We Need the Women of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Now, More Than Ever

     May 14, 2020

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It’s been a five years since George Miller‘s Max Mad: Fury Road was released. Five years since the fourth Mad Max movie debuted after more than a decade in development hell. Five years since it earned $375 million at the global box office and went on to receive 10 Oscar nominations. Five years since it re-opened an ongoing conversation around action movies and a woman’s place in them. The most important fact of all, though, is that after five years, we still need the women of Fury Road. We need their strength, their courage, their power, and their idealism. We need the feminism at the heart of Mad Max: Fury Road more than ever before.

Fury Road breaks with the Mad Max franchise’s narrative. The first three films — Mad MaxMad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Max Max: Beyond Thunderdome — were traditionally masculine action movies with a traditionally masculine star there to lead the way. Mel Gibson‘s Max Rockatansky is the heart of the first three films. Through his eyes, we move through a post-apocalyptic wasteland where gas is a more precious commodity than water, motley crews roam the expanse, and he tries to recover from the death of his wife and child. Max is the tragic hero we are encouraged to sympathize with. But Fury Road puts Max (Tom Hardy) on the backburner, instead inserting Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in his place. Furiosa is every bit as competent, gnarly, and battle-ready as Max, but she has something which our former hero is sorely in need of: A cause worth fighting for.

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Image via Warner Bros.

This cause comes in the form of five women — The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), Capable (Riley Keough), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) — who have sought out Furiosa’s aid so they can escape from the grasp of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe has kept them imprisoned behind a vault door, using them as sex slaves in an effort to bear him more sons. Fury Road makes the smart choice to avoid showing us any pre-escape living, but we are afforded a glimpse at the lives these five women had which led them to make their life-altering decision. As Joe runs to their beautiful prison, three messages are written on the floor and walls:

“Our babies will not be warlords.”

“Who ruined the world?”

“We are not things.”

And thus, the feminist thesis of Fury Road is writ. This Greek chorus of five women and their united parting shot taps into things women have felt for centuries. It speaks for women who demand men answer for their actions, men who actively work against the good of world, men who can only see women as sub-human or subservient. In making their escape, the five wives have done the most radical thing in rejecting what repressive patriarchy has survived and taken root in this post-apocalyptic world. In the chaotic, upsetting wake of nuclear destruction, Fury Road places all of its hope in these women who give a middle finger to the men still trying to exert Old World control over their bodies and lives. If the actions of men ruined the world, Fury Road argues it is the actions of women which can restore it —and the first step is breaking free.

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Image via Warner Bros.

Fury Road is an action movie, yes, but it’s really a movie more interested in presenting a case for an immediate redistribution of power in times of great and dire need so that power is in the hands of women and, if possible, a collective. Where the men of Fury Road are so unscrupulous in their need to satiate a hunger for singular glory —  be it a War Boy asking to be witnessed as he sacrifices himself in an act of violence or Immortan Joe demanding to unquestioning support as he seeks control — the women are united. The five wives and Furiosa work together, a single unit with a common goal of getting to the matriarchal “Green Place” and capable enough to fight off marauders or fix the War Rig charioting them there. The Vuvalini, Furiosa’s all-female family from a previous life, still live and fight together as a group. The Vuvalini leader, Keeper of the Seeds (Melissa Jaffer), holds the seeds which are the key to restoring crops, life, hope. Fury Road sees women as fighters and nurturers, idealistic without being blinded by their optimism, ready to work for the good of all over one. These women seek to change the system in this post-apocalyptic world, fighting to the death if it means getting closer to achieving a restored balance of power.

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Image via Warner Bros.

While these women are never made to be responsible for healing the emotional or psychological wounds of their male allies, Max and War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult), it is obvious as the movie goes on just how profound an effect being surrounded by Furiousa and the five wives has on them. At the start of Fury Road, Max is the traditionally masculine action hero we have seen in past Mad Max films and what we’d expect to see presented in other action movies. But where this kind of hardened, silent, cold masculinity would be presented as an asset in the hero achieving his goal, the Fury Road Max is symbolically neutered. With no family, no roots, no ideology to guide him, Max is weaker and more prone to succumbing to his own demons; he needs protection. He may be aiding Furiosa and the wives in their mission, but she and the wives are ultimately saving him. The same can be said of Nux, who transforms from a mindless drone drunk on the promise of glory in death, fueled by toxicity of all sorts, to become a helping hand and working in support of these women.

We know now that Fury Road‘s feminist underpinnings are no accident. Director and co-writer George Miller made the conscious choice to ensure all of the actresses playing the five wives spent time learning about and understanding the life, headspace, and endured trauma of a woman who has survived sex trafficking and abuse. Eve Ensler, the Vagina Monologues playwright who also works with female survivors of violence around the world, served as a consultant on Fury Road‘s script and was enlisted by Miller to work with the Fury Road actresses to discuss the world their characters were escaping from. Speaking with TIME in May 2015, Ensler remarked on Miller’s active efforts to imbue the fourth Mad Max feature with an empathetic and informed feminist sensibility: “I think George Miller is a feminist, and he made a feminist action film. It was really amazing of him to know that he needed a woman to come in who had experience with this.”

Kravitz echoed this in the May 2020 New York Times Fury Road oral history, remarking, “Even if a lot of the women’s history wasn’t in the dialogue, it was really important to George that we understood what we were running from,” and went on to explain, “We would do exercises like writing letters to our captor, really interesting stuff that created deep empathy. I’m glad we had that, because it was such a crazy experience — so long and chaotic — that it would be easy to forget what we were doing if we didn’t have this really great foundation that we could return to.”

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Image via Warner Bros.

Fury Road serving as a modern feminist text and a powerful retort to male-driven action movies has always been clear. From the time it premiered in 2015 to now, we have been debating and parsing the feminist themes of Fury Road. But it’s become even clearer (perhaps disturbingly clearer) that there was a prescience to Fury Road in exploring how feminism survives in a male-dominated wasteland. Without sounding too fatalist about it all (although it’s apt), the current state of affairs shows the scales are still heavily tipped to favor men. In an election year where all viable female presidential candidates have been eliminated well before election day, common sense legislation over the rights women have to their own bodies and lives is still up for debate, and the daily lives of women are filled with micro-battle after micro-battle as they come up against constant reminders they’re living in a male-dominated world, it feels like we still need the women of Fury Road to serve as a guiding light. Nothing has changed, not really. We’re on the brink of something big fragmenting our world forever and we need someone to guide us to the way out.

We need Furiosa. We need Splendid and Toast and Capable and The Dag and Cheedo. We need the Vuvalini. We need the example they set because the world is still stagnant and stacked against women. We need to know directors like Miller are willing to do the work necessary to make sure their movie is going to be suffused with direct and indirect commentary on the ways in which the world seeks to oppress women and how those women seek to break free if they want to comment on it at all.

Fury Road remains a reminder that even in the most male-dominated corner of cinema, the world of action movies, there is a place for women to be shown as dominant, powerful beings. In this way, Fury Road is also a reminder there is a place for women out here in the real world to keep fighting for their right to thrive — and they should.

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