It is a feminist film because it was consciously constructed to expose grave injustices in Hollywood and the broader culture by making non-traditional choices that resulted in feminist acts.
Mad Max is a feminist. And, apparently feminism sells.
After a 136 million dollar opening weekend, the fourth installment of George Miller’s classic franchise is the highest earning and it also boasts one singular difference from the first three: women.
Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist film simply because it has a female protagonist or because it passes the Bechdel test. It is a feminist film because it was consciously constructed to expose grave injustices in Hollywood and the broader culture by making non-traditional choices that resulted in feminist acts.
Overall, Mad Max: Fury Road is a giant fuck you to Hollywood from the soldiers on the front lines. There is no denying that Hollywood is a dark and twisted place where women struggle to exist within a web of gender norms and cultural myths: the myth of youth, the myth of beauty, and the myth of power. In Hollywood and throughout the world, the battle to both destroy and maintain those myths is enacted on women’s bodies. Fury Road takes down all of these myths starting with the misnomer that stories about women aren’t interesting or worthwhile.
Miller has acknowledged that the only idea that stuck with him when conceptualizing the film was a harem of wives who are rescued from a War Lord and as The Mary Sue reports:
“This led to the creation of a female Road Warrior—Theron’s Imperator Furiosa—in order to avoid the very different connotations that would come along with a male Road Warrior stealing Immortan Joe’s Wives. The film’s feminism is a utilitarian result of the plot’s mechanics.”
However, what began as a necessary choice in plot development was supported by a director with an awareness of how to make this a film of resistance to the sexism that pervades most of Hollywood’s blockbusters. Here’s how.
1. Cast Charlize Theron: She woke up like this
At the helm of this story is not Max, but Furiosa. And, there is simply no one else in Hollywood better suited to take on this role. Feminist scholar bell hooks offers that “feminists are not born but made,” and Theron is a case study in using talent and personal experience to expose the truth about our cultural mistreatment of women, both on screen and off. Since her award winning performance in Monster (2003), she has continued to deliver diverse and nuanced characters that expose the complications and challenges specific to being a woman. Her choices often reflect a desire to explore the depths of the female experience with intent to expose the privilege of being beautiful juxtaposed with beauty’s often inherit danger. If you haven’t seen Snow White and the Huntsman, do it now.
2. Employ a Feminist Consultant
It’s been nearly 30 years since the original Mad Max so there is no doubt that Miller’s perception of the world has changed.
“I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist,” Miller acknowledged in a Vanity Fair interview.
Perhaps this is what led him to invite award winning global activist Eve Ensler, whose organization VDAY has raised billions worldwide to end violence against women, to work directly with the actors and even members of the crew. Ensler has spent her life telling women’s stories, but specifically stories about women whose bodies have been brutally possessed by the violence of men. She described the experience to TIME Magazine:
“They asked me questions about their characters. What would it mean to have been a sex slave held for a long time in captivity? What would it feel like to carry a baby of someone who had raped you? What would it mean to feel attached to your perpetrator despite the abuse because it had gone on for so long? How after you are raped, your body becomes a place that you dissociate from, a landscape of terror. I wanted to give them context.”
This results in fully developed female characters whose journey to reclaim their bodies is one of self-determination and collective agency. These are not damsels in distress.
Miller also employed his wife, Margaret Sixel, to edit the film “because it won’t look like every other action movie,” he told Vanity Fair. The subtext of this choice refers to the lack of women in editing rooms, which leads to most films being constructed through the male gaze. Putting a woman in the editor’s chair means that the first time we see Furiosa—a shot of her walking away from the camera, her back to the audience—the camera pans out stopping at the top of her hips. No ass shot. It’s a nanosecond that will go unnoticed by millions, but it is exactly the kind of subtle revolution that Hollywood films, and their audiences, can benefit from.
3. The women talk. All of them.
According to the most recent study by the Women’s Media Center, female characters overall appear far less frequently than male characters and make up less than 30% of speaking roles in top grossing films. Fury Road eviscerates this statistic and others by having multiple women of diverse ages and skin tones on screen throughout the entire film. More importantly, all of these women speak.
Additionally, this screenplay is giving voice to a grim yet common experience of #YesAllWomen. These characters are sex slaves; they are rape victims, and they are girls whose lives have been stolen, whose bodies have been conquered. In reality, women and girls make up 98% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation and 1 out of 6 American women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. The culture that exists in order to silence women is most insidious when it comes to victims of sexual violence. Living in America means participation in a rape culture that thrives on victim blaming and archaic gender roles. It relies on the unaccountability of perpetrators and the fear of victims. By simply giving his characters lines, actual voices, Miller calls into question our entire cultural narrative around sexual violence.
4. Respect for female bodies and valuing the feminine
No one ever needs to see a rape scene, ever. It’s not even necessary when making a film about rape, which Miller thoughtfully demonstrates by forgoing imagery that re-enacts the horrible atrocities his characters have lived through. As Hit List’s Donna Dickens points out: “It is a movie about the sex trade with zero sex in it.”
A primary example is the scene where Max first makes contact with the wives—barely clothed and out of hiding for the first time. Rather than gratuitously lingering on the women’s bodies, Miller instead focuses on one of the wives removing a medieval chastity belt/torture device from another. The contraption falls to the ground revealing sharp metal teeth running the length of the crotch. Enough said.
It is the same respect that informs why the Road Warrior had to be female, which both Miller and others like The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager have suggested. In his essay that chronicles the political current throughout the franchise’s history, Schager recognizes that this installment is explicitly female focused.
He writes, “Fury Road ultimately bolsters its gonzo vehicular warfare by turning its story into an all-too-relevant treatise on reproductive rights. Miller’s story renders Max as something of a secondary character, with the focus more squarely on Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Her mission is one of rescuing female prisoners from their male owners, and in doing so, to re-imbue them with agency over their own lives and bodies.”
Given the delicacy of reproductive freedom and our current gender politics, a male character simply could not do that. It changes the entire narrative, a narrative that seeks to explore what happens to our world when we devalue and destroy our women. And that is an inherently feminist act.
5. You can’t spell feminism without m-e-n
No sooner had the news broke about Mad Max’s “feminist agenda” before a call of protest went out among the blogosphere to boycott the film because of its “feminist propaganda.”
The author of the protest post put it this way:
“Charlize Theron kept showing up a lot in the trailers, while Tom Hardy (Mad Max) seemed to have cameo appearances. Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers, while I don’t think I’ve heard one line from Tom Hardy. And finally, Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max.”
It’s almost hilarious if it wasn’t so representative of a very dominant opinion in American culture: Certain spaces are reserved for men, and they have a right to them. Action movies are one of those spaces as are women’s bodies. In a true display of an ally, Miller brought us a character who drove her war rig into her own battle, and in Max created a non-traditional masculine identity who supports and respects women. We need more men like this in Hollywood using their power and privilege as a way to inspire dialogue and catalyze change.
When asked about the “feminist agenda” of the film, Charlize Theron applauded her director for his interest in exploring the truth about women’s lives, saying, “George has this innate understanding that women are just as interesting and complex as men and he was interested to discover that. Through his need and want for the truth he made an incredible feminist movie.”
And, the truth is, that is the most powerful take-away from this unexpectedly feminist film: Women are important. Women are valuable. Women matter.
Alicia Swiz is a pop culture lover with a critical eye and a feminist heart. An interdisciplinary artist and educator, Alicia can be found performing feminist rants and raves around the city of Chicago. @popgoesalicia #popdontstop