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September 13, 2015

O’BRIEN | We’re So Starving: Mad Max and Feminism

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Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for action movies, I was excited to finally see Mad Max: Fury Road at Cornell Cinema on Thursday. The bizarre, cult movie-like fantasy world it created was engrossing, its cinematography absolutely gorgeous and its depiction of a devastated world and a war over gas hit all-too-close to home. But I don’t think I would have enjoyed the movie nearly as much if not for its abundance of badass female protagonists. So what does that say about the movie? What does it say about me?

All summer, I kept hearing about Mad Max in the context of feminism. It started when so-called “Men’s Rights Activists” were angry that the trailer featured more of Charlize Theron’s character Furiosa than Max (Tom Hardy) himself. Adam Clarey, blogger-voice for the MRAs, called for boycotting the movie, fearing that his fellow manly-men would go to see a super manly action film, only to be hoodwinked into watching “feminist propaganda.” They would then be forced to gouge out their eyes upon seeing a depiction of a woman in anything more than subservient and/or sex-symbol role. (Or something to that effect.)

Naturally, this reaction made many feminist media outlets excited for the movie. Bust Magazine wrote, “It’s because of comments from people like Clarey that more people are planning to go see this film. So thanks, Clarey, for making Mad Max: Fury Road sound like a movie we cannot wait to see.”

And the film mostly lived up to expectations: Ms. Magazine wrote a call to action, praising the movie for its feminist sensibilities and underlining the importance of supporting it. Bitch Magazine praised the movie’s ecofeminism and its understanding that “in a culture built on violence, patriarchy and fear, even the men lose in the end.”

There are many ways in which Mad Max has great feminist appeal: Women fight against a warmongering and patriarchal society that keeps sex slaves as “Breeders,” a woman warrior risks everything to rescue the patriarch Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) “wives,” the women are equal matches to the crazy number of War Boys in the car-chase-fights and they rise up in victory in the final scene. I felt something like pure joy when, as the characters reached their destination, the motorcycle gang that greeted them pulled off their helmets and were all older women.

But there were also many articles arguing that Mad Max was not feminist at all. Some of the arguments I do not agree with — for example, conflating the fact that the movie depicted a misogynistic society with the movie being misogynistic, or criticizing the fact that Max was the title character when that is just the name of the original comic. But I did take note of the fact that Max was still the savior of the female characters when he convinces them to abandon their original plan and return to the Citadel, and still was the one to save Furiosa by giving her his blood when she was weakened and dying; it would have been nice to see things be the other way around.

The director, George Miller, seems happy to think of the movie as feminist. “Initially there wasn’t a feminist agenda,” he said. “I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.” An extremely valid and respectable point. But while men can of course be feminists, the movie was directed, produced and written entirely by men, which is hard to overlook. The movie also received criticism for casting so few people of color.

All things considered, I think Miller still did a great job of subverting the obnoxiously predictable amount of action movies with an all-male cast — one order of female-sex-interest on the side — while creating very human male and female characters alike. Because Hollywood is so whitewashed and male-dominated, when a movie tries to reach higher it is bound to fall under more criticism for all that it didn’t do well. That we are latching onto the movie as supremely feminist — or getting angry that it is not —  just goes to show just how ridiculously underrepresented women are in Hollywood.

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, women made up a grand total of 12 percent of protagonists and 30 percent of speaking roles in 2014’s top 250 films — actually a drop from recent years. Women directed just seven percent of those films. The report does not show the percentages as applied to women of color, but I shudder to imagine how much lower they would be.

Diversity in movies matters. Film is probably the largest-scale storytelling medium in the nation, yet the industry is only telling the stories of a select group of people. Mad Max tried to give us a different kind of hero, and we need more movies that are willing to do the same.

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kobrien@cornellsun.com. 

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