How the feminist claims about the New Mad Max film are not right, yet not altogether wrong
Three days before this year's Mother's Day, George Miller presented the world premiere of Mad Max Fury Road, the eye-opening ‘reimagining' of his hero, Mad Max in L.A. This was no accident, as one of the strongest motifs in the film is, surprisingly, motherhood. Underneath the spectacular smorgasbord of blood, sweat, dirt and explosions, a current of maternal importance shimmers through. This maternal theme also lies under the veneer that self-important and insecure critics (not film critics, mind you) have tagged as "feminist" and "emasculating." These days, however, there is a thin line between machismo and homo-eroticism and it takes a humble and honest eye to tell the difference. The purpose of this is not to tread down that path but instead to recognize the legitimacy of, yet move beyond, the movie's feminist agenda. Fury Road is not a feminist film. It is a film praising femininity in its strongest form.
Certainly, there is an obvious effort in the film to improve the image of female heroes in the slog of summer popcorn action films. Prior to the film's release, the web was abuzz about the lack of respect for Black Widow, the Avengers' lone female teammate. Sitting in our seats, us men feel distantly sorry for Black Widow that she has to deal with "women problems." Us men can sort of understand that women, too, should use superpowers against inhuman villains to deal with emotional issues. Us men are indifferently satisfied with the resolution given her. And as we leave the theater, she does not seize the esteem or honor that should be due to such a killer character. As we view Fury Road and meet Imperator Furiosa and listen to her story, there is something different. There is no disassociated sympathy from the male audience. She has her agenda and we follow her set her own course, as opposed to Black Widow, who seems to follow along with what her male compatriots do. Furiosa does not command our attention by her vulnerability nor her bullishness, but rather by her leadership, her grit. There is no melodrama. Ending the second act, the film breathes for a few passing minutes as we simultaneously learn her backstory and discover how the journey will have to end (to go back the way they came?!). It moves the story along without playing at our heartstrings. So in a time where admirable female super heroes are too few and far between, Furiosa is admirable to both men and women audience. Yet, there is another reason for her transcendent quality.
Those criticizing Fury Road for its feminist agenda do not go far enough. This is not the feminism of liberal political talking heads or women's lib movements of the 90's. There is a specific type of woman being praised and highlighted in the movie. It isn't the gun-toating, oil-stained, lone wolf characterization that it is proclaimed to be. It is the graceful but tough female we all need and love. The film celebrates mothers. And it does so in a covert way. Although there are many mothers in the film, there is not one single frame of mother-child interaction. We have the mother of Max's son, the ‘milk mothers,' the two pregnant slaves of Immortal Joe, the wife of Immortal Joe (who we can assume gave birth to his warrior son, Rictus Erectus), and finally, the Vuvalini Mothers that help Max and the gang. They all have their moments of strength. Interestingly, Max's wife's strength comes from her absence. She does not haunt Max like their son does because she does not need his redemption as much as their little one. The sickening sight of the milking machines applied to the grieving women reinforces the extent by which Immortal Joe's inhumanity can stretch. However, it also shows the length by which mothers can nurture the rest of humanity.
Coming to the collection of slaves that we know to be pregnant, they are tasked with the job of survival. They are the object of justice that the audience wishes to see. Miller most poignantly points this out in what is the seemingly obligatory shot of scantily-clad women hosing off in the hot sun. However, the teenage boys' gaze hits a wall with the shot of a full-term belly. At this moment we no longer view them as Megan Fox stand-ins for our viewing pleasure, but as victims that we, too, compassionately want to see arrive to safety. This victim motif now becomes inverted when (spoilers) one of them is taken back to Joe ("oh no!") and is killed, as is the baby ("oh… ok"). The future is impossible without maternal care and presence. It is as bleak and tumultuous as fury storms and the desert landscape on which they wreak havoc. Admittedly, there is little that can be revealed from the scene with Joe and his wife. I can only think about the stories found in One Thousand and One Nights, featuring a clever wife trying to withhold the destructive force of her husband's destructive power by lying to him. Again, this points towards the maternal instinct to protect - even if not literally her own daughters.
Finally, there are the Vuvalini Women. The remaining sisterhood of a tribe long wiped out. While the ability for survival is an obvious trait that these women possess, a stronger feature would be that of wisdom. They teach the younger women the importance of hope, they train them how to fight, and they guide them in the heat of the battle. They are not some anti-male, Amazon Warrior Brigade. They are the sole survivors of a familial genocide; grandmothers of a memory. Which brings us back to Furiosa. In one sense, she plays a mother to the slave women - carrying them to new life in the "belly" of her rig. But in a stronger sense, she is the least maternal of all the female characters. With her cyborg arm continually in full view, she may be the least human of any of the characters in the whole film. How can a such a hand caress? Along with Max, she serves as the outsider; the guide for the audience to experience various forms of mother affection.
In 2006's Children of Men, a miraculously pregnant woman is covertly escorted to a mysterious unseen land. Salvation was a land far away, not something that a good mother would recommend - to run from the problem. Salvation in Fury Road is to be strong, face your fears, and be confident. It is the baby that is held as an object of celebration.
There are other interesting notes that can be gleaned from my initial viewing. First, this theme of maternal nurtire can be observed in the relationship between Capable one of the slave girls and Nux, the aspiring War Boy. He fails embarrassingly in front of Joe and the rest of the army. He hides, ashamed, and is found by Capable. If this were another standard action film, the two would have become lovers. However, the story recognized that Nux does not need a girlfriend. He needs a mother. She comforts him, reassures him, and unconditionally cares for him. Some may see this slip into Freudian territory, but I choose to see the initial relationship solely as a maternal one that develops into a romantic one, not vice versa. The backstory to Doof (the guitar/flamethrower-wielding maniac) found in various pieces of literature tells that he is wearing an adult-sized crimson baby onesie, complete with an open butt-flap and all. Oh and BTW, he is wearing his mother's face as a mask! Although grotesque and morbid, it continues to show the underlying need in a world without motherly love. A need for peace, quiet, sufficiency, and tenderness. And what else can be said about Max washing his face in the mothers' milk? There was water on the other side of the tank, buddy. In a day where we find public breastfeeding increasingly offensive, this facial baptism reminds the viewer that it is natural - nay - necessary.
Mad Max: Fury Road had its wide release just five days after Mother's Day to celebrate moms. Scott Wamper of birth.movies.death found it reasonable to not only show his mother-in-law the film, but to post her review of it on the website. It resonates with us. This is not so much a film about masculinity vs. femininity as it is about paternal vs. maternal provision. Mothers give us hope, security, rest. The film extols not feminism, but femininity in its most powerful form: motherhood. Because motherhood, it shows, does not only compete with the testosterone-driven insanity of post-apocalyptic landscape, but it overpowers it, securing victory for the Cidadel people and providing life and sustainability for all. Moms empower each one of us; Miller wanted to return the favor. Whether we recognize it or not, motherhood (and its absence) girds the whole of Fury Road. Consider thanking your mom this week (it's never too late) by taking her to a movie she might just appreciate.