The Paramount thing is very interesting, and not just as a response to the ACLU. I’m sure studio bosses took note of how well Fury Road did at the box office. But there’s a common-enough assumption floating around that bringing women into the workforce will encourage more women-friendly/feminist approaches to business. It’s going to be much more complicated than that. If these trends continue and women come to be represented more and more throughout Hollywood’s industry, we’re going to see people faced with complex political situations.
So the presence of women is not going to automatically “feminize” Hollywood. What this means is that it would be irresponsible to simply look at these new trends as if everything’s going to be hunky dory from here on out. If anything, the vast majority of people will pat their backs and say “problem solved!”, which will leave things wide open to sliding back into the current, insipid status quo. It means that feminist films like Fury Road are only going to get more important over time, rather than less. They will hopefully become models to successor films looking to captivate future audiences with sublime feminist storytelling.
I guess I’ve made it clear. I really enjoyed Fury Road. A lot of reviewers did too, but the reviews themselves have been lacking. Apparently it’s enough to say “well the movie is about this badass female protagonist who isn’t a damsel in distress” and that’s all we need to know that this movie is feminist. But there’s a lot more to feminism than, say, passing the Bechdel test. It’s a rich intellectual tradition that spans far longer than the existence of the United States. Rather than take it for granted, we should be keen on studying closely what kind of feminism Fury Road employs and how this is worked into a compelling story.
And what a story! Fury Road is driven by an incredibly sleek plot. The entire movie revolves around a single car chase in a desert wasteland. The first two acts see the protagonists escape the Citadel and flee from Immortan’s Army, and the final act follows them as they turn around and face Immortan Joe head-on in an attempt to take over his Citadel. Backstory is given nary a hint, and the film makes no secret that it is about a band of women seeking freedom from patriarchal despotism. Simple, to the point, punchy. But we shouldn’t let this overt simplicity disarm us. Fury Road is rich with symbolism and symmetry, sometimes subtle, other times heavy handed.
This is a film that is preoccupied with lineage. It is, after all, the third Mad Max film, and is coming out thirty years after its predecessor. Lineage also drives the central conflict in the film: it is Immortan’s major stake in recapturing his concubines. It is the reason why the concubines have decided to escape: to end their bondage to producing Immortan’s heirs, and pursue a life of their own determination. But this does not lead to a wholesale rejection of lineage. Rather, it occasions a reimagining of how legacy can be understood in a feminist frame.
Men, of course, are not excluded from this reimagining. Max’s character arc begins with him using the band of women as a means to escape Immortan’s Warboys (to free himself from being a humiliating “blood-bag”), and resolves with him forging an alliance based on mutual respect with Furiosa and her forces (symbolically captured when he transfuses his own blood into Furiosa’s mortally wounded body).
Nux is driven by a redemptive arc: the former Warboy comes to find respect in a budding romance with Capable (one of the escapees) and a higher purpose in sacrificing himself for their freedom. His arc is particularly interesting to me because he was the one who used Max as a blood bag in the beginning. Theirs’ is an interesting relationship: there is a subtle turning point in Nux’s story in which he eats a bug crawling across Capable’s sleeping body. It echoes the opening scene of the film in which Max eats a live lizard while sojourning through the desert, as if through parallel imagery to say that Nux is following in Max’s footsteps in becoming an independent, self-realized adult.
Max and Nux’s father-son symbolism does not play out explicitly in these characters’ shared scenes. It’s a testament to the power of this film that so little needs to be explained by character dialogue. After stripping down exposition to a bare minimum, the film compensates by shifting focus on parallels in plot, pungent images, and symbolic repetitions. In this sense, too, I think Furiosa’s relationship with the ex-concubines can be read like a mother-daughter story, and, what tickles me the most, the entire ensemble of protagonists resembles a nuclear family taking the most metal roadtrip on Earth.
I’ve been on roadtrips with my family before. The ways in which the concubines and Nux were told to do things for Max or Furiosa (count the ammo! check the back of the truck!) gave me flashbacks to my days riding in the backseat. Not to mention that Max and Furiosa--the seasoned adults--rode in the front of the rig while all the kids were jammed in the back. Classic. But what keeps this family together (and the movie feminist) is not blood-relation, or monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage. It is a shared destiny involving self-determination and higher purposes: finding oneself (Nux) or letting go of a tortured past (Max); achieving freedom (the ex-concubines), or reconciling with one’s lost identity (Furiosa, when she rejoins her tribe). They all began as a family in order to survive, but by the beginning of the third act, facing Immortan’s army head-on to take the Citadel, they choose to stay together rather than disband.
Choice. This is ultimately what separates protagonist from antagonist. The freedom to choose what is done with one’s body, and how one relates to others. Immortan’s patriarchy is built on coercion and manifests in a despotism of fluids: he controls access to water, access to oil, production and access to “mother’s milk”, Max’s blood and body, and--implicitly--the semen undergirding his patriline. Even Immortan himself is fatally bound to a lack of choice: he must reclaim his concubines in order to ensure the continuation of his lineage. His society is set up in such a way that he perceives no alternative to violence, no alternative to treating women as things. Yet our heroes, at the culmination of their respective arcs, are bound together by deciding to be there. The Vuvalini choose to join the battle. Max chooses to give blood to Furiosa. Nux chooses to sacrifice himself in the canyon for the group to escape.
Choice has also dominated our headlines. It is a time of modern extremism and extreme bureaucracy, where aggressors are divested of responsibility, and the aggressed-upon held responsible, where society grinds on because, thanks to fundamentalist ideology, the status quo is seen as the only possible way. In this climate, choice becomes a powerful political articulation that exceeds the patronizing neoliberal market economy ethos of choice-as-consumption. In this way, Fury Road should also challenge us to think about the kind of world we want to live in. It keys into so many pressing concerns of our immediate historical moment, and yet also speaks to a much longer struggle for self-determination and control over our own bodies. Fury Road is the kind of film that, should we choose to recognize it, ought to be remembered for decades to come.