Maybe Mad Max: Fury Road Is Not So Feminist After All

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve been absolutely blown away by the response to the new Mad Max: Fury Road film. The critics absolutely adore this film, and early on started claiming that the film is feminist. Social media has been blowing up with articles about the film. Mostly, I’ve been surprised and pleased that everyone else is noticing what, for a long time, felt like my own little secret.

Beyond that, I’ve been a little uncertain about the most pervasive argument. which is that the film is feminist. While there are many forms of feminism, and this film might encompass some of those interpretations, I’m not entirely convinced that this is a feminist film. In my view, simply adding female characters, and even a female lead, is not enough to make it feminist.

According to the Bechdel test, a movie has to have A) at least two women, who B) talk to each other, about C) something besides a man. Of course it’s shocking that so few films can pass the Bechdel test, but, in my opinion, just passing the Bechdel test is not enough to make it a feminist film. It’s just enough to make it not “problematic” and maybe not sexist. Sadly, however, with so few women represented in film, maybe this is all it takes to earn the “feminist” label. I, however, want a little more.

Yes, Fury Road has female characters, and yes they talked to each other, but did they ever talk about anything besides men—their captors who kept them in chains? Maybe a little bit. Not really. Their entire raison dêtre is a reaction to the men in power. The film is about reacting to a corrupt and toxic system of power, so maybe that could be construed as feminist, but a better reaction to the corrupt political system was never clearly defined (though perhaps implied here and there). We see women acting out of desperation. In my view, the film is mostly about a strong female lead with an action/reaction that may not be clearly feminist, but is (at least) not incredibly sexist.


20 thoughts on “Maybe Mad Max: Fury Road Is Not So Feminist After All

  1. stefrozitis

    Within patriarchy (which sadly is still a given), having agency and motivations not referenced by men’s desires and interests is feminist. I don’t quarrel with you about wanting more feminism than that but I thought it was relatively feminist in that Furiosa brought other women with her and was defined by her memories of relationships to other women. I don’t feel the feminist implications were fully developed in the characters and plot and I found that frustrating…however at least they avoided the cliche where she has to pash and/or become entangled with what’s-is-name the man in the movie.

    Having said that, to me as well this was just a step toward an authentically feminst movie. This was mildly critical (reading between the lines) but I want to push a more critical possibility still. Maybe the point is whether something is or isn’t “feminist” per se (considering there are multiple possible feminist perspectives anyway) but more to the point would be realising that feminism isn;t something there can be a last word in, that it is always a series of perspectives in dialogue/resistance to something. Maybe then each feminsim is relative to a particular aspect or manifestation of patriarchy…the weapon of choice for a particular head of the hydra (but reconising how many heads we have to cut off)

    1. sherewin Post author

      This is such a great response! Thank you for taking the time to write it. While I think it’s always on my mind, I need to remember to keep “Within patriarchy…” at the forefront of my mind.

      1. Katrina Yaskowich

        I definitely see why you are frustrated that the ideas were not more developed but i also see why that was done. The ideas were made clear but never forced on the audience, I felt like the movie balanced the ideas well without shoving down people’s throats, anymore and there would be a ton of people complaining about how blatant it was being. For me this movie was feminist because it addressed issues associated with feminism like sexual exploitation and a toxic patriarchy. I keep in mind that Mad Max is an action story first, not a feminist think piece, and the reason I enjoyed it so much was because it succeeded in satisfying fans of a genre that usually glorifies manliness while also raising multiple issues assosciated with feminism.
        Furiosa was technically the main character driving the plot, while the titular character, Max, played a less active role. What this movie did for me was provide a fantastic example of how it is possible to write movies with realistic female protagonists and even have a femininst story without seeming obnoxious.
        This movie is not the most feminist movie i’ve ever seen but it is somewhat revolutionary for its genre. It handled its issues competently and delicately while still leaving its meanings clear. It handled the topic really well which is more than I can say for a lot of other flicks who adress feminism, it never went too far with the message to the point that people got annoyed. So I think it deserves the credit it recieves.

      2. sherewin Post author

        Thank you for this thoughtful response! I especially like and agree with these points of yours: “Mad Max is an action story first, not a feminist think piece” and “This movie is not the most feminist movie i’ve ever seen but it is somewhat revolutionary for its genre.”

  2. Comrade Rutherford

    Hold on there:

    There was one scene where women – and only the women – had a conversation while looking at the stars about satellites and ‘the time before’. And that’s just one of numerous discussions that took place that were NOT about their enslavement. Once they met the clan of crones there were more, about the seeds, for example. And the anti-seeds. There were many conversations that weren’t about men or how men had been treating them. No matter how you look at it, this does pass the Bechdel Test – and for a ‘guy’ film!

    Then there’s Furiosa, someone who can actually beat Max with one arm ‘tied behind her back’, and even Max agrees that she’s a better shot than he is, and, on the end title card, Charlize Theron is placed higher on the screen than Tom Hardy.

    And the women are the ones that rebuild society at the end, Max walks away (as he always does).

    The sociopolitical undercurrent of this entire plot was: fat old men “killed the world,” and the women are going to fix it.

  3. Comrade Rutherford

    Oh, and one more tidbit. In an interview George Miller tells how he asked Margaret Sixel (to whom he is married), a film editor, to cut this film. At first she demurred saying “I don’t do action pictures.” and George said, “That’s why you’re perfect. If a man cut it, this would look like every other typical action film.”

  4. HPJ

    I think your analysis misses a few key points. In regards to the female characters’ motivation(s), yes they are reacting to men in power. However, I disagree that Furiosa acted out of desperation, as you say. Prior to leaving with the wives, she held a position of relative power within the Citadel (one which, I recall, she described obtaining to Max through her own hard work and ability). Though Furiosa wanted to leave the Citadel and return to where she was taken from as a child, she was not in a desperate situation like the wives.

    Though the wives do act out of desperation, I personally feel that isn’t necessarily a reason the film can’t be feminist (or that it reduces the feminism of the film). For one, it isn’t as though they are completely helpless/dependent on Furiosa, Max, and the others. They all show their own strengths as the film progresses. Splendid/Angharad does so on multiple instances (all while experiencing contractions, I might add), including one point when she hangs out of the truck to confront Joe and keep him from attacking Furiosa (something I find particularly impressive, considering that he held her captive as a sex slave). Toast, The Dag, and Capable do as well, and Cheedo, though she expresses a desire to go back to Joe and ask forgiveness on multiple occasions, ends up tricking Rictus to take her over to Joe’s car, only to attack/distract Joe in an effort to assist Furiosa and Max.

    I’d also like to agree and expand on stefrozitis’s point about patriarchy. In the context of the film, they are reacting to a “corrupt and toxic system of power,” as you said. Isn’t the patriarchy a corrupt system of power? And in the film, the women first try to escape that system, but then turn around and confront, defeat, and reorganize it. I think that’s a pretty significant allegory.

    And I don’t think the film stops at just the pure “anti-oppressive patriarchy” feminist theme. When I was watching the film, I personally thought about the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie definition of a feminist (“a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”). I found this theme in the interactions between Max and Furiosa/the wives (and later in the film, Nux). They all had different strengths and would not have succeeded had they not worked together (one scene that comes to mind is when Max asks Furiosa to take the shot instead of taking it himself, knowing she has better aim – pretty significant considering that Max’s character has always embodied the masculine ideal).

    In regards to your comments about the Bechdel test, I’d first like to point out that this wasn’t a particularly dialogue-heavy film. I think the plot and themes were much more strongly represented through the characters’ actions. Even further than that though, I agree with Comrade Rutherford that there were a multitude of conversations that qualify, and they (rather than the conversations you reference about Joe or other male characters) were the far more important and striking conversations, both for symbolism and character development, and (in a couple of cases) simple comic relief. When I recall the film’s dialogue, my first thoughts go to the conversations about seeds, the stars, praying, and Miss Giddy’s description of how she aims her gun (“right between the eyes”).

    I’m gonna start wrapping this up because I didn’t intend for this to be so long (sorry). Before I do though, I think a lot of the film’s significance also lies in the production aspects. I can’t emphasize enough how important I think it is that all of this happens in the context of a typical “guy movie” with one of the (as I previously stated) archetypal masculine characters in cinema. It layers true narrative depth with multiple complex female characters into a movie genre typically dominated by male production staff and male audiences. Also, as another cool tidbit like the one Comrade Rutherford provided, the director George Miller brought in Eve Ensler (the author of the Vagina Monologues) to work with the actresses playing the wives. I think that was an incredible service to the actresses and to the film considering Ensler’s background, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (the actress who portrayed Splendid) discussed in an interview how much depth she gained for her character after researching with Ensler.

    No, this film doesn’t cover all points of feminism, but I think to expect that in a single film would be unrealistic, just like you said. But rather than arguing this film isn’t feminist enough (because, as I hope my above arguments helped demonstrate, it does do an excellent job portraying and exploring multiple feminist themes), I think we should look for more ways to portray the diversity of feminist ideas and experiences in future films.

    Sorry this ended up being so long! Once I got going I couldn’t stop.

    1. sherewin Post author

      I love the well thought out responses this post is getting! I agree with much of what you’ve written here. While I still think the wives and Furiosa are acting out of desperation, I don’t think that necessarily disqualifies it from having feminist aspects. I especially like your point about this all happening in a traditional action flick–I do think that is important.

  5. Sherrie Smith

    As a feminist I LOVED this movie. The women certainly talked about more than men – they talked about coming into their own and seeing themselves as something valuable beyond breeding stock. As women who knew they deserved more. Many of their lines are feminist in nature.
    They also talked about reaching for dreams – and when the dream of a “green land” proved impossible, they go back and storm the shit that should have belonged to everybody in the first place. They are revolutionary.
    Not only did it have beautiful women but it had a posse of incredible badass older women who were critical to the film and who we quickly come to love.
    The women in this movie were not tokens. The movie COULD NOT EXIST without them in it. They are the ones we care about, they are the foundation of hope and a new world, and not just because they have wombs, but because they are powerful and courageous.
    All in a movie that appeals to audiences that would turn away from a “chick flick” – from metal-heads to truck nuts – men watched this film. And like it or not, that’s important.
    The next installment will be “Max Max: Furiosa” – so I expect the next film to be even better.

  6. Keshav Sapru

    I also disagree with the desperation argument, because in one scene, Max asks Furiosa, “Have you done this before?” She says, “Many times”. You could say that there maybe desperation because she’s been trying to do it so many times, and failed so many times. But the true reason for her to do this hasn’t been given. I’m surprised how Joe let her survive and be an imperator of all things, if she’d done this so many times. Did he not find out before this one time? Is that why he keeps the brides in a vault? Because he noticed that his wives were being stolen continuously. Was it that he suspected some one high up, but until now, he didn’t know who it was? What do you think? Was it truly desperation, or a bad habit? And think about Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who had a very stereotypical role in Transformers 3.

    1. sherewin Post author

      Hi! When Imperator Furiosa says, “Many times,” I take it to mean that she has tried and failed many times. Otherwise, she would have known more about the current state of the “Green Place.” It is unknown how she has been able to try many times and survive. I don’t get the feeling that Joe’s wives have been stolen continuously, but that they have been vaulted (successfully) because they are so prized. I definitely think we have enough information to presume that Furiosa and others are acting out of desperation, and not a “bad habit” as you postulate here. Thanks for the comment! There is definitely a lot of of interesting stuff to think about in this film.

      1. Keshav Sapru

        Should’ve probably put “bad habit” in quotations, makes it seem like as if I was saying that saving humans is a bad habit (particularly, women in this case). Sorry.

  7. chantern

    Should’ve probably put “bad habit” in quotations, makes it seem like as if I was saying that saving humans is a bad habit (particularly, women in this case). Sorry (It’s Keshav again). I guess we’re all so vociferously defending fury road as A: We loved it. B: We don’t get many female badasses around here, eh?). 🙂

  8. Robert Scythe

    I know I’m a year too late for this discussion but I wanted to make a simple observation. This movie hits the nail on the head as far as feminism goes because of one simple thing:
    If we were living in a more ideal society this film would not be “A good, fun action flick with great female representation”. It would be called “A good, fun action flick”.


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