Mad Max’s moderate feminism and radical egalitarianism

max furiosa rifle

Spoilers ahoy.

At the end of writer and director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road¸ a rebooted continuation of his classic post-apocalyptic series, a quote appears: “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?” The quote is attributed to “The First History Man,” a nod to the time before the apocalypse in question. The sentiment, then, comes not from the world of Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, the warrior woman at the center of the film’s plot and themes and the indelible figure of the movie. It comes from our world, from the pre-apocalyptic world, which means it confronts us in our figurative wasteland as thoroughly as it does those characters in their literal one. What do we have to do in a world that, though lush and bountiful in comparison to the starved world of Mad Max, is still filled with injustice?

We might see some of that challenge in the negative response to the film from a particular, particularly troubling perspective. The film has earned, and thoroughly deserves, a reputation as a modern action masterpiece, a hyperkinetic journey that proves the continuing relevance of practical effects and character-driven storytelling. Rapturous reviews have implored audiences to go see the film, in order to reward the faith of Miller and his team in the ability to create a summer spectacle that has heart, vision, and integrity. But dissent has bubbled up from a noxious source: the Men’s Rights Activists, or MRAs. The MRA movement believes that feminism has corrupted contemporary gender relations, relegating men to the status of second class citizens and upsetting a natural order where men are born leaders, warriors, and workers, and where women are better served in roles of domestic nourishment. MRAs have made news lately for loudly decrying the plot of Fury Road, in which Theron’s noble warrior and a cast of powerful women drive the action and make the most noble sacrifices. To MRAs, this constitutes an inherent degradation of the character of Max and through him, of men writ large.

(Some have complained that the MRA rage over the film is largely a media exaggeration, thinly-sourced and replicated endlessly. Maybe so! But, I mean, this guy exists. It’s not a wholesale invention.)

Some of the film’s champions have played into this narrative, with many reviews calling the film an inversion of the traditional action film trope of heroic men rescuing at-risk women. Deadspin’s Will Leitch, for example, writes that “Max himself is oddly passive and unimportant to the plot: It’s the women, particularly Theron’s Furiosa, who drive the action and make all the difference,” standing in contrast to “idiotic men and their overcompensating toys, killing each other and everyone else, just as they’ve done since the beginning of time.” That seems to confirm the MRA’s take on the plot, though hardly their political stance towards it. Certainly, such a movie could be made and made well, a radical tale in which men are revealed as inherently incapable of reform. I’d watch that movie with interest.

But that isn’t the movie Miller made. It’s just inaccurate, for example, to call the men passive characters. Max takes many crucial actions in the film, as does Nicholas Hoult’s renegade “Warboy” Nux. Without either of them, the caravan of heroes would never have survived. Indeed, the film’s screenplay is as comprehensively egalitarian as I can imagine: every single character within the group of protagonists plays some essential role in the conflict. Yes, Furiosa is the linchpin of it all, the one whose courageous decision starts the plot into motion, and the most effective combatant and driver in a world where fighting and driving are everything. And it’s indeed great to see a blockbuster action film that is so unambiguous and direct in its portrayal of heroic, competent women. But it seems to me to be a misreading to say that the many potent women characters in the movie succeed by replacing the men. The hero of Mad Max is really a family of heroes. The movie’s commitment to a truly communal vision of heroism is perhaps its most radical, most affecting stance.

Watch this scene.

God, I love this movie.

Yes, in this scene, a man in a group of women advocates for the eventual course of action. But he’s been brought to that place by the decisions of a woman, acting on behalf of other women. And the decision is not his alone. Multiple women join in the dialogue, and the person they are trying to convince, the closest thing the group has to a leader, is a woman. People make their appeal; they state their point of view. The group comes to a decision. This isn’t some Amazonian warrior woman leading by imperious decree. It is, instead, a story of a family of spontaneous heroes who, in a world begging them to focus only on their own survival, find within themselves the courage to sacrifice for the good of others. Watching the film a second time, I felt a kick of aggravation at the endless “Chosen One” narratives that are heaped on us again and again in modern movies. Max Rockatansky is the opposite of a Chosen One. He is a guy who wants to care only about survival, and yet finds within himself angels enough to put his life in danger in the defense of others. I think of Ratatouille’s claim that a great cook could come from anywhere, and realize that the claim here is the same: heroism emerges from the flux of life in the hearts of those who are brave enough to choose it in the face of adversity.

These themes are explored in a brilliant essay by Maria Bustillos. Bustillos has, in a low-key and patient way, explored the relationship between feminism and reconciliation for years now. See, for example, her review of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, in which she writes: “I believe that each of us — all human beings who share the same seemingly limitless abilities, and the same unfathomable doom — should be able to develop his or her potential and live freely and on equal terms in a condition of mutual respect and support.” This statement is remarkable in that it is simultaneously natural and unobjectionable, on its face, and yet in context risky, as Bustillos is pointedly contrasting this with the zero-sum school of feminism that she accuses Rosin of. (Accurately.) In the context of contemporary dialogues, such a stance could be easily misrepresented. Some could take Bustillos’s claim as the equivalent of #AllLivesMatter or similar weaksauce derailing, attempts to neuter passionate political rhetoric with waves to vague universal claims as a replacement for the specific demands of outraged people. That isn’t Bustillo’s project, as I understand it. Her goal seems simple and radical, uncomplicated yet challenging: to find within contemporary culture the blueprints for the better society that we must build in order to survive. And she recognizes that we can only make that world together. “Max leaves her at the end of the movie, still the quiet loner who shows no emotions,” she writes. “But I think he’ll be back.” I hope to god George Miller proves her right.

No, men aren’t sidelined in Mad Max. They aren’t considered irredeemable, either. Redemption is in fact that movie’s strongest theme. Max is plagued by visions of the people he has failed to save in his life, a series of hallucinations that strike him at the worst time and contribute to his stance of proud hopelessness. He is granted at least a small reprieve in the course of a film where he helps many women, even though these women are perfectly capable of helping themselves. Nux, meanwhile, is a character that should be as hard to rehabilitate as possible, an angry young man constantly hopped up on chemicals who endured a lifetime of brainwashing and was raised only to be a killer. Yet he is judged and, ultimately, redeemed. When Furiosa leads her caravan to her old clan, a pack of keen-eyed elder warrior women, they initially distrust the two men traveling with her. But Furiosa makes her case, telling them that the men she travels with have helped her and her friends, that they are worthy. So the wise warrior women accept them into their band.

The moment is crucial: yes, men are capable of being redeemed, even in a world ruined by men. But first they must be evaluated. There has to be a reckoning of their individual characters. After all, redemption requires judgment. In order to be redeemed, one most wrestle with one’s past. When Furiosa presents her companions to her clan, she is required to make her case, to assuage their worries, by telling them about the specific actions and character of the men in question. In a similar way, we as thinking, progressive people must be willing to grapple with the past and present of gender relations before we can feel like integrated and valued members of an equal society. None of us are required to answer for the crimes of our gender, and despite MRA rhetoric, essentially no men ever are. But all of us must take stock of the continuing horrors of patriarchy if we are to be part of a feminist, equitable world, and we must be willing to be interrogated on our contribution to the building of that world. Redemption is possible, but only with a willingness to be judged and a commitment to being our better selves.

Mad Max: Fury Road refutes the MRA worldview, then, in two ways at once. It refuses to play to the zero-sum gender narrative that they’ve imagined, where women acting as leaders and warriors must necessarily leave men in the (figurative and literal) dust. But it is unflinching in its portrayal of a world destroyed by men and their violent, rapacious acts. A modern masterpiece, Fury Road doesn’t compel us to hate its titular character or men in general. The film embraces equality, but it’s a hard-won, brutally honest, and adult kind of equality, not the greeting card variety. Without ever falling into moral didacticism or the stereotype both critics and supporters have made of it, the new Mad Max film shows us how rich, entertaining, and challenging blockbuster films can truly be.