The action film is notorious for being an unfriendly genre to women. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream cinema has the same reputation. With most popular movies not even managing to pass the Bechdel Test (Are two women in the film? Do they talk to each other? Is it about something other than a man?) it's no surprise that these films often alienate those who identify as feminists. Mad Max: Fury Road is able to do something its predecessors, including the previous films in the Mad Max series, were unable to do. The women in this action film have a real voice, their story is forefront, and Charlize Theron is more of a protagonist than Tom Hardy.
Non-traditional Female Roles
Charlize Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, a bald-headed, one-armed war rig driver who goes on regular runs to collect gasoline from a neighboring city dubbed ‘Gas Town.' When she veers off course into enemy territory, the master of the Citadel, Immortan Joe, is notified. Immortan Joe is a man who views women solely as property and even has a harem of ‘breeders' to spawn the next generation of rulers. Not only does Furiosa recognize this as her opportunity to escape, but she brings along the most prized of his breeders for the ride, which infuriates him. Although these women are not warriors like Furiosa, they are rebelling against the patriarchal system by which they've been imprisoned. After a pretty amazing car chase sequence, Furiosa pulls over the rig and the rescued women discard their chastity belts, embracing their lives as free women! As the film progresses, we meet other female characters that defy conventional female roles. Furiosa and Max eventually encounter a motorcycle gang of women in their 60s and 70s known as the ‘Many Mothers'—a group of women who are ridiculously badass but also extremely nurturing.
78-year-old Melissa Jaffee, who played one of the ‘Many Mothers,' noted, “The roles that one is offered at this age, quite frankly, you're either in a nursing home, you're in a hospital bed dying, [or] you're suffering from dementia…”
Eve Ensler was a Consultant on Mad Max: Fury Road
Ensler, author of the renowned Vagina Monologues, was hired by director George Miller to work with many cast members of Mad Max: Fury Road (particularly the women playing Immortan Joe's ‘Breeders') about the reality of violence against women in the world. The women were able to ask questions like: “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?” With most movies failing to use female actors as more than foils for the male protagonist's journey, it is simply amazing that Miller thought it was important enough for these characters to fully understand the depth that accompanies playing a woman who has undergone so many traumatic experiences. Ensler went on to say,
“You know, I wanna say that you know, this a post-apocalyptic movie, but it seems to me that for many in the world, the future is now. There's many people living this story.”
The Patriarchy Represented as Disease/Deformity
Although the women bear deformities (as a result of being a part of this patriarchal system) they are nowhere near as deformed as the men, especially those in charge. When we first meet Immortan Joe without the armor and face mask that makes him truly terrifying, he is nothing but an overweight, sickly man with tumor-like malformations and an obvious respiratory disease. He is a dying breed which may explain why he is so infatuated with the next generation of rulers. In addition, the ‘People Eater,' who is in charge of Gastown, dons a golden nose to mask his deformity, and appears to have an extreme case of lymphedema, which causes an obscene amount of swelling in the extremities. Although the Bullet Farmer is not initially deformed, he is injured in the chase and becomes blind as a result. All those associated with the patriarchy and with ensuring its continued rule are sickly or are injured in the process of supporting the cause. Even Nicholas Hoult, who plays Nux in the film, has tumor-like growths on his neck and requires Max's blood while he chases after Furiosa and the escaped breeders. He is a character who has nothing to gain from supporting Immortan Joe, but has clearly been brainwashed by the tales of victory and that idea that death will give him entrance to Valhalla. He too has been infected by this ideology. In addition, although Joe has access to clean water, he keeps his citizens malnourished in order to control them. He hoards his resources and isolates his prized ‘breeders,' and all he does is in pursuit of more power.
Women and the Rebels as Hope
There is a lack of children in the film, but we discover two of the women fleeing the citadel are pregnant. Immortan Joe attempts to control this future generation, but the women take back control when they choose to flee with Furiosa. It's clear that life has no place in this outmoded world, where the men in charge are dying, as is the population they govern. The Many Mothers also represent hope in this apocalyptic wasteland. While the men choose to champion the myth of Valhalla and a society that is dependent upon guzzoline and bullets to wage wars, the mothers carry some of the last seeds which are the key to sustaining human life in this uninhabitable desert.
Mad Max: Fury Road has renewed a genre that was plagued by unimaginative and predictable plots and relationships. It rehabilitated a genre that often diminishes the roles of female characters and encourages rape, homophobia, and a slew of other reprehensible things. In world where movies like Crank, a film where Jason Statham decides to rape his girlfriend in a public place in order to keep his heart rate up (because of dumb plot stolen from the 90s movie Speed but your body is the bus), we undeniably need more films that properly address trauma rather than glorifying it.