I know that lots of people love Mad Max: Fury Road. Critics, feminists, and action fans in general are all raving about it. At least one MRA blogger hated it – for all sorts of bizarre reasons. As he hasn’t actually seen the film and claimed Mad Max was an American franchise, I wrote him off as having no clue.
First, there are some great elements to Fury Road. The majority of the fighting is done by women. Furiosa is a badass. The Vulvani are probably the coolest fighting force in film.
Both the Vulvani and the Wives are notable for their ferocity and ass-kicking, but they are not developed characters. The Wives have a clear motivation for wanting to escape – rape and forced breeding, yup totally a reason to bail out. Furiosa has no clear motivation, just an unspecified need for “redemption.” I guess the Vulvanis’ motivation is to find a new place they can survive (but again, they are just sitting around in the desert waiting for something or someone to come along?) – But again, this all stems from poor storytelling.
Imperator Furiosa has been getting the most attention and ink. She has been compared to Ripley and Sarah Conner, and both are clear comparisons. She’s tough. I loved that there is no romantic relationship between her and Max. They are clearly comrades and fellow warriors. The film implies that her reasons for saving The Wives is deeper than an excuse to try and return home, but there is no hints or development of this (but the same is true for Max. Both of them have done unspecified “bad things.”)
However, I have a couple of problems with MMFR. First, it is a poorly written story. There I said it. I love action movies. I love SF. However, if someone writes a movie that leaves me with no reason to care about anyone in the film, for me that is a failed narrative. I suspect it has simply been so long since a film (a major film) gave us a female action hero that people are resonating with that element. It has been 30 years since Terminator.
MMFR is like the skeleton of a story that exists solely to show a serious of weird, beautiful, explosive images. I don’t want hand-holding storytelling, but for me MMFR doesn’t have enough story.
I read a review lauding the film for making all of Immortan Joe’s wives distinct individuals. Perhaps I saw a different film. Other than Splendid (the pregnant blond), the wives were mostly differentiated by their hair colors. The lack of dialog or character development makes it hard for me to see how they can be viewed as individuals. The same is true for the Vulvani. They are (largely interchangeable) fierce, biker women.
The film is built on tired tropes: Women (and Men) have lost their humanity in this brutal (undeveloped world). I saw this in every Clint Eastwood western, with Han Solo, and with Ripley in Alien3 – oh and weekly with The Walking Dead. This leads to a predictable “redemption” story – but what either Max or Furiosa need redemption for is never made clear (again, writing problems).
I’m ok with the reason for the world calamity being hidden – and I think that was a strong choice. I am not ok with inconsistency in time. Both Max and “The Keeper of the Seeds” cannot remember the world as it was before (unless Max is cursed with forever youth). The inconsistent nature of the calamity is equally troubling. Is this about gas, water, or radiation (as the poor population outside of the Citadel and birth defects elements) seem to imply? If it all of them, how come radiation only impacts some people?
For me thge lack of story just doesn’t work. I’m not invested in a two-hour car chase – I don’t care how many acrobats and explosions are included.
The intersection problems
First, this is a white movie. I guess in a post-apocalyptic world, all the people of color disappear. Casting Zoë Kravitz does not make the film diverse – it makes her the token person of color. There were sweeping scenes of crowds, yet nary a person of color to be seen. Stemming from this lack of diversity, there is the cultural appropriation. The War Boys’ body panting reflects the body painting of indigenous Australians. I know it’s one element, but it was a major, glaring choice. Oh and it’s just there to look weird/cool – as I’m American, not Australian, I’m not sure how this is address in Australian culture. However, it happens in the US all the time. Native America culture, spirituality, and art are appropriated (http://nativeappropriations.com/) for profit and entertainment. Why the War Boys engage in body painting is not explained or given any context at all – at least the chrome teeth is connected to cars (and I’m just going to leave the “grill” element of their actions to appropriation of African-American culture for someone else to address). Also why Valhalla? Was it just because the audience knows the name? There doesn’t seem to be a cultural connection (maybe I’m reading too much into the original Mad Max being Australian). Is it just another example of weak writing?
Second, there is the disability narrative. First, Furiosa’s disability is unremarked on! Hooray. She isn’t a disabled person; she is a person with a disability. This is rare in media. Disability is often used as a plot device as something to “overcome.” I loved that George Miller made her disability a non-issue.
However, it is complicated. First, there is the disabilities impact bad people trope. Immortan Joe is trying to have healthy children. Both his sons are people with disabilities (to extreme levels). Immortan Joe himself is sick (the oxygen tank – and the other Warlords are shown in the same vein). The hordes of poor outside of the citadel are also shown with boils, tumors, and disease (again, why I suspect radiation). Even War Boy Nux refers to his tumors as his friends. Second, the Wives are all shown to be physically perfect. Even Splendid’s dead fetus is referred to as physically without flaw. Even the scene where Splendid’s perfect leg is marred by Max’s bullet (which is shown repeatedly) reinforces this ideal of physical perfection being equal to goodness (of justness). The Vulvani, while old, are also shown to be physically sound – although by the end of the film, it is mostly the young, hot women allowed to live and rule. The underlying trope of disability as a sign of corruption implies that Furiosa will not be the ruler and will, like Max, eventually be forced to leave civilization.
Finally, for all that this film is being lauded as feminist – the larger story arc is simply reinforcing tired tropes. Women as mothers (but mothers with guns! How novel?). The “Green Place” is tied to a women’s utopia of fecundity and life – ‘cause women = mothers. Perhaps the idea was that these stereotypes would be tempered by the commodification of women. The breeders and wives are literally being sold and their bodies used. Furiosa is hauling a tanker of mothers’ milk to trade for bullets (ok, I’ve debated this one with my husband, she may have been hauling water).
But these elements were overshadowed by the relentless woman as cosmic mother trope. This is tired feminism for me. The gender essentialist tropes of the 90s coming back and masquerading as “change” or “progress”
This also impacts the Furiosa narrative (if anyone in the film can fairly be said to have a narrative). There is no way she could exist in the world created in the film. She may have been born in the green place, but she was raised in the Citadel. Women are breeders (milkers or baby makers) or I guess poor mutants outside of the city. There are no other women present. The problem here is that she becomes an anomaly, special, “the chosen one,” a freak. She is not a real possibility. If any of the War Boys or other Imperators had been women that would have been something to talk about, but the same token fighter woman, not so much.