Mad Max’s reboot: Feminism and environmentalism as told through explosions

By now you’ve most likely heard that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best science-fiction films of the past half-decade. I am here to tell you that the rumors are true. George Miller’s new post-apocalyptic epic both addresses key ecological issues of our doomsday-ridden age — particularly the global water crisis — while also going to great lengths to revise much of the chauvinism of the original franchise. Careful: spoilers ahead. 

Rebooting a politically problematic franchise  

The original Mad Max franchise takes place in a not-too-distant future, where a nuclear holocaust has ravaged the planet and states have more or less collapsed. Life is reduced to little more than a Hobbesian struggle for resources, with biker gangs waging brutal wars over the most important resource in the world: oil. When Max’s wife and baby are murdered by a band of the bloodthirsty bikers, it drives him over the edge and he becomes the titular “mad” man — a hollow “shell of a man…a burnt-out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past:”

Despite being some of the best action films ever made, the original Mad Max trilogy exhibits a lot of awkward politics.

For starters, the “villains” of the original franchise all have an uncomfortable common denominator: a love of assless chaps and nipple rings. Yep, they’re gay. Gangs of marauding, leather-clad, boy-kissing thugs (sorta like a queer The Wild One) roam the countrysides searching for sex, violence and fuel. They go at it with one another, but they also won’t resist the opportunity to rape and brutalize women. In the breakdown of traditional sexuality — of supposed “natural” relations — Miller means to show the deterioration of organized culture. In this sense, homosexuality is equated with barbarianism, with individuals who have completely let go of “traditional” social definitions and structure, and are given over to polymorphous carnality; to chaos, violence, and the satisfaction of any and all sexual desires. A sign on a broken down truck in The Road Warrior reads: “THE VERMIN HAVE INHERITED THE EARTH.” Gays are “vermin,” or “parasites,” symbols of the world’s decline.

At the same time, the films romanticize “traditional” masculinity and the tough-guy ethos. After all, the 1970s was the decade of the vigilante, and the silver screen was filled with good men gone bad: avengers like Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey in Death Wish, or Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver. Other Bad Cops like Dirty Harry or Sherriff Pusser in the original Walking Tall also set a precedent for men who lived above the law they were sworn to uphold. In this way, Mad Max fit into a larger trend of super-masculine anti-heroes; men of violence and strength, with little regard for due process. That was his appeal. 

And while the original Mad Max demonized gays and championed its violent hetero-masculine protagonist, it left very little room for women in its tales of brutality and warfare. Jessie, Max’s wife, is little more than a narrative catalyst for Max’s transformation into the titular anti-hero. Similarly, in The Road Warrior, there are basically no female characters who aren’t raped or killed. Beyond Thunderdome made some headway by casting Tina Turner as a co-star with Mel Gibson; yet on the whole, the original world of Max is a world of men. Female characters are few and far between. 

Old franchise, new themes: Male power and patriarchy 

With Mad Max: Fury Road, the filmmakers have clearly taken steps to “revise” the politics of the originals. In fact, George Miller’s new film goes to great lengths not only to avoid any of its yesteryear chauvinism, but to craft a narrative that involves and empowers those it ignored and demonized. To get off on the right foot, Miller hired The Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler as a consultant to bring feminist ideas into the film’s narrative. In an interview with TIME, Ensler discussed how historical examples of oppression inspired many of the situations in the film, and what the film says about the feminine experience in countries dominated by patriarchal systems:

We spoke about the Comfort Women, who were kept as slaves by the Japanese, and about rape and violence in places I have spent a lot of time like Bosnia to Congo to Afghanistan to Haiti. We spoke about sex trafficking in America, which is rampant…It’s this powerful question: how do women survive in a patriarchal, violent culture? How do they keep their souls intact in a war zone?

In its exploration of patriarchy and male power the film is truly revolutionary; not only for the franchise, but for the action movie genre as a whole. The American action film has traditionally been the last filmic bastion of unadulterated sexism, both in the narratives it pedals and through the way it abuses its actresses (consider, for example, how Megan Fox was treated both onscreen and onset in the Transformers franchise). Action films also uniformly fail the Bechdel Test, which is a good way to get women to not buy tickets to your movie.

Mad Max, via Wikimedia Commons

Mad Max, via Wikimedia Commons

In Fury Road, things are different. Women drive the narrative. The film’s plot revolves around the plight of Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron), and her attempt to free “the Wives,” a band of royal concubines to “King Immortan Joe,” the depraved leader of the Citadel. Max agrees to help the Furiosa and “the Wives” escape, and off they go on a series of car chases. As Ensler has observed, the narrative affects a kind of “sneaky” guerrilla-feminism: By luring dudes to the theater with the bait of car-chases and explosions, Miller’s film leads the unwitting male spectator into a narrative that interrogates the idea of female objectification, sexual slavery and the tyranny of misogynistic belief systems. Here, the popcorn fodder comes with an aftertaste of social justice.

Fury Road illuminates the horror of patriarchal ideas by taking them to their most grotesque and nightmarish extremes. It does this largely through King Joe, an amazing monster whom the filmmakers manage to make both politically relevant and timelessly horrifying. Looking like some kind of cross between late-era Mickey Rourke and Grendel from Beowulf, Joe is a truly grotesque creature. In Joe’s world, women are reduced to farm animals and whores: functionaries of produce, procreation and male pleasure. Old women are milked like cows. Young women become prostitutes and child-bearers. It’s a truly horrifying world, and one that, sadly, is not all that different from many parts of our own.  

From oil crisis to water wars

In addition to everything Fury Road has to say about gender, it also says a lot about ecology and economics–which are two themes more in line with the original franchise. The original Mad Max was inspired by historical conflicts over oil, and is concerned with a world that has run out of the resources. In an astute Wall Street Journal article, energy analyst Robert Rapier observes:

“Mad Max” portrays a society in which energy is scarce and society collapses as a result. The producers and writers of the film have said in interviews that they were heavily influenced by the 1973 oil crisis that took place when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an oil embargo against the U.S. and some of its allies in response to U.S. support of Israel.

That was then; this is now. Since water is largely considered to be “the new oil,” it is appropriate that this reboot should switch its focus from the oil crisis of the 70s to the international water crisis we’re currently experiencing. Whereas biker wars were waged in The Road Warrior over stockpiles of “the black fuel,” Fury Road sees a world starved for water. King Joe stockpiles it in his garden paradise on top of a mountain, while the inhabitants of the Citadel down below live in desperation and squalor, barely getting by on what little water he occasionally allows them to have. Here, resonances of income inequality also ring loudly. In its linking of economics and ecology, Fury Road shows how the rich stay powerful by monopolizing resources, using them as leverage against the populations they govern. 

By the same token, the film also has a lot to say about wastefulness and conservation and how corrupt systems of leadership contribute to destructive and wasteful behaviors and policies. The fact that King Joe is willing to risk the entirety of his regime’s assets to get back his stolen “property” makes him the epitome of wasteful and thoughtless governance. Call him a dystopian Mitch McConnell, if you will. Furthermore, the world of Fury Road, with its ramshackle vehicles and weaponry — broken down relics of a once-thriving capitalist society — evokes the consequences of consumption, of a world that has been strained and exhausted by too much extraction and production. Its raw visions of a dead and dying planet — of ecosystems rubbed raw by human activity — should resonate with all audiences. 

Mad Max: Fury Road works on multiple levels: as a feminist science fiction film, as a brilliant fever-dream of an action movie and as a economic and ecological parable. Most uniquely, however, as a film that attempts to and succeeds in righting some of the wrongs of its own franchise. It’s truly a stand alone picture. Go see it.

Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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