Rising Together: A Response to the Return of Kings’ Dismissal of Mad Max: Fury Road

By Adam J. Pearson

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Warning: this article contains a few spoilers. 

Return of Kings recently published an article entitled “Why You Should Not Go See Mad Max: Feminist Road” that alleges that the film is a work of feminist propaganda posing as a “guy movie.” To quote the article:

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I have read the article and seen the film and I’m just going to say it: this article is a load of horsehockey. And it’s a poor argument for opposing a film that is cinematically engaging, profound in its intellectual implications, visually stunning, and tremendously entertaining.

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Mad Max: Fury Road is not a work of ‘feminist propaganda.’ This charge is a grave oversimplification of a complex work of cinematic art. The film does not exist to further an agenda, as works of propaganda do, although it does not shy away from exploring issues of oppression, resistance, and liberation.

The film is a story about men and women working together to take down a tyrannical regime that oppresses both of them. It is an underdog story that pits a small group of men and women against the vast might and superior firepower of an oppressive dictator named Immortan Joe. In this respect, the film is indeed consistent with the fundamental goal of contemporary intersectional feminism, namely, to empower men, women, and non-cisgendered individuals to work together to deconstruct systemic oppression in all forms (sexist, racist, ageist, ableist, homophobic, classist, etc.). However, the claim that the film is somehow anti-men is totally unfounded. It’s not. It’s an attack on oppression, not on men. And a visually spectacular one at that. 

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Trying to frame Mad Mad: Fury Road as a film with an agenda of oppressing men and raising women up to dominate over them is a total mischaracterization. What it does do is show oppressed people, male and female alike, uniting to tackle oppression together. In the end, a tyrant is toppled and Furiosa, Max, and their surviving freedom fighters, men and women alike, empower the people by giving them access to the vital resource of water that had been denied to them for so long. Mad Max: Fury Road honours its female heroes alongside its male protagonists; it gives them equal respect and consideration and equally pivotal roles in a revolution against oppression that includes them both and allows them to rise together as a unified force. Far from a fault of the film, as some anti-feminist critics may claim, this is a great strength.

It seems to me that some anti-feminist men are upset that Max listens to Furiosa and considers her input, rather than simply telling her what to do. Or that the sagely elderly women who are the last remnants of the Green Place are given a depth of character that parallels the complex attitudes that Immortan Joe’s enslaved wives express. “We are not things!” cries one of his former brides as she brandishes a shotgun at the patriarch who once used her as a sex toy and baby-generator. Her resistance and rejection of objectification as an assertion of her agency are inspiring. Equally inspiring is the way in which the women from the Green Place attempt to preserve the seeds of growth and plant life in an otherwise desolate and dreary desert racked by war and pollution. They travel in search of fertile land and fend for their lives in a hostile wasteland that is equally hostile to the plants they carry with them.

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As a male viewer, I found myself empathizing with their plight and admiring Max’s decision to stay and support their cause rather than go off on his own as he was tempted to do. My respect for Furiosa was equal to Max’s; she risked her life and powerful station within the tyrannical regime to support the empowerment and liberation of Immortan’s wives. Contrary to what so-called Men’s Right’s Activists might suggest they felt, I did not feel like my masculinity was “under attack” by the film-makers while watching the film, but rather that the film was fostering a positive and responsible sense of masculinity that is not challenged by the empowerment of women. In this sense, Mad Max: Fury Road offers an alternative to the hegemonic patriarchal masculinity embodied by Immortan Joe, which seems tremendously insecure by comparison. As exemplified by his support of the revolt against Immortan, Max clearly does not feel like his masculinity is challenged by the empowerment of Furiosa and the Many Mothers from the Green Place. Whose masculinity is healthier and more inwardly secure, Max’s or Immortan Joe’s? With a little reflection, the answer seems obvious.

It may be that anti-feminist critics who champion the Return of Kings’ dismissal of the film are upset that Max is not a lone hero rescuing a weak damsel in distress, but rather a man fighting for freedom as an equal alongside women who face oppression from the same forces as he. However, the old ‘Super Mario saving a powerless Princess Peach’ motif is a tired trope and I welcome its burial in the wake of Mad Max: Fury Road‘s alternative model of equal empowerment for all. Confident men and women working together for their mutual liberation is a trope I can get behind, not only in film, but in social life as well.

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Moreover, it’s worth underscoring the fact that Max himself had long been a victim of the oppression of Immortan Joe; strapped to vehicles racing into war, his blood was pumped out of his body and into the veins of Immortan’s War Boy drivers. Is it so surprising that Max emphasizes with fellow oppressed individuals and feels inspired to join their cause? Is this idea so offensive and troubling to anti-feminists, who tend to place themselves at war, not with the intersectional feminism that is currently practiced, but with a straw-man (or straw-woman) version of feminism to which no one actually adheres?

This is a film worth seeing by men, women, and non-cisgendered individuals alike. It’s an incredibly fun adrenaline ride through a desert punctuated by explosive spears, the pounding of drums, and the wild chug-chugging of palm-muted guitar riffs from the Doof Warrior. Granted, there may not be a great depth of narrative development in the film–basically it’s a story about vehicles driving to a location and then driving back–but, its epic scope, fantastic visual edge, fascinating tone of wild madness presented as a twisted status quo, and brilliantly choreographed action scenes more than make up for that fact. Although Mad Max: Fury Road may leave you wondering why a particular character flipped sides so easily after a whole lifetime of brainwashing, a suddeny change that seems unrealistic, its reflections on a dystopian world in which governments use the people’s needs for gasoline and water to control them offer a fitting cautionary tale about our own current global predicament.

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Indeed, it seems that not much has changed since 1979 when James McCausland, screenwriter for the original Mad Max film, developed the world of Mad Max based on his observations of the 1973 oil crisis‘ effects on Australian motorists:

Yet there were further signs of the desperate measures individuals would take to ensure mobility. A couple of oil strikes that hit many pumps revealed the ferocity with which Australians would defend their right to fill a tank. Long queues formed at the stations with petrol—and anyone who tried to sneak ahead in the queue met raw violence. … George and I wrote the [Mad Max] script based on the thesis that people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late.

—James McCausland, writing on peak oil in The Courier-Mail, 2006[3]

As fossil fuels deposits continue to dwindle and overpopulation soars, thereby multiplying the demand for oil exponentially, something like the world of Mad Max seems all too possible. In this sense at least, much like the worlds of George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the universe of Mad Max doesn’t even feel like a fantasy world; it feels like what our own world could become if we aren’t careful, if the dark potentials endemic in our current geopolitical situation carry us off in dismal directions.

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The iron rule of Immortan Joe isn’t all that fantastical to us either. In our own world, tyrannical dictators continue to rule over people they oppress in many of the world’s nations; tyranny is no mere vestige of years past. As of this writing, Cameroon, Belarus, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and Mauritania, North Korea among still other countries, remain ruled by dictators. Recent history testifies to the ongoing threat of tyranny to the democratic freedoms that the post-Enlightenment thinkers hold dear; Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and others haunt our recent memory, as do the images of contemporary dictators like Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe who flicker across our television screens.

In its commentary on a world driven to conflict over oil and water and its account of the unity of people of all genders in a coalition of equals that resists oppression, Mad Max: Fury Road features a a deeper intellectual dimension to a film that seems, on the surface, like a mindless action ride. This deeper anti-oppression and environmental dimension is the icing on the cake, however, because the film’s action sequences are so intense and impeccably-executed that they would be enough to carry the film on their own.

In short, I loved Mad Max:Fury Road. And I highly recommend it to all.

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