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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage