GeekGirlCon ’15 Recap: Matriachy in Mad Max: Mothers, Warriors, and Wives
The first time I saw Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters, I cried for at least half of it. My roommate was pretty sure I had gone insane, but the simple fact that this movie not only existed but was a big-budget film with beautiful effects and great name recognition was shaking me to my core. I loved every moment of the film, even though I hadn’t seen the other movies in the series and hadn’t even been interested in it until I learned it was making men’s rights activists angry. But I was quickly converted and, obviously, very touched by the story.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that GeekGirlCon ‘15’s panel on MMFR was on my go-see list as soon as I got the panel listings. Moderated by Jennifer Stuller and with an amazing panel composed of disability activists, feminist scholars, and associate professors, “Matriarchy in Mad Max: Mothers, Warriors, and Wives” was a study of feminist themes in the movie. Perspectives on the film varied across the panel, but thanks to a remarkably calm and respectful atmosphere, the discussions never dissolved into arguments.
The panel was made up of Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency; Kari Lerum, associate professor at the University of Washington; Kristine Hassell, who we’re lucky enough to have on the GeekGirlCon staff; Elsa S. Henry, feminist and disability activist; and Sarah Mirk of Bitch Media.
The discussion started with a summary of the film and its position in the world. Women saw MMFR as a rejection of toxic masculinity, and women were a large part of the reason it was the second highest film in the box office its opening weekend, right after (the also female-led) Pitch Perfect 2. But what does that mean in the bigger picture? What did our panelists think of Furiosa’s narrative journey toward redemption?
Elsa had an extremely personal response to the heroine. “It took me 15 minutes before I realized Furiosa had a prosthetic arm,” she said, “At which point I basically made this low-level squealing noise, which apparently only dogs could hear. Because it was the first time that I had sat in a movie theater and seen a woman with an adaptive device be powerful. So her story felt very much like a story I could relate to.”
Sarah pointed out that MMFR gives a woman a chance to be the strong-but-silent type. “I think something that’s great about Furiosa is that she doesn’t give big monologues or her feelings or her past or her character, but the details that do come through are very profound.”
Some of that lack of detail, however, made Furiosa’s motivations unclear to Kari. “I’ve watched the film five times now and it took me a long time to figure out why she needed redemption. It’s not clear to me if she needs redemption because she was a sex slave and she feels shame about that or whether she created violent acts to get where she is, but it’s a point of curiosity for me.”
Kristine, who had seen MMFR seven times at this point, was impressed by the fact that Furiosa is never out-shown by a man, especially not in terms of guns. “For me, one of the things that resonated was any time that she raises her firearm to take a shot, she makes her mark every time. One shot, every single time.” She loved how Max recognized that, too: “It’s a great scene when she comes behind him, not even saying anything, and he just gives the gun. I love Furiosa; I think she’s a badass.”
Jennifer made it clear throughout the panel that they weren’t there to decide once and for all if MMFR is feminist or not, because in her own words, that’s boring. It’s a limiting way to look at the film, especially since “being feminist” means different things to different people. Instead, she wanted to know, for instance, whether or not the statements of agency made throughout the film were empowering. “We are not things” is a powerful claim, but is it just a redux of “girl power”?
Anita’s skepticism about the validity of MMFR as a feminist wonder was made clear by her initial tweets about the movie, and she spoke up now to explain further why she wasn’t as wowed as some of her fellow panelists. “I think that the phrase ‘we are not things’ is valuable, but I don’t think the movie follows through with it. I think it’s very empty in this context for a number of reasons. One of the big things for me was that the words were said, yet the camera caressed the bodies of the brides throughout the whole movie and ultimately objectified them. I think they were rendered objects throughout the whole movie. I can’t believe Furiosa planned this whole escape for months and didn’t have a change of clothes for them.
“The film-making turned them into objects, or kept them as objects, even though it was trying to say it wasn’t,” Anita concluded, to applause.
Kari responded with a counterpoint: “I hear the critique there of what they’re wearing and the objectification, but at the same time, that’s a red herring of what the real problem is with the film. As a queer, intersectional feminist, I don’t see sexuality in that case necessarily as the worst part of it. The trope of being a sex slave was more offensive than the costuming.” Kari and Elsa both expressed their unhappiness with Eve Ensler (a playwright, performer and feminist most well-known for her play The Vagina Monologues), who was a consultant on the film, and who Kari said for her represented “what people call white people–feminism.” Ensler and Charlize Theron, who played Furiosa, were both outspoken voices against the global decriminalization of sex work, which our panelists didn’t appreciate (here’s an article from Time summing up why Amnesty International supports decriminalization).
On the other hand, our panelists seemed to agree that while having the brides be sex slaves was a tired, lazy choice, the related decision to not show any of that abuse was a breath of fresh air. Elsa said, “In my review, I said I wanted to reject that we have to see those things. I believe Max says in the film ‘I believe you’ and that was another piece that meant worlds.” Along the same lines, Sarah commented that she was nervous going into the film, but glad it was represented in a way that the audience was straight-up called on to believe that these women had something real to run away from without seeing it firsthand.
When the topic moved to the issue of having Charlize Theron, who is able-bodied, play the role of a disabled women, Elsa had some strong thoughts to share.
“There is a moment in the film, where [Furiosa] takes off her prosthetic and kneels down in the ground and weeps. And I’ve been there,” Elsa said. “I don’t have a prosthetic arm, but there are moments when you feel your disability and you feel the body that you’re in and dropping what makes you that piece of you—it’s my cane, for me. I’ve had my cane drop out of my hand in grief. And that moment was really powerful for me, and I started crying in the theater, which has never happened to me before.
“But it hurt me that a woman was able-bodied got to have that moment, and a woman, an actor who is not able-bodied, did not get to have that moment. I really believe that we need to push for disabled actors in disabled roles wherever we can get them, every time. Because you will get a more authentic story—I think Charlize Theron did a great job, but it would have been even better if she had been an amputee.” There’s little doubt in my mind that Furiosa’s movements, actions, and drive would have been intrinsically, amazingly more powerful if the actress behind her could have more completely connected with her as a character in that very important way.
On the subject of Furiosa’s actual prosthetic, though, Elsa had nothing but good things to say: “It’s a super awesome adaptive device. They thought hard about what they wanted that to look like. You can wrench things and she even uses it to drive her rig: it’s been built to use the thing she drives, which is great, and that’s how it should be. The prosthetic is a really good example of the things they got right.”
The themes of eco-feminism in MMFR were very important to several of the panelists, including Sarah. “Eco-feminism links exploitation of the world and natural resources to the exploitation of humans and marginalized people,” she explained. “Immortan Joe collects all the water that could help the world flourish. That’s a key part of how he controls the world. It’s not just about who has the biggest guns, but also who has the water, the food, the greens. When Dag opens the bag and sees all the seeds, it’s such a beautiful scene. These badass ‘seed savers’ who carry around guns but also heirloom seed varieties. The seeds are the more powerful weapon, because they represent not only power over people but also a chance to make the world a better place.”
Jennifer soon took that opportunity to talk about the other weapons in the film: the actual weapons, the violence, and whether it’s glorified or rejected. “I want to complicate this discussion,” she said, “And not have this panel be a ‘Fury Road fails!’ or ‘Fury Road, yay, feminist movie of the year!’ because I think it falls somewhere in the middle and we need to talk about those things.”
The large screen set up to the side of the panelists was then lit up with several of Anita’s tweets about MMFR, to a quick reaction of thunderous applause from the audience—which was soon mixed with laughter when Anita said, “That was not the reaction I got on the Internet!” Anita was one of the few big-name feminist critics who weren’t completely on the MMFR bandwagon soon after it came out, and her criticisms of the movie via Twitter, unsurprisingly, got her a lot of backlash. Jennifer invited her to talk more about her thoughts on the movie and whether it glorifies violence.
Jennifer introduced the topic, saying, “MMFR is about replicating/repeating the mistakes we’ve made, women continuing this cycle of destruction and violence, but they’re also working to restore the world, through this radical transformation.”
Anita took that starting point and ran with it. “One of the things is that—I know we’re not talking about whether or not it’s feminist, but it’s tricky to have this conversation without using that framework, but I also agree it’s a little reductive to talk about the film in that way. So, when we talk about strong female characters—I hate that phrase,” she added, before continuing. “I think we’re seeing an increase of women who are taking the values and frameworks of male action heroes and just gender-swapping. I think we need to be careful about overly heralding those as the feminist icons embodying feminist values. The feminism I subscribe to, those are not feminist values: being gleefully violent, showing no emotions, lots of independence.
“I can watch this movie and go, whoa, that feels really good to see her be tough and strong and violent and stoic just like all the boring male action heroes we’ve seen over and over again. But the feminist in me kicks in and says, that’s not what I want. That’s not what I want to see heralded as strong feminist icons. When it comes to violence,” Anita said, “I’m trouble at the glamorization and sensalization of violence. Everything about the movie was crafted to make us say ‘ooh, cool!’
“There was nothing about the movie that was like, ‘Oh, shit, we need to challenge sexism!’ No one I talked to said they needed to challenge sexism: they just said, ‘I’m not a cartoony misogynist, yay!’” Anita clarified. “Violence can be necessary for liberation, but I think it’s always horrific and it always has emotional and physical consequences for those who are targeted and for those who use it. I want to see more media about that, more media that discusses it and deals with it in a genuine way. It’s not going to be fun. The movie would be completely different in that case. I want us to start using the word ‘strong’ when we see people who are cooperative, empathetic, nurturing, caring, and weak in moments and learn to overcome those weaknesses.”
I, personally, was very grateful to hear Anita explicate her thoughts on MMFR, because I was one of those who didn’t react well to her initial tweets. I was so thrilled with the movie that I was willing to defend it no matter what the attacks were—but her thoughts here, heard in person and not just in 140-character snippets, were not only reasonable, they were convincing.
Elsa, too, was pleasantly surprised by how little she wanted to disagree with in Anita’s talk. “It’s funny,” she said, “Anita and I were saying before the panel that we were going to disagree, but I actually don’t. I just have a slightly different perspective: there was a moment that felt so empowering to me, which was weird since it was so violent, but when Furiosa hits Max with her stump, it was this incredible moment of using your body in a violent way to keep yourself and the people you’re with safe. You don’t see much violence from disabled people. That was one of the only times I’ve seen a disabled woman defending herself with her body. I found it to be a very powerful use of violence, but I was also uncomfortable watching all the explosions and loud, cinematic violence.”
Sarah brought things a bit further, by adding, “I think that’s why the Vuvalini speak to me so much, because they would rather not be a violent society. They would rather have their society be based on cooperation, beautiful farms, but instead they’ve been forced into these violent methods, literally shooting everyone they see. That’s why the film’s ending is such a cliffhanger to me; are they going to change, or will it be the same? Is it possible to change in that world? What kind of society are these women going to make?”
Near the end of the panel, Kristine widened the focus. “Something that struck me, as a biracial viewer, were the people of color in the film,” she pointed out. “One, I think people of color and biracial people of color are so hungry for representation–we want to see ourselves in film–so on one hand, I was excited to see not one, not two, but three women of color. But at the same time, I was a little bothered by the fact that there was colorism. They were all very fair and very pretty.”
Calling back to an early point that Jennifer brought up, about how there seems to be a connection between ugly and bad and between pretty and good in the film, Kristine continued, “The depiction of size and the little bit of fatphobia, and the depiction of fat women in the film, made me a little worried. My equalizer was tough to sort out with awesome, so I’m still not sure what I think.”
The panel ended with some guesses about what a Furiosa-focused spin-off would be like. “What do we hope for the future of the citadel?” Jennifer asked.
“Will the next film be a major bureaucratic drama?” Sarah joked.
Elsa grinned, closing the panel with her idea: “I want to see floor senate meetings with people throwing their prosthetic legs on the ground, yelling ‘This will not stand!’”
The panel was filled with amazing insights from intelligent, well-spoken women. What I was most impressed with and what has stuck with me even to now is how respectful all of the panelists were. Clearly their ideas differed, with some panelists focusing on disability issues and others looking at the racial tensions in the film, but the cooperation and empathy present during the talk would be a great starting point for the new rulers of the Citadel.
If you’re like me and desperately need more scholarly articles and conversations about MMFR, check out this list of recommended reading by the panelists and suggestions curated by Jen Stuller herself:
- “The Ecofeminism of Mad Max” by Sarah Mirk
- “Fury Road’s righteous sexual politics: Starring White feminism & good White men” by Kari Lerum
- “Kersplodey Boom DISABLED FEMINISM!” by Elsa Henry
- Twitter thoughts on MMFR by Anita Sarkeesian
- “How popular “sex trafficking” stories like Abduction of Eden justify bad policy and hurt sex workers” by Kari Lerum
- “Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology” by Jennifer K. Stuller
- Mad Max complicates action hero masculinity—and that’s great
- Take The Fury Road … It’s One Hell of a Drive
- On the Fury Road to Revolution
- Mad Max: Fury Road
- We All Agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important.
- “Mad Max”: How Men’s Rights Activists Killed the World
- Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies