Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road.
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No, Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist masterpiece (but that’s OK)

Because most Hollywood films are so bad at dealing with female characters, Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for trying. But it still uses lazy, sexist tropes and clichéd plot devices.

A handsome, troubled man rescues a beautiful woman (who also happens to be a badass driver) from servitude, and “she rescues him right back”. The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road. Except I’m actually describing the plot of Pretty Woman.

A woman with a background of abuse uses her hard-won position to exact revenge on a powerful rapist. Also the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road, but really I’m describing Showgirls.

Neither Pretty Woman nor Showgirls are hailed as “feminist masterpieces”, but since its opening weekend Mad Max: Fury Road has been celebrated as exactly that. Often, I’ve observed, by men – feminist allies gleefully celebrating the introduction or deconstruction of gender politics to a stereotypically male genre.

I loved Mad Max: Fury Road for lots of reasons. The production design, by Colin Gibson, is amongst the best I’ve seen. “Make it cool or I’ll kill you”, director George Miller told Gibson (women don’t tend to talk to each other like that, I’ll be honest. Make it cool or I’ll fire you, or possibly just ask you to do it again until it’s right). But Gibson played a blinder, designing vehicles as characters in their own right, grotesque chimeras of vintage style and function, spewing black smoke and doomed maniacal soldiers – War Boys – on poles.

That the soldiers are called War Boys highlights both their status as disposable, and the rigid-but-disputed gender roles that have inspired the claims of “feminist masterpiece”. In Fury Road, boys are bred for fighting, and girls are bred for…well, breeding. In a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, birth defects would be high. Immortan Joe, the film’s antagonist, owns a citadel powered by humans. Lactating overweight women are hooked up like dairy cows, their “mother’s milk” harvested for human consumption. Joe’s “wives”, incredibly beautiful girls in chastity belts, are selected by him for their desirable breeding traits in pursuit of his desire for “perfect” male offspring. I think this is a pretty likely scenario in the event of society breaking down, and the film holds no punches in its stark depictions of biological exploitation.

Charlize Theron plays Furiosa, the driver of the War Rig. How she came to have this key military role in an otherwise entirely patriarchal society is unexplained, but conveniently it allows her to abscond across the wasteland with Joe’s prized and pregnant brides hidden in the belly of her vehicle like a Crust Punk Matryoshka.

These women are rebelling against their enslavement as “things”, as property. They also rhetorically question “who killed the world?”. The implication is that men killed the world. In the pre-desolation Mad Max universe, were there no female military leaders? No female soldiers? No female nuclear engineers building bombs? If we’re to buy the aggression and survival instincts of Furiosa and the matriarchal, gun-toting tribe with which she eventually reunites, then we have to look past the notion of men as natural war-mongers and women as natural peace-makers. Necessity is an equalising force. But in the end, these tropes are not dismantled by Mad Max: Fury Road, but reinforced.

I understand the desire to declare Mad Max: Fury Road a feminist masterpiece. A notoriously male-dominated Hollywood churns out sexist films daily. A study by the Geena Davis institute (pdf) found that only 28 per cent of speaking roles in G-rated Hollywood films are female. Earlier this year, Variety reported that a mere 7 per cent of the top 250 grossing Hollywood films had women directing, and only 11 per cent had female writers.

Because most Hollywood films are so very bad at gender, Mad Mad: Fury Road stands out for trying. But that doesn’t mean it’s a girl’s best friend in the form a diamond in the rough. If you declare this film to be a feminist masterpiece, you’re declaring it the new – or desirable – standard, and as a standard for feminist masterpieces, I’m afraid it fails. 

A feminist masterpiece would have cast the titular hero as female.

A feminist masterpiece would not have scantily-clad models with improbable thigh gaps hosing each other down. 

A feminist masterpiece would understand that women selected for pregnancy would be well-nourished, with large childbearing hips.

A feminist masterpiece would acknowledge that patriarchal societies that value chasity to the point of enslavement also cover up their women from head to toe.

A feminist masterpiece would not have the female leader’s final plan of driving into the sunset undermined by the male hero in favour of his “superior” plan (turns out he knew what was right for the women better than the women themselves, oh ho).

A feminist masterpiece would not immobilise its female lead at the end and leave her to be rescued by a man.

A feminist masterpiece would have its female lead, not its male lead, emerge triumphant and reveal the body of her enslaver with a rousing speech.

A feminist masterpiece would not have bags of seeds handed from one “mother” generation to the next. I see you, symbolism, I see you.

A feminist masterpiece would be written by three women, not three men. 

A feminist masterpiece would be directed by a woman. 

A feminist masterpiece would be Furiosa’s story. It’s not. It’s Max’s story. He’s haunted by the women and girls he failed to save, redeemed by the women and girls he succeeds in saving. And at the end, he simply walks away. Mad Max: Fury Road is many things. A high-octane, thrilling, beautifully shot and edited, incredibly designed post-apocalyptic chase that you’d be daft not to see. But a feminist masterpiece? Let’s leave those to the women.

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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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