Why Mad Max: Fury Road may be even more feminist and awesome that it looks

by Suw on May 28, 2015

Warning: Spoilers abound in this post, so if such things bother you, I seriously suggest you bookmark this and come back to it when you’ve seen Fury Road.

I had been going to write a straight up review of Mad Max: Fury Road, about how for me Nux, the War Boy who changes sides after totally failing to get himself gloriously killed in battle and thus seen safely on his way to Valhalla, was the most interesting character in many ways, being the only character with an actual arc to discuss. Or about how great it is to see a bunch of women in different roles all being kickass and amazing, even the supposedly weak Wives who need to be rescued but who, once they are rescued take a significant part in their own liberation. Or about how great it is to see older — indeed, let’s face facts here, old — women doing their own stunts and generally making the youngsters look like they’re not trying hard enough. Or about how Max himself is a fantastically enigmatic observer to the main story, essential for Imperator Furiosa’s success but yet always somehow separated from all the action he’s in the middle of. Or about how a similar film with an predominantly male cast would actually have been deathly dull, and in many ways it’s the feminism that makes this film work on any level at all, even whilst it skirts around the edges of the dullness inherent in a 2 hour car chase.

But there have already been a lot of pixels shed saying all that, and I fear I would not do the film any sort of justice without spending much more time constructing my thesis than I have available right now. However, I was reading Chuck Wendig’s blog post about how George Miller broke all the screenwriting rules when I read a short but awesome comment by Amanda Duncil:

The lack of explanation for how Furiosa came to be an Imperator has been nagging at me since I saw the film. It felt like she was the sole woman in the Citadel who wasn’t being used for her body. I feel like her backstory must be pretty exceptional and I need to know more.

and a reply by Warjna

I’m with you, Amanda, and I didn’t even realize it was itching at me until you said it. Was this because she was missing an arm, and was therefor not a “perfect offering” for the petty god Immortan Joe? Who knows? Do we need to? It’s funny how we sometimes just accept something, maybe because we assume we’ll get the information later. I seem to remember that she said she’d transported other women several times before. Transported where? Obviously not to the “Green Place.”

And something clicked in my brain and I haven’t been able to think anything else since, because this question might point to Miller not just ripping up the screenwriting rule book, but also the rulebook on how to portray infertility in women.

OK, here’s the logic:

We know that Immortan Joe keeps women of childbearing age as slaves to produce children and milk. We see a group of women, not just fattened as if they were cows but being milked as if they were a dairy herd. We have the five Wives, who are kept as sex slaves and of whom one The Splendid Angharad, is pregnant with Joe’s child. Joe is so desperate for a male heir who is fit and healthy that he is willing to kill Angharad seconds after he is told that she has just started breathing again after being run over by Joe’s convoy, in order to find out if her child is alive. It is not.

Whilst I wasn’t looking for it at the time, I don’t recollect seeing any other women of child-bearing age in the Citadel… except for Furiosa. All the women in the crowd scenes that I remember were too old to have children. So why is Furiosa out and about and truckin’ for Joe instead of being locked up with the other women?

Warjna suggests that it may be because she’s missing an arm and therefore ’not a “perfect offering”’, which is possible, but Furiosa is healthy in a way that other Citadel dwellers are not, so it seems more likely she lost her arm rather than being born without it. Indeed, compare Furiosa with the Citadel’s males, including Joe’s male children, who all shows signs of serious developmental abnormalities and/or physical birth defects. In the world of Fury Road, birth abnormalities are normality, and healthy women (and men) are rarities.

So if Furiosa lost her arm at some point in a fight or accident, that would mean she has no congenital abnormalities that could be passed on to her offspring, and thus that there’s no good reason for her not to be locked up with the other women. At the very least fattened up and forced to produce milk, even if she’s not perfect enough to be taken as one of the Wives.

UPDATE 1 JUNE 15: It’s been confirmed that Furiosa’s arm was “chopped off”, so her disability is not congenital. From a fascinating article about the special effects on FXGuide.com (my bold):

“It actually worked out pretty minimally in terms of visual effects work, even though one of your stars has a CG prosthetic,” notes Wood. “The trickier bit was when she didn’t have it on. When she fights with Max and just has a bare stump, that was more involved. Charlize wore a green glove and was asked not to use her left hand. We had to design the stump – that was tricky in itself. We looked at reference of a person who has an amputated arm and their muscles wither away, but hers was chopped off. The amount of scaring on it was tricky to control. We had to make it not look too unpleasant, but then track on from pretty much her own elbow.”

We know Joe is obsessed with having a fit, healthy son, so it seems logical that he wouldn’t allow any viable mother to slip through his fingers. We also know that he is not given to being nice to people, so he’s not going to let Furiosa drive a war rig just because she asked to. His entire society is predicated on cruelty, control and death, illustrated not just by how he treats the women, but how he unnecessarily rations water, which we are told he has tapped into an aquifer to access and which is, actually, abundant rather than scarce. He feels no sentimentality, so there has to be a reason why Furiosa is in this unique position amongst the women of the Citadel.

In my opinion, her position as Imperator can only mean one thing: Furiosa cannot bear children. She is infertile, and therefore of more value to Joe driving a war rig.

Now, I know that this is all conjecture based on nothing but a few assumptions, but if it is the case that Furiosa cannot have children, then Miller is not only rewriting the rulebook with regard to how women are portrayed in action movies, but is actually going a step further and showing that a disabled**, infertile woman is just as kickass as anyone else.

And this is important. As someone with only one ovary left, I can tell you that there are dark, dark places on the internet where women who have lost one or both ovaries talk about how they are now only half a woman, about how they encourage their boyfriends, whom they appear to deeply love, to leave them and find someone ‘whole’. When I read those women’s opinions of themselves, my heart broke that they would define their womanhood by the number of ovaries they have.

Losing one ovary does not make a woman infertile, and infertility is not predicated on a loss of both ovaries, but the very fact that there are women out there who have been conditioned by society to measure their worth solely in their ability to produce children is truly tragic. No woman’s worth should be measured by which organs she does or doesn’t have.

If it comes to light that Furiosa is indeed unable to have children, then she becomes the first infertile woman character on screen that I know of whose entire story does not revolve around the attempt to conceive or adopt children. Her existence is not predicated on a need to reproduce. Her story does not reduce her to her biology, to her ovaries and womb.

I blogged about my ovarian cyst and my salpingo-oophorectomy because I didn’t see very many level-headed accounts online of what it’s like to have a cyst the size of a grapefruit removed from your abdomen or, later, an ovary taken out. We don’t talk about these issues enough, which lets tragic and out-dated attitudes towards infertility and reproduction flourish.

I hope that I’m right about Furiosa, because it would shows that it’s a woman’s strength of character that counts, not her ovaries.

* It’s notable that not a single review or tweet I’ve read seen has commented on the human milking scene or the instances of men drinking human milk, despite the reaction one would have expected with regard to how ‘icky’ the idea is. After all, real women breastfeeding their children has already been deemed too icky for public consumption by places like Facebook. Perhaps Fury Road is such a WTF-fest that a scene of men drinking ‘mother’s milk’ doesn’t even register on the WTFometer.

** Again, I’ve not seen any reviews talking about how Furiosa is not just an awesome female character, but an awesome disabled character. For a while, it barely even registers that she has a prosthetic arm, and throughout the film it’s treated not only as not a big deal, but as a tool she uses to get shit done. She is not defined by her disability, and her disability does not limit her achievements.

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