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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times