Trigger warnings: general discussion of sexual(ized) violence, violence against women, etc. Also: spoiler warnings.
This piece was modified on 5/28/2015 to add a new bullet point under the “What’s not so good” heading.
On Sunday night, I decided to stop watching Game of Thrones. I’m later going to write an entire separate essay series on the complex relationship I’ve had for half of my life with the show’s parent novels, the reasons I stuck with the show as long as I did, the reasons I ultimately think the show has failed beyond rescue, and all of the ways that George R. R. Martin’s female characters have made me think. Right now, though, I’m too upset by what happened on the show that evening— an episode that I hadn’t even watched yet, but whose summary I thoroughly know. In this post I will simply say that in a show rife with gratuitous instances of rape and oppression of women (many of which deviate from book canon, which is saying something), instances which are always nominally “justified” as establishing the nasty setting, instances whose gravity is undermined by the casual and self-unaware titillation factor of most other sexual content in the show, instances which are rarely offered as meaningful character development for the survivors themselves, instances which are couched in an environment of sloppy writing that compresses a lot of genuinely wonderful female characters into grotesque frat boy interpretations of the source material… well, there was finally one rape too many, one instance of gendered suffering too many. And it happened to a character with a book-canon ability to survive an entire metric ton of Terrible Things and yet so far have never been raped; she, a teenage girl, and her lack of violation have been sacrosanct for me, for so many reasons, and the showrunners defecated all over this as they have defecated over nearly all the women on the show, and I can’t bear it anymore.
The night before this happened, I watched something very similar and very different. It’s a movie. It’s called Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s entirely possible you’ve heard of it, you’ve heard the hype, and depending on your interests, maybe you’ve already seen it or you would like to. Rather than put words to my anger at a ruined TV show right away, I’m here to talk about why Mad Max: Fury Road is still a flawed work of art, but also about why it’s brilliant on so many fundamental levels, why I’m in love with it, and why there might possibly need to be a delineation for “Hollywood movies released before” and “Hollywood movies released after” this film.
Giving a synopsis of the film, which I’ll abbreviate MMFR, is easy. In the post-apocalyptic (or mid-apocalyptic) waste of the existing Mad Max universe, a woman named Furiosa rescues five other women from sexual servitude of the brood mare variety. The bulk of the story is simply a prolonged chase scene away from the environment that these women are leaving— toward an uncertain future. Mad Max himself is mostly an accidental fellow traveler who then finds himself in a more serious alliance with the six women.
We can dissect a lot about this extremely basic narrative, whether we look at the interesting class politics (and thus maybe the film’s slightly-too-pat ending?), the genius of George Miller as a director and practical effects advocate (I’d say everything you’ve heard about the film is true if it concerns a slap in the face to everything Hollywood puts out on those fronts in the action genre), or the way this fits into the existing Mad Max suite. Since I haven’t actually watched the story of Mad Max as it precedes this one, I would already give MMFR a better analysis if I waited to catch up on what I’ve missed— and I will. However, I can still talk about the thing that struck me the most powerfully, the thing that has undoubtedly proven the film’s most notorious and intriguing selling point. Men’s rights activists are apparently in a huff about the way that women are depicted in the story; does that mean that the women are actually depicted well? Is this a truly feminist action movie?
I am often the first person to say that calling x media feminist is not correct. Frankly, I’m very hung up these days about how women (and nonbinary people) are depicted in any story, to an extent where even people I know who also call themselves feminists probably find my choosiness and cynicism to be “a bit much.” I have to objectively allow that in my impatience for something that I can call good without adding many qualifiers, I am not keen on latching onto things that “at least aren’t awful” simply for their achievement of mediocrity. Call it perfectionism, elitism, idealism, but that’s how I am, I know. So, acknowledging this personal trait, and leaving aside the fact that I still sometimes consume unsatisfactory media for reasons like nostalgia, eye candy, intellectual fascination, or masochism— I want to be clear how choosy I am. With that in mind, I say MMFR checks off so many good tick boxes for me that I consider my impatience vindicated. MMFR is so effective at what it sets out to do in the sphere of gender politics, and it’s so effortless, that to me the film proves exactly why we don’t need to accept media with subpar gender politics. Whether it’s feminist or not— I’ll get to that at the very end of this essay, but I’d like to at least initially go through (nearly all) the reasons that MMFR empowers the women in its narrative. In my opinion, a lot of these items are so elementary that if a story doesn’t have them, it must try very very hard to be feminist in some other way.
- Virtually all of the women demonstrably exhibit agency, regardless of the results or their prior circumstances. Some of the women manage liberating accomplishments, whereas others fail (sometimes fatally; more on that later). In nearly any case that I can recall, the women in the story complete their individual arcs because of their choices to remain involved. None of them are entirely passive bystanders. Even when one woman is left behind in the inner sanctum of the Citadel where Immortan Joe, the warlord captor of the “breeders,” discovers his human collection is gone— she makes a stand against Joe of her own volition, and she explicitly states that the Wives asked Furiosa to facilitate their escape. The Wives are not Furiosa’s own pawns.
- The women’s skills and limitations all have grounding in concrete realities, not in something to do with their womanhood. Along with Furiosa, we meet quite a few women in the story who can fight with an array of weapons, ride motorcycles, conduct their lives without evidently much male involvement; they are seasoned killers and it clearly comes from their life experiences. The Wives do not have the necessary experience or fitness to fight in all the ways that Furiosa and these other women (or Max) can, so sometimes they must make do with psychological tactics or taking a gamble on a physical maneuver that requires less practice and more raw animal instinct; all of their choices are resourceful and intelligent; most of their choices produce a positive outcome. But most of all, if the Wives do fail to accomplish something, it doesn’t make them look like a bunch of hapless ninnies amidst their competent betters, and it can’t be explained away as a gendered problem. The Wives blatantly just lack a certain degree of combat prowess because they haven’t lived in a setting where they could obtain it. Period.
- The female lead functions as a classic action hero without being “malewashed.” A common problem with a lot of “badass” female characters is that their author feels some obligation to make them “not like the other girls” and possibly even “barely girls.” The author may make the heroine gleefully misogynist, or the author may strip her of emotional expression and other so-called “feminine” qualities, or the author may make her incredibly butch and juxtapose this against antagonistic female characters who are more femme. In my opinion it’s important to recognize that real women exist who are misogynists, and/or have personality traits typically considered masculine, and/or aren’t comfortable presenting femme— and these women can still be unique and interesting characters whom we should all consider writing. Maybe some of these women aren’t even strictly women, but simply get read that way by their peers. The possibilities are endless for writing such women in morally nuanced lights. However, it’s very unfortunate when, as frequently happens, such women are written not for nuance but for demonstrating that this is how women must behave to count as heroic. Therefore, it’s amazingly refreshing to see Furiosa perform a lot of typically masculine-coded activities while demonstrating overt solidarity with her fellow women. She likewise never has those masculine-coded activities coded as such in the narrative; she is doing what she does because it’s just what she does. Also, she does express heartfelt emotion, and her gender presentation simultaneously embodies butch qualities (shaved head) and femme qualities (a corset; more on this later).
- The female lead is not romantically/sexually linked to the male lead in any way, nor is there even subtext for it, nor is she ultimately coded as dependent upon him, nor is her narrative really about his narrative. Max stumbles into Furiosa’s situation, not the other way around. They mutually save each other from different things. When Max gives Furiosa some advice that she heeds about how to ultimately defeat Joe’s regime, it’s not a direct demonstration of his male competence superseding her inferior strategy, it’s a pledge of faith to her cause wherein he finally gives a resource (his own strategic thought) that he’s been so far withholding; he becomes truly of use to her. Even when Furiosa is all but mortally wounded, she fights on with the assistance of other women first, and Max mostly saves her life in a healing (read: classically feminine) act where he gives her his blood, prioritizing the needs of her body over the needs of his. He holds her not as one holds a lover but as one holds a comrade in arms. And when their side has evidently triumphed, he ducks away into a sea of people, becoming one face among many, allowing Furiosa to hold the spotlight instead. Furiosa and Max have a relationship where the woman still retains some vulnerability, where the man still retains some agency, but where everything is framed in such a complex, multifaceted, realistic way that I don’t really read it as portraying a man’s power trumping a woman’s.
- Romance/sexual attraction are not completely banished from the scope of the story in service to stupid ideas about what women must be in order to be badasses or “good survivors.” Even as Furiosa and Max avoid even a hint of attraction, one of the Wives and one of Joe’s minions show hints of a surprisingly innocent and inevitably star-crossed love. It is plainly a love driven by their own personalities, not by the woman being generically sexy and by the man being generically lustful. It is also reassuring to see a woman who’s known to be a repeat rape survivor still showing agency in her romantic/sexual leanings. She does not have to be so traumatized that she no longer wants anything to do with any men. And her emotional evolution on this is couched amidst the fact that her four (or more) fellow survivors are not following an identical arc; thus she does not function as some representative example of how survivors do or should behave.
- The female lead uses a prosthetic arm, and this is not treated like a novelty, this is not treated like a tragedy, this is not something she is obligated to explain, and she can even effectively fight without having the prosthetic in place. I’ll come back to the topic of disabilities later, but in and of itself, it’s phenomenal to see not just a female action hero in Furiosa’s vein— but one whose physical abilities are not what most people might expect for any action hero. The lack of mawkish sentimentalizing or expositioning around this point is icing on the cake. (Of course, I could still be looking at this poorly from the perspective of someone inexperienced with disability issues, so please give a shout if that’s the case.)
- Not one, but two, pregnant women feature and meet different fates. The most obviously pregnant woman, the Splendid Angharad, fends well— but eventually dies. I’ll also come back to this event because I have mixed feelings about it, but in the meantime I was gratified to discover later on in the story that Angharad had not been the only pregnant member of the escaped women. The other pregnant woman makes it alive through the whole movie, so I didn’t feel like there were any real messages about pregnancy inherently equaling weakness.
- There are old women who are competent, action-capable, heroic figures. Seriously. There are a bunch of them. Some of them wind up dying in combat, but plenty of them don’t, and they’re basically awesome. I love them. I can’t come up with anything articulate to say about this aspect of the movie.
- Many of the women talk significantly more than the male lead. Not only has Max stumbled into a female story instead of the reverse, but his voice just also doesn’t dominate amongst them. Dialogue in the film remains quite limited, but beyond passing the (of limited relevance) Bechdel test, Max is generally a silent figure compared to the women in whose presence he finds himself. And, as discussed above, when he finally offers a big piece of advice that the women heed, it could arguably be read as him becoming a strategic savior figure, but to me it really seems more like he has finally decided to lend his voice to the others as a show of support, nothing more.
- While the reproductive and related capacities of assigned-female-at-birth individuals are the designated reasons for the women in the story who have been oppressed, there is (mostly) not much metaphysical reliance on tropes of magic moon wombs, etc. Similarly, no directly or even obliquely transphobic humor. The possibly-matriarchal society that Furiosa seeks out for assistance is called the Vuvalini, which I can’t help reading as a portmanteau of vulva and kundalini (or, maybe stretching, yoni). If that’s the point, then I find that awkward. I also can’t otherwise help imagining that in the absence of any trans characters, a trans-positive feminism is not necessarily put forward in MMFR. But there were a lot of opportunities in such a framework to put the anatomy of the characters under a gendered spotlight, or even to introduce a transgender or crossdressing character for the purpose of sending an extremely negative (or misguidedly humorous) message. I hate feeling like I need to commend the filmmakers for not being outright assholes, as this should be so basic that it isn’t even worth comment, but unfortunately in an era where even the most “accidentally” transphobic morality plays or comedic moments are still widespread— look at the catastrophically unfunny crossdressing subplot that appeared in The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies without even having a canonical cause— well, I at least must express my relief that I didn’t walk into that kind of direct ugliness in MMFR. I’ll talk more about this later, but this is the positive side to it.
- What women wear. For one thing, all their clothing suits their stations and (usually) isn’t used in a way that I found discomforting. The Vuvalini wear extremely practical outfits for riding motorcycles and killing people in a desert; it’s not exactly common to sexualize elderly women anyway, of course, but either way, this isn’t exactly a band of roving femmes fatales. Meanwhile, the Wives wear skimpy outfits that, for them being sex slaves, make a kind of contextual sense, but in my opinion the camera (usually) doesn’t focus upon their figures in a way that objectifies them. And Furiosa herself has a practical, androgynous presentation that I found lovely in an abstract way— but that certainly doesn’t sex her up. Even her corset, a high femme token, is practical insofar as it involves some hookups for her prosthetic and it seems more like a back brace than anything else. Now… note that I did say “usually” about some of this. I have mixed feelings about a few specific shots, and there’s one younger Vuvalini woman whom we see obliquely naked and I’m honestly not clear about why. Also, one group of women kept by Joe for ultra shlocky B movie milk-sploitation— this is a word now— are shown more or less completely naked apart from the milking machines they’re hooked up to. I’ll get back to them in more detail shortly, but I feel it’s worth mentioning this here in the realm of female wardrobe decisions.
- Women die, and it’s a tonally distinctive event. Which is to say— their deaths are not presented all that differently from male deaths, so it isn’t tonally distinctive in that respect, but it’s certainly distinctive from how we usually see female death in media. If women in MMFR die, it’s invariably the death of a sympathetic character, so it’s a bit sad or upsetting, but we are largely spared any sexualized direction or photography, and their deaths usually come about from the same kinds of generic violence that cause male deaths. The Splendid Angharad proves a notable and complex exception; she dies after a presumed one-two punch of being run over and having her ultimately unviable child cut out of her uterus in an unabashed statement about the priorities of men like Joe and probably like pro-lifers. Despite the fact that we know this information about her demise and witness a little of the grisly caesarean, we don’t really get a clear view of anything, and her body generally retains some modesty and dignity insofar as it does appear onscreen. It is a troubling series of events, and I’ll soon say more about why, but in the meantime, I felt that if you were already choosing to kill a conventionally attractive pregnant woman, especially under these circumstances, MMFR does it in as “tasteful” a manner as possible.
- The initial confrontational relationship between Max, Furiosa, and the Wives functions on a basic survival level; it isn’t cast in openly genderered terms. When Max first properly meets the main women he’s going to be dealing with for the rest of the plot, he isn’t very nice. He points a few guns around at them, makes demands of them, gets in a nasty physical fight with Furiosa, and attempts to steal Furiosa’s vehicle without regard for how desperately the women all need it. But Max does all of this while operating in a nihilistic state where, as his own opening voice over mentions, he just wants to survive, and he’s being inherently selfish. The moral to this little debacle is that he can’t really go it alone, and as already mentioned, he eventually finds an altruistic cause at the women’s side, at least for a short while. It seems— to me at least— that all of his initial actions toward the women are the same as many men in his position would do to their fellow men. He labels no woman a “bitch,” belittles none of them, does nothing to transform the narrative into a “battle of the sexes” or whatever idiocy. I can’t imagine Max calling himself a feminist or even always acting like one, but the fact that he doesn’t act openly anti-feminist means that the story is able to get on with simply showing how awesome its women are and not self-referentially dwelling on, “Whoa, tough women.”
- Perhaps most critically, we are both shown and told enough information about the women’s sources of oppression to grasp what they face, while (mostly) avoiding any exploitative imagery. Some of that imagery is there, particularly with the brief shot of the “milking mothers,” whom I honestly consider an interesting concept— what might a desert apocalypse fascist warlord do about dairy products in an environment where cows can’t exist anymore? is it absurd to see this fetishized breastmilk, or does it simply seem too foreign to understand?— but of course this is also the stuff of some ignominious kinky smut. I simply don’t know what to think about Miller introducing that touch, even though I love how much the actors involved are committed to what they perform. Anyway, leaving aside the milking mothers and a few more ambiguous moments— though the film excels at showing us things instead of just telling, it also excels at showing and telling us a bare minimum of things that establish the conditions under which Joe’s women live, then leaving a great deal simply up to the audience’s imagination. We see chastity belts being cut off as the women are freed; we see a glimpse of the literal vault in which they lived; we see that they are angry and deeply affected by their own experiences; we hear from an expository minion that they’re “prize breeders”; we see how implicitly the Splendid Angharad is treated like nothing more than a vessel for Joe’s unborn son. At no point do we sit through these women being raped, molested, or leered at, even though we certainly witness them in occasional moments of non-sexual peril. Is there possibly a way their story could ethically be told wherein we do see more? Maybe. That’s a thought I’m building toward. In the meantime, the movie otherwise makes a simultaneously very safe and very daring decision: to treat the audience like real adults and let us fathom what horrors the Wives underwent without needing to witness it. I can’t say that the film would never be triggering for anybody, but I think the risk is considerably less, and it shouldn’t be revolutionary to say that if you’re going to depict sexual assault, you should take into account the needs and expectations of actual sexual assault survivors in the presence of this depiction— but this consideration is nauseatingly rare. I’m very, very pleased that George Miller kept the “things that shouldn’t constitute sexual content but are” focus on things like explosions, bikes, car engines, and flame-shooting double-necked guitars. Not on rape.
What’s not so good
- The diversity count probably isn’t ideal. I’m honestly not clear on the race/ethnicity of some of the actors, so I’m not going to try conjuring a precise number, but while women of color do feature, they’re still a noticeable minority. MMFR is generally a pretty white film. Beyond that basic fact, I feel challenged to comment and will defer to more relevant voices, but I would also be remiss if I didn’t remark on this at all.
- Let’s talk again about disabilities and grotesquerie. So Furiosa is a badass heroine who has a prosthetic arm. That’s wonderful. At the end of the movie, we also see the milking mothers— all very large, heavy, fat, pick your word— bestowing the water that the dead Joe “owned” upon his former subjects. That’s also a nice touch. Some of Joe’s subjects also have visible disabilities. Simultaneously, though, the bad characters are almost entirely plagued by tumors and health problems, or they have “oddities” about them like fatness, congenital dwarfism, blindness, and what have you. The appeal to the instinctive human fear of the grotesque, the diseased— it’s a powerful tool, and I can imagine any number of reasons existed in the minds of Miller and others for why to create characters of this nature. Plus, it’s maybe not as much of an exploitative choice when balanced against Furiosa and the other sympathetic characters, or when you consider that in this evidently post-nuclear environmentally-collapsed wasteland, the chance of someone having a bunch of physical features like this is damn high. But while all of that makes sense to me, I once more doubt that I’m the only one who finds this element problematic. If nothing else, the Wives are all conventionally attractive and do not have disabilities or “abnormal” features— which is precisely why Joe collected them all in the first place, so the internal logic exists— but we’re still left with a higher ratio of good, conventionally pretty people to bad, “hideous” people.
- Let’s talk again about trans representation. All right, the film doesn’t introduce any overtly gross ideas like “women-born-women,” but if any characters are supposed to be trans— which, with all due respect to George Miller, I doubt any were— we don’t know it. Everyone reads to me as cis, and just like it’s an omission to make a story about women and not make it about women of all colors, the choice to avoid transness also constitutes an omission. Now, this is just one movie out of many, and I am not personally going to demand that every film have an “at least one trans person” quota. (“Just one movie out of many” is something I’ll come back to at the end of this, too.) I also personally prefer that trans people not be represented in media if our representation is going to be so negative and unpleasant that we fail to seem like real people worthy of respect. So just speaking for myself, I’m not as bothered as some could be by MMFR’s lack of trans characters. But… a) I think it’s others’ right to be more bothered if they are so moved; b) I once again can’t not comment on this, insofar as MMFR does not exist in a vacuum and rather fits into a pattern of cinema; and c) even if the film does not actively express transphobic/cissexist messages, it doesn’t feel particularly trans-positive either. Having at least one trans character in this specific film would really bolster it in several ways, and I hope that if George Miller inexplicably read my blog, he would understand I mean this with nothing but respect.
- Where are the queer ladies? Here I can mostly just reiterate the same basic point as I have above— if we do want to take the story as a definitive tale of female experience, maybe there should be a diversity of female sexualities represented. There is a very chaste heterosexual relationship arc; there is also a general premise of women fleeing mandatory heterosexuality. Couldn’t there be room for some exploration of different women’s orientations? Of course, I’m glad that we aren’t confronted by Second Wave political lesbianism, even though I have complex feelings about that concept. But lacking knowledge of whether any characters are queer, the natural tendency of most audience members will be to assume that all of them are straight. Those who aren’t so quick to assume might go home and write some Furiosa/Angharad fanfiction, but this work doesn’t have to stay solely the purview of audience members’ imagination. Having said all this, I would actually like to note that I don’t want to take this story as a definitive tale of female experience, and I also appreciate when storytellers do leave even non-grisly things to the imagination (this film hugely benefits from not getting bogged down by backstory). I will get back to that in a minute, though. The fact remains that MMFR is written at least partially as a gender parable, and within that context, queer sexuality usually has some place.
- How much is this truly a women’s narrative? Even though I can rationalize Max’s role in giving the female characters a way to “win” that they hadn’t originally considered— that is, it makes sense for the kind of narrative that Max himself has— I would still have probably liked it better if it wasn’t his idea. And though I can again rationalize the symbolic purpose in Furiosa being critically injured (so that Max can share his blood with her and make his body a tool for a woman instead of for a man), it has the unfortunate side effect of her being unable to immediately claim victory back at the Citadel— requiring Max’s help to stay upright, etc., before Max refuses the fame and departs. Furthermore, even if this is Max stumbling into Furiosa’s narrative, we still see the world a little more through his eyes than through hers, given his hallucinations; it would be refreshing to see an action hero like Furiosa who is unequivocally the lead in every sense. There is still so much demonstrable female strength and power throughout the rest of the movie, I don’t find myself getting too hung up on these points, but I can’t gloss over them.
- Eve Ensler‘s seal of approval is hardly a gold medal. I don’t want to take the focus of this post away from the actual film and onto an individual who consulted on it for only about a week, but it’s true that MMFR has gotten some attention specifically for how Eve Ensler worked with actors on the topic of sexual violence, sex trafficking, etc. After the fact, Ensler endorsed the movie. Now, if it weren’t obvious yet, I love the movie, enough that whether I liked Ensler or loathed her, her opinion of MMFR would not matter to me. It does matter to some people. And on that account, I want to point out that Eve Ensler has an unfortunate history of trampling indigenous women’s concerns. Indigenous activist Lauren Chief Elk describes this very well, and for the details, I suggest that anyone read that entire article. As for some of her conclusions, I will quote:
Women of color continue to discuss the ways in which state violence is significant and is used to break up our communities to further harm us. That structure is violence; it is historically predicated on rounding up and locking away Indigenous and Black people. The existing system is not a place we are able to turn to for help. When mainstream white feminism is continually calling for more laws, punishments, for strengthened ties with law enforcement, and expanded police jurisdiction, they are enabling the violence against us. There is no “we,” because this approach is at the expense of us. Women of color become collateral damage in the continued quest to uphold and protect white womanhood.
The problem with the framing of sexualized violence as an issue that hurts all women equally is that it erases many of the historical and current experiences for Indigenous women. Rape in particular is a force of colonization.
If there is a feminism in MMFR, is it a white feminism? Possibly. Of course, the tormentors whom Furiosa and the other women flee— they are entirely white men, or men (interestingly) painted to look white. But as noted, the skin tones we see among the women are also not as varied as they could have been. We are also not given a lot of information about the politics of Furiosa or the Vuvalini; I could write a separate essay debating whether the film’s overall left-wing slant is truly radical or concealing a liberal-progressive core, and at some point I’ll probably do so. We have a lot of room— in just watching MMFR— to assume that at the movie’s finish, the wonderful women at its core collaborate with the others formerly oppressed by Immortan Joe, and they build a just society in the ashes of the old. But leaving the question of resource scarcity aside, we can nonetheless imagine a post-Joe society that’s fundamentally more of the same— maybe not oppressing people of color in the way that we see it today, but emulating Western colonialist projects that are racist by their very nature.
In a way, MMFR is intelligent and radical simply because there are so many blanks that we can fill in and imagine whatever politics we might want. Is that not enough? Perhaps not. Either way, if any part of its background research were grounded in the work of somebody like Ensler who props up the white capitalist feminism industry, I think the film deserves some closer reading over time. That’s not even saying anything of the fact that a male director created it, which has to have some relevance too.
On that note, I’m prepared to finish just listing things that I like or don’t like about this movie from a feminist standpoint. I am still not ready to say whether it is or isn’t feminist, but as a raw listing of pros and cons through a lens of feminist considerations— there you have it. In that respect, I will first conclude that I think the cons don’t usually contradict the pros in a direct manner; it’s more that they augment my general positive sentiment toward the film into something positive yet critical.
But as indicated, “positive yet critical” is a huge step for me. Usually I find myself flat out critical. Thus, my fuller conclusions are going to center around how for once my criticisms still hold and yet my enthusiasm is the main thing preoccupying my thoughts of the film. Since criticism often wins out in the end, I had best let the enthusiasm out while I still have a psychological chance.
So: how did these great things happen in a story like this?
I think what’s shocked a lot of people about MMFR isn’t just how many things with women that it does well. It’s that the premise itself can so readily suggest that nothing would be done well at all. Let’s expand our focus to not just MMFR, but to the entire field of “gritty, violent narratives where terrible things routinely happen to innocent, often systemically marginalized people.” We can loop back in Game of Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire), alongside a whole bunch of other media in basically any genre you can think of. But especially speculative fiction, because…
Well, here is a simplified version of the dialogue that I often see in relation to grimdark, crapsack, “life is shit” environments in genres where the point is for you to make up everybody’s modes of existence.
A: “I love how intense this fantasy novel is! The author isn’t afraid to depict harsh realities like rape and grisly sexualized dismemberment.”
B: “Um, why are you enjoying that? It sounds to me like the author gets a gross kick out of showing audiences those things.”
A: “Of course not. This is fantasy, but it’s based on historical truths. The author is just being accurate.”
B: “Actually, it’s not accurate…” (or) “This is an escapist genre, I want to read about a world where things are better than how they factually were or are.” (or) “It might be one thing to depict something ugly like this in fiction based in a fully real time period, but this author is clearly just making up terrible things to titillate fellow fucked up people in the audience.” (or: all of the above)
Even though I have sympathy for both arguers A and B, especially B in a lot of contexts, especially B as relates to my current opinion about Game of Thrones, I think that really this is a zero-sum conversation.
Looking at A first: of course, liking a story chock full of rape just because it’s “intense” is a fairly disturbing approach; and of course, a lot of the time an author is not being accurate, even if they think they are. Either way, there’s simply a key threshold where I as a reader do not need any more reminders about how rapey the setting is. That threshold varies from genre to genre, subject to subject, even writer to writer, based on their own skill. But it’s a real threshold, and if you cross it, I truly can’t help thinking that, at best, you’re writing this material as a way of indulging some feelings you have about rape that not everyone in your audience is prepared to read; at worst, you don’t even understand how rape and rape culture work, and you’re thoughtlessly aroused by nonconsent and just want to write a story that gets your rocks off.
Looking at B, however: let’s really unpack some of what they’re saying.
“It’s not accurate.” Even when it’s not accurate to the specific setting inspirations of what the author has created… rape culture, patriarchy, and all the attached nastiness have been part of literally every component of human history, and they haven’t really gotten any better even in the present day. Rape culture is something accurate to human experience even if the depiction of rape culture can itself be dubiously portrayed. It can happen— it can— that someone genuinely wants to explore rape culture in their writing, and if they want to do that within the realm of speculative fiction, they have every right.
“This is an escapist genre, I want to read about a world where things are better than how they factually were or are.” Maybe it’s an escapist genre for you. For me, there is no escapist genre. From my perspective, and to paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, all fiction is about telling the truth through a convoluted series of lies. Speculative fiction is a pronounced version of that, but I’m less interested in finding a writer who can imagine a “better” world, and I’m more interested in one who can represent a convincing alternate or parallel version of the world I know. This does not mean that world has to have all the same problems as the real one, and sometimes it’s to a story’s advantage if it doesn’t. If you’re never going to meaningfully confront and break down misogyny in your story, for instance, there is no reason to make a grotesquely misogynist setting. But I will also gladly accept a grotesquely misogynist setting if the author is going to engage with it in a productive manner and not try my patience with how they see fit to illustrate the misogyny.
“It might be one thing to depict something ugly like this in fiction based in a fully real time period, but this author is clearly just making up terrible things to titillate fellow fucked up people in the audience.” I see this argument less, but I’ve definitely seen it, and it bothers me. Let’s talk quickly about another show I’ve been watching of late: Mad Men (“finally”). I… don’t actually like it that much, and I have several reasons that aren’t worth getting into here, but one is that it has too many characters and doesn’t spend enough time properly letting me into their lives, experiences, and thoughts. It leaves me guessing just a little too much. Consequently, where the female characters are concerned, I witness a very high proportion of scenes involving them where they’re being actively oppressed, and I don’t witness nearly as many scenes as I would like to see where they have lives that aren’t entirely rooted in their gender, or where they’re really processing their experiences and not just being thrown into patriarchal moment after patriarchal moment. I don’t think the show is absolutely, positively reveling in excuses to show men being sexist, and yes, it’s true that in the time period it portrays, a lot of sexism took the forms that we see on the show (compared to some different permutations now), and maybe we’re also supposed to see something of the contemporary world beneath the period trappings. Nonetheless, as hard as the show might try to seem progressive, its generally poor writing choices re: character development leave me uncomfortable with the constant parade of “it blows chunks to be a lady.”
Honestly, even though I’m done with Game of Thrones, during its finer moments the writers conveyed a huge cast with extremely strong, unique personalities— characters invented usually not by them, rather by George R. R. Martin, but still brought effectively to the screen— and even in the faux-medieval fantasy environment full of rape and arranged marriages and what have you, I still had a better sense of GOT’s women as real people than I do of Mad Men‘s, in both cases five seasons in. Neither show is wonderful, and Mad Men is now less egregiously exploitative than the fantasy show. But if we are going to judge when writers include misogyny as a major setting component in their storytelling, we shouldn’t even be starting with the question of whether the type of environment (as driven by the genre) merits the inclusion of misogyny. We should be starting with the questions of why the misogyny is really there and of what steps you, the creator, are going to take in handling the monsters you make.
What I basically want to explore here is the possibility that it is not the creation of grimdark, rape-ridden environments that’s the problem. The problem is creating them without intending to handle that content with the dignity it deserves. The problem is creating them without having or seeking the experiences of people most directly affected by rape and other incredible violations of personal autonomy. The problem is creating a setting where rape is prevalent and yet functions as window dressing. The problem is creating a setting where rape is a plot point, a character point, for the people who aren’t actually affected by it the most. The problem is inventing Rapeworld, then nihilistically refusing to offer a way out of it, and/or offering a way that is terribly problematic on its own. The problem is putting people in Rapeworld and fatalistically consigning everyone vulnerable to rape (and maybe even everyone else) to get raped.
Considering all of this… what is a feminist story? I might argue it’s a category error. There isn’t any one model for a feminist story. There are only a host of things one can do to make a story clearly anti-feminist, and in my book Mad Max: Fury Road succeeds at steering widely clear of most obvious anti-feminist narrative choices. This is so rare that it merits celebration. But leaving aside the fact that the film still isn’t perfect, I shouldn’t have to celebrate a movie whose portrayal of women finally makes me leave the theatre refreshingly not in the mood to punch a screenwriter. There should be so many movies emulating models similar to Mad Max: Fury Road that I can stop being excited when they don’t do something stupid and start just being excited when they’re all consistently doing smart things (which, I think, MMFR also does a lot).
There is no feminist story, there is only the collective entity that is potentially-feminist storytelling. There is no feminist movie, there is only the collective entity that is potentially-feminist cinema. These collective groups of art are realms where women aren’t confined to gratuitously limited possibilities, and they aren’t supposed to serve as singular representatives of womanhood. Making this kind of media relies on having multiple women in a story, and it also relies on acknowledging inside and outside the story that this is not the “definitive women’s narrative,” because there will never be one. Mad Max: Fury Road belongs to this important cinematic realm insofar as it succeeds on many of its own merits— and simultaneously as making more like it will allow it to not stand alone. If you cannot populate the art you make with a realistic array of women, whether that be within one part of your ævure or within the whole— if you cannot make their fates be more than a loss of agency— if you cannot give them stories that are truly their own— if you cannot at least do as well as Mad Max: Fury Road on those accounts— then honestly I question your ability to make art at all, and I’m applying that standard to myself as much as to anyone else. I’m applying that standard to anyone who creates a story where women are nominally empowered, and to anyone who creates a story where women systemically aren’t. Our premises doesn’t matter. It’s our execution. This film constitutes shots fired. Any writer prior to its release already had few excuses. Now we have none.