"Mad Max" Is A Feminist Playbook For Surviving Dystopia
What might happen if women's rights evaporate has been examined in nightmare detail. Mad Max: Fury Road offers a solution.
If you're going to bring feminist propaganda to the masses, there are worse ways than in a giant exploding truck covered with knives. In case you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, it’s two hours of seat-clutching, wall-to-wall explosions, giant art trucks covered with guitars that are also flamethrowers, howling Technicolor vistas, and blood on the sand. When the credits rolled, I felt like my eyeballs had been to Burning Man without me. I was thoroughly entertained.
The fact that Fury Road is so much fun is almost certainly part of the reason the antifeminist keyboard-slobberers who inhabit the murkier corners of the internet are pushing for its boycott. Last week, the website Return of Kings led the charge for men and boys to refuse to see it. “This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat,” wrote contributor Aaron Clarey. “This is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity.” He must be worried that his men’s rights comrades might, over the course of two hours of high-octane car-chases, momentarily forget to hate feminism. Fury Road — in which an ass-kicking half-bionic heroine defies death to rescue five young women from sex slavery — might be an existential threat to recreational sexism because it is so enjoyable.
Patriarchy, it turns out, is prettiest when it's on fire.
In the long history of dystopian science fiction, Fury Road’s premise of misogyny is not without precedent. Violence against women is part of almost every popular fantasy of social collapse, from 1984 to Game of Thrones, in which rape and the threat of rape is part of every woman’s storyline. But Fury Road reminds the viewer that the liberation of women is not just a prerequisite for social equality — it’s is also a damn good story. Patriarchy, it turns out, is prettiest when it's on fire.
The film opens in a howling desert. It’s somewhere in the not too distant future and all the boys have gone horribly wrong. Everyone has PTSD because the world ended and they're still alive, and the warlord Immortan Joe controls the water supply, and with it the people. His community, the Citadel, is the kind of misogynist nightmare one imagines gives the readers of Return of Kings a guilty thrill: The women are kept as brood stock and literally milked to feed the elite. But here, violent masculinity has become social disease. Almost everyone is sick, even the young warriors called war boys, whose greatest dream is to get hopped up on nitrous and die in battle.
This is patriarchy twisted to its logical extremes — patriarchy as death cult. Everything has a skull on it. The cars have skulls. The weapons have skulls. The slaves have skulls branded onto their skin. The death club makeup is skull-themed. There are so many skulls that I was reminded of the famous Mitchell and Webb Nazi sketch. Hans, have you seen our hats? They've got skulls on them. Hans, are we the baddies?
Fury Road calls to mind Katharine Burdekin’s prescient feminist dystopia, Swastika Night, written in 1937 just as Hitler was rising to power. In Burdekin’s story, a thousand-year Reich reduces women to abject breeding machines, penned and dehumanized. In a time of death, disease, and social collapse, the men in charge want control over who breeds and how, and that requires stripping women of as much agency as possible. There is not a society in the world today that does not do this to some extent, not a country on Earth where women’s right to control what happens to their bodies is not a subject of public debate between powerful men. Since the dawn of women’s liberation, storytellers have laid out the stakes: From Swastika Night to Herland to The Handmaid’s Tale, the problem of what might happen if it all gets taken away has been examined in nightmare detail.
Fury Road — whose director called in feminist playwright and activist Eve Ensler as a consultant — offers a solution. We have elderly women on motorbikes counting their bullets in the bodies of men. We have the movie’s young heroines, the Five Wives, who resemble what would happen if someone decided to heavily arm a Burberry ad, kicking their awful chastity belts across the desert. And we have Furiosa, a protagonist who takes the worn stereotype of the strong female action hero in shiny latex and shatters it to flaming shards in the sand. The film does not judge its heroines on age and beauty: Together, all of these women give the lie to the notion that there is any proper way to be female on film. Supermodels and white-haired warriors with faces like withered fruit fight side-by-side under a leader whose beauty is in no way sexualized. Together, they are formidable.
Women might not want men to protect them. Men might be the thing they are trying to survive.
The logic of the neo-misogyny espoused by men’s rights activists and Return of Kings commenters is grounded in the idea that, as Clarey puts it, “when the shit hits the fan, it will be men like Jack Mad Max who will be in charge.” Come the inevitable collapse of civilization, women will need men to protect them. The so-called natural order will reassert itself, the thinking goes, and hot babes will go crawling back to the kitchen to make cockroach sandwiches where they belong. What’s threatening about Fury Road is the idea that when the earth burns, women might not actually want men to protect them. Men might, in fact, be precisely the thing they are trying to survive.
This film makes plain what other dystopias have already hinted at: The nightmare of environmental collapse is a double nightmare. The real horror is not the drought and the howling desert and the lack of Wi-Fi and sunscreen. The real horror is other human beings. The question is not how we’re going to survive the droughts, the floods, the dimming of the lights across the world. The question is: How will we survive each other?
The answer is that we will survive together. The threat of environmental and social collapse is no longer the stuff of science fiction. In any future dystopia, women and minorities will be more vulnerable than ever, and that is precisely why their liberation will be more vital than ever. Take Octavia Butler's Earthseed series. In a drought-stricken California, Butler’s young heroine Lauren Olamina leads a community of survivors who manage to thrive because they have a code of tolerance and mutual aid as well as a stash of guns.
In Fury Road, the answer is the same. Furiosa's initial plan is to take the Wives to "The Green Place," where women live in safety and harmony. But when they get there, it’s a toxic swamp, peopled by a handful of badass biker grannies (presumably the last survivors of the Feminist Twitter Wars). There is no utopia here. It turns out that there is no "Green Place," no safe space for Furiosa and her charges to retreat to, no magic world without men. Max and Furiosa triumph not by escaping, but by returning to the Citadel, where they will survive together or not at all.
Unlike in so many feminist dystopias — from the Handmaid’s Tale to Suzette Haden Elgin’s neglected Native Tongue series to the genre-busting comic Bitch Planet — not every man in this film is a douche canoe. In Fury Road, the men can be redeemed too. By the end, Max has realized that his best chance for survival is to fight with Furiosa and her gang — not for them, but alongside them.
And then there's Nux. Nux is a speedballing, feral war boy who starts the film hunting Furiosa and her gang and ends up throwing in his lot with the women, giving all he has to keep their truck moving. It’s a gorgeous, scenery-chewing performance by Nicholas Hoult, who gives us the tanked-up henchman as a lost, ignorant child trying to find meaning in violent masculinity. In the first hour, he gets thrown out of a moving truck as the women scream their mantra, “Who killed the world?” It obviously wasn’t them. But it wasn’t Nux, either.
Nux is as much a victim of Joe’s death cult as any woman. He is terminally ill, painfully ignorant of the world, and spends most of the film getting punched in the face by someone or other. He has the capacity for sacrifice and even sweetness, although this is not a world where romantic love can survive for long. Most of the characters in Fury Road have clear precedents in science fiction and fantasy. Nux is something rare: the redeemable feminist ally as hero.
This, in Furiosa’s words, is a film about redemption. Not for everyone. The snarling, lurching patriarchs of this film probably need to die in flames, and Immortan Joe is the 1 percent in club makeup. In the end, we believe that the war boys, too, will be freed from slavery. Perhaps the real reason that this film has upset the neo-misogynists so very much is not just that it throws their Return of Kings fantasy into vivid, horrible relief, but that it offers the possibility of redemption for all of us.
Fury Road tells a simple, vital story, and it tells it in dazzling color with buckets of blood and bristling war trucks. The story is this: The liberation of women is the liberation of everyone, and there’s only one way to stay alive when the world burns. We must learn to survive each other, because we can’t survive without each other.