Mad Max (2015)

I’m trying to think of a way to tell you that Mad Max is probably most of the things you think it is, thereby constituting several reasons for your not wanting to see it, but that you should see it anyway.  A review Will had me read from EW affectionately called it a punch in the face, an assault to the senses, and it is that.  Which, I realize, is not something most people would submit to out of context.  It’s also violent, 98 percent action-filled, and more than a bit disturbing.  And you should see it while it is in theatres, not after.

You’ve never seen this movie before.  That perhaps should be a good reason to see it.  But it’s not always a good enough reason.  It’s really well made.  That’s another good reason to see it, but perhaps that’s not good enough either.  It is exactly a brand of feminism that will be healing in the long-run, even if assaulting in the short-term.  This is probably the best reason for you to see it.

No, no, I know.  I didn’t want to see it either.  The first trailer I saw for it marketed it as a Transformers meets LA news car chase and listen, I’ve seen enough of those.  You’re glued, that’s not the problem, the problem is that even while you’re glued, you are bored out of your mind.  No more movies made my men who wanted to blow cars up and dress women as scantily-clad eye-candy.  The second trailer I saw for it made it look significantly better, but I still knew I wasn’t going to see it because it still looked like a movie about men who own women as property.  And I knew it was rated R, and rape scenes or women being tortured or humiliated are no-brainer no-go’s for me, so it was pretty clear I just wasn’t going to bother with this movie.

Then one day a co-worker mentioned a review she’d read about a bunch of men who had gone to see the movie and been annoyed and frustrated by its feminist bull-shit.

That got me interested.

Actually, if we’re being honest, that was all I needed in order to change my mind and I told Will I was interested and why, and he suggested we ask that co-worker if she also wanted to see it with us and we made a date, and we went to see it.

I think everyone should see it.  I think eventually your daughters should see it (even if they are as of yet unborn).  I think you should see it, and your spouse, and your children, when they/if they are ever old enough to appreciate what this movie did.

It portrayed women as equals.

"What?  Equals?"

No, no, you misunderstand me. It’s not one of those movies where a women dominates a man and beats him into submission.  She doesn’t show she can carry her own by humiliating a man.  She doesn’t prove she’s as strong as a man by effectively keeping him off of her.  She doesn’t even habitually save a man in an inherently masculine way to prove she can do it as good as a man can do it.  She doesn’t even do it by proving femininity to be superior to masculinity.  Though, the women are feminine, and the men are masculine.  The women are also fierce, and the men compassionate.  Women do not have to prove themselves equal in this movie, they just are.  I can guarantee that you have never seen this movie before.

This movie makes women equal statistically.  While at large there may be more men than women (background characters are more male than they are female) all main and side characters with story-lines are fairly equal.  Imperator Furiosa is matched by Mad Max.  Each girl in the back of Furiosa’s war machine has her own story line, so that’s five more women.  There is a tribe of women they meet with 3/4ths through the movie, most of whom are very specifically cast and defined as characters, that’s another 4 or 5 women (I’m not fact-checking at the moment, sorry).  Then there are the principal villains, all men, let's say about five.  The war boys, are all men, but only one in particular has his own story arch, and only one or two others are identifiable from each other.  Of all the characters you’re following and are interested in and who do something useful in the story, the male-female ratio is on point.  No mere “token female character” here.

The women are written as human, not women.  I mentioned that the equality of women depicted in this movie isn’t the kind where women prove themselves as masculine in order to prove they are equal to a man.  In fact all of the women have equal amounts feminine and masculine traits (as our world would define them).  Take the most masculine of the female characters, Furiosa.  What she embodies best is that she is a person, above all else.  She does not disown her femininity, despite her masculinity.  All the women remain decidedly their own characters with their own sense of justice, right and wrong and their own way of responding to the actions of others, independent of their gender.  When they make decisions to be kind, compassionate, or fair it is not because they are women and so inherently kind, compassionate and fair, it is because they are people, reacting to their cruel, inconsiderate, horrific and unfair world in an unprecedented way.  Furthermore, their decisions to throw “healing” out into the world is not female.  Instead, it’s a logical, and disciplined reaction to the cruelty they’ve always experienced, and it changes the people around them.  Though they are masculine in some ways, they retain femininity, and the movie makes it relatively clear that masculine nor feminine traits are inherently superior.  Women are depicted as they are, as people, and that’s equal to the men, as they are, as people.

These women, as strong and capable and fierce as they are, and depicted to be, don’t have to prove their strength and capability by dominating men: beating them, humiliating them, killing them, torturing them, or scaring them.  As it’s a story, I want to step back from the characters being “good people” and instead recognize the good writing--or else, the good preparation made for these characters to exist.  The women are written as women, not as men with slight changes based on how the men writing them think women might behave.  But it’s more than that.

It’s not just how the women are written that changes this film, it’s how the men are written, too.  Men and women are made equal in this movie not so much because women prove they are stronger than men, but because men prove they are strong enough to be their best selves, no matter how damaged, no matter their pasts, no matter their insecurities.  There is no need for a women to prove her strength by keeping a man off of her; the men don’t attempt to get on the women to begin with.  (I refer to the protagonists of this story, by the way, not the villains).  There is no need for a women to prove she is smarter than the men, the men don’t attempt to humiliate or demean them.  There is no need for women to prove how useful they are, their usefulness is inherent in the people they’ve become, in their capabilities, and their world outlook; the men don’t ever try to push them out of the way, or tell them they aren’t needed, or belittle them.  This is writing that makes you believe there are people in this world who actually believe in equality and know how to write it, rather than fall back on the medieval tropes we’ve been using for centuries.

Take for example my sister’s favorite scene where Max follows after the women after he and they have parted ways to suggest a plan to them.  He follows after them in the first place, because he pulls on the compassion he has reacquainted himself with and believes that he can be of some help.  When he presents his plan, it is apparent that it may be the best chance the group has, but he doesn’t grab anyone, use force, he doesn’t yell or scream to convince them, he doesn’t speak down to the women as if they are ridiculously incapable of seeing the logic of his plan.  Instead, he makes his case calmly, logically, and as an equal.  He knows better than anyone perhaps that in this crazy post-apocalyptic world, if nothing else, everyone has the right to decide how they die.

The war boy who joins the party his a significant story arch of his own, where he is almost immediately and infinitely changed by the kindness one of the women in the movie shows him.  It isn’t just kindness she shows him, but understanding and compassion.  The way this female character responds to the world she lives in and how she treats the war boy, elicits a similar response of kindness and compassion from the male character who is now responding to the new world he lives in, where kindness and compassion exist for the first time.  He acts as a human might act in these horrific circumstances.

Furthermore, Max is written as a character who does not distinguish the forms of strength as masculine or feminine.  Strength is strength.  Intelligence is intelligence.  Usefulness is usefulness.  And writing a male character or performing a male character as such gives time to the female characters as they are written to also be strong, intelligent, and ultimately useful.  My co-worker who I saw the movie with said something to the effect of, “Max wasn’t interested in saving anyone.  He had no use for a character--male or female--who wasn’t useful.”  Perhaps that is what I liked most about Mad Max.  The women were useful.  They were real people, real characters, with real motives, and real skills, and real relationships, and really really useful.  And they didn’t have to demean any men to get there.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just the female characters who are written well--and by well I don’t mean like badasses, I mean like real women who are capable of fierceness, strength, usefulness, kindness, and compassion alike--it’s also the male characters who are written well--like real human beings who don’t see women merely as objects, but as people to respond and react to, who can be helpful to their lives not as objects, but as equal partners.  The men that were in this film were ones I’d like to see more often in my movies.  Ones who treat women as equals from the get-go so women don’t have to waste their screen time fighting men to be on equal footing and can instead use their screen time to promote a useful idea, move the story and plot forward, and develop meaningful connections across the themes, characters and meaning of the film.  At the end of the day, what I want is a movie I’ve never seen before.

Do I like my female badasses?  Yeah, I guess I do.  But you know what I’d like more?  A woman who acted like me.


  1. **Long-ass, spoilery comment ahead.**

    Nailed it Jen. Part of the unusualness of the message of this action flick is that might does not make right per se, and the toxic bullies of this post-apocalyptic hellscape are defeated by fighting, but also with compassion. It's throughout the film: not as a stupidity, not as a weakness. Early on the wives yell at Furiosa to not take a life unnecessarily ("You promised no extra killing!") and Nux proves later to be an asset, converted by Capable's kindness. The characters work together, connect with one another. And it's not exclusively a female trait either.

    At the same time, even with unity and connection, each woman is developed as a person with distinct traits, and we see them make choices and grow. They have arcs: they are not chattel, or a burden, or eye candy, or plot devices. They are individuals. All in a show with little dialogue -- it simply shows.

    The compassion extends to the film itself, too in a way? Even though it's a movie about violence, it doesn't delight in violence or in showing us violence. It doesn't follow the blood spatter or the kinetic explosions -- it follows the characters first and foremost. There is violence happening around them and of course they're reacting to it/dealing with it and sometimes instigating it and have suffered from it, but it's not a splatter film. It's not glorified or dwelt on.

    I'm thinking especially about that night scene in the swamp, where Max goes alone after that car and comes back with the spoils. That so easily could have been the Look At Our Hero Beating People Up Competence Fisticuffs Porn that is so prevalent, but it happened entirely offscreen. Too, while the "wives" are obviously survivors of sex slavery, none of their trauma happens onscreen. We don't ever see their abuser/violator in a position of power over them. The movie doesn't fall into the trap of presenting an Evil Violent Culture and then titillating the audience with it.

    Some assorted details I appreciated:

    - There is an explained reason for the wives to be as beautiful and unblemished as they are
    - An amputee and a mentally ill man are the heroes of the story
    - The scene where Furiosa and Max are battling early on and the five aren't just onlookers but are actively helping her out -- and then it just grows from there
    - The story of Capable and Nux and the development of that relationship is very sweet without being sexual or even romantic, necessarily
    - Feminist Aussie grandma biker gang, complete badasses and matriarchs and also environmentalists
    - Cheedo and Toast are definitely not white, and so are many of the mothers.
    - No cheap/inexplicable emotional overreactions?? Often in movies women have emotional reactions or responses that make zero sense to me. There was none of that in this movie, even when it might have been plausible to. There are plenty of moments of loss, but no "hysterics."

    1. oh one more -- how the big climactic day/life-saving act towards the end is simply Max giving blood. Giving blood and sharing his name. That's how they win. That's how compassion wins.

    2. I l.o.v.e.d. this response. Thank you for making it. My co-worker Stacey made a similar point about the scene where Max goes off to fight a battle off screen, and how it proves his masculinity without being gratuitous about it (and in some ways, leaving things to our imagination makes him more of a hero BECAUSE its understated).

      Several months ago I saw a truly awful movie that was more about the mutilation and murdering of women than I realized before going to see it (I thought it was more like a private investigator solves a murder case kind of movie) and I became very aware of what you're talking about, the trap you talked about of presenting an evil culture and not just titillating the audience with it but enjoying the fact they're allowed to show it because they think that they're also saying that it's wrong or bad. But when a movie does that, in a way, the audience knows they're enjoying the evil and the torture, and so what it's really saying is "We like this. This gets us." You're right that this movie truly did not delight in the violence, or the horror they lived in and I think that's another reason why I came out of the film with such a GOOD feeling, despite the assaulting nature of pure action, noise, and fighting.

      Notes on your assorted details:
      - I love the subculture of the entire movie; Rachel and I have spent a long time discussing it since seeing it a second time, and I like that there's so much still to be discussed. We've talked at length about the unblemished wives and how they escaped the diseases of the Citadel.
      - I loved too that the women were useful and had their own desires and wants, which meant they weren't going to sit around while their chance to get out (Furiosa) was getting beat up.
      - Agreed about the step back from overreactions which men write women as having in almost every movie. They think, "How would a woman react to this?" and invariably they react in an overtly emotional over-the-top kind of way. I really felt it made it more real. Women don't actually SPEND precious time in moments of high-stress to have a break-down while everyone else watches. The only time they spend any time on a "break-down" of sorts is when Furiosa learns that her home is gone. But since this is a "break-down" they would have equally spent on a man, I felt it was fitting and telling. And I think it's fitting everyone watches because she knows that these girls were relying on her dream of going home, sharing with her this dream of going to the "green place" and so to let them share in her anger/disappointment/sadnes etc is not out of place.
      - I never thought about his giving blood as being the climax, but I really like that analysis of it. I love your interpretation and I think I shall adopt it.

    3. Thanks for the reply! Oh man, I wish I could be part of that conversation, because the world building was so excellent! V. inventive, and included many elements that were not just dark and misanthropic/misogynist. My team is kind of obsessed with this movie and now yells VALHALLA at every opportunity. The degradation of language used throughout made sense and was creative but also drove me a little crazy b/c I like "good" writing/dialogue. But hats off to them for coming up with that and committing to it, lol.

      I too left the theater feeling so much better than usual, feeling that ladies can be triumphant -- even in this terrible dystopian desert. I feel you so much that women are so often just MEAT in these things, in terms of objectification and butchery and consumption. It's become so commonplace. Setting and/or "reality" is so often used to justify gendered violence and cruelty (I hear that excuse with Game of Thrones, True Detective, etc. all the time). It makes me sick to my stomach, the idea that a part of us secretly wants to see that. And this movie could have so easily gone that way. But no! Even on the fury road, women are people and ACT and they (and compassion) can win. That was the message, and I think that's why the film resonates with so many women? We and our allies too can make choices and be victorious. (And not like a women-win, men-lose victory, as in an everyone-wins victory. You know.)

      I've been thinking over the weekend about how the movie didn't cater to cruelty-against-women/torture porn male gaze, but it also doesn't cater to bloodlust. It didn't thrill or glory in death on either side. It still treated many of the war-boys like people, too. They weren't Orcs. Because of that the end goal of the film could be reconciliation, not annihilation -- you believed a better society could be built despite the prevailing culture and former despotism.

      I've been thinking today about that scene with (okay, for real huge spoiler alert, if you haven't seen the movie stop reading) Splendid's body and the post-mortem C-section. It's stuck in my head because it was disturbing, but also because it was so much less than could have been - there was no blood, no incision seen. Just a foot and a cord. Even though they treated her body callously, even in death and defilement, the camera respected her body and the body of her would-be child. The tragedy was a tragedy and not exploited for grossness.

      Similarly, the treatment of Max at the beginning of the film illustrated their regard for him only as a blood bag without being overly bloody? The world-building shows enough that we get this violent, depraved culture, and it's crass and gross, but doesn't use that as an excuse or that it's somehow necessary to provoke and horrify the audience. I read somewhere that the director's wife edited the movie, and I can see that - even in this comic-book-esque over-the-top world, it refuses to indulge in sick spectacle.

      I had bought into the false notion previously that often violence and disgust were necessary to understand what the characters were experiencing - oh well you have to show how it WAS. You have to be shocked into compassion.This movie showed differently - that you can understand that something is awful without being gratuitous or explicit, and that actually you will have more compassion for characters when the movie itself refuses to treat them like things.

    4. More assorted-ness (I had to split my comment in two because it was too long for Blogger, oh geez):
      - I liked Furiosa's outcry in the desert, it felt very natural and merited yet powerful/moving, esp. because she is so stoic.
      - Max I think has two big climaxes/turning points -- when he rides out and decides to help them take back the citadel and when he decides to give blood and share his name. Both are him giving in to hope and connecting with other people again.
      - I am such a sucker for plotlines where the dead help the living and I LOVED Max's son or the image/memory of his son protecting and guiding him, oh man. I love the point where he stops trying to shut him out and heeds him by going after Furiosa and the other riders. I'd have to watch it again to be sure but I think it's at that point that the son-hallucination starts being an asset to him? When he starts listening and stops running from him? It wasn't so much that reality triumphed over "madness," but that the lessons and loved ones of the past triumphed over fear and loss and apathy.
      - I love the turning around of the title -- "Mad" is associated with crazy, and usually as a pejorative or a joke. But in this case he actually was "mad," suffering hallucinations and some serious PTSD, but it and he were taken seriously. (I haven't seen the original films so IDK what context the title uses in those ones.)
      - Already considering cosplaying/Halloween-costuming Furiosa, don't even worry.
      - I really feel/love what you said in your original post about not wasting time establishing or deconstructing sexism. Women just are equals. I think the scene where they are in the swamp at night shooting at that truck illustrates this treatment well: Max is shooting at it with limited shots. With one left, Furiosa comes up behind him and he realizes her presence and hands her the gun without a second thought. When she shoots and hits it, he isn't surprised in the least, just a little tense at being used as a brace. He really thinks nothing of it -- no gendered jokes, no winks. He isn't emasculated, just impressed by the ability demonstrated and glad the threat was eliminated. Like you said, Max values usefulness, and gender does not affect his metrics or sense of self.
      Too, even at the beginning in the toxic Citadel culture, Furiosa is an Imperator and respected by the war-boys as such -- though elsewhere women are property, her gender is not an issue in this case, just her title. Her men listen to her and follow her east in the war rig caravan without a second thought. She's the boss! Why would they question her? Women not being undermined for being women at every turn was really refreshing to watch. Slash not having something to prove just by BEING a woman.
      - The juxtaposition of going from a leather bag full of guns for the leather bag full of seeds was so neat to me.