Mad Max and the question of feminism

          On May 15, 2015, audiences around the world were treated to the visual spectacle that is Mad Max: Fury Road. On the surface, Mad Max seems like another summer action film with a simple plot and little to no heart, but behind its façade lies a very important and polarizing subject in American culture: feminism. Mad Max follows the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa as she navigates her way through the Wasteland, with “Mad” Max Rockatansky as more of a supporting character. Furiosa, one of villain Immortan Joe’s imperators, embarks on a mission to free Joe’s “breeders,” and once Joe discovers his “wives” are missing, Mad Max takes an interesting turn from the tired damsel-in-distress trope to an action movie driven by strong women.

          Without spoiling any major plot details, Furiosa is just as skilled as Max, if not more so. She holds her own in a fistfight with Max (despite only having one arm), she outsmarts Max, and she is a better shot than Max. Once Max realizes that Furiosa is a worthy adversary, the two form an initially uneasy alliance and set out to find the “Green Place.” The breeders also prove to be more than mere objects of male lust. In the aforementioned fistfight, they assist Furiosa by creating distractions and keeping Nux (a War Boy) away from her. In moments of peace, the breeders take inventory of bullets or climb to the back of the war rig to watch out for enemies.

          Max is a man of few words, so the majority of lines in the film fall to Furiosa, Nux, and the breeders. The breeders in particular do not say much, but when they do, it is either a witty comment or a deep and pensive statement or question. The heart of the film lies in a statement that is repeated by the breeders: “we are not things.” When Joe enters the vault that he kept the breeders in, he sees those words painted on the wall, and when one of the breeders is broken and wants to give up, the others tell her these words and give her strength.

         All of these aspects combine to make Mad Max one of the best action movies of the year, and certainly one of the best feminist action movies ever, so what’s the issue? Although praised by critics (89 percent on Metacritic), Mad Max has divided audiences with its portrayal of beautiful women who are neither weak nor subservient to the male characters in the film. A misogynist website (yes, misogynist websites really do exist) called “Return of the Kings” (ROTK) went so far as to call on all “real men” to boycott the film, citing a fear of never being able to watch an action movie “that doesn’t contain some damn political lecture or moral about feminism.”

           It is appalling that this kind of uneducated misogyny still exists in the 21st century. One of the arguments raised by ROTK was that the trailers and title of the film were somewhat of a Trojan horse. Although a fair point (the trailers show Max more than anyone when he really is not the main character), director George Miller was not given much of a choice. Unfortunately, in our society today an action film starring a woman equal to the male characters in physicality and intellect just does not draw in a large audience. By using the trailer as a red herring of sorts, Miller was able to spread his message that women are more than just sexual objects to a wide array of people.

        The Mad Max franchise has always used women in interesting ways. 1979’s Mad Max revolved around Max and his wife, whilst 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome featured a female tyrannical villain, but in both cases, women were not necessarily portrayed in a good light. Max’s wife indirectly became the source of Max’s insanity, while Tina Turner’s villain in Thunderdome was a cruel leader who staged gladiator-like fights for entertainment. There was no outcry about feminism in the latter, so why is Furiosa so controversial?

        I suppose there is no right answer to the question; a die-hard Mad Max fan may be fine with feminism, but was just looking for more Max in the film, while a misogynist may just not feel comfortable with a woman leading an action movie. Whatever the reason, the final words in Fury Road challenge us to be better people: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”