After the thunderous bummer of analyzing Revenge of the Nerds, it sure felt like the right time to talk about something positive.
I get to talk about something I love today! And in celebration…
<spits alcohol at lighter. Doesn’t ignite. Looks disappointed. Drops head in disappointment.>
Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Children of all ages, welcome to the couch. As always, I am Joe, and both tonight’s topic and tonight’s film hit pretty close to home for me.
It’s easy to paint feminism as the antithesis of anything fun. It’s also easy to portray it as the PC police coming to take all of your action movies away. But this argument was absolutely destroyed twice in the blockbuster scene of 2015.
Buckle up, because while gas is rationed here in the post-apocalypse, we’ve stolen the war rig and are striking a blow against patriarchy.
Today’s episode of Sofa Justice Warriors is entitled:
The road to Valhalla isn’t paved: Allyship in the post-apocalypse
Mad Max: Fury Road was, along with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, proof positive in 2015 that feminism and action movies aren’t just not at odds with each other, but that when in the hands of people who understand both, they get along pretty famously.
When the trailer for Fury Road was released, I assumed it was yet another cynical CGI-laden reboot of a beloved franchise, and it held my interest about as much as televised golf.
Then, an anti-feminist group began posting fearful treatises on how it would destroy society. Naturally, I immediately went out and bought a ticket.
Congratulations, assholes, you accomplished the opposite of what you set out to do.
I was rewarded with one of the greatest action movies of all time. And when people think of feminist movies, they probably don’t think of cinema’s most badass two-hour chase sequence, but here we are!
Max Rocketanski is a world-worn nomad in post-apocalyptic Austrailia.
Max is kidnapped by the minions of a warlord named Immortan Joe. All humanity is stripped from him. He’s branded like cattle, and we discover that his most useful attribute in this war-crazed society is the fact that his blood type is O positive, making him a universal donor.
Far from just a plot device used to keep him alive in a radiation-mutated society in constant need of transfusions, this becomes a thematically defining trait of his character. More on that later.
The society in this film is overtly patriarchal. It’s run by, for, and to benefit men. Which isn’t to say men aren’t subjugated also, which is a very common misconception about patriarchy. Just because it’s meant to benefit men doesn’t mean it doesn’t have all manner of ill-effects on us. The first and foremost being a little concept known as TOXIC MASCULINITY.
A quick Google Search brings us to this definition:
“Toxic masculinity is one of the ways in which Patriarchy is harmful to men. It refers to the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.”
Many men, when confronted with this definition, respond defensively: “I’m not violent. I’m not unemotional. I’m not sexually aggressive.” And while that defensive response is understandable, it is also a mistake, and misses the point entirely.
Even if we, as men, reading that definition, are not all of those things, we do have to admit that it is expected of us. It’s drilled into our heads from birth.
I recently subscribed to a service that’ll help us list some examples of this. <Dials phone>
Joe: It’s ringing…
Sly: Good evening, you’ve reached the toxic masculinity hotline. This call may be monitored for quality assurance purposes. How can we teach you to be a man today?
Joe: Hey, I was thinking of dressing my baby boy in pink. Is that okay?
Sly: Absolutely not, sir. Girls wear pink. Girls are weak. You don’t want your boy to be mistaken for a girl.
Joe: But I thought pink and blue weren’t even gendered until about the 1940s—
Sly: —Pink is for girls, sir.
Joe: Ok. That kind of makes me want to cry. Can I cry?
Sly: Sir, men don’t cry. For a socially appropriate response, you may either angrily hang up on me, or call me names.
Joe: I’m a pacifist, though. I don’t like being aggressive.
Sly: Sir, if you want to keep your balls, you’re going to have to stop being a pussy and get in my face about this. Threaten to beat my ass… maybe throw a few gay slurs at me. Like cockwallet. I’m rather fond of cockwallet.
Joe: You sound like this is really wearing on you. Is there somebody there that can give you a hug?
Sly: Sir, I’m surrounded by men, and only women and faggots would hug other men.
Joe: Okay, I guess I’ll just go, then. Have a nice night!
Sly: Thank you, sir. On behalf of the Toxic Masculinity hotline, I thank you for your call. Would you like to take a survey about your experience?
Joe: No. Nobody ever does.
Sly: I’m aware, sir.
Joe: Have a nice night.
Sly: Suck my balls.
Patriarchy is harmful to everybody, and in the case of how men are affected by it, it’s self-perpetuating.
And so it is with this post-apocalyptic society. To prop up one despotic warlord, groups of men are turned into violent, unthinking monsters concerned only with war. It’s their religion.
But how are the women treated?
They’re property. The many wives of Joe overtly so, and with some help of one lone badass, they ain’t gonna’ take that shit anymore.
And that badass is Max Rocketanski, who breaks free of his chains and rescues the women and shows the other men just how things could be by kicking more ass than the other guy and asserting his dominance.
Except… not. That’s how a lesser movie would’ve played it. It would’ve taken a woman’s story and made it a man’s. It would’ve given all of the agency to men, relegating women to background roles and trophy status.
The women of Fury Road save themselves.
Led by Imperator Furiosa, the film’s true lead character and ultimate badass, our heroes steal Immortan Joe’s War Rig and escape, leading Joe to amass all of his resources in a wasteful attempt to reclaim what he believes to be his property.
There isn’t much plot to Fury Road. These analyses of mine are typically framed in terms of where we are in the story, but spoiler alert, drive to nowhere, discover it’s nothing, return home, dismantle a despotic and patriarchal society doesn’t have too many story beats to it, and as a counterexample of what people think of when they picture feminist media, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There isn’t a lot of standing around and talking in this flick. People’s actions speak louder than their words. And it’s through a series of actions, and a few significant looks, that a newly-freed Max, fresh off of a turn as a forced blood donor, becomes allied with Furiosa, the two quickly becoming trusted soldiers in the war on whatever the hell this super awesome bullshit is.
Max, Furiosa, the wives, and Nux, the war boy who Max’s blood was keeping alive, make their way to Furiosa’s childhood home.
There, they discover that the lush green landscape she remembers is long gone, replaced with the same dry and oppressive desert as the rest of the post-apocalyptic landscape.
She finds the remnants of her tribe. More women who have survived this harsh environment. If I could talk about this movie for hours, a fair bit of it would be describing how amazing I think these women are in this story.
Through their encouragement, and Max’s, the group decides, no. We’re not taking this lying down. We’re not running. We’re heading back, and we’re taking the only real seat of power this wasteland has: the one that gives life.
They head back to their former prison. Furiosa is mortally injured in the process, and true to his character’s themes and his own journey, Max fulfils his destiny: not one of kicking ass, but one of support. The universal donor.
That’s it. That’s the whole plot of the movie. And it’s gobsmackingly amazing.
So what makes a movie feminist? Does every feminist movie have to be about smashing or escaping patriarchy? No. It certainly doesn’t hurt, but no. What makes a movie feminist has far less to do with what it does, and far more to do with what it doesn’t do.
Fury Road avoids several major pitfalls common to the action genre or film in general.
When women bare skin, the camera doesn’t invite us to oogle, taking joy in the baring of flesh. It encourages us to be uncomfortable. To relate to the women in the scene. To celebrate their liberation. Laura Mulvey would be proud.
When men are careless, reckless, or dangerous, their actions are portrayed negatively. We as an audience get to witness all of the fun of the chaotic action of the war boys without being told by the subtext of the film that this is how men should be acting, as happens far too often.
But by far my favorite example of what this film doesn’t do is this:
When there’s an opportunity for men to take over a situation and assume the female characters incompetent or unskilled, the film instead gives us men who are supportive of women, trusting their skills and abilities. Max even displays this literally, as he misses two shots, and then hands his gun — his gun with one remaining bullet — over to the more skilled markswoman, using himself as nothing more than a stabilizing surface. He literally provides support.
I can’t even tell you how many discussions, both online and off, I had about this movie that ended with, “Wait. Seriously? That’s all the feminists want? They don’t want to take all the cool shit away?” No! And they never did! Whoever told you that was selling something. Give a female protagonist with depth, and don’t be terrible.
When speaking of protagonists, the two main male characters of this film are protagonists only in the sense that they are the ones who learn. Who grow. The women understand the situation perfectly. They, like many women before them, know the world they live in. It’s the men who need to be taught.
Max, driven insane by his many failures to help, must learn to slowly hope again. He must then learn that sometimes, it is more important to help, than to selfishly run. Even in this, one of the harshest environments possible. He faces down the almost literal demons of previous failed attempts to help, and learns once again to be an ally.
And allyship is where this movie shines.
Inasmuch as this is a movie about women breaking free of patriarchy and making their own mark on the world, this is also every bit a film about men learning to be allies to this cause.
Yes, I see the irony in taking a review of a movie about women and making it about a man.
But let’s talk about Nux.
Nux is a warboy. Nux wants nothing more than to die, shiny and chrome, on the road to Valhalla. To ride into glorious battle and be reborn into the next world a hero.
In short, he was raised in an environment rife with toxic masculinity. In terms of title, this is Max’s movie. In terms of story, this is Furiosa’s movie. But in terms of growth, Nux is our boy, and shining example to men everywhere.
Though he spends much of the runtime of the film as a villain and antagonist, Nux quickly learns, as all things happen quickly in this film, that everything he believes is bullshit.
He fails spectacularly in the arena he’s been told is the only important one.
And, in his failure, he mourns. He doesn’t kill. He doesn’t lash out. He’s saddened. Nux feels the pain. He lets it in. And with this gesture, he has opened himself to growth.
The wives, who understand the system they’re in, explain it to Knux. They show him what he’s already begun to see: that the system he knows is full of lies designed to keep the power in the hands of the powerful. With one act of empathy, his allegiance changes completely. He’s ready to fight the patriarchy.
And while his way of doing that still looks remarkably like the same bravado he’s always known, he’s known about patriarchy for all of ten minutes, so I think we can forgive him for making a show of allyship that may not have been quite perfect.
This is a lesson for all men. Nux saw the bullshit, and he didn’t double down. He mourned. He felt. He saw the walls of reality crumbling around him as every impulse he’d known was laid bare, shown to him to be just another way to keep not just the women, but himself, down. And he chose, like we need to choose, not to ignore it. Not to block it out. Not to rage against it.
Nux didn’t get defensive as he learned of toxic masculinity. He accepted it. He listened to the women around him, and believed what they said. And he learned to, imperfectly, fight for the right side.
For Sofa Justice Warriors, I’m Joe. Thank you everybody, goodnight.