Aaron Clarey Feminism Essay
Around the same time that the highly anticipated action/sci-fi/dystopia Mad Max: Fury Road hit theatres, Aaron Clarey posted a blog article that received some attention urging men to “[n]ot only REFUSE to see the movie, but spread the word to as many men as possible” because it is a “Trojan Horse,” designed to trick men and “force a lecture on feminism down [their] throat[s]” (Clarey). Predictably, this sparked a debate in the blogosphere that ran the gamut, including everything from level-headed responses to more of the same misogynous vitriol, as well as, curiously, the Men’s Rights movement denying any formal association with either Clarey or the attempted boycott. Clarey himself is not to be taken seriously. A self-described “misanthropic, hedonist, nihilistic, cynical” resident of “the mano/androsphere,” he argues with a straight face that the idea that women could be equal to men in anything, much less “logic,” is feminist propaganda that will “[ruin] women for men, and men for women” (Clarey). His accusation that Fury Road forms a part of this propaganda is based on his observation that “Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers, while I don’t think I’ve heard one line from Tom Hardy” (Clarey). That’s right. He hadn’t actually seen the movie yet. But everyone knows that a woman shouldn’t talk too much, otherwise, feminism! Regardless of these and other dubious arguments contained in his post, I believe that Clarey is picking up on some gender portrayals in the movie that are interesting and worth looking at. His hysterical sense of intimidation aside, Clarey’s rant raises engaging questions: is Mad Max: Fury Road a feminist movie? What is a feminist movie in 2015 and how would one recognize it? I would like to think about some possible answers to those questions here.
One place to begin is to examine what has in the past been considered as specifically feminist storytelling in the fantastical genres, such science fiction. Feminist stories within these genres are classified as such because of their emphasis on themes that explore the construction of gender identities, gender roles, and the organization of society around those gender roles. According to Jenny Wolmark, since the 1970s, female authors writing stories with explicitly woman-centered and feminist content have tended to “explore the Utopian possibilities of separatist, women-only communities” which “identif[y] gender as a culturally constructed phenomenon” (158). They may explore any other societal structure that is not patriarchal or not based on the hetero-nuclear family, or they may explore nontraditional relationship formations, like polyamory, homosexuality, or species with more than two genders. In other words, what has been traditionally considered as the defining characteristic of a feminist work is its focus on imagining alternative possibilities for gender in society. A story that avoids these considerations has not traditionally been called “feminist,” regardless of whether or not it was written by a feminist. What is more, the presence of one or more intelligent and capable female characters is not sufficient to call a work feminist.
By this criteria, Fury Road does not resemble a feminist work. The movie is more focused on showcasing fast-paced action scenes and a strongly stylized appearance (which is not meant as a criticism) than it is on explaining how gender roles are assigned or organized in this particular world, and as such, there are only a few clues as to the social structure of the settlement. Those clues include the fact that the villain, Immortan Joe, keeps a small harem of young “wives” against their will for his endless enjoyment and procreation, his soldiers, called “War Boys,” are all male, and the few people that we see with any amount of power and resources are men. So far this just looks like traditional patriarchy. Admittedly, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) does not quite fit in this age-old patriarchal organization, as she begins the movie as a trusted employee of Immortan Joe, working out in the field transporting “guzzeline” alongside the War Boys. Her status as an equal is symbolically represented in the fact that she possesses her own, uniquely designed steering wheel, which functions not only to allow her the freedom to drive, but is also a sign of rank within the group of men that conducts the collective’s business. It is never explained how Furiosa managed to attain her position, but neither is it implied that she is exceptional or unique in holding it. Also, we cannot know what life is like for the other women in the settlement because we don’t see any of them, so we do not have much information to draw on to form an understanding of what women’s roles are in this society more broadly.
The other outliers are what I will call the Old Lady Motorcycle Gang (OLMG), who live in an isolated group in the desert. It is briefly alluded to that these women represent the last of an all-women group, but the reason they express for being segregated is the necessity to hide from Immortan Joe, not some a desire to live out an all-women utopian dream. If they did have a feminist utopia once upon a time in the “green place” where they used to live, they explain very little about it, as they have relatively little screen time, meaning that it would be a gross mischaracterization to suggest that the movie promotes or advocates for the superiority all-women societies. Therefore, while Furiosa and the OLMG do not fill the usual roles we might expect of women in action and science fiction movies, or in patriarchy generally, this is not enough to make Mad Max: Fury Road a feminist story in the traditional, albeit somewhat narrow, sense of this term.
Perhaps all it takes is the inclusion of some non-stereotypical women with assertive personalities to make the movie seem, to some, uncomfortably feminist. Patriarchy has traditionally argued that biological gender is one of the single most important components in shaping character and that biology’s affect on women is to make them “naturally” passive, receptive, emotional, less intelligent, and thus only well suited to housework and children (Ortner 72). This stance acts to justify keeping women in the home and reserving positions in the community with any importance for men. Today, science and psychology discredits this oversimplified, deterministic view of gender, but the work of many, many feminists over the last hundred years has gone a long way in applying political pressure to bring about that change. Although there have been some feminist schools of thought that have argued for essential gender characteristics (such as the eco-feminism of the 70s and 80s which promoted gender difference, arguing that women have a greater capacity for “humanism, pacifism, nurturance, and spiritual development”) most branches of feminism in the twentieth century have fought vehemently against this belief (Wajcman 6). Not only is gender essentialism demonstrably untrue in a large percentage of the population, but it has also been observed that rigid ideas about what constitutes as acceptable masculine or feminine behaviour often comes with social and psychological consequences for those who do not conform and that, therefore, this rigidity is potentially harmful to any member of society (West and Zimmerman 23). Now in 2015, most feminists agree that women display a wide range of characteristics and aptitudes and as a result, defy the notions of biological determinism, but it is not necessarily true that anyone who agrees with them on this largely self-evident point is therefore a feminist.
Fury Road’s representation of women is complex because, as I will argue, they at times deliver on the expectations for formulaic action movie characters and, at other times, they subvert them. For example, the women of the OLMG are particularly unusual for typical action movie fare, even as bit-part characters. This is because ordinarily, if older women appear at all in movies not made specifically for their demographic, they tend to be highly stereotypical: grandmother figures who are frail, harmless if not doddering, sweet if not bitter and crone-like, and always irrelevant. By contrast, Fury Road’s group of women-of-a-certain-age are tough, strong, and capable, surviving in the desert on their own wit, resources, and motorcycles. However, while they are non-stereotypical in some very important ways, they also display qualities that are gender essentialist and recall some of the ideas of eco-feminism. The OLMG were the last ones to live in the “green place,” the last healthy ecosystem in the area, and after it succumbed to the unexplained threat that destroyed the rest of the environment, these ladies attempt to preserve what life they can for the future by safeguarding a collection of seeds and small plants. In this way, the movie presents these women as being naturally more peaceful, in-tune with the environment, and concerned with the propagation of species. On the other hand, they are willing to entrap and kill anyone they deem a threat to their group. On balance, I would argue that they mostly defy stereotypes.
Immortan Joe’s wives also present a mixture of both expectation and difference. The handful of them are predictably young and beautiful, with the look of runway model waifs. They are scantily-clad in cream-coloured gauze that only barely manages to cover what it must, and their fertility is emphasized by the fact that one of them, apparently Joe’s “favourite,” is visibly quite pregnant. My impression is that this over-sexed presentation is intended to be somewhat parodic. This is because our first view of them is from Max’s (Tom Hardy) perspective, as he first catches up with Furiosa’s truck and comes around the other side to discover them spraying each other with a hose in their wet gauzy nothingness, like a slow-motion, wet T-shirt or car wash scene. I cannot recall exactly, but I do not think the scene was in fact in slow-motion. It did however create a similar impression with the way the camera slowly panned over each of the nubile, nearly-nude barely-legals. This effect of course reveals a “male gaze” or perspective on the women as sex objects for male consumption. However, the effect was so blatant, so incongruous in colour and texture with the rest of the movie’s aesthetic, that it can be read as a parody of the expected sexualization of women in action movies. This sense of satire worked to greatly undercut the exploitative quality usually associated with such voyeristic scenes. After this initial unveiling, the girls turn out to be brave and capable in their own right. They routinely crawl along the outside of the speeding truck, handle weapons, and generally contribute to the overall success of the mission to rescue them, all the while portraying personalities more similar to typical young girls than to either hardened female action heroes or cinema sex objects. In sum, they borrow aspects of the stereotypes of teenage girl, sex object, and female action hero, yet differentiate themselves enough from any one of those to remain, on the whole, non-stereotypical. The movie’s self-conscious exhibition of their sexuality can be enjoyed either for its irony or as eye-candy, whatever be the proclivity of the viewer.
Furiosa’s character is set off in contrast to the wives. Where they are light, she is dark with her grease-painted face and dark clothes. Where they are sexualized with perfect, exposed bodies and long flowing hair, she is not: her clothes are neither remarkable nor titillating, her hair is shorn, arms toned, and more visually striking, she is missing a limb. She denies patriarchy’s expectations and valuations for women both in her non-eroticized appearance and in the fact that her role is not contingent on a man, for example as a mother, wife, or romantic interest. The fact that Furiosa does not engage or appear to be about to engage in a romantic relationship with Max is an important departure for Fury Road, because it further emphasizes the fact that Furiosa’s role in the movie is not in any way connected to sex. Instead, the story depicts a development of trust and respect between the two, as is signified by Max’s willingness to tell her his name near the end, but there is no suggestion that there will be anything more than that between them. In these ways, she is different from the stereotypical female action hero.
In other ways, however, Furiosa does follow a well-beaten track. She is unflappable, unsmiling, fearless, capable of incredible stunts both in high speed chases and the exchange of fire, all the while never taking a bullet or running out of ammo, the likes of which we have seen many, many times before. Theron herself starred as the gun-toting, ass-kicking lead in the 2005 sci-fi action flick Æon Flux, not to mention Milla Jovovich’s similar leading roles in the 2006 Ultra-Violet and the Resident Evil franchise, to name a small few. I seem to recall that these are speaking parts, and yet I do not remember the movies being accused of smuggling a feminist agenda. For the Men’s Rights types, the important difference might be in the complexity of the image of femaleness that Furiosa and the other women of Fury Road present. Unlike most of the two-dimensional, eroticized females in action movies, Fury Road’s women demonstrate a range of characteristics. Perhaps it is this modern conception of the woman as a whole person that rankles Clarey so.
In conclusion, I find Mad Max: Fury Road neither “feminist” in any formal sense of the word nor anti-feminist, but instead reflects a refreshingly contemporary view of women as whole people. Although feminists have long advocated for women to be recognized as such, I cannot accept the idea that the movie is intentionally sending a message about “the possibilities for women,” or something along those lines, and it is this lack of intentionality that precludes me from seeing the movie as having a specifically feminist ideology or agenda. Instead, it presents women in this way almost incidentally, as if it is just a reality about people that it has incorporated into its storytelling. To my mind, this is the perfect balance and, ironically, it is perhaps the perfect vehicle for the communication of feminist values. John Cawelti, writing about the function of formulaic storytelling in the transmission and maintenance of shared ideas within culture, says that the evolution and change of formulaic storytelling are “process[es] by which new interests and values can be assimilated into conventional imaginative structures” (Cawelti 34). He gives examples of how the evolution usually takes the form of adding new elements that fit within an otherwise familiar and formulaic environment and storyline, such as with an African-American cowboy or superhero, or in the case of Fury Road, by making the hero a non-stereotypical woman (34). Cawelti writes that in their ability to assimilate new meanings and ideas into traditional narratives, formulaic storytelling is able to “ease the transition between old and new ways of expressing things and thus contribute to cultural continuity” (36). The debate that has risen up around Fury Road is a good example of this phenomenon at work. Our society is currently still in the slow process of evolving away from traditional patriarchal ideas about women, meaning that it is possible to find people at every point on the spectrum of belief about gender and biological determinism. Many will enjoy the movie without ever stopping to question how gender is portrayed. On the other hand, those clinging to the old views may be made to feel uneasy by the way that Furiosa “barks orders to Mad Max,” as Clarey certainly is, for example, possibly putting them under tremendous pressure to defend their position as they watch it dwindle more and more into the minority (Clarey). But increasingly in the minority they are, as the blockbuster success of Fury Road attests to. As Cawelti rightly points out, for a story to be well received by the public, there “remains a need for author and audience to share certain basic feelings about the world” (32). This would indicate that Fury Road’s popularity demonstrates a hunger in the action flick-consuming public to see rounder characters and suggests a boredom with the stock characters that Clarey insists upon. I will agree with Clarey that I find the idea of an ideologically driven, message-heavy feminist movie largely unpalatable. In an ideal world, we would live in a kind of post-biological-determinism, where ideas about what men and women “are” or should be no longer exist, thus almost making feminism unnecessary. Mad Max: Fury Road suggests we are making progress getting there. Clarey and his ilk remind us we have a ways to go.
 David Futrelle of We Hunted the Mammoth, a blog that describes its mission as tracking and mocking the new misogyny, has documented much of the blogosphere activity, and provides links.
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.
Clarey, Aaron. “Why You Should Not Go See Mad Max: Feminist Road.” Return of Kings. Kings Media, 11 May 2015. Web. 12 June 2015. http://www.returnofkings.com/63036/why-you-should-not-go-see-mad-max-feminist-road
Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Woman, Culture, and Society. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974. 68-87. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.
Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA, 1991. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
West, Candace and Don Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” The Social Construction of Gender. J. Lorber and S. Farrell, eds, 13-37. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991. Print.
Wolmark, Jenny. “Time and Identity in Feminist Science Fiction.” A Companion to Science Fiction. David Seed, ed. Malden, MA, Oxford, UK and Victoria, Australia: Blackwell, 2005. 156-170. Print.
If you're going to bring feminist propaganda to the masses, there are worse ways than in a giant exploding truck covered with knives. In case you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet, it’s two hours of seat-clutching, wall-to-wall explosions, giant art trucks covered with guitars that are also flamethrowers, howling Technicolor vistas, and blood on the sand. When the credits rolled, I felt like my eyeballs had been to Burning Man without me. I was thoroughly entertained.
The fact that Fury Road is so much fun is almost certainly part of the reason the antifeminist keyboard-slobberers who inhabit the murkier corners of the internet are pushing for its boycott. Last week, the website Return of Kings led the charge for men and boys to refuse to see it. “This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat,” wrote contributor Aaron Clarey. “This is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity.” He must be worried that his men’s rights comrades might, over the course of two hours of high-octane car-chases, momentarily forget to hate feminism. Fury Road — in which an ass-kicking half-bionic heroine defies death to rescue five young women from sex slavery — might be an existential threat to recreational sexism because it is so enjoyable.
In the long history of dystopian science fiction, Fury Road’s premise of misogyny is not without precedent. Violence against women is part of almost every popular fantasy of social collapse, from 1984 to Game of Thrones, in which rape and the threat of rape is part of every woman’s storyline. But Fury Road reminds the viewer that the liberation of women is not just a prerequisite for social equality — it’s is also a damn good story. Patriarchy, it turns out, is prettiest when it's on fire.
The film opens in a howling desert. It’s somewhere in the not too distant future and all the boys have gone horribly wrong. Everyone has PTSD because the world ended and they're still alive, and the warlord Immortan Joe controls the water supply, and with it the people. His community, the Citadel, is the kind of misogynist nightmare one imagines gives the readers of Return of Kings a guilty thrill: The women are kept as brood stock and literally milked to feed the elite. But here, violent masculinity has become social disease. Almost everyone is sick, even the young warriors called war boys, whose greatest dream is to get hopped up on nitrous and die in battle.
This is patriarchy twisted to its logical extremes — patriarchy as death cult. Everything has a skull on it. The cars have skulls. The weapons have skulls. The slaves have skulls branded onto their skin. The death club makeup is skull-themed. There are so many skulls that I was reminded of the famous Mitchell and Webb Nazi sketch. Hans, have you seen our hats? They've got skulls on them. Hans, are we the baddies?
Fury Road calls to mind Katharine Burdekin’s prescient feminist dystopia, Swastika Night, written in 1937 just as Hitler was rising to power. In Burdekin’s story, a thousand-year Reich reduces women to abject breeding machines, penned and dehumanized. In a time of death, disease, and social collapse, the men in charge want control over who breeds and how, and that requires stripping women of as much agency as possible. There is not a society in the world today that does not do this to some extent, not a country on Earth where women’s right to control what happens to their bodies is not a subject of public debate between powerful men. Since the dawn of women’s liberation, storytellers have laid out the stakes: From Swastika Night to Herland to The Handmaid’s Tale, the problem of what might happen if it all gets taken away has been examined in nightmare detail.
Fury Road — whose director called in feminist playwright and activist Eve Ensler as a consultant — offers a solution. We have elderly women on motorbikes counting their bullets in the bodies of men. We have the movie’s young heroines, the Five Wives, who resemble what would happen if someone decided to heavily arm a Burberry ad, kicking their awful chastity belts across the desert. And we have Furiosa, a protagonist who takes the worn stereotype of the strong female action hero in shiny latex and shatters it to flaming shards in the sand. The film does not judge its heroines on age and beauty: Together, all of these women give the lie to the notion that there is any proper way to be female on film. Supermodels and white-haired warriors with faces like withered fruit fight side-by-side under a leader whose beauty is in no way sexualized. Together, they are formidable.
The logic of the neo-misogyny espoused by men’s rights activists and Return of Kings commenters is grounded in the idea that, as Clarey puts it, “when the shit hits the fan, it will be men like Jack Mad Max who will be in charge.” Come the inevitable collapse of civilization, women will need men to protect them. The so-called natural order will reassert itself, the thinking goes, and hot babes will go crawling back to the kitchen to make cockroach sandwiches where they belong. What’s threatening about Fury Road is the idea that when the earth burns, women might not actually want men to protect them. Men might, in fact, be precisely the thing they are trying to survive.
This film makes plain what other dystopias have already hinted at: The nightmare of environmental collapse is a double nightmare. The real horror is not the drought and the howling desert and the lack of Wi-Fi and sunscreen. The real horror is other human beings. The question is not how we’re going to survive the droughts, the floods, the dimming of the lights across the world. The question is: How will we survive each other?
The answer is that we will survive together. The threat of environmental and social collapse is no longer the stuff of science fiction. In any future dystopia, women and minorities will be more vulnerable than ever, and that is precisely why their liberation will be more vital than ever. Take Octavia Butler's Earthseed series. In a drought-stricken California, Butler’s young heroine Lauren Olamina leads a community of survivors who manage to thrive because they have a code of tolerance and mutual aid as well as a stash of guns.
In Fury Road, the answer is the same. Furiosa's initial plan is to take the Wives to "The Green Place," where women live in safety and harmony. But when they get there, it’s a toxic swamp, peopled by a handful of badass biker grannies (presumably the last survivors of the Feminist Twitter Wars). There is no utopia here. It turns out that there is no "Green Place," no safe space for Furiosa and her charges to retreat to, no magic world without men. Max and Furiosa triumph not by escaping, but by returning to the Citadel, where they will survive together or not at all.
Unlike in so many feminist dystopias — from the Handmaid’s Tale to Suzette Haden Elgin’s neglected Native Tongue series to the genre-busting comic Bitch Planet — not every man in this film is a douche canoe. In Fury Road, the men can be redeemed too. By the end, Max has realized that his best chance for survival is to fight with Furiosa and her gang — not for them, but alongside them.
And then there's Nux. Nux is a speedballing, feral war boy who starts the film hunting Furiosa and her gang and ends up throwing in his lot with the women, giving all he has to keep their truck moving. It’s a gorgeous, scenery-chewing performance by Nicholas Hoult, who gives us the tanked-up henchman as a lost, ignorant child trying to find meaning in violent masculinity. In the first hour, he gets thrown out of a moving truck as the women scream their mantra, “Who killed the world?” It obviously wasn’t them. But it wasn’t Nux, either.
Nux is as much a victim of Joe’s death cult as any woman. He is terminally ill, painfully ignorant of the world, and spends most of the film getting punched in the face by someone or other. He has the capacity for sacrifice and even sweetness, although this is not a world where romantic love can survive for long. Most of the characters in Fury Road have clear precedents in science fiction and fantasy. Nux is something rare: the redeemable feminist ally as hero.
This, in Furiosa’s words, is a film about redemption. Not for everyone. The snarling, lurching patriarchs of this film probably need to die in flames, and Immortan Joe is the 1 percent in club makeup. In the end, we believe that the war boys, too, will be freed from slavery. Perhaps the real reason that this film has upset the neo-misogynists so very much is not just that it throws their Return of Kings fantasy into vivid, horrible relief, but that it offers the possibility of redemption for all of us.
Fury Road tells a simple, vital story, and it tells it in dazzling color with buckets of blood and bristling war trucks. The story is this: The liberation of women is the liberation of everyone, and there’s only one way to stay alive when the world burns. We must learn to survive each other, because we can’t survive without each other.
Laurie Penny is a writer and journalist from London. She is Contributing Editor at New Statesman magazine and the author of five books, most recently “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution."
Contact Laurie Penny at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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