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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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