Saturday, December 26, 2015

Is Mad Max Feminist?

I realized it's been a while since I wrote any pop culture posts so I think I'm well over-due on my meanderings in film and book reviewing. So I'll lead myself back into this with an area I could discuss for the rest of my life: Hollywood and feminism.

After all the hype it got this summer, I finally watched Mad Max: Fury Road over Christmas. Online, everyone seemed to be celebrating how important it was to have an action film that primarily focused on women (especially as the film made heaps of money and did well across the traditional action film audience, proving that, yes, you can put women in important roles in films and men will still watch them) and that it dealt with feminist subject matter. So I gleefully approached this film, hoping it would fill my little feminist heart with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow for Hollywood.

Except that it didn't really. I was utterly underwhelmed and not very impressed. There was very little dialogue throughout the film and (as a writer) I was pretty disappointed by this. Limited backstory is not always a drawback but for a film that throws you into a bizarre, apocalyptic world, I wanted more than I got. When special effects take up more time than storytelling, I am also disappointed and Mad Max certainly did this.

At the end of the film, I wondered: Was it feminist? It wasn't not feminist - it certainly spoke out against degrading women and treating them as objects, but it never put men in a very strong place of supporting women. Max and Nux certainly aid Furiosa and the "wives" but more for their own survival than because they see the women as equals (although they seem to come around by the end). The women other than Furiosa didn't seem to have names (if they do, I never caught them) and they have little in the way of individual identities - but it is the apocalypse. It's not like we're learning great details about anyone here. Still, I struggled to identify them by anything more than physical characteristics and thought this was pretty lack-luster if we're going for feminist action film. If you're going to star women, then give us women, not facades.

What leads to the great escape road trip is Furiosa's aiding these women - the "wives" as I've decided to call them since breeders (the name given to them in their society) makes me break out in hives - to escape the fate of forever bearing sons to the war-mongering Immortan Joe, tyrant and creepy misogynist. "We are not things" they say and paint on the walls of their escaped prison. But does the film ever really give them the opportunity to act as more than things? The one "wife" who begins this rebellion (and here there be major spoilers) is killed while the others struggle to continue on without her and most hover in the background while Furiosa, Max, and Nux retaliate. So much of this film is focused on car wrecks and disastrous crashes, amping up the exact violent environment the war-mongers we're meant to be pitted against thrive on, which sends a bit of a mixed message. These guys want to die violently and go to Valhalla - which is exactly what they get at the hands of Max and Furiosa, while the mothers' society women who join them seem to be there only in order to die. The "wives" do want their freedom, but they seem to hover more in the background like damsels in distress than empowered people. Yes, I know they've been imprisoned for their whole lives, but that doesn't mean they aren't motivated to do something. Maybe it's their clothing - the flowing rather scanty white attire that makes them look so damsel-like. I can't help but think that their attire is entirely meant for the male gaze and less of a representation of what they are leaving behind (especially with the first look we get at them from Max's point of view, rinsing off in their revealing white like some kind of male fantasy. Maybe the fantasy as this moment for Max is the rare and treasured water, but that is not what the camera shows us). This immediately puts them on a different ground than Furiosa, who from the moment we see her is a tough tour-de-force, a rig-driving disabled badass who is not afraid to commit treason to help those in need. But even Furiosa is a bit disappointing - there's so much more that could have been given to her as a character and she's played by Charlize Theron, who's an incredible actor, but isn't given much beyond her shooting and driving abilities - and while there clearly is something more there in terms of her past, we're not granted that in this film and apparently have to wait to find out in a sequel. This film did make a killing in the box office, but if this is the best we can do in terms of feminist action films, we still have a long way to go.

Of course, this is all my opinion. The issue in critique films is that they can be read in so many different ways - there's how the director wants you to see it, the studio, the actors, the screenwriter, and then the audience themselves. I didn't see it as all that feminist - maybe because I was expecting so much more after the hype. Fighting back against men who are violent and warring isn't all that interesting to me - it's been done before. Let's do something new. However, it does get men to watch mainstream movies that teach feminist concepts. And maybe that's a bigger deal than I allow it to be (I think back to the ads for the new Fast and Furious film and how women are only allowed bikini-clad torso shots that surmise that they are pretty objects to be ogled and fondled, not allowed part of the action. In that respect, Mad Max does blow them out of the water).

Still, I can't help but compare it to Sucker Punch, a film that didn't gross as much but I think does a better job of putting women in an action role. The issue is this film can be read as sexist - the way the women are sexualized throughout the film, how seduction and assault become part of the narrative. However, I think this is actually really feminist and, like Mad Max, can trick men into watching a feminist piece. Women are scantily clad, but they choose their outfits in this fantasy-escapism where they fight their own tormentors in their mind and in actuality. Emily Browning leads the brigade but each character is allowed a fully-formed fleshed-out role - and when you lose one of them, you lose a full character. It questions the male gaze throughout by showing these women dressed somewhat provocatively while they fight against men who see them that way - the men who imprison them and torment them. It's almost a metaphor for women fighting to gain control in fantasy/sci-fi genre itself - how to we retain our own personal definitions of femininity without being seen as catering to men; how we strive to tell our stories while those claim men aren't interested because it's about women. It's directed and partially written by Zach Snyder, who did 300 (a pretty good film) and Watchman (a movie I will never see because everyone I know has told me it's awful). So it may not be the best made film or intentionally feminist. But the line, "You have all the weapons you need. Now fight" - speaks to me. It's all about finding strength within and that you as a woman are strong enough. And what's a more feminist message than that?

I think what really disappoints me about Mad Max is just that I gave into the hype and expected more than I got. And that I wanted so much more from the script - I thrive on dialogue and there wasn't much to be had in this film. For me, it doesn't say enough - or maybe it doesn't say it in the right ways for me.

Regardless, I hope to see more films like Mad Max and Sucker Punch, because it's about damn time that people realize women can hold their own - both in film and in real life. Directors like Quentin Tarantino (a favorite of mine, though not free from my critique) has said Mad Max was the best film he saw in 2015. Which coming from the creator of Kill Bill is an awesome compliment. However, (and this is getting back to my parenthetical comment about Tarantino not being free from my relentless critique), while I really want to champion him as someone who can write really powerful women, I'm not convinced that his characters are free from misogyny either (I'm thinking of this review from the New York Times I recently read about The Hateful Eight and now I'm really going to have to see it and see if I agree with the review or not). But are any of us entirely free of sexist comments or thoughts? I'm not perfect - I certainly have slipped up in the past and probably continue to do so. How am I failing in how I see my own world? And down this path lies the realm of cultural studies crisis where nothing can be truly feminist and we're all doomed. So I'm going to stop that before I begin because that took up way too much of my college career.

Ahh, this is why I stopped writing about pop culture. Because it's impossible to resolve anything. It feels good to be back.

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