Some folks have been getting their underpants in a serious twist over the latest Mad Max movie, which hit cinema screens last month. So what is it about the movie that’s been shrinking so many wieners? Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth film in an infamous cult series spanning four decades, rejects the traditional action movie formula and blasts Ellen Ripley-style into the realm of kick-ass female protagonists. MM himself is a man of very few words this time, letting his “sidekick” Imperator Furiosa–a crop-haired Charlize Theron flashing extra-intense green eyes out of a face smeared with dark grease–pretty much call the shots (literally).
The action takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humans are enslaved by despotic “Immortan” Joe. Furiosa is running away with a group of female sex slaves she’s saved from Joe’s clutches when she encounters former captive Max Rockatansky. Initially hostile toward and suspicious of one another, the pair eventually decide to join forces in an edge-of-seat escape attempt across the barren dystopia known as the Wasteland, aided along the way by the released “wives” and a gang of ageing female bikers.
Some less enlightened viewers have been up in arms at the sight of all these women being, well, armed up. In an essay which went viral and gained coverage across numerous mainstream press outlets, men’s rights activist Aaron Clary accused feminism of “ruining nearly every potentially-good action flick with a forced female character or an unnecessary romance sub-plot to eek [sic] out that extra 3 million in female attendees”. He went on to express concern that men watching the trailer for Fury Road would be “duped by explosions, fire tornadoes, and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda” rather than a film “made for men”.
It’s difficult to know what exactly he refers to in his first statement, given that the entertainment industry to date really only allows reference to Alien series’ Ellen Ripley as any kind of widely recognized comparison to the character of Furiosa. OK, maybe I’ll consider throwing in Terminator‘s Sarah Connor. But I think that’s our lot, pretty much.
Vagina Monologues writer and prominent feminist activist Eve Ensler was brought in as a consultant on the film, drawing on her work with sex slaves in the Congo, Bosnia, Haiti and Afghanistan to inform the movie’s depiction of Joe’s “wives.” This has invited further accusations that it was designed to be a piece of “feminist propaganda.” The wives—at least one of whom is pregnant with Joe’s child—enter the film as seemingly defenseless, scared-looking waifs, but as the action speeds up, it becomes clear they’re happy to tote a gun with the rest of them. That said, it’s disappointing and painful to see gratuitously sexualized scenes, such as them showering together.
Whilst the focus is on the fashion in which male violence has destroyed the world, the female hero and the presence of the wives as a central plot point has sparked complaints that the movie is looking only at female suffering, and that’s certainly not true. The presence of both Max, shown earlier in the film in an iron mask, strapped to the front of an enemy vehicle, and the unstable, tragic Nox—one of Joe’s “warboys” who ends up coming over to our heroes’ side—illustrates that the oppression affects everyone. Even men who are ostensibly part of the enemy’s ranks.
So is Fury Road a feminist film? In many ways, yes. It spectacularly flies in the face of the classic shoot-em-up, and as mentioned earlier, presents us with a rare beast in the form of a strong female lead in an action movie. But Furiosa’s role can on closer examination be called into question. Whilst on the surface Max is doing unarguably symbolic things—such as handing her guns to shoot, because she has a better aim than he does—read between the lines and you’ll realize he’s still calling a lot of the logistical shots. It’s a start, though. With a genre still dominated by male bravado and frail feminine objects of sexual desire (Jurassic World, eh?), maybe Fury Road will set a long overdue trend. At the very least, it’ll send the message to men’s rights activists that they still ain’t seen nothin’ yet.