There Are No Utopias; Make a Start in the Wasteland
A Feminist Reading of Mad Max: Fury Road
*Editor’s note: Article author Ma Jeong-yun is a feminist researcher-activist.
Mad Max: Fury Road (directed by George Miller, Australia, 2015) is a science-fiction action movie. With cars speeding through the desert and a heart-pounding soundtrack, it maintains tension throughout. As befits a movie that’s part of a series, there has been a flood of writings analyzing each character in the movie. Among these writings are many that claim that Fury Road is a feminist movie, and so it is being called a feminist action movie.
The movie was made in consultation with Eve Ensler, the writer of The Vagina Monologues (a stage play that broke down taboos about and oppression of women’s sexuality and portrayed sexual desire in diverse ways), but it reads like a feminist movie just from the existence of a female warrior who helps other women escape from violence. When it opened in the U.S., “men’s rights” activists called the movie “feminist propaganda” and started a boycott of it because Furiosa has more lines than Max.
I think, however, that rather than simply being a feminist movie because it portrays a tough female leader or a variety of images of women, it must be actively read as a feminist movie because it presents the developments that have unfolded since the second wave of feminism. That is, as a movie that presents the various viewpoints of feminist political economy, which has concerned itself with how to bring about a world in which women are no longer objectified or seen as a means to an end.
Feminism as political economy refers to a new operating principle for organizing the world, but it is a work-in-progress movement whose realization has not yet been properly attempted. Fury Road not only depicts types of feminism such as radical feminism and ecofeminism, it also features characters who are examples of the female ideals that have come out of this process of consideration. Feminism argues that women are subordinated by male-dominant ideology in an already-gendered society, and its concern has been how to overcome this situation. This task has not yet been completed.
The interesting thing is that the movie features men who are raised to be tools of patriarchal male authority. And they are young men who have been blindly possessed by a religious ideology, at that. Immortan Joe, who is revered as the one who leads them to Valhalla, who “grabs the sun,” is a god, a messenger, and the intermediary between this world and the next. These young men, who worship not the life-giving sun but life-poisoning chrome, embrace a worldview that destroys the basic common knowledge necessary for organisms to live and monopolizes water and produce, which are basic elements of life and universal materials.
In this way, Immortan Joe’s world is not sustainable. Those who play a part in sustaining it even though they recognize that it is ultimately unsustainable either go crazy, like Max, or dream of redemption, like Furiosa.
The bodies of those who want to reject the system become battlefields themselves. Max’s male body becomes a blood bag, and Furiosa’s female body becomes a more complicated battlefield. Furiosa, who has survived the system and is willing to take risks (she is missing one arm), also makes one think of modern society’s honorary men. But because it has withstood the system, Furiosa’s body is strong. Above all, the most powerful part of her body is the look in her eyes. The calm look that says that she has withstood and because of that, she will continue to withstand. Thus her famous line: “Out here, everything hurts.” Because there is no one in a destroyed world who does not hurt, Furiosa, who endures that pain and merely keeps trudging forward in the face of accidents and death, does not get discouraged easily.
Also, the bodies of the five wives/sex slaves are bodies that have been subordinated and violated by a patriarch, and then bodies that are actively used as weapons when the wives realize their situation. The bodies of Cheedo, who shows the mentality of women who have been exposed to domestic violence, and Splendid, who subverts what was thought to be the sources of women’s oppression–their reproductive functions and femininity–and turns them into a weapon, are like that. They represent the types of radical feminism that glorified motherhood and femininity.
Splendid, who is quoted as describing the world of the military-machinery War Boys by calling bullets “anti seed–plant one and watch something die,” is the one who bands the wives together ideologically. Her viewpoint develops into the question “Who killed the world?”, and so, in opposition to hegemonic masculinity, she puts forward femininity as the force that will heal the world. This kind of viewpoint can still be found close to us.
In the case of the financial crisis that struck the world in 2008, even though its causes were recognized as things like men’s aggressive investing tendencies, it was expected that women would be able to remedy the unstable financial situation. A 2009 Washington Post article entitled “Fixing the Economy? It’s Women’s Work” clearly demonstrates this position. It emphasizes that in order for this to happen, women must enter the finance field and become part of decision-making processes.
However, as the April 3, 2013 Money Today article “Would a ‘Lehman Sisters’ Have Done Any Better?” shows, when the immediate danger passes, women are simply replaced by men again. That’s why feminism has advanced the argument that it is not merely replacing men with women that is needed, but redefining cultural values in favor of femininity and maternity. This is expressed in the movie by how, on their journey to the Green Place, Furiosa is saddened by Splendid’s death but keeps moving forward.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, the cars are as important as the characters. Among the myriad of cars that make possible the various chases and battle scenes, the V8-powered War Rig is definitely the star. It can be loaded with ample food and gas, transverse the desert and mud flats, and withstand a sandstorm. Some say that, because the five wives find their roles and transform the War Boy Nux inside it, the War Rig is a metaphor for a womb. But when you consider that even the War Boys worship V8 engines (the gesture they make of putting their interlocked hands above their head [to make a “V”-shape] signifies this), it seems more fitting to look at the V8-powered War Rig as a means and a kind of capability.
When Furiosa says, “Now that I drive a War Rig, I’ll never get a better chance [to escape],” she’s saying that this is the time she’s been waiting for. Now her abilities have matured, and the wives have made up their mind to escape. It is no coincidence that the wife who seeks and then fulfills her role most actively is named “Capable.”
Feminists, in seeking equality between men and women, have developed from a way of thinking that stresses “rights” to one that stresses “ability.” If a rights framework is based on the Enlightenment thought that sees them as something given to all abstract individuals, an ability framework asks what people can do and how to make that possible. [Feminist philosopher] Martha Nussbaum emphasizes that ability is a fundamental element in sustaining human dignity. She suggests key human capability goals, such as physical health, imagination, and relationships, which are necessary in order to fulfill one’s capabilities.
Those inside the War Rig share their emotions through their common anticipation of the Green Place, the Land of Many Mothers. And as they build relationships through trust in each other on their journey, each character grows.
More than anything else, this movie’s main message is that there is no utopia. This message shows the failure of a straightforward outlook on the world, as well as the limits of feminist separatism. It is here where ecofeminism’s message is needed. Ecofeminism, which argues for a view of humans and nature as connected, shows that separatists are powerless in the face of a worldwide natural disaster.
This is why Max’s words to Furiosa and her companions, who intend to head across the salt flats towards what they imagine is a new world–“If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane”–are persuasive. The movie tells us not to get swept up in the hysterical pace of the world we live in, but to do the work that each of us can. It also says that we can be remembered by the others who do so. The War Boys’ cries of “Witness!” and “Witness me!” are empty, but Nux does become someone who will be remembered when he betrays Immortan Joe and works with the women, saying, “I never thought I’d do something as shine as that.”
This movie is a feminist one that spotlights the capabilities of women, but it shows that in a world that runs on corrupt systems, both men and women are faced with the same problems. If you contrast their world with ours, you will see that a world of consumerism created by appallingly long working hours and forced labor also limits both men and women, and realize that that if we don’t fix this system in which we have no choice but to exploit nature and the Third World in order to sustain more markets and more consumption, we might all go crazy.
If society doesn’t become centered on reproduction–something which is now taken for granted–and the care work that makes it possible, women will try to find freedom again, and the important thing is that the hope that makes their escape possible is not a far off one. The hope that the five wives have was encouraged by Furiosa. Furiosa wanted to realize that hope and thus gain redemption, but hope, as the poet Park No-hae has written, is something between that which is “already resting inside us” and that which “has not yet come” (from the poem, “Between Already and Not Yet”). That which is already resting inside us is our capacity to do what we set our minds to and what we can, and that which has not yet come is the power of imagination necessary for a new world.
By Ma Jeong-yun
Translated by Marilyn Hook
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7151
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