ones, not a backstory, not any one thing because real women aren’t— and they proclaim it, strongly and constantly: WE ARE NOT THINGS.
Representation in Mad Max: Fury Road is definitely outside the norm for the genre and, indeed, for most mainstream Hollywood productions. While there are a buttload of positive aspects, it’s important to keep in mind that we discuss feminism in terms of inclusivity. While we praise the strong portrayal of women in terms of both gender and age, we need to recognize that race remains a crucial part of the movement and that one film does not a trend make.
While this post is one in a literal sea of reviews and discussion on the film, I’d like to think that those who continue to discuss and analyze representation will emphasize the audience that such representation can court and how we can continue to better diverse representation.
One step at a time, as they say. Or one car chase, really. But we can talk about that another day.