The Startling Humanism of 'Mad Max: Fury Road'


The story of Mad Max: Fury Road centers on the escape of a harem of young women in a “war rig” driven by the unstoppable Imperator Furiosa, a splendid Amazon played by Charlize Theron, with the aid and counsel of Mad Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, glorious as usual). The women’s captors, a terrifying patri-army of punk-rock hot rodders and their leader, Immortan Joe, spend almost the whole movie in furious pursuit of the fugitives in the most explosively rip-roaring gasoline-spitting rocket-fueled action flick in about forever. But much of the critical conversation surrounding the film, which saw a respectable box office opening of forty-five million dollars, has centered on its gender politics.

Women are portrayed as warriors and survivors in this movie; on the other hand, the harem girls are so young, shapely and lovely and so scantily clad that they resemble nothing so much as a herd of supermodels waiting around for Steven Meisel. The women need Max’s help in order to escape their pursuers; on the other hand, he needs theirs. So there’s as much fodder for the Men’s Rights Activists at Reddit and elsewhere to complain about the weakening and “feminization” of Max (“Nobody barks orders to Mad Max”) as there is for Jezebel’s “Hysterical Man” to claim, “The New Mad Max Film Is So Feminist My Scrotum Killed Itself”.

A few days ago, Anita Sarkeesian and the shoal of fools that follows her around to yell at her constantly took to Twitter to contend over whether or not the movie is a feminist document. Sarkeesian says it is not, because, among other reasons, “Viewers get to feel good about hating cartoon misogyny without questioning themselves or examining how sexism actually works in our society,” and that while “Fury Road is different from many action films in that it lets some women participate as equal partners in a cinematic orgy of male violence[,] feminism doesn’t simply mean women getting to partake in typical badass ‘guy stuff.’” She thinks that “We’re starved for representations of powerful women but we need to re-imagine concepts of power & move beyond the glorification of violence.”

This is a profound misreading of the movie, but not for the reasons her opponents claim. There are two camps arrayed against these views: Loads of self-avowed feminists say that Yes, the movie is feminist, and they are happy about this, pointing to the power and authority of Furiosa throughout, to the agency and bravery of the fugitive brides, to the respect paid to the wise old Vuvalini, and to the cry, “We are not things.” (Much has also been made of the involvement of Eve Ensler as a consultant on the film, and that Miller’s wife, Margaret Sixel, edited the movie.)

In the opposite corner, the so-called men’s rights activists have gotten their knickers in a monstrous twist about the ruin of their favorite action classic by so-so-called Social Justice Warriors, because they don’t care for Social Justice, apparently, and prefer women to be things. Their misconceptions are hilarious for so many reasons, not least because Fury Road was directed and co-written by a seventy-year-old Australian man who explicitly told Vanity Fair, “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.”

The discussion around feminism has meant that so far, there has been little comment on Fury Road’s preoccupation with the evolution of men in recent decades. It’s a movie about how men and women can be not just “allies” to one another, as if our fates were separate, but real comrades, who must overthrow a common enemy and share a common fate. Instead, the balance of criticism has generally tended toward a defense against charges that Mad Max, the male protagonist, has been somehow weakened or made subservient to Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, who, with one arm, is the better shot — though not, perhaps, Max’s equal in raw survival instinct, because she is fighting for something more than survival. In this vein, the reliably excellent Sasha James observed: “Has [director George] Miller actually taken anything away? No. He has only allowed heroism in the Mad Max universe to be co-ed.” And that is certainly true. But however much he may share the lead role with Charlize Theron as Furiosa, Tom Hardy as Mad Max is still the heart and soul of this movie. It’s a real pity that that has gone unnoticed, because the deeper story has been ignored in favor of the feminist one. At bottom, Fury Road is a political allegory: The story of a revolution that ends with the overthrow of the ancien régime; it just so happens that the usurpers are mainly women. Perhaps the most compellingly real story is in the suggestion of how IRL young people can unite to cause the downfall of their oppressors — all of history’s oppressors — to take back the world and, though it will be super hard, establish a better and fairer humanity in place of the horrible old one.

And from another angle, the action revolves around three men: Immortan Joe, who represents the old patriarchy in all its grotesquely narcissistic, greedy, delusional excesses; Nux, who’s been exploited, poisoned and oppressed, but doesn’t see or understand that yet (he represents all the patriotic young kids who enlisted after 9/11 and then were hurt and disillusioned and ruined and disfigured in the eternal wars); and lastly our hero, Max, who’s known the score from the beginning and who has long been alone, a survivor haunted by his failure to save his own family. (There’s another sense in which you can see all three of these men as victims of a larger, inexorably pitiless machine; Immortan Joe, we see from the start, is not really so Immortan as all that, in his doomed attempts to move heaven and earth to maintain his position and in his pretensions to all-powerful abilities that he manifestly does not possess; this ultimate symbol of the patriarchy is a withering, dying old man, kept alive by broken technology. The old Freudian association of teeth with power enters in here: Immortan Joe’s teeth are assumed, not real, animal teeth, and the War Boys paint their teeth with chrome in a symbol of ersatz “hardening.” Max, whose mouth has been chained shut by Immortan Joe when the movie opens, can only act when the mask and chains come off; Joe dies only when his real, powerless mouth is exposed.)

All three men are altered by contact with women who’ve risked everything to reject the old order: The women imprisoned by Immortan Joe rise up to destroy him; Nux realizes that he’s been duped into volunteering himself as cannon fodder through the friendship of the women he’d come to capture and/or destroy; and Max, who has steadfastly avoided making a connection with any other human being, breaks down and shares his most precious bodily fluid with Furiosa — blood, to give her life. Max leaves her at the end of the movie, still the quiet loner who shows no emotions, the man whom the women ultimately needed to make it through, and there’s little that is progressive about that, in some sense. But I think he’ll be back.

In Max, we may read modern men in general, who were taught to fight and die and bleed for everyone else, uncomplainingly and alone, who were taught that women were weak, dependents to be “cherished” and protected — not equals who could fend for ourselves or fight side-by-side with them. But at some point in the late twentieth century, men somehow learned a different way of thinking about all that. What Miller is really doing is teaching men, not only women, how to rise above the patriarchy.