I have no problem at all with the many discussions about Mad Max: Fury Road being oriented around feminism. And why would I? I am myself a woman who considers herself a moderate feminist.
However, I am also all about balance, and in so much focus being centered around the movie’s feminism, there’s one thing that seems to be getting lost amidst all the rambunctious celebrating, on one hand, and the sullen complaining, on the other, about the supposed emasculation of the character of Max or the supposed feminist co-opting of a such a testosterone-driven franchise.
Since other themes in the film are more subtle than the feminist ones, they have either mostly escaped notice or just not been given their due yet. And the one I’d like to bring attention to today is the fact that the film quite ingeniously expresses the idea that in the Mad Max world, which we all know is a reflection of our own world, men are also exploited just like women are. And please, let’s not turn this into yet another competition about who is more exploited: we are both exploited in different ways and we must learn to recognize and acknowledge these different ways.
And this is why oversimplified readings of the film that make the issue about men vs. women don’t serve us well. If we make it about that, we are being divided and conquered—made to waste our energies fighting amongst ourselves while those who have the real power, regardless of gender, continue to enjoy the view from the top.
There are two key male characters who support my argument that Mad Max: Fury Road is also very much a film decrying how men in our culture are exploited and used.
The first is, of course, Max himself. There is powerful symbolism at work in his blood being harvested and used to vitalize Immortan Joe’s soldiers and I can’t believe this hasn’t gotten more attention. Max is a strong, vigorous man who has long learned to be self-sufficient and survive on his own—in this way, he very much represents a certain male ideal and is what you might call a “manly man.” Yet despite being such a manly man, he wants no part of Immortan Joe’s exploitive society; he just wants to be left alone and to live his life (i.e., being a very masculine male doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to be an oppressive pig). And although experience has roughened him, he is also still a very good man at heart as his empathy for other characters in previous films have shown. But in Fury Road his strength is stolen, co-opted and used to quite literally fuel someone else’s war. Take a minute to reflect on that. You want to talk about the fact that “we are not things”? Max is literally referred to throughout the movie as a “blood bag.” Talk about being dehumanized.
And who is exploiting him by taking his “blood”? On the surface it appears to be Nux who is the second key character providing evidence for my argument. Nux is a kind of proxy for the War Boys overall and through Nux we get to see the inherently tragic situation of all the War Boys, not just him. In one sense, yes, Nux is directly exploiting and using Max to vitalize his own frail body. But Nux too is being exploited and used by the dominant power structure as represented by Immortan Joe. The fact that he is expected to fight despite his ailing health highlights the magnitude of exploitation. Sure, some of the War Boys probably genuinely love violence, but in Nux’s case it is not entirely his fault that he ended up where he did. He probably started out life as a sincere kid just trying to survive (something confirmed by the recent prequel comic), and becoming a soldier in Immortan Joe’s army offered a chance for survival. And his sincerity is shown by how fervently he believes in Immortan Joe’s manufactured promises. And while the easiest parallel to be drawn from the real world is how young men are used to fight other people’s wars, there are also other, more subtle ways in which men are exploited in our culture all the time.
Through both Nux and Max we see how ordinary men (not those in power but average men), simply in their struggle to survive in a harsh world, can be exploited by society. Not seeing the bigger picture, however, they often end up fighting each other in various ways rather than working together to fight the common enemy who is using both of them. There is even some beautiful symbolism in how Max and Nux are chained to each other, two exploited men bound together in their fates, and yet one (Nux) considers the other his fuel source and one (Max) considers the other a threat to his survival.
And yet, exploited as they are, both Max and Nux ironically become the object of mistrust from women as in that scene when the Vuvalini (the old lady biker gang) wonder if Max and Nux are trustworthy because they’re men. It’s an understandable reaction from characters who have been through a lot, but the scene is also very symbolic of how ordinary men in our culture who are just trying their best to be good men can become the target of extremist feminist attacks. Is it any wonder, then, that these men sometimes become bitter and angry? And I’m not even talking about those Male Rights Movement people. They’re extremists and I’m not including them in this equation right now. I’m talking about regular men just doing what their culture taught them to do, but now that same culture is telling them they’re bad for being that way.
The fact that this very powerful and very deliberate symbolism of male exploitation in the film has not really been discussed is also indicative of the fact that the overall societal exploitation of men is not as readily acknowledged as the exploitation of women. Why? Two main reasons: (1) People habitually try to compare the suffering of women to men but if you do that it will always appear unequal. The key is to recognize that men and women are exploited differently. In the film, the men are exploited for their labor and their lives. The women are exploited for reproductive purposes. (2) In our widespread use of the concept of patriarchy to critique society, we become accustomed to thinking that men are supposed to be the bad ones—after all, “patriarchy” is widely interpreted as meaning a social structure in which men wield power and oppress women (even though that’s not the only way of interpreting that term).
This is why, even as a moderate feminist, I am not a big fan of the terms “patriarchy” and “matriarchy.” Terminology can often cause confusion, and in this case it doesn’t help that different people use these words differently. On one side, some people use the term “patriarchy” to refer to an existing power structure that thrives on hierarchy and dominance while “matriarchy” refers to a social model based on cooperation and equality. On the other side, some really do just use the word “patriarchy” to simply mean power in the hands of men and “matriarchy” to mean power in the hands of women. After all, it’s hard not to think of it in those simplistic terms when the prefixes “patr” and “matr” themselves mean “father” and “mother,” respectively.
Indeed, in my opinion one of the only minor flaws of Mad Max: Fury Road is not showing that women are not automatically better human beings by mere virtue of being women. Since all the major female characters in the movie are morally good, while all the men in the film except Max and Nux are violent and oppressive, viewers are liable to come away with that impression. But in the real world, things aren’t so simple and clear cut. We women are just as susceptible to negative qualities like over-competitiveness, selfishness, greed and neurosis, and we are just as interested in being above others and dominating over others, only these qualities tend to express themselves differently in us than in men. We are human beings, after all—nothing less but nothing more either, and a truer feminism should seek to be honest about both the positive and negative qualities of women as well as men. I know it’s tempting to say that if women were in charge of everything the world would become a better place but that isn’t necessarily so (though having said that, I do want to see more women leaders in business and politics for the sake of greater diversity).
Therefore, power in the hands of greedy and selfish individuals is the real problem underlying much of the brutality in the world. Quite often these individuals happen to be men but quite often there are also women there behind the scenes, perpetuating the exploitive social model in more indirect ways. Interpreting the movie as an overly simple moral fable about an evil patriarchy full of men oppressing women really doesn’t help us take away anything useful that we can apply in real life. “Power-archy,” therefore, might be an alternative word we could use to conceptualize a system built on greed in which both ordinary women and men are exploited, and in which both women and men with power and influence perpetuate the exploitation. This is much more realistic and honest than the idea of a monolithic, evil patriarchy full of innately evil men oppressing innately good women.
So while Mad Max: Fury Road does indeed contain feminist themes, and while I do agree that this should be celebrated, let us not lose sight of the larger, deeper message here, which is that in a world where self-centered groups and individuals wield power and are more interested in serving their own interests than in serving the public, merely taking power away from the men and giving it to the women won’t solve our problems (nor is the movie saying that). Fighting among ourselves and pointing the finger at the other won’t accomplish anything either. The real answer lies in working together to bring the power back to where it belongs: the common people.
This is why my favorite scene in the entire film is when Max lets Furiosa use his shoulder as a rifle stand. This scene does not take power away from Max. He’s already had three other movies to be the big hero, after all, and he gets plenty of his own moments of glory in the film. Instead, this scene actually shows how big a man he really is because instead of letting foolish pride get in the way or make it become a gender issue, Max simply recognizes Furiosa as a human being who happens to be the better shot. It’s about working together and, in so doing, surviving together instead of fighting as they did when they first met and then letting themselves both get caught by Immortan Joe.
So even though there are zealous fans on Twitter ecstatically tweeting things like, “Just saw #MadMax! Women will save the world!” even as a feminist I say, no, it is not women who will save the world. It is human beings who will save the world. But if (and only if) we realize that we are all in this together and we work together on the exceedingly difficult task of building a fairer, more just world built on mutual empathy, the kind of empathy that Max and Furiosa eventually come to feel for each other.