Mad Max, Feminism, and the Sublime Car Chase

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is undoubtedly the central protagonist of the film, sporting a cyborg arm and not a little feminist influence.

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is undoubtedly the central protagonist of the film, sporting a cyborg arm and not a little feminist influence.

There are few films that achieve critical and commercial success while asserting ostensibly left wing political content within the rubric of  the Hollywood blockbuster. In general, these films are structured to avoid politics altogether while, at best, pushing the boundaries of an established genre’s limits for the sake of appealing to a wider audience. Within these constraints, the achievements of Mad Max: Fury Road are astounding, even if they do fall short of establishing a quintessentially “feminist movie,” as many of the film’s acolytes claim.

What makes Fury Road such a powerful film is the ways in which it simultaneously undermines and carries to excess the action adventure genre’s tropes. With almost no dialogue the film unfolds as a single extended car chase, and yet it executes this vision with stunning originality and poignant character development. That film is an immersive visual art form is on full display in this production. A post-industrial wasteland in the desert does not seem like the kind of setting that would be conducive to the use of color as a means of aesthetic communication, and yet the film is an example of one of the most vibrant uses of color in recent memory. This is in sharp contrast with the shallow and bland aesthetic common to action film genre.

On the political front, the film does not articulate a particularly insightful critique of our current society, nor does it offer some sort of counter-hegemonic narrative lens through which to overturn the ideological frameworks that dominate our lives. Consequently, I would argue that this is not technically what one would call a "feminist film." The patriarchy on display is of a rather direct and crude type in which women’s bodies are owned as property—things to be possessed or discarded. Indeed, one might even detect undertones of the kind of selective use of feminism common to imperialist interventions in places like Afghanistan at work here.

But these undertones are completely undermined by the structure of the narrative itself. This is not a story of external intervention by male liberators, it is a story of a group of women carrying out an act of self-emancipation who just happen to accrue a couple of male allies along the way. The central thread of the plot involves Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leading warlord Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keayes-Byme, who is also “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max) prized possessions—a group of ostensibly genetically pristine “breeder” women—on a path of liberation that initially sets its sites on “the green place.”

This journey to a utopian other space is a common enough narrative trope, and in contemporary film is often subject to a kind of cynical unraveling in the final act. Dreams of liberation are quashed in these contemporary stories of demystification. At least one philosopher has identified this form of cynicism as the central ideological strategy of the contemporary social order. At the point at which the dreams of the “green place” seem to have evaporated for the film, as Furiosa undergoes a crisis of faith in her vision, we have the one complete example of Max’s heroism on display when he proposes a revolutionary solution to their dilemma: the “green place” was always-already present, it was the territory ruled by Immortan Joe and his War Boys. Rather than seek liberation in other space, the film’s protagonists will seek to redeem the world in which they live.

This is the real political content of the film underneath its surface story of women’s liberation from the status of thing-hood. It is a story of liberation by redeeming one’s home rather than placing hope in an ephemeral other space. In this sense, the film does present a counter-hegemonic narrative, albeit in a concealed form buried in the content (and the very form of the film itself is of a rather standard construction—albeit done with remarkable skill). When the liberated women ask, "Who killed the world?" They are implying that the answer is the very men who seek to recreate a caricature of the old world by hoarding what is left of life-giving sustenance in the hands of a quite literal patriarch.

Though some dismiss this political content as a marketing strategy on the part of George Miller and Warner Brothers, one has to ask whether or not this matters in the end. If it was the case that the so-called “Men’s Rights Activist” backlash against the film was what propelled audiences to go see it, then surely this is an index of the state of popular consciousness on gender issues that we ought to find promising. Whatever the marketing strategy was concerning the female-centric content of the film, one cannot deny that the film is structured as a female-centric action movie that is informed by a growing feminist consciousness among certain sectors of the public. Accordingly, it is a good sign that the genre itself is changing for the better.

But the politics are not why one goes to see this film (though it might be the reason one reads about it on a blog like the Ansible after seeing it). One ought to see this film because of its breathtaking visuals, character development, spellbinding cinematography, and thrilling post-apocalyptic setting. Political litmus tests are worthless for works of art, and any work of art that can easily be reduced to a single concept—even a venerable one—is problematic.

No, what makes this latest Mad Max installment so powerful is that it stands above the herd of action adventure competitors. Some have said the film is similar to a silent movie, and it does seem to be presented in a style that hearkens back to that era. Exaggeration is necessary for successful communication in both speculative fiction and in silent films, and in this respect flaming guitars and young men painting themselves white—if ever there was a more over-the-top metaphor for whiteness—while going into battle against a band of heroes led by an androgynous-presenting woman with a cyborg arm really carries some weight.

There are problems with the film, undoubtedly. One aesthetic choice that needs to be reconsidered from a feminist angle is the choice to keep the (ex) wives in their white gowns. They seem to be impractical and indicate that, at least mentally speaking, the women have yet to achieve a subjective break from their past condition of servitude (and indeed the film does a lot with this tension among these characters, even if its visual presentation is lacking). One might ask for a little more Max in such a film, not unlike the ways in which many complained about the recent Godzilla movie for not focusing on the titular character. I for one find the whole post-apocalyptic wasteland narrative to be a tired one endlessly recycled by big media productions who use it to play on our sense of being engaged in a no-holds-barred war of all against all in this most neo-liberal phase of the neo-liberal era.

Nonetheless, Max Max: Fury Road rises above the rest of its competitors in a big way, presents complex ideas on screen with visual communication that is at once insightful and enjoyable, and accomplishes a degree of originality in yet another reboot/sequel of an old franchise. As such, it succeeds on multiple levels, and ought to be seen as an excellent reflection of the culture industry’s responsiveness to a growing level of sophistication both in terms of taste and political consciousness among general audiences.

Jase Short is a writer and activist living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He writes the blog "The Ansible," focusing on speculative fiction and fantasy, for Red Wedge.