Max: Here, everyone is broken.
Furiosa: Out here, everything hurts.
~ Mad Max: Fury Road
I couldn’t wait to see this movie. And then I couldn’t wait to see it again. The first viewing was cathartic in all the right ways, but it was a sensory assault. In 3-D it was almost abusive. The second time allowed me to attend to the story, the characters, the art and imagery, the dance of bodies in fight and vehicles in chase. Those Pole Cats are terrifyingly beautiful swinging through the air at high speed (all done live). Now I could enjoy the artistry of this post-apocalyptic adventure. Fury Road has everything the genre demands, explosions, fights, minimal dialogue. But, there’s more.
This is a fractured world, bodily and psychically. We find two competing philosophies, that understanding of reality by which we make sense of our world. There is the dualism of Joe’s warrior-cult, expressed best in the War Boy creed, “I live. I die. I live again.” There’s the witnessing of a warrior’s meritorious death in battle, being taken to the gates of Valhalla (by Joe, himself, for those not “mediocre”), and of being reborn, “shiny and chrome.”
There’s also the non-dualism of Furiosa’s unsentimental realism, her willingness to risk everything to return home, to find redemption in this life for the unstated horrors she has committed, and of the Free Women’s matrilineal earth-centered pragmatism, where the value of living is in being with others, clean water, fertile soil, and where the dead are held close in name and memory. There is no next life. The film doesn’t decide this ultimate question for us, though. Even as Joe’s mythology shatters in the wreckage of flesh and steel, one of the freed women is praying, “to anyone who’s listening.”
Commentators have claimed this is a feminist film, or that it should really be called Furiosa rather than Mad Max. The feminist in me (well, it’s really all of me) agrees. But most of these commentators are selling it short. This is a real feminist movie, and they don’t seem to know why.
If all it takes for a film to be feminist these days is for there to be a woman lead who can throw a punch and drive a truck, who isn’t a mere plot device, or isn’t there to fall in love or in bed with the leading man, then, yawn, ok, this is a feminist movie. But that’s not saying much. A genuinely feminist movie is more than not demeaning or minimizing. It is one that takes women seriously – with our strengths and weaknesses, as equals, complex, capable and vulnerable (as we all are), as worth knowing, trusting, and joining. And that’s what Fury Road does so brilliantly. Here we see women, portrayed complexly, richly, and honestly. It’s still so rare. It’s as refreshing as it is riveting.
Here, everyone has a price, a place, a function, and with it a value. Absent these, you’re rabble fighting for drops of precious water. In this post-apocalyptic hell, where every life-giving resource is either scarce, toxic, or gone, the human body becomes the principal resource: as meat, as breeders, as perpetually pregnant women milked for “mother’s milk,” as those caged and tapped as living blood bags, and as those War Boys who are “cannon fodder.” It’s not just the women in this movie who have no bodily autonomy, without means for bodily integrity, who are exploited and abused. Everyone is. Even Joe is trapped by the mythology he creates, as his body literally rots from nuclear contamination and as he fails repeatedly to produce “perfect” sons.
There is a deeply humanist principle on offer in this movie. It’s in all the great stories and in any of the laws worth preserving. It justifies their escape. It’s what they each would die in pursuit of. It’s in our dread they will fail and our weeping for those who don’t make it. This principle reminds us that each and every one of us is valuable to her- and himself, and that we must treat each other accordingly. It tells us that people are not only not food, they are not property. This is a humanist message. It is a message which is carried by the women, and adopted by the men who help them. It’s written on the walls of their captivity, demonstrated by their willingness to share what little they have, to risk themselves for the vulnerable and like-minded, and in their rejection of war. It’s in the satchel of seeds, “heirlooms, the real thing,” which Giddy Mary protects like her life, their lives – our lives – depend on it.
We want their vision of the world to replace the one they flee, we need them to succeed and Joe to fail, because we fucked it up for them… “Who killed the world?” they ask several times. Well, we did, clearly. Whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally, we killed it. Our misdeeds gave birth to the world where one’s choices are Gas Town, Bullet Farm, or Citadel… or being feral in the wild. We created their hell. We need that humanist message to get through, for those carrying it to be successful, for them not to falter, or die along the way. We fucked up.
There’s so much this film makes us ask:
Why does Furiosa seek redemption? We know what haunts Max, but have few clues about what haunts her. Likely, it’s bad. She’s the only woman, an Imperator, in Joe’s hyper-masculinized war machine. That achievement would have been costly.
What was “The Green Place”? How did it last so long, and then disappear?
Why are there so many War Pups but no girls… anywhere?
… and, so much it asks of us:
What is the moral cost of our sources of milk and meat?
Is it inevitable that we send our young to war?
Why are we not terrified at the loss of our green places?
What value do we place on others – on those who grow and produce our food, teach our children… keep our gas flowing?
Christina Bellon is Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Sacramento State University, California. This piece was originally published on June 8 at the excellent blog The Dance of Reason: the Sac State Department of Philosophy’s virtual hallway, which I highly recommend, and re-published here with the author’s permission.