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.

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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.