“Boss, we’re not going to Gas Town?” yells the leader of the kamikaze unit, clinging to the door of the truck that is speeding through the desert. Taciturn girl with an iron hand sits behind the wheel of a multi-ton colossus decorated with human skulls. She has just turned off the central highway on the road to nowhere, breaking the commander’s order to drive to a gas station. The girl’s name is Imperator Furiosa, and she is played by almost shaved and smeared with engine oil Charlize Theron. Furiosa is the major combat unit in the army of Immortan Joe, a partly decomposed but still powerful militaristic leader of the commune built on the ruins of civilization somewhere in the middle of Australia. This scene is one of the numerous examples that allow the viewers and critics to unanimously declare the last George Miller’s movie the feminist blockbuster of the year. The theme of feminism runs like a golden threat through the whole story of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Historical and Cultural Context
Stuart Hall in his lecture titled “Representation & the Media”outlines that culture plays the primary role for representation of each particular concept in the media. Therefore, speaking about feminism and women’s representation in Mad Max: Fury Road, one needs to understand the social and cultural context of this movie. Mad Max is a popular franchise that tells a story of the post-apocalyptic world filled with road gangs that ended in 1985. Here the cost of a barrel of oil significantly exceeds the value of human life. After long years of silence, its director George Miller decided that he had something to add to this topic and rolled out a new Mad Max: Fury Road with a speed that leaves three previous movies far behind. One does not need to watch the whole franchise. The fourth movie does not require any background information to understand the director’s message. After the years that passed from the release of the first film, the rules of Miller’s universe did not change. In Fury Road, Furiosa rushes at full speed for a better life with a small amount of fuel and five young concubines while the death squadron led by Immortan Joe desperately chases them.
At the same time, Miller’s film pretends to be a typical exploitation movie. This genre consists of films that exploit such sensational material as violence, sex, drugs and other forbidden topics in order to attract the audience.
However, the new part of the franchise goes beyond the exploitation of aesthetics. Hall insists that context can significantly emphasize one’s statement. Miller skillfully exploits context to speak about gender relationships. His primary goal is to deliver his message to the largest possible number of people. While the manner and entourage of past films remain the same, Fury Road is filled with a new meaning. “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist,”says the septuagenarian director. Numerous experts stated the lack of strong female character in Hollywood movies. Such problem is extremely relevant for blockbusters. A significant part of popular movies cannot pass the Bechdel test for gender equality. According to its rules, a film should contain at least two women characters that discuss “something other than men.” Moreover, to pass this simple test, women can play secondary characters. However, the revolution started in the completely unexpected movie. Mad Max: Fury Road is more than a dashing and furious action filled with masculinity; this film suddenly switched gender roles.
Furiosa, Max and the Wives as an Essential Part of the Story
After the movie was released many people were surprised that the Imperator Furiosa occupies the leading position among the characters of the film. In fact, her will and determination force the story to move forward. Furiosa is absolutely equal to Max in terms of sharp mind and physical strength even though she has only one hand. Imperator played by Theron has all chances to become the next Sarah Connor, Ripley or Lara Croft. Moreover, George Miller has already announced a sequel that will be completely dedicated to the character of Furiosa and her choices. However, currently instead of a film about the character claimed in the title the audience received a story that tells how a woman leads other women to freedom despite all challenges.
Watching Mad Max: Fury Road, the viewer constantly is wondering who the protagonist of the franchise is. This tragic loner road warrior and former cop Max Rockatansky, previously played by Mel Gibson, is always somewhere behind Furiosa, screwed to a radiator grill. Soldiers of Joe’s army have already taken his jacket and car and now use him as a blood donor. Tom Hardy, who plays Max, hears only “blood bag” in his address for the first half an hour and all he can do is mumble and survive until rebellious women take him on board. In fact, the viewer can easily consider Max as a second plan character even though his name is used in the title of the movie and history of the franchise.
The wives of Immortan Joe are full of symbols. Each of them symbolizes power, beauty, fragility, purity, life and future. The apparent leader of the Immortan Joe’s harem is Angharad. She is the most desperate and strong-willed of the fugitives. Angharad is the one who keeps wives together and, most likely, persuades them to risk everything and run away with Furiosa. Despite pregnancy, she saves the team in the decisive moments and goes into battle more frequently than other wives.
Cheedo the Fragile is the youngest and the most emotional of the wives. She is the one who mourns the death of Angharad for everyone and tries to return to Joe, doubting the success of the escape. However, she helps Furiosa at the time of the last fight and proves herself a courageous girl.
Capable is the wife who looks the most formidable of all the tender nymphs. She helps Angharad at crucial moments and supports her throughout their escape. In addition, she not only shows mercy to the enemy but also finds strength to understand, love and help him again. None of her more fragile and gentle companions made such a strong act as she did.
Toast the Knowing looks the most tough, hardened and cold-blooded of all wives. Perhaps she got into a harem in more or less mature age and has had time to learn how to survive in the wasteland. Hence her equanimity, nickname and ability to handle weapons, she not only recharges rifles and sorts ammunition but also saves the life of Furiosa.
The last girl is probably the most strange and mysterious of the wives. Her nickname is the Dag. On the one hand, she is comparable to others in the qualities mentioned above. On the other hand, she often seems detached, looking at the world a little differently than the rest of the wives. The first words she says (“Angharad, tell me, is it the wind, or a furious fixation?”) allude to the extraordinary and even poetic worldview.
These women show courage and readiness to risk everything just not to be things. The importance of context for the concept of representation stated by Hall can be clearly seen in these episodes. Beautiful models that play wives could be considered as another instrument of pleasing the audience’s eyes. However, Miller adds numerous nuances to outline the role of women in the society. Beautiful wives of a tyrant not only look amazing in their dresses but also are able to stand up for themselves, show mercy to an enemy and care about the future of civilization.
According to Hall, language is the primary feature of every represented image. Applying such statement to Mad Max: Fury Road, the viewer can see two crucial aspects. The first one is the language used in the movie. All men, except for Max, speak with numerous lexical and grammar mistakes due to a low level of culture in the post-apocalyptic world. However, all women speak on fluent English, thus representing the image of a woman as a keeper of culture. The second crucial aspect relates to the messages left on the wall of the harem. “We are not things.” “Our babies will not be warlords.” “Who killed the world?” Such statements appear at the beginning of the movie just after Furiosa’s escape. While the viewer does not know anything about the prisoners except for their gender, these writings emphasize the challenges that every woman experiences in Mad Max’s universe.
The Portrayal of Feminism
Hall outlines the importance of unexpected details for the meaning of the image. In case of Mad Max, nobody could expect that the movie about blood chases and post-apocalyptic survival would focus on gender roles. George Miller vividly states that women represent all good things that the humanity managed to keep. All of them are positive characters while men appear to be ugly, bigoted, egotistical and cruel. Even Max, who is also trying to command them, is no better than the others. Objectification of women is shown as absolute slavery. They are literally milked and held in chains for sexual pleasures and growing heirs. While such symbols do not look as a portrayal of feminism, Miller uses them to show that even in the world where the rights of a certain group, in fact, ceased to exist, these people are still able to fight for their freedom, dignity and the right for a happy life. For example, Furiosa eventually rose to the position of a respected military leader.
Even in the first films Miller did not hesitate to show how women can be housewives, victims, soldiers and leaders. Moreover, previous movies clearly stated that evil, aggression, destruction and death in this world are brutalized by the impunity of men. Thus, the main character so vividly remembers his wife and child when he feels the need for murder and destruction. Moreover, in Fury Road Immortan Joe washes the blood of the enemies with the mother’s milk. One cannot imagine more sentimental and clear representations of women. Moreover, in the last movie Miller gets full empowerment. Besides the literal interpretation that is “the provision of power,” this concept supposes restoration of dignity and human rights. Currently, this word is often associated with the strong representation of women that are equal or superior to men.
Unlike previous parts of the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road does not focus on the end of the world and its devastating consequences. This myth is not about the apocalypse but about the creation of the world. None of the previous Max’s victories promised him a temporary reprieve but not deliverance. However, for the first time, there is a hope for the future in this universe, which, according to George Miller, is carried by the women who hold in their hands the last seeds. They believe there is a piece of fertile soil in this hell. This burst of liberation contains a beautiful blonde, kind-hearted redhead girl, an old woman on a motorcycle and a strong girl with a bionic arm who has no time to think about her gender identity. Moreover, along with them there is a road warrior Max Rockatansky, who suddenly realized how Immortan Joe treats his wives. George Miller insists that every person can be strong regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or capabilities. The story of Mad Max includes old women with guns who know how to stand up for themselves and kids who calmly kill bandits with a boomerang. The director outlines that people are free to choose their own destiny. Even in this crazy world there is a place for charity, self-sacrifice and dignity.
Mad Max: Fury Road is, of course, not the first blockbuster that can be called pro-feminist in the history of cinema. Hollywood factory has already created the second Terminator with Sarah Connor, G.I. Jane with Jordan O’Neill and, of course, Alien with Ellen Ripley. However, all these movies told a story of a desperate woman who remained alone against the surrounding darkness and violence in the form of total discrimination, invasion of cyborgs or existential cosmic horror. By contrast, Miller’s film is full of sisterhood spirit that had already appeared in his The Witches of Eastwick. The director uses costumes, language and other contextual devices to emphasize the purity and beauty of women. Nevertheless, even more important is the fact that Fury Roadalong with some of the recently released Hollywood blockbusters brings a very simple idea that the opponents of feminism do not usually understand. Feminism is not about fighting for the victory of matriarchy or trying to prove the superiority of women. This phenomenon supposes a world built on equality and partnership.