Further to some objections I’ve had to my description of Mad Max: Fury Road as having reasonably good gender politics. Trigger and Spoilers, obviously.
What Mad Max: Fury Road does – with its depiction of Furiosa – is to refuse to make violence the exclusive province of men, or to make men the only ones who are any good at it. (Not unprecedented – but quite good.) Furiosa gets to do all the trad-masculine things that Max does. She’s just as good at them as him. This, apparently, is a big problem for those kinds of insecure, reactionary misogynitwits who drivel on about how women are weaker than men. According to such douchenozzles, this is just a scientific fact, and it’s not a man’s fault if he just repeats the incontrovertible findings of Science. In actuality, of course, what such bigoted ninnies are actually doing is regurgitating some half-digested sociobiologistic bullshit. They then accuse feminists (who control Hollywood in their ideologically distorted, bass-ackwards bizzaro world) of playing a dirty, emasculating trick and oppressing men by spreading the vicious civilisation-eroding lie that not all women need a man to open jars for them.
The thing is, there is a rational kernal to some of these complaints (wait). The complaint comes as a response to a genuine threat (I said wait). The genuine threat which is correctly perceived by the bawling manbabies is a threat to their privilege. You see, when Furiosa beats up some man just as well as Max can (including Max himself), or shoots a gun just as well as Max can, or drives a car just as well as Max can, what is being done is that these traditionally masculine behaviours are being completely detached from masculinity. And what is being detached from masculinity is violence. So the threat to male privilege is about as primal as you can get: male privilege is threatened with losing its monopoly on violence. Given that violence, in one form or another, is at the root of how all systems of oppression function, this could hardly be more threatening (at least within the confines of a mainstream popular movie).
This isn’t some submerged theme in the film that you have to hunt about for. It’s front and centre. The violence Furiosa excels at it specifically and explicitly a violent response to a patriarchy which itself openly functions through violence. Most obviously, there is the implied violence of rape (and kudos to the film for not directly and unnecessarily showing sexual violence). But there is also the structural violence. The system is literally patriarchal, in that Imortan Joe’s fertility seems to be inextricably linked to his rulership – either materially or ideologically, or perhaps both. He rules partly through his family. It is stated that several members of his ruling elite – and his Imperators (bosses-cum-generals) – are members of his family. Brothers, etc. Several are sons. They all seem ‘disabled’ in some way. One seems unable to breathe without a mask and oxygen tanks. Another is played by Quentin Kenihan who has the bone disease osteogenesis imperfecta. Joe’s quest for a ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ son is a big deal, ideologically. It would appear that the majority of the surviving population are either old and decaying remnants of the old world, or ‘disabled’ children of the new world. (To be clear, I’m not praising or denigrating the film for this… I’m ambivalent about the film’s treatment of ability issues.) Joe seems to harvest the healthiest boys from his subjects and turns them into his War Boys… yet even these young men seem mutated and medically entropic; anaemic to the point where they need to ingest the blood of victims in order to survive. Joe may even suffer from a similar condition himself, given his pallor. Just as Joe harvests the ‘healthiest’ boys to be warriors, he harvests the ‘healthiest’, ‘prettiest’ girls to become his sex-slaves-cum-breeders. He is desperate to recapture all his ‘Brides’, but especially Angharad (played by supermodel and Matt Smith-lookalike Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), not just because she’s “his favourite” but also because she’s pregnant. When she’s injured and her dead baby is posthumously delivered, Joe and his sons make a big deal of publically announcing that it was a healthy boy. This is patriarchy turned up to eleven. It’s almost a caricature. A male-dominated hierarchical system that works through a warrior-ethic and a patrilineal transmission of power and property. Joe decorates himself in medals, as men often do in George Miller’s dystopias. As in all Mad Max movies, the masculinity is so aggressively hyperactive that it becomes camp, and also deeply freighted with anxiety, ambivalence, and repulsion. (Partly, of course, this is because the films co-opt an exaggerated version of the performative manners and motifs of biker culture, but I’m not going there because it’s outside my wheelhouse and I don’t want to be writing this essay forever.)
There are problems with the gender politics in the movie. You could argue that most of the women in the film have a great deal less agency than Furiosa. But I think the Many Mothers acquit themselves very well. And I think the Brides have a ton of agency. (Actually, I’m going to stop calling them ‘the Brides’… I’m going to call them ‘the Runaways’, since that better describes them and pays them more respect.) It’s just a different kind of agency to the ass-kickers in the film. It’s the agency of brave endurance… fundamentally the agency Cinderella displays. Cinderella is something I’d have unthinkingly dismissed as a misogynistic, patriarchal fantasy until relatively recently when I spotted a tumblr post (I regret to say I can’t find it now so can’t give the proper attribution) in which someone explained that the Cinderella story has huge significance for them as it is, essentially, the story of someone who survives abuse through endurance. In many ways, the agency of the Runaways is fairytale agency, but sans the fairytale idea that brave endurance and patience are ‘enough’. The Runaways are the ones who choose to run away. They’re the ones who ask Furiosa to launch the whole adventure in the first place. It all happens because they demand their freedom and her help getting it (in so doing they are, it is implied, appealing for help on the basis of sorority from a woman who has, up until then, been living as a comprador with their oppressor – which is not a timid or unrisky thing to do). The set-up (i.e. Furiosa helps the Runaways at their request) is an acknowledgement that you shouldn’t have to be a kick-ass hero to escape oppression, that ordinary bravery and endurance makes people survivors, but also that asses need to be kicked ultimately if you decide that you shouldn’t have to endure any more mistreatment from a violent system. Furiosa is a bad-ass, but the very fact that she is being bad-ass on behalf of people who are not natural fighters vitiates any fetishization of the notion of the bad-ass. In this set-up, the bad-ass woman is at the service of the non-bad-ass women who nevertheless deserve to be free. Indeed, her submission to the project of their freedom is her road to redemption; redemption she needs because, as is implied, she has previously been a ferocious champion of the very system that has enslaved them.
It’s been pointed out that the Runaways are presented as supermodels in skimpy clothing. Now there is doubtless a degree of servicing the male gaze here, and yeah, sure, the script could’ve found a way of getting the Runaways some more clothes at some point. However, you never forget that these women are in the position they’re in because they’ve been selected – obviously against their will, or at least after intense structural coercion – as the inmates of Imortan Joe’s vault, of his harem of sex slaves. He’s picked the ones that most closely conform to patriarchally-dictated standards of ‘beauty’. He’s clothed them according to his fantasy. If you look and leer, you’re implicated in Joe’s behaviour. And it’s not like the film allows you to forget the looming presence of Joe, or the situation of the Runaways as a direct result of his treatment of them. Now, on the one hand I have issues with this (as I have with all such inherently hypocritical attempts at doing themes about ‘complicity’) but, on the other hand, it’s hard to see how else they could make the point. It’s not unlike what Ridley Scott does with Ripley in the last bit of Alien. Yes, she is stripped to her underwear for the delectation of the implicitly male audience member; then we see her diegetic audience… and it’s a profane abomination, panting and touching itself languidly like a wanking Peeping Tom, drooling cum/slaver from its lolling jaws.
The sexualised display of the Runaways in their first appearance – scantily clad and washing each other – is also a direct subversion of patriarchal myth and fantasy tropes about the man who finds beautiful women bathing in private and watches them. The water they wash with is another connection between precious bodily fluids, life-giving water, and the commodification to which they themselves are subject. They are presented in a sexualised way… but it’s an entirely self-involved, inter-woman scene upon which a threatening male presence intrudes. You then see the complications. The barbaric, bolted chastity belts and the pregnant belly. It’s like what Zack Snyder was obviously trying to do in Sucker Punch.
Implicit in the film is a recognition that social hierarchy depends upon control of surplus. Stephen Maher in his Jacobin essay is right to point out that the film doesn’t portray and decry capitalism. There’s no exploitation of surplus value from productive industrial workers or anything like that. But there is a depiction of social hierarchy being based on the sequestration of surplus resources from the mass of the people. This only works in the broadest terms, but it’s still there. The priestly and warrior and political castes rise up the hierarchy based on their roles in controlling, tracking, protecting, acquiring and organising the distribution of surplus. If it’s like anything, Immortan Joe’s oligarchy is like an early form of class society from after the Urban Revolution, or like Neil Faulkner’s blunt description of pre-capitalist forms of class society (most especially the Roman Empire) as based on ‘robbery with violence’ to reinforce systems that stagnate from within because they do not develop the forces of production. The warring brigandage of Joe and his competing ‘nations’ of scavengers in the wilderness is a post-apocalyptic, salvagepunk-inflected version of the warlordism that evolved in human society as soon as there were pools of urban surplus that could be raided. Joe is actually the ruler of one of those pools of urban surplus, though his surplus appears to be a harnessed natural resources rather than a self-reproducing social system based on agriculture… even if agriculture is part of his system. Furiosa’s relatively high position in the hierarchy at the start of the movie is obviously based on her skill as a raider and brigand for Joe. The film doesn’t give her much explicit backstory, but it wouldn’t be crazy to assume that she herself was used as a sex-slave and breeder for Joe until such time as she proved to be incapable of producing ‘healthy’ children, whereupon she somehow migrates to a much higher position based on her ability as a warrior.
As mentioned, the other women are associated with images of fertility all the way through the movie, from the water in which they bathe to the collection of seeds in the bag. The milk of lactating women is harvested by Immortan Joe’s patriarchy for drinking (presumably all drinkable fluids are precious in this poisoned desert). If this were just to emphasize – for emphasis’ sake – the fact that women can get pregnant and have babies, this would be flabby symbolism and nothing more. If it were to suggest that the fertility of women is the key to the renewal of the human race, it would amount to a kind of sexist fetishizing of the whole idea of the female, as well as suggesting that female fertility is just a resource to be used. The film escapes these traps (largely) but embracing both of them and then holding them up as exactly what they are: traps. Traps, moreover, conceived and laid by Joe’s patriarchy. The continuance of Joe’s power relies upon female fertilty because his familial oligarchy needs to be reproduced. He presents this as the renewal of the human race when he claims to be the saviour of the starving, but what he’s actually doing is harnessing the fertile female body (there is, of course, no suggestion that his society has any idea that there might be people identifiable as, or self-identifying as, female who are not physiologically capable of pregnancy) to reproducing an oligarchy. His conception of women thus entails the idea of them as resources to be used. This is what the movie does when it associates the women characters with such things as milk, water, seeds, etc. It identifies them with the resources when make the reproduction of human life possible, and which are therefore ‘owned’ and controlled by Joe in Joe’s oligarchy. It presents women as resources among other resources in order to make a point that the women have been turned into resources by their society. “We are not things” is written on the walls of their prison by the departing Runaways for Joe to find. It is the essential nature of the rebellion that they reject Joe’s conception of them as resources. Later, they encounter the Many Mothers and their bag of seeds. These are resources too, but resources harnessed by those who have rejected oligarchy and patriarchy. The seeds represent an acknowledgement that Joe is right to harness nature, fertility, vegetation, etc as resources for the production and reproduction of society… but that such resources should be controlled from below. What better way to put across this idea than to put these resources into the hands of people who would themselves be treated as resources by the ruling class? The concept of fertility is not shied away from. The seeds end up being cared for by one of the Runaways who is herself pregnant. This is an acknowledgement that human reproduction is the basis of social reproduction. If the film seems to accept that women are, in some sense, ‘resources’, it also presents this as being an impoverished conception when constructed by an oligarchical patriarchy, and argues… to be crude about this… that the resources themselves should stick together and expropriate themselves from hierarchical control.