I went to the movies over Memorial Day, and now all I can think about is Mad Max, Mad Max, MAD MAX!
That is, of course, only the title of the movie. Because if I was going to jump up and down excitedly screaming the name of the main character, I would be saying, “FURIOSA!”
That’s right — Furiosa. Because even though the movie is named after Mad Max (as played by Tom Hardy), and is part of the decades-old Mad Max franchise, Furiosa (gloriously portrayed by Charlize Theron) is unquestionably the main character. And she’s wonderful.
Spoilers to follow!
In addition to having outstanding visuals and jaw-dropping action sequences, this movie far surpasses any I’ve seen in a long time in its treatment of its female characters. Reviews saying as much (as well as anti-feminists’ calls to boycott the movie, and Tom Hardy’s shutdown of sexist interview questions) enticed me to the theater, and I was not disappointed.
Mad Max: Fury Road follows the extended desert chase of the tyrannical Immortan Joe and his War Boys after Furiosa. Furiosa, supposedly going into the desert on a supply run, has actually liberated Immortan Joe’s five wives (read: sex slaves) so that the six of them can escape to the more peaceful and less resource-deprived Green Place where Furiosa was born.
Although Max is the title character of the movie, he is quite literally just along for the ride. Max is, as io9 puts it, “the sidekick in his own film.” The entire movie is instead based around a female character freeing other female characters from sex slavery. “We are not things,” the Five Wives insist, while super-antagonist Immortan Joe refers to them as his “property.”
I want to really hammer this in: Immortan Joe is the bad guy because he treats people like things. And the good guys, led by Furiosa, fight to treat people like people. Sounds like a pretty feminist plot arc to me.
And that’s why the movie’s treatment of its female characters is so noteworthy: Not once does it undermine their insistence on their personhood by giving into more conventional action movie tropes. Unlike women in almost every other action movie, Furiosa and the Five Wives are never sexualized, by either the camera or Max — not even in moments when it would be extremely easy to do so, such as when Max first encounters them rinsing off with a hose.
Each of them has her own distinct personality, with strengths and weaknesses. There is no ham-handed romantic subplot. It even includes a group of middle-aged and older women in action roles. When was the last time you saw that?
The group of older women are the Vulvalini, the remainders of Furiosa’s people. The only backstory we have for Furiosa is that she comes from a powerful matriarchal society, and that it’s important enough to her that she will defy everything about the society she lives in now to get back to it. Unlike just about every other powerful female character in an action movie, her motivation and her strength come from women, not from men.
She’s not avenging a boyfriend, she’s (arguably) not fighting back after a sexual assault, she wasn’t brought up in a family of brothers who taught her these things. It appears that she wasn’t in any way trained by or for men. Her power is from women, by women, for women. I’ll say it again: When was the last time you saw that?
Nux, the ailing War Boy who ends up along for the ride with Furiosa and the Wives, is also a significant character. At the beginning of the movie, he has been thoroughly steeped in, and completely buys into, Immortan Joe’s hypermasculine suicide cult. Riding with Furiosa allows him to broaden his perspective and unlearn what he has been taught. His character is a powerful illustration of the way that the patriarchy hurts everyone, even those who also benefit from it. This image from the Feminist Mad Max tumblr sums it up well.
I could go on and on about the wonder that is Mad Max: Fury Road. But if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor — and help to undermine the boycotting anti-feminists — and go find out for yourself.
(A few words of warning: There’s a scene in the first half of the movie that takes place during a lightning storm; if you have trouble with rapidly-flashing lights, this might be a movie to avoid. Also be warned that are a few moments of graphic bodily horror.)
Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and works in public health research in the Boston area.