I’ve been thinking a bit about Mad Max lately; specifically the Fury Road movie. I’m fond of the franchise in general, although my interest mostly lies with the post-apocalyptic setting of the second, third, and now fourth movies. And the fourth movie makes me extremely happy.
I am very fond of the post-apocalyptic genre, and I found the character of the protagonist–the fact that she existed, and how the movie handled her–to be deeply affecting in a good if startling way. That said, while I’d heard that the movie was being described as feminist, I don’t think I really thought about it at the time.
(I actually tried pretty hard not to think about it, because I was honestly not expecting it to be really better than most action movies, and I did not want to get my hopes up and have disappointed hopes get in the way of my movie enjoyment. I am not sure if this is selfishness or compartmentalization, and I am okay with that.)
I’ve seen arguments both in favour and against its being called a feminist movie. I’ve thought about it, and because it helps me to write things out when I think about them, I am rambling about it here. I think there are a few ways to parse the definition; looking at the creation of the work, and two ways of looking at the work itself.
Also there might be spoilers, I guess, so time for a break.
Is it a movie that was made from a feminist perspective–did it deliberately try to portray the female characters as people, did it try to have the cast and crew consider issues which affect women, did it actively break with the usual roles women are shoved into? I think yes.
But death of the author is a valid critical perspective, and intent is not fucking magic, so then I go on to looking at the work. And I think of one of the oldest definitions of feminism I know; “the radical notion that women are people”.
The argument I’ve heard (there may be others! God knows I’ve been falling behind on my internet!) is that Fury Road is not a feminist movie because all the characters of note that it portrays are filling roles traditionally associated with men. (I am reminded of “Saving Throw versus Half Cooties”, which described this pattern in RPGs as the Amazon Fantasy Babe Infection; the women are all kickass, scary, badass competence-porn action heroes. With boobs.)
This is generally something worth keeping an eye on–not because women can’t be badass, but because restricting action and heroism to only one axis generally makes characterization get pretty anemic. There is a long history of heroism meaning going out and killing things, and it can get a bit flat. (I am trying to remember where I heard arah Monette’s “Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland” cited as a counter to this; as an example of Penelope’s heroism rather than that of Ulysses.)
As I understand it, the argument for Fury Road not being feminist because everyone is acting like dudes are supposed to act ties into the idea that, to the extent that gender is a social construct, confining characters to roles traditionally associated with one gender is just telling a story about that one gender.
(I don’t think I personally agree, but I can see the logic and don’t think it’s bad. (Possibly I am just overly optimistic about the extent to which gender roles are being deconstructed?))
(Also I need to go through this post again and tidy it up with links and footnotes. Later.)
However, a work can set the boundaries of what it’s trying to be. A noir thriller does not fail because it is not also a coming of age story; a family epic does not fail because it is not a farce; and a quest/revolution movie (which I really think Fury Road is) does not have to portray people who are not caught up in the quest or revolt.
Fury Road doesn’t portray the full range of what people can be. But when it comes to what people can be in its own glorious, dust-and-glare, gas-and-rust, bone-witched setting, it makes huge strides towards portraying women as no less ‘people’ than anyone else.
Radical notion, indeed.