I just had to do a Mad Max post. Had to. I’ve been holding it in far too long.
As you know if you spent any time on the Internet at the end of May, Mad Max: Fury Road is pretty much the best thing to happen to action/sci-fi movies since Harrison Ford. It’s an epic, two-hour car chase packed with practical effects and interesting characters that illustrates the beautiful results of unapologetically embracing a simple storyline and milking it for all its worth. Nerds like me like it for the creative backdrop and frugal storytelling, car enthusiasts like it because it brings all their daydreams to life, Australians like it because they made it happen, and everyone likes it for the flamethrower guitar dude.
And feminists like it. A lot. So much that I wouldn’t be surprised if people start referring to it as “that feminist car movie.” Why do we like it so much? Is it because the protagonist is female and almost beats Tom Hardy in a fight? That can’t be the whole story–we already had that kind of female hero in Ellen Ripley, among others. Is it because of the sheer number of women? I don’t think so. While ten named female characters with important roles has to be some kind of record for an action movie, I somehow don’t think feminists would be as thrilled if it happened in, say, a James Bond film.
No, it’s not just that women exist in the Mad Max universe, it’s how they’re portrayed. Normally, a female character in an action and/or sci-fi movie will fill one of three roles: the male protagonist’s love interest, who probably needs to be rescued; the villain’s henchwoman, who probably tries to seduce the male protagonist; or the super-tough fighter chick who can beat up guys twice her size without putting one hair on her immaculate head out of place. And no matter what role she fills, the action movie girl has to look like a supermodel.
This is because most action movies (heck, most movies) are written and directed by men. And, frankly, a lot of men just don’t know how to write female roles. Plus, it seems many studio executives have somehow got the idea that women are not interested in movies about space battles and car chases, so they only market them to men.
Not so with Fury Road. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie made by a man who understands that girls love explosions, too. A man who actually consulted a woman to learn how to write convincing female characters (what a revolutionary thought!). The result is spectacular.
I don’t love the women in Fury Road because they drive cool war vehicles and shoot giant guns (although…that is kinda nice). I love them because they are consistently portrayed as people, not plot points. None of them fit into any of the categories I just described. Furiosa is a tough fighter chick, but she doesn’t look like a supermodel, and her skills always seem fairly realistic considering her physique and background. The Wives do look like supermodels, but they have distinct personalities and provide more brains than brawn. Then there are the Many Mothers, who are too old and non-supermodel-y to even appear in your standard post-apocalypse story–yet here they are, riding their sick motorcycles and taking down tyrants like they’re freakin’ Australian road warriors or something. Oh wait…
All of these women get the same amount of character development you’d expect from male action heroes–maybe more, since lots of movies with more dialogue don’t give their characters the kind of depth this one does.
Oftentimes, when filmmakers want to show off how “progressive” they are, they have their fighter chicks constantly mouthing off about how they don’t need to be rescued, women can do everything men can do, etc. (See many a work by Joss Whedon.) This can get annoying, especially to a moderate feminist like me. But it’s another trap Mad Max doesn’t fall into. Furiosa, despite being the physical embodiment of raw determination, does need help sometimes. And she acknowledges it. She also offers help when others need it. What she doesn’t do is give the childish “girls are better than boys” speech, because when you’re being chased across a desert by maniacs with exploding spears, you don’t have time to whine about gender politics.
That speech would also be incorrect, because portraying the female characters as people takes nothing away from the male characters. It’s worth mentioning that, despite what Buzzfeed may tell you, Max is super important to the plot, despite not being the protagonist. He makes the happy ending possible! And he’s played by Tom Hardy, so he can’t not be awesome. Then there’s Nux, the most adorable little suicidal berserker you’ll ever see. He brings me so much joy. And, in all honesty, he probably has the most interesting character arc in the whole movie. So it’s not like Fury Road is only for the ladies.
What I’m trying to say is that this is one of the few movies in its genre to truly treat male and female characters as equals. Which means men and women in the audience loved it equally. Which means a lot of them paid full price for tickets, multiple times (come on, I can’t be the only one who saw it twice in one week). ARE YOU LISTENING, HOLLYWOOD? This is what we want. Not more Ripleys, not more car chases–just more women who are people, not things.
And more flamethrower guitars wouldn’t hurt, either.