Make no mistake, Mad Max: Fury Road is resplendent with women kicking ass. Some of the most powerful images in the film are of Imperator Furiosa smearing engine oil on her head, making tough decisions about strategy in the middle of battle and shooting men dead. But the movie features even more feminist elements than assigning guns and strategic minds to women.
Mad Max: Fury Road, unlike most movies in any genre, but especially the action genre, shows that women can occupy a range of roles. Whereas Katie McDonough, writing in Salon, sees the feminist bent of the movie undermined to a certain degree by the personalities of the wives in the movie, their characters actually create a necessary space for the idea that women can be strong even without adopting speech and actions culturally associated with manhood.
McDonough has a point when she writes of Splendid, one of the women forced to bear children for Immortan Joe, the cruel patriarch of the Citadel, “But her compassion – she has a rule of ‘no unnecessary killing’ and refuses to load a gun during a major fight scene – might be radical in a world so devoid of it, but it’s hardly breaking type in the genre. Hollywood is sick with movies about women who have spent their lives demeaned and brutalized by cruel men but who remain boundless in their capacity to forgive.” But because there are so many other women in the movie who expertly battle against men, neither Splendid nor the other wives simply fulfill an expected role for women in an action movie. Rather, “the wives,” who have been forced into sexual slavery, show that women who have been forced by circumstances to endure long-term abuse are strong in ways that have enabled them to survive, strong in ways that aren’t always obvious because they don’t neatly match up with patriarchal depictions of strength.
Splendid refuses to adopt the “dominate or be dominated” logic of her post-apocalyptic world (a logic long associated with colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy in the viewers’ world). She might die because of her refusal to adopt the logic, but she doesn’t die broken. She dies trying to escape and fighting in the ways her pacifism allows her. Her character raises the question: “What would a world run by women mean if it only exists by virtue of violence and oppression?”
We see the Many Mothers as a sort of Utopian alternative to the Citadel, and we assume that this distant and dwindling tribe of matriarchs must have been more egalitarian within their own ranks than Immortan Joe. We assume they didn’t impose hierarchies supported by self-serving religious narratives like he did. But we see that they live by fighting, mostly with men. They are habituated to killing in order to survive.
Capable, another one of the wives, offers a model for thinking about how to arrive at a future where women aren’t slaves, one that isn’t based purely on violence and separatism: educating men about their own enslavement. She reaches out to one of Immortan Joe’s warriors, a warrior who has been raised to die on behalf of his leader. He’s been taught that dying in battle is the road to everlasting glory – here, literally Valhalla. His previous attempts to capture the wives and kill all who got in the way was the product of conditioning. His psychological state supported the maintenance of a hierarchical Citadel, which in turn provided him with an identity and a sense of purpose.
The soldiers are pawns like the wives are. They are all fodder for an authoritarianism that structures their lives so as to be maximally productive. They occupy the very specific roles assigned to them based largely on gender, physical health and presumably caste. Capable’s character offers the much-needed belief that people aren’t inherently good or bad, that they are the product of specific sets of conditions and power relations. She fights against the pervasive logic that there is no room for change and growth.
A significantly different world would allow for various perspectives on power, and it would be populated by women with many different types of personalities and approaches. So, although Furiosa and the elderly Many Mothers are the most compelling characters – women who match the men in their abilities to plan, fight and operate machinery – thankfully the movie’s vision of strong women also includes characters like Splendid and Capable. Other than whoever history’s top-most victors currently happen to be, is there anyone who truly benefits from living in a world without diversity of thought and the possibility for change?
On that note, this movie, like so many others, would have benefited from more diversity – the kind of diversity that goes beyond representing philosophical approaches to life. For one, it definitely should have featured more women of color. The movie is comprised almost entirely of people who are white, reinforcing the false and damaging idea that feminism is by and for white women. And the amazing Many Mothers are a sore reminder that we need more roles that work against the idea that women become less relevant as they age, and such roles need more screen time. Mad Max: Fury Road is progressive in some respects and regressive in others. We need ever more diverse representations of women if we’re to take down our own Citadel.