Mad Max: Fury Road is blazing a trail of victory in a manner that is unforeseen for an action movie. Action movies are supposedly “dumb movies”that one goes to watch with an intention of wasting time, munching on popcorn and gaining calories. Mad Max Fury Road will make you question this this concept while you munch on popcorn and lean at the edge of your seat. This movie hits that sweet spot of entertainment and intelligence and is an overall treat to watch. It is no wonder then, in the past week, Mad Max Fury Road has been not only nominated for 10 Oscars but it has also won 8 Critic’s Choice Awards!
It is an open secret that there exists gross misrepresentation and under-representation of female characters in popular media, especially in genres such as Sci-Fi, action and comic book adaptations. Generally, these genres are a commentary on power, justice, masculinity and their dynamics, which caters to a male fantasy. Perhaps, this is why most female characters are sexually objectified or depicted as passive responders in them. There have been many attempts to subvert this trope and root out the entrenched sexism, one of which is the action movie ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.
First things first: Bechdel Test. Bechdel test is a very simple test that could measure any work of fiction and how “women-friendly”it is. It has some very simple criterion to fulfill:
- There should be at least two named women characters
- These women characters should speak (i.e, they should have dialogues)
- They should speak with each other about something besides men.
It seems as if these are criterion that most movies would fulfill, right? Wrong! In fact, most Rom-Coms (which supposedly caters to female audience) doesn’t pass Bechdel test. So, what about Mad max: Fury Road? Does it pass the Bechdel test?
Mad Max: Fury Road passes the Bechdel test with flying colours! In fact, in this film, nearly all the female characters have names (including famous Furiosa, and the Five Wives which includes Angharad, The Dag, Cheedo, Capable etc.). However, more importantly, they do have dialogues and they talk to each other about their hopes, fears and plans of escape (almost everything except men). In fact, the true masterpiece of this movie is that it subliminally subverts the sexism entrenched in media, while lending to the character-building. In fact, Max is the one who doesn’t have dialogues (he grunts throughout the movie). Also, he reveals his name towards the climax. Hence it is the male lead (the hero of the movie) who is unnamed throughout the movie and has few dialogues rather than the female characters. This subliminal subversion is a piece of genius, because it doesn’t pander or bend-over-backwards to be women friendly but rather weaves it to the narrative and overarching story of the movie.
The movie makes an argument for the notion that sex is intricately linked with power and this notion is reiterated in the movie not just in terms of its plot, but also in its characters and symbolism. The movie focuses on a dystopian arid world where a society called ‘Citadel’ is under the control of ‘Immortan Joe’ who maintains his power on the basis of his control of water, women and plants. He has ‘Five wives’ who are precious to him since they can give him heirs. The plot revolves around these women are trying to escape the oppressive regime this system with the help of ‘Furiosa’, a female former general of the army of antagonist, and the title character ‘Max’. It is interesting to note that these women are not damsels-in-distress, but are actively planning and executing their escape. Hence, the theme is women helping women to escape patriarchal systems and thus, the narrative is taking out victimhood associated with femininity.
Furthermore, the subversion of general action movie trope continues onto the subtler layers of the movie. Immortan Joe has his status and power not because of his skills, but rather since he regulates the water, fertile soil (concepts generally associated with femininity) and female sexuality of his community. His authority is derived from his ability to regulate femininity, and he is almost considered to be a deity. Therefore, the movie is directly commenting on how different societal structures are not just reinforcing gender roles and patriarchy, and are doing it on the basis of formulating a narrative of sexuality that eroticizes dominance.
In fact, the ‘War Boys’ of this movie is practically a study in how patriarchy disadvantages and oppresses men too.
They are called ‘boys’, maybe indicative of how they aren’t ‘men’ yet and thus introducing the concept of how masculinity is something to be achieved. So, they have to overcompensate for their apparent lack of masculinity by performing “heroic” stunts. They spray chrome upon their mouth before doing crazy, non-efficient, mindless and possibly fatal actions and shout “WITNESS ME!” as they die. This showcases the mindset of achievement and glory that is pervading our society. This is thus a subtle commentary on our current patriarchal achievement-centric society where masculinity needs to be achieved either through physical or mental aggression.
In contrast, Max represents the male feminist ally. He is also captured and oppressed by Immortan Joe and his War Boys. In his effort to save himself he runs into Furiosa and the Five Wives. He reluctantly agrees to help because Furiosa has the kill switch for the truck. It must be noted that he literally only helps the women in their escape plan, he doesn’t “save” them in a typical action movie fashion. He takes the plans and efforts of Furiosa seriously. He ackowledges her area of expertise and instead of trying to prove himself better than her in all aspects, uses her expertise and skills to save themselves. Finally, unlike conventional action movie heroes who rule the world after the happy ending, he is very happy that the women are taking back the Citadel (read as: doesn’t try to take over things he has no claim over) and disappears into the crowd.
In fact, like a feminist ally, Max helps women fighting patriarchy because he knows it would also help him and because it is the right thing to do (rather than out of ‘pity’); he defers to their lans and expertise because he knows that they have probably been planning this for a much longer while than him; and most importantly, he isn’t fighting a patriarchal villain to take the power for himself but rather to right wrongs.
Actually, this movie continuously asks, “Who killed the world?” (an actual dialogue in the movie) and answers it subtextually : toxic patriarchy and vitriolic masculinity.
The movie is actively criticising the hyper-masculine and machismo heroism being idolized in the current patriarchal world, as it is linked with the antagonist rather than the protagonist. Thus, the audience aren’t disappointed if they expect a movie full of explosions, action and machismo, but are made to rethink their choices and aspirations.
However, we cannot talk about Mad Max: Fury Road and not talk about Furiosa. Imperator Furiosa, the other lead of the movie, is played by Charlize Theron.
It is a common movie-logic to pit women against women – whether it is for the affection of a man or whether one of them is the bad woman’and the other ‘the good woman’. The character of Furiosa defies this insane logic. She has good successful relationship with all the female character of the movie, be it the Five Wives or The Vuvalini. She is fighting for not just her own freedom but that of her friends too. She is no ‘damsel-in-distress’and does not need saving. She is an iconic character that you cannot forget. Most importantly, she is not another action movie heroine: she isn’t skimpily clad in impractical clothes; she doesn’t stand in contrived poses to draw attention to her ‘assets’; she doesn’t fight gracefully.
In fact, there hasn’t been any attempt to make her pretty or seductive (she is not the traditional femme fatale) and she is allowed to grunt and makes faces and spit blood in the middle of fight scenes.
Mad Max: Fury Road is thus challenging the expectations from a typical action movie, by subverting the tropes as well as power structures in the fictional dystopian world. Thus, this movie raises a lot of questions regarding current representaion in media. Does Mad Max : Fury Road and its success allow us to rethink not just action genre but all genres? Does it open new avenues to subvert the tropes associated with each existing genre? Is it a herald for more feminist movies that are hugely entertaining? And perhaps, a step towards a more gender-inclusive and liberal media?