The new Mad Max was so good that I saw it two days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, writing to friends about it. I don’t even want to write about it because I won’t do it justice, but I am compelled because I can’t think about anything else.
First of all, it looked great. It was exactly what you want out of a Mad Max movie. The crazy scary cobbled-together post-apoc cars, the grotesque costumes and makeup and names, the horrifying dystopian desert hellscape, the nonstop nihilistic car chase, the aesthetic that my old man tried to describe as “Halloween rockabilly with skull gear shift” or “zombie wearing top hat driving one of those huge tricycle motorcycles” but that is probably best summed up as “postapocalyptic psychobilly.” Australian accents. Plus a man playing a flame-throwing guitar at 80 mph. It had all of this in spades. But it had more. A LOT more.
As everyone knows by now, this movie is a feminist parable. Maybe you think it’s flawed, or has counter-feminist messages/images, etc., which is fine. One of the cool feminist scholars I follow on twitter has already weighed in with her classic thing about how because the women were all “privileged” (I think she means they were predominantly white and attractive; surely she’s not talking about the material conditions of sex slavery) it wasn’t truly revolutionary. This thing where all discourse is just about identifying exactly, precisely which degree of privilege every single type of person holds and then devaluing whatever they have to say if that degree of privilege is higher than someone else’s. Okay. If that is the rhetorical tack you want to take, go for it, although it’s funny that the very people who believe they are most aware of resisting neoliberalism are not able to realize how this kind of radical atomization of all people into unique webs of privilege serves the needs of neoliberal policies to a T, because it keeps us from actual unity and communal action. Anyway, whatever, you do you. But EVEN IF this is a valid critique–that the women in the film are too pretty, basically–there is still no avoiding the fact that the movie represents a legitimate and, I feel, SINCERE attempt to articulate and explore an actual, deeply-argued, straight-up, feminist politics. If it was a flawed attempt, doesn’t the fact of the attempt itself already make it better and more valuable than any other big blockbuster you have ever seen? Eve Ensler was hired as a consultant on the script! Which, again, maybe you have legit problems with Eve Ensler, and that is totally fair, but nonetheless, the fact remains that George Miller was TRYING to make an actual feminist film out of Mad Max and I think that is very interesting, and I respect that effort. I do not believe that to be properly feminist a statement has to be completely perfect and without flaws. Such a statement doesn’t exist.
When I heard about how feminist the movie supposedly was, I assumed it just meant that Charlize was really badass and killed lots of dudes, which is indeed the case. But it was feminist in a MUCH more focused way than that (and badass women killing people is only arguably feminist to begin with, as I will discuss below), and this is what surprised me.
It is strange to see a high-octane super-action movie that isn’t just not-deliberately-sexist but even actively feminist in some fairly deep and sustained ways. I think there are recent blockbusters where women are not depicted in a way that makes me want to shriek, but that’s not the same thing as a movie being “feminist.” For example, in the truly great film “The Edge of Tomorrow,” the woman is the equal of the man, and they work as soldiers/brothers, fully respecting the skills and humanity of one another, and it was a big part of why that movie was so compelling to me. But still, that movie wasn’t ABOUT women and men. It wasn’t ABOUT patriarchy. So Mad Max takes it this huge step forward, where yes, there are women and men working together without gender clichés being enacted (like can you even imagine if at some point Max was like “Furiosa you stay here it’s too dangerous” LOLOL), and it’s great, but also the story itself is about women and men and what happens in capitalist patriarchy, to both women and men.
And then it went even further than that. It was a movie about how all women have humanity, dignity, value, and legitimate subjectivity, regardless of their age, appearance, function in society, etc. Whether they are badass macho warriors, beautiful fragile pregnant models, or withered old salty crones, all women are valuable and worthy of respect and attention. It was about how capitalist patriarchy strips women of intrinsic human value and instead values them only as commodities in one way or another. But it was also about how this same capitalist patriarchy brutalizes and ruins all people who live within it, including men as well. I loved so much how the War Boys were humanized and given dignity and subjectivity in the form of the one dude who joins their party accidentally. We’d previously only seen the War Boys as these terrifying nihilistic forces of destruction, glorying in flinging themselves into death to fight for their warlord. But the little dude brought it home in such a real way. He’s been raised in this system, which rewards and respects only violence and self-annihilation, so those are the values he holds. He finds them joyous because no other option has ever been presented to him. The moment he is seen and cared for as a human being by this new group, his internal landscape shifts. He starts seeing that there is pleasure in this different sort of comradeship, where you help each other because you care about each other, where other things matter than gasoline and war. He looks grotesque, he’s been twisted and made monstrous by the system that raised him, but inside of him (and by extension, all the War Boys, all men, Max himself) there is this possibility of going down another path, finding new ways to value life and other people and himself. For, believe it or not, men too have value, all kinds of men, men too deserve dignity, and men too have those things taken from them in capitalist patriarchy. Accordingly, your average action movie strips men of these things as well, making them all into the same unified brawny emotionless war machine, stealing from them their license to care for others and to think about the consequences of their actions.
The reason for all the War Boys and the harem producing babies and the horrible room with women hooked up to milking machines is that this is a metaphor for capitalism. One warlord controls and benefits from the labor and products of every person’s physical body. The slaves who work the crazy system of cogs and wheels that make his weird cave-castle run; the War Boys who joyfully die whenever he tells them to; the women whose milk he pumps out so he can drink it and feed his kids with it; the women who he keeps as breeders so he can perpetuate his power via the children they produce from their bodies.
In the warlord’s realm, there is no money, but what he controls is the water. They live in this desert wasteland but he has some sort of aquifer deep in the rock where he lives (i.e. a natural resource that he did nothing to create but only holds for himself by brute military power). The whole system functions only via slave labor. Great masses of seething humanity live at the base of the rock, so dehydrated and destroyed that their sole concern in life is getting water. This condition is created on purpose–there is an immense, unfathomable supply of water, but it is blocked up and distributed only in the meanest, unequal way. This is done because so long as the working classes are so solely focused on obtaining this one resource that they literally need in order to not die, they will never be able to have their consciousnesses raised; they will never have the mental space OR communal mindset necessary for fomenting revolution. This sounds familiar to any denizen of late capitalism. Periodically the warlord releases a huge waterfall down the side of the rock, so the masses down below get just a little taste of it (although, as Sarah noted, he releases it in such a showy, wasteful way that most of it just gets dumped on the ground). In other words, the water….TRICKLES DOWN. Except it doesn’t. He tells them not to get used to water; that it will make them weak (à la Republican arguments against welfare/a living wage/etc.).
What the movie is about is OPTING OUT OF ALL OF THIS. Putting your life on the line to live by your beliefs. Refusing to be a part of a system that damages everyone in this way. And both men and women, in the film, made this choice. This message was made explicit in lots of ways. The moment the girls find the War Boy in their midst, Max wants to kill him, but the girls say NO, we don’t kill people unless we have to, and we don’t have to kill him, it’s not his fault, he doesn’t know any better, he’s been poisoned by the system’s lies. They set him free, and this act of kindness starts a revolutionary change in the kid that will ultimately benefit everyone. Another time the message is explicit is when the harem girls write “Our babies will not be warlords” on the floor of their prison before they flee with the badass truck driver (Charlize Theron, the actual star of the film as even the stupidest reviewers are observing). They would rather die and have their children die than deliver them into the hands of this twisted, destructive system that has “killed the world,” as one of them says later.
While the film used the metaphor of motherhood as a means of visualizing a different society, as I will discuss below, it was also not sentimental about motherhood. It presented motherhood as an alternate value system but also as a representation of perpetuating the status quo. In capitalism, every person who intentionally has a baby is implicitly signing off on the system in which they live. Sure, they may know it’s a bad system. They may not like the system. They may try to lessen their carbon footprint or only have one baby or any number of other choices that are essentially consumer choices. But no matter what, they are agreeing to perpetuate the system, by using their own bodies to reproduce the system’s work force. They are saying, here, system. Here is a new cog for your wheels. Here is a new piece of cannon fodder for you to chew up and spit out. Or, here is a new rich person to feed parasitically off the suffering and disenfranchisement of the global poor, which it is impossible not to do. Simply by existing, in capitalism, we do harm to others. We do this every time we buy a house, an iPhone, a pair of pants. We do it every time we value something in monetary terms. We do it every time we procreate. We do it when we hire a maid or a nanny, when we put our parents in a nursing home, when we throw our dog’s shit away in a plastic bag, when we put gas in our car, when we fly on an airplane, when we drink water, when we eat animal products, when we throw something away, when we use the internet, when we call the police, when we take drugs, when we get pedicures, when we accept any job. We do it with every move we make, and we are trapped into making those moves; we have no other choice. We can minimize wherever possible, and be thoughtful, and try our best, but our choices are constricted to the point of meaninglessness. You can’t opt out of the system from within the system. There are no “better” consumer choices. There is no “good” capitalism.
So although the film took the concept of motherhood seriously as a means of generating new value systems, it also was not sentimental about it. It did not provide false hope or easy outs. The women can’t change the system from within, by making better consumer choices (for example, teaching their children that being a warlord is bad, while knowing full well that their children will have literally no choice but to become warlords. Or teaching their children to respect the humanity of the slaves that support their entire existence), but they can refuse to perpetuate it by reproducing it. So they bail, even though they know they will probably die. It is brave and real to prefer death to submitting to a system that is morally wrong. And what do they find, by opting out? They find something else, another way of thinking about society. And it’s one explicitly founded on CARE.
Here is where I could imagine some feminists getting mad. As women, we are sick of being reduced to our wombs, and we are sick of being essentialized as “naturally” more maternal and peaceful. This rhetoric has had the effect, historically, of keeping women down. Narratives that suggest mothers understand the forces of nature and plants and gentle baby deers while men are basically chimps who must tear one another with their teeth, and it’s all just biological, what are you gonna do…those narratives don’t sit well with me, as a rule, because they are usually pretty half-assed and based on easy stereotypes. Plus they allow men to keep being assholes. “Boys will be boys!”
Furthermore, because of this biological essentialist stereotype, women have indeed had to do the bulk of what feminist Marxists call “affective labor,” under advanced capitalism. We–meaning those with money– outsource care, basically. We pay people–the vast majority of whom are women–to have sex with us, to care for us when we’re old, to care for our children in daycare. Women do countless hours of unpaid affective labor as well. Women professors do more student advising than their male counterparts, for example, not because they are assigned to do it but because they are the ones students seek out for this kind of emotional care. There are professions that are considered “women’s work” because there is an assumption that women are “just naturally” more emotionally giving and empathetic than men, and that is fully bullshit and obnoxious, and damaging.
So I am fine with it if someone wants to bring this critique to this film. It did link the female experience with care and affective labor in a way that a certain kind of feminist is probably going to get legitimately annoyed by, and that is okay with me. However, for me, I felt like the movie explored some of these ideas in a more thoughtful, coherent way, that resonated with me. For starters, it helped that the film was so insistent about showing us that all women have value and human dignity, whether they are pregnant/mothers or not. Charlize is not a mother, although she comes from the “land of many mothers.” The old crones are surely past childbearing age. But their worth was not contingent on their wombs. And the fact that there were two men equally a part of this group–including the putative star/narrator/titular character–I think emphasized this. The men too became caring; the men discovered their own desire to provide care. And really, that is what we need to happen–we don’t need women to be less emotionally caring, we need men to be MORE emotionally caring, and that is the alternate communal ideal that the film presented as a possibility. Everyone has value; everyone is capable of performing acts of caring, not just women, not just mothers. The metaphor of motherhood is, I suppose, a gender-based metaphor, but it was not applied only to women. It was available to anyone.
The film presented the value of “nurturance” in a more elevated way than tying it only to women’s dumb animal biology…AND YET it also did take that dumb animal biology seriously. It IS amazing, to make a baby inside your body. That SHOULD bring with it a different awareness of the world you are bringing your child into. The value of caring for a child IS a real value, a good value. I liked the way this film approached this topic because, unlike a lot of other “feminist” action films (T2, for example, in which a woman becomes a badass because she is willing to murder literally every person on earth if it will help her offspring, which is a terrible message and a hateful take on motherhood), this one WAS NOT presenting only one way of being an awesome fully-actualized woman. All too often, movies, ads, people, sloganeering, etc., seem to want to position women as being “just as good as” men, by pointing out that women can do all the things men can do. And these “things” that men can do usually boil down to: making war, playing sports, being a badass capitalist with shitloads of money and power. That Superbowl ad about feminism that was just about making sure your daughter is allowed to throw footballs and punch people? Ugh. Movies like T2 FEEL feminist because they are presenting the possibility of women being badass and macho and shooting guns and not being dependent on men, and of course there is something empowering about seeing those representations. And yet, do women not also have value and dignity if they AREN’T avatars of hideous violence? Do women not also have value and dignity if they ARE dependent on others, as indeed we are ALL DEPENDENT ON ONE ANOTHER? Aren’t fragile beautiful pregnant models valuable too, not just angry violent women? Aren’t ancient old women valuable? Aren’t women who don’t have wombs at all valuable? Aren’t women who have penises valuable? Aren’t women who are peaceful valuable? Aren’t fat women and thin women and black women and white women and all kinds of women valuable, on their own terms and for their own sake, not for how well they can fit themselves into a masculine-capitalist mold by killing people and not needing anyone but themselves? And, if we accept this, then doesn’t that mean that ALL types of people have value, and deserve care and thought? War Boys. The seething poor at the base of the aquifer. Hunky Max himself. Everyone is a real person, and everyone is enslaved by the system. For example the nice mirroring between the women removing their chastity belts and Max removing his face mask–all of them were physically enchained by this absurd system that was parasitically preying on their bodies. They broke those chains, and saw one another as humans.
We say we believe all women have worth, but all too often we let our rhetoric imply that women have worth only if we recognize that they can do what men do. Rad smart feminists argued against the insane person Francis Fukuyama (who said women are biologically more peaceful than men) by actually listing all the women who have been violent. Women serial killers! Women soldiers! Joan of Arc! SEE? Women and men are equal!
I think this is the wrong question to ask and the wrong rhetorical tack to take, and I think the film avoided taking this tack very skillfully. Women aren’t valuable because they can do what men can do. What we should be asking is: is what men do GOOD? Is patriarchy a good system, or not? I think what Mad Max was trying to explore is something like, what might the world look like if people who have other values were the ones who made it? And for those “other values,” the film looked to a type of person historically on the margins of this world; a type of person who historically has not had much of a say in designing the world. People on the margins often do have other values, other ways of seeing things. Much has been written about how differently women see the world than men, BECAUSE OF their marginal status (not because of their biology). The hunted sees the world very differently than the hunter sees it.
What I appreciated about the film was that it acknowledged that women live in a world created and run by men, and that there is NOTHING MUCH THEY CAN DO ABOUT THIS, except recognize it. It would not be possible, in this world, for women to be gentle tree creatures who never hurt a fly–indeed, the “green place” the old women once lived in is now a poisoned wasteland. Their utopia is still part of the ruined world, no matter how hard they have tried to exempt themselves. In the desert, one of the harem wives expresses disappointment at finding out that the old desert women actually kill people. She’s basically like, “we thought you would be different,” i.e., different from the world we are trying to leave behind. The old woman gives her a wise and knowing look, then shows her all the seeds she’s been carrying around in hope of planting them one day. I felt that we were meant to think about how alternative societies aren’t actually possible within the totalizing context of today’s capitalist patriarchy–you can’t just have your little utopia that is separate from the system. It’s not possible. In order to continue living (if you deem that a viable choice), you have to navigate within the system successfully in some way. These women live in the Mad Max hellscape and they can’t change that. So they have to become canny, and violent, and willing to kill. Of course, you could opt out completely, and just go lie down and die in the desert, but I thought it was powerful the way the women were depicted as living by necessity in a world that is not of their choosing, while staying alive and awake to other possibilities, and to visions of alternatives. Furiosa doesn’t WANT to be a badass killer with a robot arm. She wants to live in the green place with her mothers and sisters. But you know what? She doesn’t live in that place. That place literally doesn’t exist, anywhere. So, given the available options, she has done the best she can, by finding ways of surviving, while holding on to a different worldview and way of making decisions than the dominant one.
I would say the alternative society Mad Max firmly and insistently advocated for was very simple, and was one based on what Carol Gilligan has called an “ethic of care.” If your politics are based on an ethic of care, then before making any political decision, you must think of what the outcome will be on ALL people. This ethic of care was advocated for by 19th century feminists, for example, who felt that things like the French Revolution were based too much on abstract, theoretical ideals, and not enough on actually thinking with GENUINE CARE about the repercussions of all that abstract theory on actual human beings of all types, from the King himself down to the starving peasants–you can’t chop EVERYBODY’S head off to build your abstract utopia. The reason women have historically been more interested in this ethic of care seems obvious to me, and it doesn’t have all that much to do with biology, although it’s also not completely free of biology either. On the one hand, women have been utterly marginalized since the imposition of market capitalism back in like the 1400s. They have been on the outside looking in, observing. They have had to develop different sets of survival skills than those of men. They have been forced to reproduce and care for children for free, as slaves to the system. On the other hand, they have been the ones who–along with, in various ways, colonial subjects, ethnic minorities, and children–have borne by far the greater brunt of the consequences of the political decisions made by others. Women are the spoils of war, to this day. They have not been able to support themselves, to legally advocate for themselves. They are raped and maimed and murdered–by men, always men, shockingly often their fathers, husbands, brothers (the people who are supposed to “care” for them)–in droves. They have been the victims of a lack of caring, basically. Of course this kind of subject position will give you a different perspective on the system in which you live than another, more privileged subject position might. And finally, with specific regard to an ethic of care, women are the ones who historically have had to give birth to children, to reproduce the human species, in pain and suffering. Women have been the ones who have to care for these children, while men go off to war, business, the office, their mistresses, etc. Single motherhood is an epidemic; single fatherhood is barely even a thing (no offense–there are obviously some amazing dads out there). So yeah, I think it would be surprising if this awareness–that children are your responsibility alone, essentially–did not lead, often, to a different kind of political consciousness and a different value system and way of imagining society. I guess there is a biological element to that (the people with uteruses are the ones babies come out of, real talk, there’s nothing we can do about that fact, God knows I’d change it if I could) but I think the much more powerful shaper of some sort of dubious concept of “women’s consciousness” is SOCIAL, and stems from a deeply, systemically-ingrained marginalization at the hands of a system that is not based on caring for others.
So yes. You could make Mad Max instead from the perspective of colonial subjects; from immigrants; from minorities of many types; from gay people or trans people; from the working class. And all of these would be great movies that would provide valuable social commentary. Any of those perspectives would (and have!) enable(d) a wise filmmaker to envision society differently in probably positive ways. But this movie was about women and patriarchy, specifically, and I think that is great too, and I think that in spite of its focus on women, it also used that focus to speak systemically, about everyone, EVERYONE, just “all of humanity,” in a way I found really moving.
It was about how an “ethic of care” should be the basis of a society. We–all of us, men, women, everyone–should care for our children, sure, but we should also care for less self-focused things–we should care for the earth, for plants, and, MOST importantly, we should care for one another, always. The one girl’s first reaction on finding the War Boy in the back of the truck was not fear or violence–not self preservation–but simply to ask him why he was crying, and to accept him immediately as not a threat, not a competitor, but a fellow human being whose feelings were valid. What a profound moment. The bonding between Max and Furiosa also was heavy, and real. The trust and respect that grew between them was the foundation of a new way of being, in the world, at least for Max (Furiosa raised his consciousness; hers was always raised). It had nothing to do with romance or sex. It was about “care” on a much, much deeper, more communally-oriented, level. Men too deserve to care and be cared for in a genuine way without that care being mediated by money. Instead of navigating the world as an atomized, self-serving individual (what capitalism ultimately has in store for us all), Max was forced, finally, by the dormant seeds of care inside himself (which germinated and sprouted due to being around people who cared for one another as humans), to act with a social unit that was working to create change. Max (and the little War Boy dude) represented the possibility of the new man–not yet realizable (War Boy dies; Max leaves), but at least conceivable; if the film could depict it, then it is conceivable. I loved that Max ultimately wordlessly devoted himself to the group not for any tangible reward (as in Road Warrior). He just did it because it was the right thing to do, the only thing to do, and that was that. He fought against care but finally submitted to caring.
One of the best aspects of this film, though, is how it fully acknowledges that this social change is impossible. There is no hope; there is no oasis beyond the salt desert. Maybe there will be this socialist-feminist takeover of the aquifer, and maybe for a time that small society will change. But there is still Gas Town. There is still the Bullet Farm. There is still the poisoned soil and the irradiated wasteland. The world isn’t different, only their tiny little patch of it. To maintain their society, they will still have to be warriors; they will still need people to sacrifice themselves; their babies will still have to grow up to be warlords. Perhaps kinder, wiser warlords, but warlords nonetheless. I felt that the hope the film presented was not exactly a false hope, though. Rather, it was a hope that was very small and very sad, but of absolute importance. And the necessity of holding onto that hope was not presented as a means of actually changing the world, but rather as simply the right thing to do, the only possible thing to do in order to remain a human being and not become a monster. So you plant seeds knowing they will die; you flee your harem knowing you will die; you try to start a feminist-socialist eco-utopia knowing that it will fail and you will all be slaughtered. But to NOT make those attempts would be cowardice. To give up, to just shrug and submit nihilistically to the dominant world order; that is real death.
And finally, of course, there was GUITAR MAN, a.k.a. THE DOOF WARRIOR (see above re: this feminist-socialist eco parable somehow also being fully a Mad Max movie. George Miller is like “well we might as well have some fun while we’re here.” Doof Warrior represents macho bullshit but also sometimes macho bullshit is pretty fun, we’re not made of stone):
In conclusion, this film has everything, and I cried pretty hard for the entire final third. It filled me with sorrow but also moved me deeply. Great performances, great Charlize, great use of CGI (a.k.a. not very much cgi at all if you can believe it), great use of the dies irae from Verdi’s Requiem, Tom Hardy is a beautiful man, two thumbs up, five bags of popcorn, capitalism is death