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She Has No Head! – Mad Max: Feminist Template For The World

by  in Comic News Comment
She Has No Head! – Mad Max: Feminist Template For The World

So, I am a BIG Mad Max fan. Ever since I was a kid I loved these films (Thunderdome is my favorite because A) Thunderdome and B) Aunty Entity/Tina Turner. And it’s one of the same reasons I prefer Conan The Destroyer to Conan The Conqueror – i.e. Grace Jones). But I love them all. I love them SO MUCH that of all my comics pitches my favorite of all time is something I’ve been sitting on/fiddling with for about 20 years and refer to as my “Mad Max X-Men Pitch.” Now that I’ve gotten to do some work with Marvel maybe that’s the first step toward that someday becoming a reality. Will a Mad Max revival make my comic pitch more viable or make it feel derivative? I have no idea. I just put it here to illustrate how deep and abiding my love is for Mad Max – both as a sci-fi concept and as deep nostalgia that still holds up well 35+ years later.

Nobody was more excited than I was to see Mad Max coming back (I was also crazy nervous because you know these things go wrong sometimes). My hopes could not have been higher.

And yet, seeing it yesterday it is everything I could have wanted in a Mad Max film and more than I ever could have dared to hope or dream as a female fan. It’s pretty exciting when something that you already love goes out and makes itself into something not only incredibly female friendly, but wildly female positive, a legitimately feminist film that it still effortlessly a “Mad Max” film, and also one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen. Proving without a doubt (there are some people that continue to have doubts I hear) that those things can walk hand in hand with ease.

As I’ve said many times before, not every film (or book or comic or whatever) has to be about women, in fact they shouldn’t all be about women, but if you’re going to use female characters, Mad Max: Fury Road is the perfect template for how to do it right. Because Mad Max: Fury Road not only gets it right, but gets it right on several complicated levels where it could have gone horribly awry. Let’s talk about why.

Obviously, SPOILERS AHEAD! [And trigger warnings for sexual violence – nothing extreme or detailed but I do discuss some of this stuff generally.]

01. FEMALE LEAD.

It’s ironic that this movie comes just following a simple piece I wrote on “Strong Female Characters” because Furiosa is the definition of that. Which is to say she is massively complex. She contains multitudes, as most of us do. And that’s why she feels so real and resonates so powerfully.

So let’s get into the nitty gritty of why this works like gangbusters: Imperator Furiosa is every bit Max’s equal – both in the story and execution and in the way she is presented to the audience. Let’s start with the practical aspects first – she has literal co-top billing – despite the film being called Mad Max: Fury Road, Max and Furiosa (and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron) are presented side by side on the same opening title card. The film also cast a star at (or above) Hardy’s level of both fame and skill so there is no doubt as to ability to pull this role off (if anything she steals the movie a bit from him thanks to a lot of things including the fact that it’s rare to see these kind of action roles for women while they are more common for men). The roles are also of very similar size – possessing similar amounts of screen time – in fight scenes as well as dialogue. They are also given a reasonably equal introduction and here let’s step back from the “practical movie making bells and whistles” and get more into the actual film.

It matters a great deal how you introduce a character – it’s why first lines in novels are so important, first panels/pages in comics are so key, the first notes (and words) of a song, the opening shot of a movie. This is how you are CHOOSING to set the stage, everything you say here (much like the end) has added importance because it’s the first impression you give your viewer. A great example of it being done to disastrous effect for female characters in comics was in both the New 52 relaunches of Catwoman and Voodoo a few years ago. Both of those (which debuted around the same time) chose to open their stories by highly sexualizing their female leads. And while the books were about more than just that, by choosing that first step – just drenched in pointless T&A – the books honestly never recovered from those first impressions – I know I saw it immediately as a sign that “this was probably not for me.” I was right. In Fury Road, Max gets a great introduction that hints at what came before and then shows his current desperate situation. Max’s introduction is arguably less critical because most of us already know Max well, but still the film gives him an excellent and iconic opening that helps define the world and who he is in it. Similarly, though Furiosa is an entirely new character we know from the moment she steps on screen roughly who she is in this world, and the skills she must possess to have achieved the amount of power she wields in this post apocalyptic landscape. The eagle eyed that notice her arm right away also know what this life has likely cost her. In these first minutes, even with few words (very few) being spoken we can also discern that she is at a crossroads. Already there are parallels between she and Max. Though they are in two drastically different situations they are both living with the boot of a corrupt ruler on their neck and risking everything/willing to risk everything to get out from under that boot.

One of the exceptional things the filmmakers do is help show us how incredible Furiosa is – how skilled — gifted even — she is, is not just through her actions but through letting us see her to a degree through Max’s eyes.  We already know and love Max. Sure this is a slightly different version 30 years after the last one and with a new actor in the role but it’s absolutely Max, no doubt. And so we TRUST Max. And as we see Max being impressed and even moved by Furiosa it helps us to also value her, understand her, and respect her all the more. We were already there on our own (she’s too incredible to not come along) but Max validating her worthiness further solidifies the deal.

There’s a magnificent give and take in the two leads as well. The film doesn’t try to pretend Furiosa can beat Max in a hand to hand fight (especially since she’s only got one arm during the fight). The characters don’t have superpowers and so when a badass battle worn woman fights with an equally badass battle worn man, nobody tries to pretend they have the same upper body strength (for example). But rather than do something that would ring false they create a brilliant frenetic sequence in which Furiosa fiercely holds her own in a way that feels real and earned. The film also allows her to be better than Max at other things (like long distance shooting). Max begrudgingly letting Furiosa take the last rifle shot (and even acting as her salty rifle stand) is one of the best small moments of the film. He doesn’t love it (does anyone love it when they’re not the best at something?) but he’s man enough (and survivalist enough) to accept it – accepting everyone’s natural abilities and learned skills and knowing when you’re not the best is a big freaking deal, especially when you’re doing everything (and almost anything) to survive. By the same token Furiosa lets Max do what he does best too. When it’s time for him to disappear into the night to briefly tear shit up she doesn’t question him, she just lets it happen. They understand each other. They are cut from the same cloth of tragedy and trauma, and the ability and need to fight for their lives, their freedom, buoyed by some belief in those things even if they know they are silly hopes cling to.

The film allows them both beautiful but subtle internal and external development. The internal is especially powerful thanks to some very strong acting. It’s amazing the mileage both Hardy and Theron get out of a knowing look, or a desperate one. The external is minimal (between them do they even have 20 pages of dialogue? I’d be surprised). But all the same it’s clear Furiosa is driven by guilt and the need for redemption, something she made up her mind about before we met her. And Max, as always, wants to go his own way but is compelled by circumstances and driven by a need to do right so that he too faces some private demons and comes out the other side. Both are on their own journeys, journeys that happen to intersect and make them devastatingly magnificent allies, and absolute equals.

It’s rare and exciting to watch and handled in such a subtle way that it feels absolutely natural and matter of fact.

Oh, and let us not forget. Though all of our heroes fight the good fight and add to his downfall, it is, definitively Furiosa that gets to kill the big bad. And that is no small thing in a movie where killing the big bad both MEANS everything and CHANGES everything.

02. THE FIVE WIVES

A lead like Furiosa all but ensures a fantastically feminist perspective when it comes to action movies, but there’s so much more here that is magnificent. Most notable next to Furiosa is the element which is by far the most dangerous to include and which could have gone magnificently wrong and this is The Five Wives. The Five Wives are beautiful “breeders” and the “wives” (read: sex slaves) of lead big bad Immortan Joe. Kept under lock and key they are treated as his literal possessions and are “stolen from him” before the film even begins. Furiosa is believed to be on a “gas run” with her crew but is in reality, smuggling The Five Wives out of the Citadel (all on her own, with none of her crew the wiser). The Five Wives do have names (though you’ll be hard pressed to get them in the film, because it’s hard to get many names through all the action and shouting, which is not necessarily a bad thing – Fury Road makes no bones about being wall to wall action). The Five Wives are: The Splendid Angharad, Toast The Knowing, Capable, The Dag, and Cheedo The Fragile. Next to Nux they are the largest supporting roles and despite having little dialogue (nobody has a lot, as I’ve said) they do an excellent job of distinguishing themselves as individuals.

So many of our stories have women under the thumb of men (only natural, Patriarchy is and has been the rule of our actual real world for most of history) and thus used as sexual objects and this movie is no different except it wisely skips over showing us any of that and instead lets us get there on our own. We see that these women were kept in a literal vault – as if they are treasures. And then when we first see The Wives all viewers need to see are how they look – like ethereal supermodels compared to everyone else – to understand exactly what was going on. A key scene – the first time Max sees them – almost like beautiful mirages in the desert that would further glorify them as stunning objects and not much more is contrasted with their actions – as they cut off the locks on their barbed chastity belts. We know EXACTLY what is going on with these women. The horrors they have endured. The risks they have taken to escape. And this is FULL BLOWN REBELLION. Literally cutting off their shackles. All of this is both set up and solidified even further by the political messages they have scrawled on their former prison that their “Husband” Immortan Joe finds – things like:  “We are not possessions” “our children will not be warlords” and “who burnt the world?”

These women are anything but damsels. They are fighting for their lives and freedom and risking everything, just like Furiosa and Max. They do not have the same skill levels of Furiosa and Max, and they shouldn’t as they have led very different lives, but these are not shrinking violets. They do everything and anything within their power to help Furiosa (and anyone else along the way that tries to aid them) and despite what they have been through they have not lost compassion, and that compassion, that softness in them aides them greatly in turning others toward their cause (most notably Nux, but also to a degree Max is moved by them. Interpretations may vary, I see Max moved more by Furiosa than The Wives, but all of it frankly combines together, including the ridiculous idea of hope for something better, in Max deciding to aid them).

And the five wives find more than one way to contribute to their bid for freedom and survival. They have a deep and furious love for one another, desperately protecting one another. They also know their value and aren’t afraid to use it. One of the most devastating and smart scenes is when the unofficial leader of The Five Wives – the very pregnant The Splendid Angharad – hangs outside of the truck, protecting Furiosa with her body, knowing that Immortan Joe and his minions won’t risk hurting her. In an early scene before Max teams up with Furiosa and The Wives, as Furiosa and Max fight, the Wives try their best to help her, yanking Max around by a chain attached to his muzzle. They prove themselves steel willed and yet gracious and as mentioned before they have a deep compassion, even for those that would be their enemies, likely in part because  they recognize in Nux and others the same trauma that they have suffered –  just a different shade of it.

In action movies, hell, in most movies that aren’t “chick films,” women have clothing and hair that makes no goddamn sense. It’s also true in comics to a massive degree, though we’re going through a nice phase right now where there’s a focus on design that makes more sense (see: Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Batgirl, Spider-Gwen, etc.). So it’s nice to see all of that so fantastically realized in Fury Road. It’s okay that The Five Wives are basically wearing white sheets wrapped to make them look like pliant sexual beings, because that’s what they have been designed to be in this world. It makes sense that they are paler and more beautiful than everyone else because they are literally kept in a vault away from the sun. It makes sense that they have gorgeous flowing (clean) locks of hair and supple groomed limbs and all their teeth because they have been pampered while everyone else starves and works and grovels. Of course that pampering comes with rape and imprisonment and who knows what else, but visually it makes sense. They look completely out of place in this world and it is deliberate and well considered and it’s not in any way sexist because it’s smart and real and not put there for random male gaze wank factor. Often beautiful women in  movies are beautiful just because, and sometimes it makes no sense that they are this way, but here they are beautiful on purpose. By contrast Furiosa looks ready for battle just like Max does, including very short hair and lots of leather. By FURTHER contrast the women in the desert (The Vuvalini) they hook up with later look motorcycle riding badass desert survivalists. This all makes SENSE. None of it is random or put there to be titillating. It’s there to serve story. And story rules all.

03. PATRIARCHY VS. MATRIARCHY

The film makes no obvious argument that a Patriarchy doesn’t work and a Matriarchy is some glorified perfect society – in fact the Matriarchal based Vuvalini have all but died out, while the Patriarchy run by Immortan Joe thrives, even if it’s disgusting. The argument, I believe, is more that power corrupts and in this world access to precious resources (clean water/fuel/food/etc.) is the ultimate power. We also assume that it was a patriarchy that “burned the world” and brought on the apocalypse but as viewers we assume this in part because we actually live in a patriarchy and we know it’s possible for us to get to a dystopian/post-apocalyptic world like Max’s quite easily. Whether the patriarchy itself is evil is not really the issue, it’s Immortan Joe who is evil, who has been totally corrupted by power and used it to enslave a people. It’s not a new story. But what IS a bit of a new story, and a subversive one at that, is the idea of the Matriarchal society in the fringes, all but died out, and one with survivalists every bit as fierce and awesome as Max and Furiosa, but also not evil. The Vuvalini are the perfect blend between the capable and let’s face it, furious, Furiosa who has to a degree been corrupted, and the innocence of The Wives. Hardened by time and circumstances, but not evil, still possessing things like compassion and even hope, The Vuvalini are dying but resilient, strong but forgotten, deadly but merciful. To see these variations in your female characters – the corrupted battle-honed badass warrior, innocent compassionate young women/mothers, and world weary women survivors still carrying hope in a satchel full of seeds – is just an awesome (and too rare) sight to behold.

Of course at the end of the film we see a Matriarchy ascending to power and it will be exciting to see what that brings about. If the values and characters we see explored here through Furiosa, The Five Wives (now four), and the remaining Vuvalini (only one remaining?) – i.e. strength ruled by compassion, and a push for both equality and a better world for everyone except those who would seek to destroy it – remain intact then it will be a much better world we see next time – and one that better envelopes the tenets of feminism. Then again, the Citadel is only one prong of this post-apocalyptic world, so it’s not a given that this potentially Matriarchal based and feminist (read: equal) society will survive assault by others. Certainly I hope it does as both exploration of those ideas and as hope for the future.

In all of this, it’s also important to remember that the men are beautifully developed too – that is of course PART of feminism. It’s not about female dominance, it’s about equality. Max is a complex and beautiful character. Haunted and traumatized, but never having lost his humanity, still able to feel, to do right, to take up a cause. And Nux, a character that could have been so one note, a throwaway cultish devotee is instead redeemed and converted, largely by the compassion of The Wives – something he has seen so little before in his life that he barely even understands it – except to know that it is better than everything else he has known – and something he will sacrifice himself to see continue. The women are not raised up in spite of the men, instead everyone is raised up together. Characters are complex and flawed and beautiful and ugly – the human condition writ large on a landscape where hope should just die – and instead doesn’t.

04. THE LITTLE THINGS

And then there’s the little things. For example, The Bechdel Test (The Bechdel Test requires of a film: “One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.”). I’ve talked before about The Bechdel Test. I think it’s a valuable tool, but you cannot use it as an absolute in marking a film as “good or bad” or “feminist or sexist.” An awful piece of work can pass and a great work can fail – the famous example is that Showgirls passes The Bechdel Test while Gravity fails it. But as one of many tools in your arsenal for evaluating a film (or comics or books or TV shows, etc.) it’s valuable. Mad Max: Fury Road passes The Bechdel Test in a way that few action movies even dare to dream. Even when we get a great female led action film, often the female lead is the only female character and so the film fails to pass the test. Fury Road succeeds over and over and over again.

Not a pair of high heels in the whole damn movie. Thank the gods. Even the supermodel wives wear flat sandals or practical boots (which also look super hot/cool paired with their weird ethereal white rag clothes). Make-up. I love make-up (I write JEM for hell’s sake!) but visible make-up has no place in this movie and the movie knows it. The Wives who would be the only characters that COULD get away with it are instead scrubbed clean like babies, which feels right. And Furiosa’s make up is basically grease, which is right as can be (and looks badass to boot).

Fury Road is not an origin story. Skirting past the origin of The Wives and Furiosa allows the filmmakers to have viewers use their imaginations to fill in the gaps – and avoids showing a lot of graphic awful sexual violence toward women – and instead focuses on their triumphant bid for freedom. Origin stories are overdone as it is (especially as someone that loves superheroes and is a bit weary of seeing their origins repeated over and over to the general population when adapted to other mediums) so it’s refreshing to see Fury Road avoid that trap. They just get to the story – the real story. Yes, part of me wants Furiosa’s origin story now because I LOVE her and because she seems wildly fantastic and unique in the world (hers and ours) but I’m delighted that for this introduction Fury Road doesn’t treat us as babies that need everything explained. They also don’t treat us as viewers that need to see ANOTHER round of sexual violence visited on female characters in order to give them something to overcome.

One look at that barbed chastity belt is all a viewer needs to fill in all the terrifying gaps for themselves.

Though Fury Road is being massively loved by critics and audiences alike (98% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!), there is a small contingent that are up in arms over the feminism of the film (or just the presence of women as something other than background decorations, trophies, and eye-candy), and it’s absolute insanity to me. It’s insane because no matter how you feel about the other things going on in this film, it’s still clearly an action-packed, epic, and breathtaking Mad Max film. It’s wholly faithful to the Max as loner formula, to the Max as absolute badass that gets things done formula, to the Max as worn down but ultimately a good man formula, to the Max as a skilled traumatized man who wants to look out only for himself but will in the end work against his own interests (to a degree) to help the helpless (and in this case the not so helpless who still nevertheless could really use the help).

And Max is ultimately our POV character, his name is in the title and we already know him well, this is a continuation of Max’s story and evolution of his character. The film feels like his story in part because it feels told through his eyes. We see Furiosa and The Wives and The Vuvalini, and Immortan Joe how Max sees them –  through his eyes.

And Max has very good eyes.

I wish more people had eyes like Max.


Kelly Thompson is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is the author of the superhero novel THE GIRL WHO WOULD BE KING recently optioned to become a film, and her new novel STORYKILLER is out now. She is also writing IDW’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, co-writing Marvel’s forthcoming CAPTAIN MARVEL & THE CAROL CORPS, and her first graphic novel HEART IN A BOX is forthcoming from Dark Horse this year. You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter may be the easiest: @79semifinalist

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