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Oops! I Made a Feminist Manifesto: George Miller and “Mad Max”

Oops! I Made a Feminist Manifesto: George Miller and "Mad Max"

It’s been three days since I saw “Mad Max: Fury Road” and I still can’t shut up about how phenomenal it was.

I often think of this Onion article when attempting to reconcile my love of high-octane summer blockbusters with my feminist politics. It just means I have to turn off that part of my brain. It’s like when I come across something sexist Kurt Vonnegut wrote. It pisses me off, but it’s not going to make me stop enjoying most of his work.

What I’m saying, I guess, is it’s hard to be a female fan of action movies, and it always has been, but I’m not going to stop watching – I’m just going to keep hoping Hollywood sees the light eventually.

Which is what makes “Mad Max” such a fucking revelation.


I knew Charlize Theron would add something to the mix, but I didn’t expect her character to be the real dramatic center of the film and an actual, fleshed-out female hero. Her steely, one-armed character, Imperator Furiosa, is on a mission to rescue five women designated as breeders by the ruling warlord of the postapocalyptic city called the Citadel; in the end, the movie basically sets up the start of a matriarchal society as antidote to the barbarian, warlike tribes that came before.


It all came as such a surprise – especially given my memories of George Miller’s first two movies, “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior,” which for me are a hazy blur of nonverbal testosterone and explosions.


But what’s been really interesting is the ensuing debate about this film, which has seen endorsements of its estrogen-fueled plot from unlikely sources (my conservative colleague at the New York Post declared it the feminist film of the year) and a backlash from men’s rights groups complaining that it’s a “feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.” (They couldn’t have increased my level of interest in the film more if they’d tried.)

Even more intriguing, though, is the way the director himself described how feminism apparently snuck its way into “Fury Road.” In a marked contrast with the kerfuffle over “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and avowed-feminist director Joss Whedon’s depiction of women onscreen, George Miller seems almost surprised at the movie he ultimately came up with – like it genuinely just occurred to him midway through that subverting the stereotypical macho action-pic plot would make it a better, more original movie. (Who woulda thought?) And, better still, that he followed that thought with, “Hey, let’s call up the ‘Vagina Monologues’ lady and ask her to help us portray women in a non-objectifying manner!”

What’s more, Miller’s gone out of his way to downplay this narrative. At the press conference for the film in Cannes, he insisted “There wasn’t a feminist agenda… The thing that people were chasing was to be not an object, but the five wives. I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.”

This includes one of the wives yelling, pre-escape, “We are not things!” It includes Theron’s Furiosa taking the wives across the desert to a rendezvous with an all-female motorcycle gang, packing equal amounts of firearms and, so metaphorically, bags full of seedlings.  

On a broader scale, the film just looks so much grander and wilder than your typical action pic. One explanation came from Miller, who says he asked his wife, film editor Margaret Sixel, to edit: “She had never cut an action movie, and she said, ‘Why on earth would you want me to cut the movie?’, and I said, ‘Because if it were the usual kind of guys, it would look like every other action movie you see.'”

And the result, as you’ll see when you go to “Mad Max” – because you know you need to see it – is that it truly does look different. The nonstop action has a kinetic beauty to it that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before in a film – the closest I can come is some of the chase scenes in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” but those were merely moments – “Mad Max” doesn’t let up from start to finish.

Forgive the snark, but could it be that women have a knack for portraying bombastic action sequences in a more nuanced, thoughtful way? And simply haven’t had much opportunity to do it? HMMM.

No matter what else comes down the pike this summer season, I can’t imagine anything more genuinely surprising than the contrasts, and the contrasting rhetoric, between “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The former I expected to be a step forward for equality in comics films. The latter I expected to require me to put my feminism on a shelf to enjoy it. The exact opposite turned out to be true.

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Comments

VASU

Ryan makes a very good point. All feminists want is to forsake good story telling for the sake of filling quotas. You just have to see Soviet-Era films, where every movie was approved by the politburo only if it met certain criteria. You guys are killing filmmaking as an art form.

SnoProblem

We seem to be downplaying such a genius part of Miller’s storytelling:

"But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story."

Changing the leader of the rescue changes the story entirely. A man taking a woman or women from another man is the same old story that’s been told many times before. It’s stale, boring, expected. As art, we should want films to be new, different, exciting.

A woman leading that same rescue is different, a different story told in a familiar vein. The empowerment message is directly adjacent to this desire to tell a different style of story. Without preaching, pandering, or watering down; this is a story that can stand on its own merits. Furiosa fills a similar role as Max does in other films, but her gender doesn’t twist the story line Miller is building on screen. He’s just building on the assumption and expectation that a man must rescue a woman, then turning it on its head. The very essence of art.

writerswrite

Ryan has no imagination.

Star

Forgive the snark, but could it be that women have a knack for portraying bombastic action sequences in a more nuanced, thoughtful way? And simply haven’t had much opportunity to do it? HMMM. —– You do realize this quote makes you no different than all the people who say men are better directors, right? Sexist thinking is sexist thinking.

squeesh

Forget this Ryan person—he dosen’t know what the hell he’s talking about—I liked this article, and I liked the new MAD MAX film just the way it was (I liked the original one,too—which actually did have one or two strong female characters in it, BTW. This Ryan guy is just upset that white men aren’t dominating the film world anymore, and he can’t handle that, so he makes all these stupid claims about non-white folks and women. history shows that a lot of us who weren’t white males did lead exciting lives—-obviously he didn’t even bother to do any research on that, because apparenty according to him, only white men are worth making movies about. And the argument that women and minorities should just be ignored as film audiences simply BECAUSE we’re not the majority is one stupid, lame argument some arrogant white men always try to throw up. I meam, women are half thepopulation, and there are 38 million black Americans—who in their right mind would continur to ignore that as a potential audience? Plus movies starring and made by BOTH black,female and some black female
directors have been making it big at the box office. Ryan needs to wake up and face
the 21st century—it’s not all about white men dominating every damn thing anymore.

LE CHIEN

Dear Ryan, you should have a good man cry about it.

ladydirector

This was an inspiring article and I was actually convinced to watch #MadMax. I love Theron so I am so excited! However, the comment from #Ryan is the reason these articles must continue to exist.

The fact that there is a man that said "women and gays and blacks and ALL THE OTHER PEOPLE IN OTHER CULTURES did not have exciting lives". IS HE REALLY SERIOUS?! Twelve Years a Slave is not the end or beginning of our lives…..

I need RYAN to follow his advice and "’disassociate myself from this obviously progressive site."

While he is away read about some people with amazing life changing lives!
Josephine Baker
Langston Hughes
Investigate the inventor Fred Jones – Kentucky
Pick up all Octavia Butler books
Watch Milk..
Find out who Bayard Rustin is..

And Dear Lord, I hope Ryan is a sad person in a small room and not a person who makes decisions.

Sir Farts a Lot

So the action was great, the flat-out retarded earth mother stuff was mild enough to be inoffensive, but boy oh boy was it stupid.

Craig

‘…you can’t keep expanding forever or you’ll have to delve into fictional storytelling…’ This, in a thread commenting on a Mad Max movie. Irony, can you even?

Manni

I believe this Ryan cannot be saved…

antonio

You know, Miller always snuck up positive messages in his movies, even Happy Feet is shock full of them, and Fury Road is one of the best stories about equality I’ve seen in a long time, it’s intersting to note that Furiosa was built with nods to past Mad Max movies, like the way her face is scarred and stuff like that, and her character complements Max’s like they’re two sides of the same personality, it really is a brilliant characterization and it surprised me and pleased me greatly.

MK O Flanagan

So interesting that he arrived at a "feminist" movie just by following the needs of the story. It can’t be about a man stealing 5 women from another man. Furiosa is a great heroine but there are some problems. She’s the only woman we see with a job. All other warriors and drivers are men. There’s just this one female character in a landscape of male characters, it feels like they didn’t really think it through. It’s never explained how come just one woman has gained some agency and power in that world.
But the younger women were costumed and styled so stupidly that the audience (full of enthusiastic fans) laughed derisively when they appeared on screen. It was distracting that they were objectified so unimaginatively. Full, perfectly applied make-up, dyed and styled hair and silly skimpy clothes. If that’s feminism, pole-dancing is the best way to the presidency.
Still loved the action, loved Theron and Hardy, going to see it again. Four stars.

Warner

Right there with you, Ryan. It’d be nice for my favorite movie sites to just report the news instead of injecting nearly every article with politicking and spin. I’m just about ready to throw in the towel myself.

Jonas Grumby

Ryan. HAHAHAHAHAHA It is SO easy to tune out Teabags. Blather on little one. Read the news today? Your numbers are dwindling … fast.

jaduncan

"Men are generally physically superior, so of course they’ll star and co-star in these action films with hot female co-stars (and feminists, you can’t say objectification of women, because you’re REPRESSING male sexuality… which is VERY underrepresented)."

Let us all bow our heads for how much the portayal of women in action movies fails to consider male sexuality.

Ray (@RaySquirrel)

I have seen Fury Road and honestly the extent of the films view of feminism can be summarized as "Women should not be held in sexual slavery." How astonishingly progressive. As for the portrayal of the characters, there are a couple dozen characters in the film and none of them have a complete character arch. The five wives are merely McGuffans for use in the plot. They have no defined personality outside of their hair color. Theron’s Furiosa is hard, capable under pressure, and has a mysterious and tragic past. That is it. She is pretty much the female equivalent of Mad Max without the three previous films of backstory. The only character who comes close to having real dimension is Nicholas Holt’s character Nux.

Now if you want to see an action film which is simply saturated with feminist themes, one was released a few years ago. It was about a group of women trapped in an unjust patriarchal confinement. Each individual character had clearly defined back stories. That film was Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.

Jack

Did that commenter just use "progressive" as a slur? lol

j

Ryan, Who the !#$! are you? Please disassociate, yesterday if at all possible.

ThirteenthLetter

"Forgive the snark, but could it be that women have a knack for portraying bombastic action sequences in a more nuanced, thoughtful way?"

What? No. That’s ridiculously sexist, asserting that all people of a particular gender are going to execute art in a particular way. Come on — you should know better than that.

jessica

Great article! I went to see the film after reading it. Thanks!

A Different Ryan

He puts shame to my name.

Movie is fantastic and I love the feminism.

bitemelo

Great article! i had been dying to see the film but didnt want to know too much about it. Needless to say i was suprised to have an action film with most of the characters moving the story foward being women. its great to see a filmmaker taking the action genre seriously and just not a bunch of crashes and explotions but to have some genuine thought behind it.

Cory Rodriguez

IndieWire, please delete this ridiculous comment from Ryan. It’s almost as long as the damn article itself and not worth the time. Have to scroll for ages just to get to ACTUAL comments.

speakeasy25

What’s that, Ryan? I’m sorry–I dozed off during your tirade. After yawning so hard I practically split my skull, of course.

Matheus

What is that Ryan guy saying WTF

Paulina

I love the fact that the first comment is from an sexist white guy. Yes, I’m pretty sure no one else could speak of women and "other races" with such condescending attitude. You, my dear sexist friend ARE the reason why Indiewire publishes works regarding sexism in the industry. Than you for proving their point.

PinkBear

I cannot believe Ryan just said that women, blacks, and gays are the minority of the population. He lives in such a sad little bubble.

Simone

Good article. Can’t wait to see the movie and I am very exited about relevant female presence in the film!

Simon

Ryan has issues.Wonder if he actually believes his spouting.

Garry

Great article until you brought up Christopher Nolan and Dark Knight.. Which had the most poorly edited and clichėd chase scenes in recent memory. George Miller just took every current Director to school and showed them how to make a coherent action movie.

Ray

Kindly do a little research before you publish. Look up Marcia Lucas, Verna Fields, Sally Menke, and the legendary Dede Allen, as well as many more. Not only have women not "not had much opportunity" to sculpt bombastic action sequences, they pretty much invented them.

Lady Action Lover

To Ryan: bye, Felicia.

Lori

@ryan: please do as all a favour and "disassociate" yourself from this website. PUH-lease. go "represent male sexuality" in some MRA meeting or something.

Elly

Ryan seems very angry about all this. I for one am off to watch this movie right now. Great article from a fellow feminist/action movie fan :)

Curtis

Its a great flick but I am tired of people always trying to put a political spin on these just enjoy the movie

Kevin

But great article. I’ll be glad to see this film soon then!

Kevin

Ryan’s completely lost it.

Liisa

Half of Hollywood’s films are set in the past? Are you insane? I see no evidence of that.
What do you mean women and gays and blacks and ALL THE OTHER PEOPLE IN OTHER CULTURES did not have exciting lives? Of course they did, just because history was written by white Western men does not mean that ONLY THEY did things.
You just…. make no sense, I mean you just blurt out your opinion with absolutely no proof or any logic behind it. Go to a history class and actually open your mind.

Ryan

Oh puh-leese! I posted this before and I’ll post it again:
Indiewire… you’re a great place for news, interviews and aspiring filmmaker tips, but I’m sick to death of seeing a feminist, LGBT, racial or human rights (like the disabled, impoverished and exploited) article about how Hollywood is sexist, racist, homophobic and greedy. Let me tell you something- it’s pretty damn hard to make films about women, black people or gays, because the latter is a small minority of the population, and it’s hard for all three of them because almost half of Hollywood’s films are usually set in the past… a time where all the straight, men stood out and are still majorly underrepresented (where are the films about the greats of human history: Conficius, Genghis Khan, Shakespeare, the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, some of the first few Presidents of the US, Thomas Paine, Francis Drake, Napoleon, Leonardo Da Vinci, the Popes, the multiple revolutions or genocides that have occurred (Arab Spring, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot) or any of the great Scandinavian, German, French or Russian writers and artists???). Women, gays and other races didn’t generally have exciting lives- you can depict their discrimination with films like 12 Years a Slave, The Imitation Game and Suffragette- but you can’t keep expanding forever or you’ll have to delve into fictional storytelling, so you have people like Jane Campion or Spike Lee for example who cater for a specific audience (whom I both admire greatly), you can’t expect Hollywood to change its attitude. At the end of the day, the studios are corporations, meaning they strive for one thing only: profit. Transformers, F&F and especially Avengers do that. Men are generally physically superior, so of course they’ll star and co-star in these action films with hot female co-stars (and feminists, you can’t say objectification of women, because you’re REPRESSING male sexuality… which is VERY underrepresented). I’m not saying you can’t have strong female characters, I admire Mad Max: Fury Road and George Miller’s brilliant character, Furiosa, but you have to be rational. Having actresses like Carey Mulligan or journalists like this one, provide a criticism for every female character seen in a kitchen or not seen at all, is not constructive journalism that is meant to inform your readers- rather, you’re providing an idealistic liberal viewpoint, and if I see much more of it, as much as I love the website for most things, I’m going to have to disassociate myself from this obviously progressive site.

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