Mad Max: Fury Road provided a much needed cathartic experience, allowing me to vent my rage against that most heinous and despicable of monsters – cars. Fuck those things. They died by the scores in this movie, and it was enormously satisfying to watch each blackened, twisted hulk of metal meet a fiery end in an unforgiving wasteland of sun and sand. Seriously though, so many cars exploded in this movie that I'm nearly desensitized to car wrecks now. I'm also partially deaf.
Still, not everyone shares my appreciation for the movie's depiction of automobile slaughter. Some people are upset about the, uh, whaddaya call'em – people. I think this movie had some people in it. Oh yes, I recall now. There was this one truck that had people in it, and the audience actually cared about whether or not they died. One of those people was the star of the movie. The other guy was Mad Max. This has some people a little miffed. One group of chest-thumping, manly men flung their poo over Charlize Theron's bad-assery. Among them was Aaron Clarey, who argues that feminists rewrote Max's character to be Furiosa's subservient attack dog – and that the greater message of the film is that men need to learn their place in the same fashion. They felt their own masculinity was threatened by Max sharing the screen with a woman who was equally as strong and ferocious as him.
Back on planet Earth, the more sensible of us can see that Max is plenty masculine and macho, but there are indeed some feminist ideas at work in the film. Eve Ensler, the creator of the Vagina Monologues, was a consultant on the film. Still, I prefer not to call it a feminist work, because if it is, it misses the mark. It's better to say that this is a good action film with some feminist ideas in it. SPOILERS AHEAD
If we politicize this movie by labeling it "feminist", then we're declaring that this movie exists for the primary function of fighting for equal rights for all people, which is the principle tenet of feminism. Academic philosophers Sally Haslanger and Nancy Tuana write that one can agree with feminist principles and still not be a feminist by not pursuing some kind of activism. Mad Max: Fury Road isn't out to change the world. A close examination of the text will reveal that the primary purpose of the movie is to blow up lots of cars with exploding harpoons. It's demolition derby porn.
A few weeks ago, Joss Whedon ran into some problems because he identifies politically as a feminist. Feminists then measured Avengers: Age of Ultron with a feminist yard stick and found that it came unforgivably short of being a successful feminist work, mostly because of his treatment of Black Widow and because there wasn't enough female representation in the film. The problem here is that though Whedon is a feminist, it doesn't mean that every work he creates is meant to be a feminist work. He made a kick-ass superhero movie with less concern about feminism than with telling a good story. And it was a good story. But if we label it as a feminist work, well, then it was a failure.
We run the same risk with Mad Max: Fury Road if we put this label on it. It does have some feminist principles:
• Water and food are basic human rights, and no one man may own them.
• Slavery is wrong.
• Children are not property of the father.
• Women are not sexual property.
There are some broader ideas that fit under the umbrella term of "liberal", like:
• War devours young men.
• Dependence on fossil fuels leads to war.
• Old white men want only power.
But this isn't enough to make it a feminist work. Charlize Theron and her 5 refugees are the only ones who seem to believe that women are not property and that it's wrong for Immortan Joe to rape them. Joe thinks they are, and the psychotic devotion of the war boys suggests they agree with whatever Joe tells them, as long as it will get them into "Valhalla". We don't know what the poor masses who clamor for water think, but they probably don't like the setup that gives Joe all this power over them. Max seems to be indifferent about it. He just wants to survive. Near the end of the movie, he goes out of his way to assist Furiosa. We might read this as a tacit approval of her values, or it could be that Max has been with all of them long enough to give a damn about what happens to them.
However, in terms of feminist criticism, this still follows old fashioned sexist Hollywood tropes. The women are still damsels in distress. Furiosa isn't, but the other girls are property of an evil old white dude. There's still violence against women in this movie. Even Max takes Joe's sex slaves hostage and opens fire on Splendid and Furiosa. There's also a scene that shows a bunch of women in the citadel hooked up to milking machines. So while these women may not be sex slaves like Furiosa's refugees, they're still women being treated as less than human. Granted, the war boys and the other pale automatons that literally turn the gears of the great machine that is the Citadel are also less than human, but equal marginalization of the sexes is not the sort of equality that feminists seek. There's some misandry in this film too, in the form of old matriarchs who try to grow seeds out in the desert. They utter phrases like "one man, one bullet," and they would have blown away Max and Nux had Furiosa not endorsed them. Feminism is about ending injustice and discrimination, so misandry would be another mark against this film.
To make this a feminist movie, the conflict needs to be man vs. society, or at least have more elements like it. Fury Road's conflict is wholly man vs. man. There would need to be more story, more dialogue, and more emphasis on society striving to overturn injustice. This would be the entire premise, with a few awesome car chases and explosions mixed in. Instead, what we have is a movie about awesome car chases and explosions with a few ideas about equality mixed in. It's not the same thing. But as an action movie about exploding cars, it's A+.