With the exception of watching Indiana Jones with my father growing up, I've never been a huge fan of action films. I would watch them if that's what everyone else wants to watch, but it wouldn't necessarily be my first choice.
With all the media buzz about how Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist action film, however, my interest is piqued. This time around, Max is joined by a female road warrior, Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. NPR quotes director George Miller as saying Furiosa is "a character exactly equivalent to Max. They are protagonist/antagonist.”
It's this claim of gender equality in a post-apocalyptic landscape which supposedly has Men's Rights Activists (or MRAs) boycotting the film. Because what good is a barren, futuristic wasteland if women are not under the complete and total subjugation of men?
But what's really interesting to me is that, on the surface, the plot of the film doesn't even seem that progressive. The stereotype of a tribe of Amazon-esque women warriors doesn't even get trotted out in this film. No, Furiosa meets Max while trying to liberate a harem of women being held as sex slaves by a tyrannical warlord. Even in this world, women cannot escape sexual slavery, rape, and all manner of violence at the hands of men.
Miller did bring Eve Ensler, known for her work on sex trafficking as well as being the creator of The Vagina Monologues, on as a consultant for the film. Yet, Ensler has herself been criticized by other feminists both for her treatment of indigenous populations and her non-intersectional approach to feminism. This “benevolent feminism” sees all non-white women as unilaterally oppressed and with no agency of their own, waiting for a rich white woman to liberate them.
Miller is further quoted as saying of his film, “This is an uncompromising world. It's kind of forward into the past. We regress to a neo-medieval dark age where there are no rules other than to survive.” That's all well and good, I suppose. But why go forward into the past? Why regress at all? Why not imagine some future world where even if times are tough, women aren't the victims of sexual violence at the hands of men? As a culture, can we even conceive of oppressive power structures which don’t include rape?
What I find most revealing and compelling about the commentary surrounding this film is that Miller claims he did not set out to make a feminist film. He has stated that Furiosa's character was a plot device, a way to save these women without the very different implications of one man stealing another man's wives (property?).
When people think of feminism, a lot of the time they are still thinking about women being better than men, rather than about equality. Mad Max: Fury Road shows there is a more subtle form of feminism which comes out of truly seeing women as potential equal players in a storyline. Miller wasn't trying to make a statement about women or gender or feminism. He just had a particular story in mind and was trying to think about which kinds of characters could help him tell that story best. And even though he was directing an action film, he didn't assume his protagonists would automatically be male.
For that reason, this film feels like a stepping stone – proof of how far we've come as a culture. Even if there are women unwilling to identify as feminist because of perceived negative connotations connected to the word. Even if MRAs will get up in arms any time any woman (fictional or no) gains any semblance of power in society (let alone equality). Even if “feminism” itself is a loaded term in our culture on both sides of the equation, it appears the tenants behind that word have managed to sink into our collective cultural unconscious.
When Miller directed the first Mad Max movie in 1979, we weren't to the point yet where a character like Furiosa could even be conceived. Now, almost forty years later, a director who isn't even trying to make a feminist statement writes a female protagonist into his action film plot.
That gives me hope. Hope that even if it's not perfect, we're steadily moving towards a future where women can be conceived as human beings first and foremost. Where women do not have to be defined or limited by their sex. The fact that the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road centers around sex trafficking and violence against women proves we still have a long way to go. But the fact that Max isn't saving a bunch of damsels in distress also proves just how far we've come.
Mad Max: Fury Road opened in theatres May 15.
This article was originally published by The Horn on 05/21/2015.