The Greatest Feminist Action Movie Ever!

As if responding the turmoil caused by the Twitterverse’s accusations of Joss Whedon betraying Black Widow as a strong female character in the Action Movie genre, along came Furiosa (Charlize Theron) like a valkyrie of feminist justice! Not only was Mad Max – Fury Road the most refreshing action movie to have burst on the screen in decades, it has instantly earned its place in movie Valhalla as the most feminist action movie ever made! Skillfully crafted, and thematically intelligent, this is a film destined to be taught in film schools and colleges across the world . . . is this film really that good? YES, yes it is, and if you have not seen it yet then immediately quit reading this article and go see it . . . we have spoilers, but more importantly you need to see this film NOW!

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Okay, so now that we’ve calmed down a bit, let’s look at why Mad Max – Fury Road is a high-octane action packed and intelligent exploration of feminist politics.

The obvious factor is Theron’s portrayal of Furiosa, a tough, buzz cut, gun wielding, woman with a robot arm. Critics have taken her image and observed that she looks like the stereotypical “dyke,” but Furiosa’s sexuality does not rise above the level of subtext in the film; her role is really as asexual as Max’s (played by Tom Hardy) and both are warriors of survival. Throughout the film she has more agency than the central character of Max, and it is no surprise that her name is indirectly part of the movie’s title. In many ways this is her story to which Max is actually more of a secondary character, and this is what has got some fans so upset. They expected to see Max provide more of the driving force behind the narrative, but in many ways he is just along for the ride . . . literally along for the ride!

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As an actor Theron was a great choice for the role of Furiosa; her past action movie roles have included Aeon Flux from Æon FluxMeredith Vickers in Prometheus, and in Monster she proved that she was an actress dedicated to her craft through her preparation in the role of Aileen Wuornos, a Daytona Beach prostitute who became a serial killer. Monster earned Theron critical acclaim and she won the Academy Award, Silver Bear, Golden Globe Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress among several other accolades, becoming the first South African to win an Academy Award in a major acting category.

charlize-theron-007_2s5mDespite having the more than enough of the looks that brand Theron a Hollywood beauty, her film resume demonstrates a wide variety of characters, many of which Hollywood agents would have steered their “starlets” well clear. Originally trained as a ballet dancer in South Africa, Theron left her native country in search of greater prospects in Hollywood. In 1994, Her mother bought her a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and Charlize started visiting all of the agents on Hollywood Boulevard but without any luck. She went to the bank to cash a check for $500 she received from her mother and became furious when she learned that the bank could not cash her check because it was an out-state check. She made a scene and an agent gave her his card, in exchange that she learn better English, which she did by watching soap operas on television. At the age of 20, her first movie role was uncredited “Eli’s Follower” in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995).

Charlize Theron is not, however, the only one to play a tough female character in the film. The desert biker gang of aging amazons known as the Vuvalini, or Many Mothers, not only provide action movie agency to more female characters, they also challenge concepts of agism.

Fury Road Mothers

The Vuvalini women are part of Furiosa’s backstory, representing guardians of the mythological “Green Place” that is the destination of her quest. As with pretty much all of the subtext of the story, the movie gives its audience the absolute minimum of character and plot exposition, and this is one of the major successes of the film. Director George Miller skillfully presents us with a story that is all show, and barely any tell; something that many directors could benefit from, but it takes a degree of risk to respect the intelligence of the audience and not spoon feed them the subtext. Through the course of the story we learn that Furiosa was taken as a child from the “Green Place” and that there is some bitter connection between her and the film’s villain, Immortan Joe. It is never explained how she lost her arm, or how she rose to the rank of Imperator, but it is implied that she was once one of Immortan Joe’s women; her missing arm indicates that she is “damaged goods,” but as with many plots points, Miller holds back the explanation and leaves us with narrative enigmas.

Fury Road Vuvalini

This band of motorcycle riding women warriors pull largely from the “Earth Mother” archetype, wise women who are the keepers of knowledge and who are in tune with nature. The most prominent of them is referred to as The Seed Carrier and protects an old leather doctor’s bag that has seed samples and the hope of restoring fruits and vegetables to the land. The Vuvalini embody all that is motherly, but like Annie Oakley they “ain’t afraid to shoot a man either.”

VirginiaHey01Another equalizing factor from this film is the treatment of the women’s deaths in the action scenes. Typically when a female character is killed this is cause for increased lamentation from the other characters. In the first Mad Max (1979) movie, Max’s primary motivation is to avenge the death of his wife and child, and in The Road Warrior (1981) the death scene of the “Warrior Woman” (played by Virginia Hey, pictured right) is stretched out with emotionally swelling music as we feel sorrow that the “cute” one has been shot, yet oddly enough no female characters die in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The emotional death of a female character is a cliched trope to have the lead male seek revenge when a woman under his protection is wounded or killed . . . but the women of Fury Road are not under the protection of any man.

The youngest of the Vuvalini, known in the credits as The Valkyrie, is initially presented as a sexual victim, naked and trapped atop a pylon structure, but both Max and Furiosa immediately recognize that this as a trap. After Furiosa disarms the situation by announcing her identity, Valkyrie descends the tower with ease, dresses quickly, and is joined by the rest of the clan. The trap was designed to induce a desire to rape and was barbed with quite the surprise for any would be rapist who fell for the bait. This set up is also a test, one that Max would have passed without Furiosa’s help due to rape and oppression not being in the character’s nature. Furiosa’s word, however, that Max and the other male, Nux, are reliable men does prevent a potential bullet through the head from the Vuvalini. As well as being a formidable warrior on the field of battle, the Valkyrie also employs her sexuality of which she is in total possession, and it is the central theme of female sexuality and reproductive rights that makes this film such a champion of feminist cinema!

Fury Road Belt

The primary plot of Fury Road is Furiosa’s heist of the five “wives” who were captive sex slaves to film’s villain, Immortan Joe. Unlike the warlords of previous Mad Max films, Immortan Joe is not motivated by the nihilistic destruction of life, but rather the creation of life to control. Like some historical monarch, Immortan Joe wants a healthy male heir to his throne and the “wives” ability reproduce is his greatest treasure to possess. Whether intentional or not, this theme borrows much (actually “much” is an understatement) from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaids Tale which follows a “handmaiden” who is forced to bare children in a decaying world of toxic sterility.

The women whom we see at Immortan Joe’s domain, The Citadel, are clearly property. The disturbing chamber of “wet nurses” being milked like cattle to provide milk for the War Boys is the most prominent image of their dehumanization. As beautiful and pampered as the five young “wives” may be, their status is akin to the milked women, but their purpose is to be breeding stock. Miller presents the audience with an extreme situation that borders on satire; we watch a fantasy post-civilization feudal society in which old men literally control the bodies of women, but the reality outside of the film is that old men in suits operate governments and churches that dictate to women what they can and can not do with their own bodies. The fundamentals of a Patriarchal society are not simply “dad knows best,” but that “dad” owns the bodies, sexuality, and reproductive rights of the women under his sphere of power. Fury Road takes this topic to the extreme and forces us to face the ugliness of such a system, and this is what makes the film such an advocate of feminism.

As with Emma Watson’s recent He for She campaign, feminism is gender equality, feminism belongs to both men and women who respect the equality of the sexes, and thankfully the male hero of the film is a feminist. As machismo as Max may be, in all four films there is not a point when he oppresses a women or degrades her. As mentioned above, Max is actually an asexual character; his desire died with his wife. A pivotal moment in Fury Road is when Max recognizes Furiosa’s better marksmanship and hands her the rifle after he has wasted all but one shot. Max is able to come up with a new plan after Furiosa’s fell through due to circumstances beyond her control, but on the whole the long term planning is best achieved by Furiosa whereas Max is better at short term reactions to the situation; this is cleverly expressed metaphorically by her being a better shot at long distance.

Furiosa Rifle

By the denouement of the story, Furiosa is now the Queen of the Citadel, a benevolent matriarch who immediately shares the resources with everyone, as expressed by her allowing the (literally) unwashed masses onto the elevator to the lofty towers in which the power resides. It is also incredibly potent of an image that the “wet nurses” are the ones to release the supply of water as a open asset to all the townsfolk. The Citadel may not become a utopia over night, and certainly there will be plenty of marauders from the Wasteland who will seek to steal the (literal) fruit of their success. Max, however, is the archetypical “lone wolf” and despite yet another invitation to stay, tragically must move on . . . forever down the road with the ghosts of his past.

With such a wide variety of female characters, it is no surprise that Mad Max – Fury Road has passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. There are so many instances of females characters (with names) in the film conversing on topics other than men that the narrative makes the concept of the Bechdel Test seem redundant, which is a great step in the right direction. How will Hollywood and cinema audiences respond to Fury Road in the long term? Will we see more films making the Bechdel Test a thing of the past? Will Furiosa’s legacy be to liberate more than just the women of the Citadel? Just as this warrior provided the “wives” with hope, so too does Furiosa provide us with hope for a new era of gender equality.


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3 Responses to “The Greatest Feminist Action Movie Ever!

  • Great article on the movie. I have started nicknaming the movie “Furiosa: Fury Road” because it seems a bit more accurate. Good choice on the photos to illustrate the article. According to an article I read yesterday , the movie performed well enough at the box office that a sequel is guaranteed.

    • Furiosa: Fury Road is redundant. Furiosa is Fury. The Story is Mad Max traveling on Furiosa’s road.

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