Films that challenge gender stereotypes have appeared on big screens since the early 1900s. Most of these films feature gender stereotypes in the society and show how the female protagonists overcome these obstacles by exercising agency. The increase in prominence of female roles in movies characterizes modern feminist films. In this sense, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) directed by George Miller (henceforth referred to as Fury Road), is also a feminist film that not only focuses on women’s empowerment but also challenges male stereotypes in contemporary cinema.
Similar to its three prequels (Mad Max (1979), Road Warrior (1981), Beyond Thunderdome (1985)), Fury Road features the titular character Max’s adventure in the familiar post-apocalyptic desert wasteland called Citadel. Immortan Joe, its oppressive ruler, suffocates humanity out of its citizens including the War Boys (pale, emaciated young men brainwashed from young to believe that dying for Immortan Joe can lead to eternal glory) and Max. Unwilling to succumb to their fate of being Joe’s slave-wives, the five young beautiful ladies, also known as the Five Wives, decide to escape their captivity with the help of Imperator Furiosa, one of Joe’s most trusted lieutenants. Consequently, Immortan Joe leads his army of War Boys to pursue the group.
The fourth Mad Max film elicited much praise as its gender dynamics are hugely different from the first three films, especially in the protagonists (Pooly, 2018, 1). Conventionally, heroes are depicted as men and they are rarely associated with feminine characteristics such as willingness to express emotions or physical weaknesses. The first three Mad Max films adhere to this hero archetype but in the fourth film, Max takes on a male protagonist image that is less dominating and even slightly vulnerable. Similarly, the female protagonist, Furiosa, is unlike conventional female leads who are often damsels in distress. She is physically tough and shown to have an impressive mastery of machinery and weapons. This subversion of the typical gender representations in the film promotes the idea of non-essentialism. In particular, it supports the view that gender can encompass a range of expressions rather than what gender essentialists believe to be two sets of fixed, biologically determined, psychological characteristics that are intrinsic to men and women (Bohan, 1993, 6).
However, it is unsettling for me when this façade of anti-essentialism is gradually eroded. There are details of the film that subconsciously continue to underscore gender stereotypes and expectations. This includes how the film limited Furiosa’s decision-making abilities by making Max the one who dictates the most important decision in the film – to return to Citadel. Moreover, besides portraying the wives in a very sexualised manner, the film suggests that the difference in physical appearance (Five Wives versus the ladies hooked to milking devices) are determining of their social status. The fact that the breastfeeding ladies are excluded from the escape mission also goes to show that women who are considered less physically attractive are deprived of the basic right to pursue freedom. Even Max, who seems to demonstrate some weakness and vulnerability at the start, redeemed himself by returning to manhood at the end of the film. In this article, I will argue that gender stereotypes still persist in the film, disguised under the façade of anti-essentialist and pro-feminist ideas.
A breakthrough in gender essentialism
Undeniably, Fury Road has created significant breakthroughs in gender representations. In previous Mad Max films, women held “minimal and reductive roles…(for example, Max’s murdered wife, rape victims, child-like savage and the dictator Aunty Entity)” (Plooy, 2018, 5). In Fury Road, Furiosa renounces stereotypical feminine characteristics in many ways. First and foremost, her crew cut head is a reversal of the typical appearance of female characters on the big screen. Being an exceptionally strong and capable warrior, Furiosa is appointed by Immortan Joe to be his chief military officer. Even her bionic arm does not suggest any weakness or disability but rather reflect her sophistication in machinery and firearms to the extent that her body is merged with machinery (Martinez-Jimenez, Galvez-Munoz & Solano-Caballero, 2018, 413). Besides physical attributes, Furiosa is also portrayed as an extremely independent woman who is fearless and self-confident. These attributes are less commonly associated with female leads, especially in action or superhero movies where they are often portrayed as being incompetent in one way or another and eventually depend on the male lead to save them. Furiosa indeed represents non-essentialism where she need not possess the “essence” of femininity and yet is respected and accepted by the masses. Similarly, Charlize Theron, who plays Furiosa, is a famous supermodel who is now reputed not only for her ability to play very beautiful women characters but also the opposite. This shows that the film’s subversion of female stereotypes is effective in promoting non-essentialism both within and outside the diegesis.
Besides Furiosa, male characters in the film are also portrayed in a more inclusive manner that seeks to broaden the definition of masculinity. Due to his tragic loss of family in the first Mad Max film, Max has little positive interaction with others in the desert wasteland. In Fury Road, Max’s need to rely on others and his weaknesses such as distrust and insecurity are further amplified. This is evident from the moment he is captured by the War Boys, muzzled and tied to the front of the car draining his blood to Nux, one of the War Boys. He has no control over his own body. Although hesitant, Max eventually chooses to obey Furiosa’s orders and rely on her to escape Immortan Joe’s pursuit. Despite being the titular male character, Max still demonstrates willingness to admit his weakness and vulnerabilities. The film uses Max to challenge society’s stereotype towards men and is indeed helpful in advocating the idea that men do not have to suppress their emotions or pretend to be fine when they are actually hurt. This encourages society, especially men themselves to re-examine the definition of “masculinity” to be more embracing and inclusive.
Keeping gender expectations alive
Yet, upon deeper examination of the storyline, Furiosa, Max and even other characters in the film seem to reinforce certain contemporary social expectations, some of which completely undercut the non-essentialist intention. This could well be an exemplification of what director Miller admitted during the 2015 press conference in Cannes: “there was never a feminist agenda” (Miller, 2015).
One of the most significant gender stereotypes against women in the film is that Furiosa’s decisions and actions are often based on emotions, rather than rational thinking. This portrayal of Furiosa is an egregious exemplification of modern sexism – the notion that the instability of emotions can affect women’s logical decision-making. Although Furiosa is very self-reliant and capable, after she finds out that the dreamland of Green Place no longer exists, she instantly becomes dispirited. She decides to abandon the War Rig and take the Five Wives to the salt flats where they can be free. Furiosa makes this decision partly because she does not want to go back to the place where she experienced tremendous emotional hurt and trauma. At this point, Max analyses that even though they can prevent death resulted from direct battle with Immortan Joe, “a 160 day’ ride that way (towards the salt plains)… there’s nothing but salt” (Miller, 2015). The gang’s eventual success in taking over Citadel and liberating every one of its citizens proves that Max’s suggestion to turn back is the more rational and impactful one. In this sequence, compared to Max who plots a map and carefully evaluates their options, Furiosa seems to be less thoughtful and realistic.
In the film, Max undergoes a notable transformation from the state of being animal-like to becoming “humanized”. At the beginning of the film Max is portrayed like a wild beast, who eats a double-headed lizard alive, then gets hunted down by War Boys and subsequently muzzled. His insecurities and distrust toward Furiosa and the Five Wives further underscore his loss of humanity. However, the transformation of Max to regain his humanity is also accompanied by his return to “manhood”. Nearing the end of the film, he comes up with the ambitious and rational solution which helped Furiosa and the Five Wives claim Citadel and thereby also liberating the rest of the citizens from Immortan Joe’s oppression (Plooy, 2018, 10). In the final scene, instead of settling down to lead a relatively more comfortable life in Citadel, Maxchooses to leave and set foot into the unknown to experience more adventures. Max not only abandons his insecurities but also his dependency on others. These attributes such as being very ambitious, adventurous and independent are deemed to be the “essence” of male behaviour. This transformation of Max undermines the initial notion of non-essentialism that is conveyed to the audience. It shows that a man can be vulnerable at some point, but eventually in order for him to redeem himself and become useful to the group, he is shown to regain masculine attributes.
Further studying the female supporting roles in the film also reveals many instances of society’s gender expectations and stereotypes. Although the showcase of resistance, humanity and wisdom in the Five Wives encourages ideals of feminism, overly sexualising them becomes counterproductive. Angharad, the head wife, insists on ‘no unnecessary killing’ and sees that Joe’s oppression has caused immense damage to the world. Another one of the wives, Capable is forgiving and caring towards Nux who is cast aside by Joe after he fails to stop Furiosa and the wives from escaping. However, the first full shot of the Five Wives shows them draped in muslin bikinis, rinsing their bodies against the sun-kissed background of the desert as if posing for a supermodel photo shoot (Plooy, 2018, 11). These women with beautiful faces, perfect bodies and privileged profiles are ‘aspiring to the male standard – Western, young, white, middle to upper class, educated, qualified, and attractive’ (Martinez-Jimenez et. al., 2018, 406). Precisely because of their advantaged assets, they have a higher social standing than other women in the film. Although they are locked in Joe’s vaulted harem most of the time, according to Cheedo, the youngest wife, they are “his treasures… protected” and given a “high life” (Miller, 2015). In contrast, women who are less physically attractive, such as the women hooked to milking machines, are given very little attention. To Joe, they are of much lower importance compared to the Wives. Furthermore, the fact that Furiosa only helped the Five Wives escape and leaving the other women behind shows that less attractive women are sidelined and are not given equal rights and the opportunity to fight for freedom (Martinez-Jimenez et. al., 2018, 414). This clear distinction in the portrayal of Five Wives and the women attached to milking machines reinforces stereotypes on how physical attributes associated with being attractive are more likely to help in achieving better treatment in the society.
Some may argue that the wives encourage female viewers to take charge of their own lives and be confident to rebel against toxic masculinity. This is indeed a positive push towards advocating gender equality and the right of women to rise up against oppression. However, the plot makes the wives’ escape is almost impossible without the Furiosa who is regrettably “masculinized” through her closely shaved head, grease-smeared face and occasionally very aggressive actions. This undermines the feminist agenda and shows that the wives, although strong-willed, are actually passive and incapable of saving themselves. It also raises another problem of power being presented to be closely associated with masculinity. Although the wives are the ones initially hoping for change and freedom, in the ending scene, Furiosa takes the centre stage and becomes the new ruler. The film could have better addressed the stereotypes surrounding gender power relations by attempting to create a powerful female image without having to make Furiosa look and act so much like a man.
Fury Road shows notable improvement from many films that habitually create male heroes and give women reductive roles. It attempts to embrace non-essentialism in both genders, but the lingering social stereotypes and expectations below this façade prove to be counterproductive and could have been better managed. Young girls in the audience should know that they do not need to be extra masculine like Furiosa or as physically attractive as the wives in order to be successful or achieve a higher social status. The film could have emphasized how having the virtues of humanity, courage and wisdom demonstrated by the Five Wives could also make them respected leaders. All in all, as a feminist text, Fury Road is too extreme in portraying female empowerment which ends up strengthening the prominence of masculine ideals in the sexist society. Therefore rather than challenging existing gender stereotypes, the film paradoxically reinforces them.
Bohan, J.S. (1993). Regarding gender: Essentialism, constructionism, and feminist psychology. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17(1), 5 – 21.
Festival de Cannes (Officiel) (2015, 14 May). “Mad Max – conference – (en) Cannes 2015”. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tI6k_8tomRE
Miller, G. (Director). (2015). Mad Max: Fury Road. [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: Warner Bros. Pictures.
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Martinez-Jimenez, L. , Galvez-Munoz, L. & Solano-Caballero, A. (2018). Neoliberalism goes pop and purple: Postfeminist empowerment from Beyonce to Mad Max. The Journal of Popular Culture, 51(2), 399-420.
Plooy, B.D. (2018). ‘Hope is a mistake, if you can’t fix what is broken you go insane’: a reading of gender, (s)heroism and redemption in Mad Max: Fury Road. Journal of Gender Studies, 28(4), 414-434.