Mad Max: Fury Road

Essay Title

Using “Mad Max: Fury Road” as the primary text, explore why mainstream cinema is now a post-feminist medium.

Introduction

Feminism is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities” in society and traditional feminists argued media texts are the output of patriarchal institutions which often disempowers women.1 In these products, women are stereotypically represented as housewives, submissive and reduced to be the inactive “damsel in distress” typical of Propp”s character theory,2 so they are never the hero or determine the action of the plot, serving only to reinforce the male lead. The media are often guilty of perpetuating the myth that these roles are normal.

The term “male gaze” was developed by the feminist film critic, Laura Mulvey. The concept criticises the way the films are structured from a male’s point of view. In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”,3 she explored how men are mostly in control of the cameras in films, dictating the shots and directing the audience’s eyes from a heterosexual male perspective. The idea of “male gaze” can be seen clearly in any “James Bond” film, with the “Bond girls” being cast purely for voyeuristic reasons and not actually adding to the plot in any meaningful way. See Appendix One for a detailed exploration of this misogynistic representation. As the cultivation theory suggested, the more audiences are exposed to media texts that contain sexualised and reductive images of women, the more they internalise the stereotype and it becomes the norm.4 Internalisation is the term psychologists use to describe the unconscious mental process where attitudes of other people are assimilated into your own self.5

The Pay Gap

However, post-feminism is the belief that the more militant feminism is no longer necessary because equality has been achieved. Many women now see feminism as old-fashioned. For example, the Equal Opportunities Commission stated that “feminism is dead and most women believe that have achieved equality with men”.6 However, there is still a wage gap between men and women. On average, when a full-time working man earns £16.77 per hour, a full-time working woman will only earn £14.39.7 Jennifer Lawrence spoke out about the unfair wage difference between men and women in Hollywood after she discovered her co-star, Amy Adams, and herself were paid 2% less than the male stars of the film “American Hustle”. However, she doesn’t put blame on the distributors, Sony. She said in an essay for Lena Dunham’s newsletter that she “didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early”.8 She then went on to say that she didn’t fight more because she didn’t want people to dislike her, which she thinks is a problem for a lot of women nowadays as “studies have shown that women who ask for raises can suffer social consequences at work”.9 In a media landscape where image is everything, Lawrence did not want to send out a negative signal to producers and audiences.

This pay gap has not always existed. A 1934 article claimed the “largest salaries” in Hollywood were “earned by women” because they had the “power” and that, placed in bold in the magazine’s kicker, “men must always play a losing game” in the movie industry.10 A year later, another article was entitled “Women Rule Hollywood”. It argued that women held the hegemony because they made up 72% of the audience.11 The Hays Code, which was introduced in 1930, ruled what was appropriate viewing for audiences, and began to change this dominance by reproducing “the morality of the men who use the pictures as a medium for the expression of their ideas and ideals”.12 Women and their stories were being excluded.

However, the media landscape is shifting once again as more women flex their growing power. Post-feminist media texts often apply a playful attitude to the traditional gender divisions of the past. This can be seen quite clearly in Diet Coke’s advertisement called “Gardener”, which demonstrates a “female gaze”. In this text women are hegemonic. The characters represent “the traditional image of “wife-mother-housewife” being replaced by images of sexually assertive, confident and ambitious women”.13

Film Analysis

Charlize Theron, the focus of this essay, described “Fury Road” as an “incredible feminist movie”.14 She addressed the unfair representation of women in film, saying that actresses play “either a really good mother, or… a really good hooker”,15 meaning that the representation of women still comes down to the “Madonna/whore complex”.16 In other words, women cannot have such diverse roles like men. Theron has also spoken about the need for gender equality, and not just in film. She explained the need for girls to understand that feminism means equal rights for everyone and “being a feminist is a good thing”.17 Other well-known actresses have spoken out about female representation in, but they haven’t all been in support of it. Marion Cotillard, for example, has said there “is no place for feminism in Hollywood because the very term creates “separation” between the sexes”.18 She said in an interview with Porter magazine that “for me it doesn’t create equality, it creates separation. I mean, I don’t qualify myself as a feminist”.19

“Mad Max: Fury Road” somewhat contradicts Mulvey’s theory because of the institution and the filmmakers behind it consisted of many women. For example, Eve Ensler, a feminist writer who worked with women living in very harsh conditions, was brought onto the film by the director as a consultant so they would avoid stock versions of abused characters.20

It was directed by George Miller, who developed the original Mad Max franchise, and was distributed by the major studio Warner Bros. Pictures, well known for their other series such as “Batman”, “Harry Potter”, and “The Hobbit”. This is not an independent film company taking an art-house approach to gender; this is mainstream Hollywood reimagining a very masculine action hero’s story with an incredibly strong female lead.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” premiered in 2015 and, as of September 2015, it grossed $374.4 million worldwide against a budget of $150 million.21 It was voted the best film of the year by international film critics.22 With such critical and box-office acclaim, Hollywood is beginning to realise the potential of strong female characters.

In the opening credits of the film, it is clear that Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa, is considered equal to Tom Hardy’s eponymous, Max, because they are given diagonal billing. Hardy’s name is in the bottom left of the screen, and Theron’s is at the top right. Reading left to right gives one actor top billing and reading top to bottom gives the other top status. This idea originally came from “The Towering Inferno” when Steve McQueen and Paul Newman both demanded top billing for the film (see Appendix Two).  The solution was to use this layout to show that both actors are equally as important.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” follows Campbell’s narrative theory of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey.23 He imagined seventeen stages for every narrative that could be separated into three acts. In the Departure act, for example, the protagonist is called to go on an adventure which, at first, they are reluctant to go on, but are then aided by a mentor. In the Return act, the protagonist returns to the “ordinary” world with their reward, which they must use as a benefit for other people and the protagonist is transformed after their adventure. This echoes Max learning that Furiosa is the one who is charge and, if he wants to survive, he has to help the slaves and follow Furiosa’s orders.

In terms of Todorov’s narrative theory, the new equilibrium would be Max’s new-found feminism. Perhaps this is the preferred reading of the text that the film’s producers intended.24

Therefore, the narrative of the film doesn’t have to change to accommodate a female protagonist; they just have to be cast in that role. The best example of this is the sci-fi classic “Alien”. Sigourney Weaver played the female protagonist Ellen Ripley, but the role was originally written for a male character. In fact, that was what attracted her to the role.25 The production simply swapped the names and pronouns used and now Ripley is “one of the first female movie characters who isn”t defined by the men around her, or by her relationship to them”.26

What pushes “Mad Max: Fury Road” to be considered feminist is the obvious example of Max spending the first quarter of the film muzzled (see Appendix Three). He is only set free when he starts to help Furiosa and then becomes a supporting character in her narrative. In the beginning of the film, it appears that Max will be the “Hero” from Propp’s character theory, but he actually turns out to be the “Helper”, with Furiosa taking the lead instead of being the “Princess” or the prize to be won. The signifier of the face cage signifies Max’s enforced silence, a reversal of gender roles because it is often the woman who is subjugated. Another good example is when Furiosa fights Max and, despite having lost an arm, appears equal.

Other specific action codes include when Furiosa uses Max to steady her rifle rather than him shooting, the slaves cutting off their chastity belts in liberation, all of the women in the film supporting and caring for each other, and when one slave shields Furiosa with her own body and unborn child. The youngest female actor was Coco Jack Gillies, who was around 8 years old at the time of filming, and its oldest female star was 78-year-old Melissa Jaffer.27 These women are rebelling against their enslavement, working together and supporting each other throughout the whole film. With so many moments and variety of female strength, it is no surprise that “Mad Max: Fury Road” is considered a feminist film.

The Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests

Alison Bechdel developed her test in 1985, asking “whether a work of fiction features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man”.28 Even though it seems like a very simple task, many films fail the Bechdel Test. Only two out of the eight 2014 Academy Awards nominees would pass.29 A more recent framework, the Mako Mori test, applies three criteria: at least one female character, who gets her own narrative arc, and that is not about supporting a man’s story.30 “Mad Max: Fury Road” passes both of these tests because it has seven strong female characters that stand on their own and are not defined by men.

Criticism

Despite these tests and the strong feminist moments in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, if “Fury Road” was really was an “incredible feminist movie” as Theron claimed,31 then the women in it wouldn’t be reduced to “breeder status”,32 and the slaves would not be scantily-clad models which reinforce Mulvey’s idea of a voyeuristic “male gaze”. The subtitle “Fury Road” is too vague for the audience to make the connection to Theron’s Furiosa character. The movie remains “Mad Max”. It is “his” story.

There are other characters that seem to fall under this “faux-feminism” category.33 Katniss from “The Hunger Games” series is a great example. She can be considered a strong female character because she is incredibly brave and saves the life of Peeta. She knows how to fight, use a bow and arrow, look after herself and her family, and she isn”t afraid to stand up for herself and what she believes. However, the problem with these attributes is that “her “strength” comes in the form of stereotypically “masculine traits”.34

The Bride in both “Kill Bill” films has been named one of the greatest movie characters of all time by Empire Magazine, which claimed her defining moment was a scene where she takes on 88 trained fighters and defeats them all by herself.35 Why does her most important moment in the whole of the two films have to involve incredible violence, a trait that is represented as typically masculine?

Although films such as “Mad Max: Fury Road” are a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go in terms of equality in mainstream cinema. For “Fury Road” to be a true feminist film, it should have been directed by a woman, not a man. It would be written by three women, not three men. It wouldn’t have needed to have a love sub-plot between Nux and one of the slaves.

Rich argues that women consciously filter the images and messages they receive through cinema.36 Therefore, if we are to achieve a truly post-feminist film industry, women need better images and role models. However, this does not exclude men because, as Clover argues for example, young male viewers of the horror genre identify with the “damsel in distress” on a profound level.37

Appendix One

James Bond character Posters
“Gold Finger” (1964) Character Posters

The three images of the women are typical of the “male gaze”. The women only wearing two-piece bikinis and showing a lot of flesh is in binary opposition to the male character. They are the punctum of the promotion.38 Their direct eye contact, which is piercing the viewer, their demure body language and position of their hands are all carefully constructed to represent the girls as more alluring and seductive.

This is a very misogynistic poster, exploiting women as objects, simply there for voyeuristic purposes. Metz argued that viewing film is only possible through scopophilia which is clear in this poster.39 It also presents James Bond as the attractive, brave hero that gets all the girls. He holds a gun, an obvious signifier of danger, and looks cool and in control. This is reinforced through the tagline “Mixing business and girls!”

However, Barthes (1972) said “striptease is based on contradiction. Woman is desexualised at the very moment when she is stripped naked”, suggesting that it simply reduces women to objects.40

Also, a more recent critic argued that a smart-fitting suit in the ‘female gaze’ is equivalent to lingerie in the “male gaze”. James Bond is dressed in a tuxedo which will appeal to heterosexual women.

This disparity in representation continues today. In a study of the Top 500 films from 2007 to 2012, researchers found that men were shown in sexy attire on screen 7 percent of the time. Women, however, were shown as such 31.6 percent of the time. In addition, 9.4 percent of men on screen were shown naked or partially naked, compared to 31 percent of women.41 Equality in representation has yet to be achieved.

Appendix Two

The following screenshots are the examples of diagonal billing. The first is from the opening sequence of ‘The Towering Inferno’. In the battle of the sexes, Theron is on top, but Hardy could be read first.

lead actors names set diagonally from each other
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
lead actors from the Towering Inferno names set diagonally
“The Towering Inferno” (1974)

The technique was also used in ’Righteous Kill’, where co-stars Robert De Niro and Al Pacino took a diagonal approach, while on the poster for ’Heat’ they both clubbed together to push Val Kilmer into third place.42

Appendix Three

The following screenshot is taken from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’. Traditional cinema often doesn’t give women a voice. Here, it is the male title character that is muzzled and has his voice taken away. The chain is another obvious signifier of being subjugated.

Mad Max with a muzzle on his face

1 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism
2 ‘Morphology of the Folk Tale’ by Vladimir Propp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Character_theory_(media)#cite_note-3
3 Mulvey, L. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’
4 Cohen, J.; Weimann, G. (2000). ‘Cultivation Revisited: Some Genres Have Some Effects on Some Viewers’.
5 http://psychologydictionary.org/internalization/
6 Steve Doughty, ‘Feminism ‘is dead’, study claims’, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-187175/Feminism-dead-study-claims.html
7 http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/equal-pay-day-analysis-reveals-pay-gap-not-really-gap-all-1527882
8 Bourree Lam, 13/10/15, ‘Jennifer Lawrence Calls Out the Wage Gap’, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/jennifer-lawrence-wage-gap/410311/
9 Hannah Riley Bowles, 19/06/2014, https://hbr.org/2014/06/why-women-dont-negotiate-their-job-offers/
10 Benham, L. (1934) ‘The Battle of the Sexes’. Picture Play Magazine. http://archive.org/stream/pictureplay3941stre#page/n633/mode/2up
11 Goldwyn, S. (1935) ‘Women Rule Hollywood’. Picture Play Magazine http://archive.org/stream/newmoviemagazin11weir#page/n181/mode/2up
12 http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html
13 Estel Hegglin, 29/04/2015, https://feministtheoryfictionunil.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/now-you-are-the-toy-man-not-so-sure/
14 Cavan Sieczkowski, 15/05/2015 ‘Charlize Theron On Why ‘Mad Max’ Is An ‘Incredible Feminist Movie’’ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/charlize-theron-mad-max-feminist_n_7292506.html
15 Catherine Shoard, (2015) ‘Charlize Theron on Mad Max: ‘We live in a very toxic world’’ http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/14/charlize-theron-mad-max-imperator-furiosa-feminist-icon
16 http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/may/14/charlize-theron-mad-max-imperator-furiosa-feminist-icon
17 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/charlize-theron-mad-max-feminist_n_7292506.html
18 Ben Child (2015, ‘Marion Cotillard says feminism has no place in the film industry’, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/29/marion-cotillard-feminism-film-industry
19 Charlie Teather (2015) ‘Marion Cotillard admits she wasn’t interested in fashion before working with Dior as she claims feminism in film ‘creates separation’’, http://www.standard.co.uk/fashion/news/marion-cotillard-admits-she-wasnt-interested-in-fashion-before-working-with-dior-as-she-claims-a2957261.html
20 http://screenrant.com/mad-max-fury-road-eve-ensler-feminism/
21 http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=furyroad.htm
22 Scott Roxborough (2015), ‘International Film Critics Vote ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Year’s Best Film’ http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/international-film-critics-vote-mad-819271
23 http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/hero_journey/hero_journey.htm
24 Hall, Stuart. ’Encoding/Decoding.’
25 http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2010/12/great-characters-ellen-ripley-alien.html
26 http://www.ew.com/gallery/20-all-time-coolest-heroes-pop-culture/374486_5-ellen-ripley
27 Shaw-Williams, H. (2015) ‘What is a Feminist Movie Anyway’. Screenrant. http://screenrant.com/mad-max-fury-road-feminist-movie/
28 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test
29 Rachel Simon, 15/1/2015, ‘2015 Oscar Best Picture Nominees Are All About Men, And Only 2 of the Movies Pass the Bechdel Test’ http://www.bustle.com/articles/58778-2015-oscar-best-picture-nominees-are-all-about-men-and-only-2-of-the-movies-pass
30 http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Mako_Mori_test
31 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/charlize-theron-mad-max-feminist_n_7292506.html
32 http://whatculture.com/film/mad-max-fury-road-10-reasons-it-isnt-actually-feminist.php/2
33 http://inthesetimes.com/article/17960/actually-mad-max-fury-road-isnt-that-feminist
34 https://www.quora.com/The-Hunger-Games-creative-franchise/Is-Katniss-Everdeen-a-feminist-character
35 http://www.empireonline.com/movies/features/100-greatest-movie-characters/
36 Ruby, Rich, B. (1990). ‘In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism. Issues in Feminist Film Criticism.Patricia Erens, ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 268–287.
37 Clover, C.J. (2011) ‘Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film.’ press.princeton.edu.
38 1/7/2008, ‘Studium and Punctum’, https://georgepowell.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/studium-and-punctum/
39 Braudy and Cohen (2004) Film Theory and Criticism, Sixth Edition, Oxford University Press, page 827
40 Sofía Nogués, 17/7/2013, ‘Myths and the perception of gender in culture and society’, https://sofianogues.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/myths-and-the-perception-of-gender-in-culture-and-society/
41 Smith, S.L et al (2012) ‘Gender Inequality in  500 Popular Films: Examining On-Screen Portrayals and Behind-the-Scenes Employment Patterns in Motion Pictures Released between 2007-2012’ http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/Gender_Inequality_in_500_Popular_Films_-_Smith_2013.ashx
42 Frizzell, N. (2012) ‘Ideas in Poster Design’. http://www.ideastap.com/ideasmag/all-articles/politics-of-poster-design

Further Reading

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