by Isabel Sykes
The extent to which Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) can be considered a feminist film has been a contentious subject since its release. While a US blogger denounced it as a “feminist piece of propaganda” (Clarey, “Mad Max: Feminist Road”), encouraging men to avoid the film, others have condemned it as un-feminist due to the casting of “scantily-clad models with improbable thigh gaps” to play its central female characters (King, “Not a Feminist Masterpiece”). The film’s depiction of an all-female community, “The Green Place of Many Mothers”, has been another prominent point of controversy, with one reviewer declaring it “essentializing Earth Mother nonsense” (Jones, “Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist”). Essentialism, which is associated with early ecofeminism, “links women with a biological capacity to give birth, and associates this capacity with a greater concern with ecology”, arguing for an innate connection between womanhood and nature, and nature’s salvation. (Hester 37). Men, in contrast, are positioned by eco-feminists as an opposing force to women, with the inborn potential to destroy nature. Maria Mies, for example, holds that “modern techno-patriarchs destroy life […] but they cannot restore life. For that, they still need – as we all do – Gaia, Mother Earth, and Woman” (Ecofeminism 52). I argue, alongside eco-feminist critics, that these essentialist paradigms enforce a gendered dichotomy between nature and technology whereby “men, culture and agency are aligned with human subjectivity” while women and nature are treated as “the object, upon which dominant male-driven culture acts” (Yates 354). This article defends Fury Road as a feminist text against the claims that associate it with the eco-feminist essentialist perspective. Through the presentation of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and her defeat of patriarchal despot Immortan Joe (the late Hugh Keays-Byrne), I argue that Fury Road disturbs the gendered binary between nature and technology to redefine “nature” as “technologized space” (Hester 13). Both nature, depicted by the Green Place, and the technology of Immortan Joe’s regime (notably vehicles, weaponry and biotechnology) are re-conceptualised to undo the essentialising view of women’s connection to nature and reproduction and present a utopian vision of liberation from the commodification and objectification of female bodies under patriarchal capitalism. In doing so, I contend that Fury Road re-establishes ecofeminism as a progressive liberatory force, speaking to the film’s central theme of “redemption”.
Under the patriarchal capitalist regime of Immortan Joe, who controls the film’s post-apocalyptic society – the Citadel – and its entire supply of natural resources, women are treated as commodities under two categories: “Breeders” are the women selected on a genetic basis to father Immortan Joe’s children, and “Milking Mothers” are women who have already produced children and whose “Mother’s Milk” constitutes a primary source of nutrition for the Citadel. Immortan Joe’s “prize breeders”, the “Five Wives”, are the regime’s most valuable resources. The Wives, and particularly Immortan Joe’s “favourite”, Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), are repeatedly referred to by various characters as “treasures”, “goods”, and “property”, emphasising their status as commodities. As co-writer of Fury Road Brendan McCarthy explains: “we wanted to […] make this about the ultimate commodity: the human race itself […] sperm and wombs and women and men” (qtd in Bernstein, 13). The significance of female reproduction to the perpetuation of patriarchal capitalism can be understood within the context of social reproduction theory. As Kerri-Ann Bevis writes, “[Immortan Joe’s] patriarchal rule extends beyond the women’s physical bodies and enters the realm of their reproductive abilities as well as the realm of their children” (“The Presence of the Womb” 2016, n.p). Indeed, by forcing the Wives to bear and raise his offspring, Immortan Joe compels them to reproduce the (male) labour that will propagate his patriarchal capitalist regime. Alongside biological reproduction, “labour […] has to be reproduced on a generational basis, whereby infants are nurtured, reared and educated in order to become grown people who embody the potential for providing labour” (Pearson 31). Social reproduction within the context of Fury Road constitutes the raising of “War Boys”, which is the name given to the pale-faced “halflings” who fight for Immortan Joe. These War Boys are “nurtured, reared and educated” in accordance with the patriarchal capitalist values of the Citadel. When the Wives escape with the help of Furiosa and leave “our babies will not be warlords” written on the floor of their cell, they draw an explicit connection between having “babies” and undertaking the socially reproductive labour of raising “warlords” in the service of patriarchal oppression.
The justifying logic behind this commodification of female labour within the Citadel is an essentialist view of women’s “natural” role as existing for the purpose of reproduction, depicted by the association of the Wives with the growth of produce within the Citadel. When Immortan Joe goes to check on the Wives, who are imprisoned in a vault, a high angle shot pans over a large chamber full of vertical planters growing vegetation as he approaches the door. Though the caretaker of these plants is not identified in this shot, the location of these planters within the Wives’ chamber implies that they are cared for by the women. As Immortan Joe enters the cell itself, only to find that they have escaped, we see that it is a glass-ceilinged dome resembling a greenhouse, with more vegetation seen growing outside it. This scene contains the only natural imagery seen in any shots of the Citadel, overtly linking the Wives and the cultivation of plants in their mutual imprisonment before they even appear on screen. Under Immortan Joe’s regime therefore, nature is used as “a tool of power” (Yates 354) to relegate women to what are considered their “natural” roles of childbearing and the cultivation of natural produce, legitimising their commodification for the cause of capitalist production and reproduction. This notion of justifying the exploitation of female labour via the discourse of the “natural” was highlighted and contested in the 1970s by feminist writers such as Shulamith Firestone, who argued that “the elimination of sexual classes” (19) could only be achieved through “the freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction” (193). More recently, the Laboria Cuboniks collective, influenced by Firestone, decried “the glorification of ‘nature’” (Zero 0x01) as a justifying logic for women’s “submission to the drudgery of labour, productive and reproductive alike” (Zero 0x00) in their Xenofeminist Manifesto. The link these writers draw between female reproduction and female labour exploitation speaks to the position of the women in Fury Road: Immortan Joe’s regime mobilises the discourse of the “natural” to reinforce a dichotomy between woman and nature as passive object and man as active subject, legitimising the exploitation of female reproductive labour both in terms of childrearing and reproducing nature in a barren world.
The action-fuelled narrative of Fury Road follows Imperator Furiosa’s liberation of Immortan Joe’s Wives and their subsequent journey to “The Green Place of Many Mothers”. Furiosa’s reappropriation of the technology owned by Immortan Joe and his army to rescue the Wives and ultimately destroy the oppressive ruling regime, divorces technology from its associations with violent masculinity in ecofeminist thought. Furiosa commits an act of treason by seizing the largest vehicle in Immortan Joe’s armada, the “War Rig”, to facilitate the Wives’ escape and she uses guns stolen from Joe’s army to defend the group from recapturing forces. Taylor Boulware writes that guns are “the [sic]dominant symbol and weapon of toxic masculinity and patriarchal power” (13). The function of the gun as symbolic of patriarchal violence is emphasised by Angharad’s metaphor for bullets as “anti-seeds, plant one and watch something die”. This idea of the gun as a symbol of phallic control echoes the ecofeminist dichotomy of womanhood, nature, and life-giving versus masculinity, technology, and life-destroying. Furiosa’s ability to use guns proficiently to protect the freedom of the Wives signals a capacity to reappropriate the key tool of Immortan Joe’s regime for liberatory ends, consequently problematising the connection between weaponised technology and patriarchal power. Her proficiency with guns is most evident in a tense scene wherein Max (Tom Hardy) tries unsuccessfully to shoot the oncoming War Boys seeking to retrieve the Wives. As Furiosa observes, frustrated, Max wordlessly hands the weapon over to her and she successfully makes the shot by resting the barrel of the gun on Max’s shoulder, uttering the single instruction “don’t breathe”. Boulware says of this exchange that “Max’s recognition of Furiosa’s superior firearm skill” signals “his acceptance of her ability to better wield traditional masculine power than he” (15). I argue, however, that rather than wielding “traditional masculine power”, by using the central tool of repression in Immortan Joe’s regime against him, Furiosa challenges the notion that the gun is a signifier of “masculine power” at all, divorcing the technology from its gendered confines. Although Furiosa’s use of the gun produces the same destructive consequences as in the hands of the War Boys (“plant one and watch something die”), the subversive reappropriation of this weapon refutes the essentialist notion that it necessarily symbolises patriarchal power and instead asserts the potential of technology to further rather than hinder the cause of women’s liberation.
Furiosa’s most significant reappropriation of Immortan Joe’s technology is through the function of her mechanical prosthesis, which constitutes a “gesture” to Donna Haraway’s concept of the feminist cyborg (Boulware 11). Haraway conceives of a “hybrid of machine and organism” (50) who “embod[ies] and enforce[s] new social relations for women” by “recrafting” the body (55). Furiosa’s existence as part-human, part-machine speaks to this hybridity and, crucially, her use of the prosthesis exemplifies this notion of “recrafting”. Haraway identifies that the “trouble with cyborgs” is their status as “the illegitimate offspring of […] patriarchal capitalism”, meaning that in order to be feminist, cyborgs are inherently being “unfaithful to their origins” (52). Furiosa’s use of her mechanical arm epitomises this disobedience. As Boulware notes, Furiosa’s prosthesis has likely been created for her by “The Organic Mechanic, the foul man who manages and modifies the bodies of Joe’s captives and War Boys”, creating “Treadmill Rats” and “Milking Mothers” who are “mechanically manipulated and commodified to maintain his war economy and sexual slavery” (12). This man is also likely responsible for constructing the elaborate breathing apparatus and protective armour that renders Immortan Joe himself a form of cyborg. When Furiosa uses her mechanical arm to tear Immortan Joe’s breathing apparatus from his face and subsequently kill him, she uses the technology of his own regime against him, reflecting the position of the cyborg as the mutinous “offspring of […] patriarchal capitalism”. Furiosa’s rebellion therefore marks the end of the biotechnological exploitation and commodification of bodies in the service of patriarchy. In its stead, she represents the emergence of the feminist cyborg figure, whose ability to repurpose and redefine the tools of patriarchal oppression for liberatory ends asserts the redemptive potential of biotechnologies within the world of Fury Road.
The film’s narrative of redemption reaches its apex with its depiction of the Green Place. Furiosa and the Wives’ journey to the Green Place to live outside the objectifying regime of the Citadel has been condemned by critics for depicting an essentialist vision of what Eileen Jones denounces as “Earth Mother nonsense”. She argues that the Vuvalini (the remaining inhabitants of the Green Place) are depicted as “akin to Mother Earth, vessels for seedlings, awesome in their mysterious fertility”, and that the Wives’ desire to escape from the Citadel to the Green Place constitutes replacing “primitive patriarchy” with a “regression to primitive matriarchy” (“Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist”). The phrase “primitive matriarchy” evokes ecofeminist idealisations of pre-capitalist matriarchal societies based on the concept of the “Earth Mother” (“Mother Earth”, Mies 2015). When Furiosa and the Wives reach the Green Place, however, they discover that it has been destroyed, rendering a “regression to primitive matriarchy” impossible. The few remaining Vuvalini explain that the soil became “poisoned” and “sour” and the water turned to “filth”, forcing them to abandon their home. This imagery of the Green Place as dying and uninhabitable suggests that the ecofeminist pre-capitalist matriarchy no longer constitutes a tenable escape from contemporary patriarchal capitalism. Rather than seeking a return to “primitive matriarchy”, the Vuvalini consequently concern themselves with adjusting to their changed circumstances. Far from the “Earth Mother” characters Jones condemns, they are depicted as fierce warriors whose affinity with “nature” is defined by their ability to survive in the harsh environment in which they must live after abandoning the Green Place. The Keeper of the Seeds, who is the ammunition for Jones’ comment that the Vuvalini are “vessels for seedlings”, demonstrates resourcefulness by growing her seedlings in animal skulls until they can be planted somewhere where the earth is not “sour”. The presentation of the Vuvalini’s survival after losing their home demonstrates how, as Yates argues, “Fury Road divorces female nature from its assumed passive status” and it “gains agency” as a result (355). In this way, the film presents a view of woman’s commune with nature as defined by resilience and adaptability, exorcising this relationship from essentialist notions of stasis and passivity. I extend Yates’ argument to contend that the Vuvalini embrace technology as well as the natural world in their adaptability. The women ride into shot on motorcycles, wearing body armour, and carrying weapons, presumably procured from the passers-by they have accosted. The Keeper of the Seeds proudly exclaims that she “killed everyone [she] ever met out here”, echoing Furiosa’s proficiency with guns. The Vuvalini’s innovative, practical approach to both technology and nature, viewing them as mutually reworkable, resonates with Laboria Cuboniks’ emphasis on the importance of “engineering” nature. They declare that “nothing is so sacred that it cannot be reengineered and transformed so as to widen [women’s] aperture of freedom” (Adjust 0x11), reconceptualising “nature” outside essentialist paradigms as “technologized space” (Hester 13). This is the view of nature presented in Fury Road. The Green Place now untenable, the Vuvalini’s relationship to their new environment represents a feminist connection to nature that has evolved beyond reductivism to become active rather than passive, and necessarily fused with technology rather than opposed to it, redeeming ecofeminism from its essentialist roots, and infusing it with transformative potential.
By rejecting the essentialist principles that confine technology and nature to a gendered dichotomy, the female characters in this film orchestrate their own liberation. Furiosa and the Wives return triumphant to the Citadel, having vanquished Immortan Joe, and the establishment of a feminist utopia is heralded. The Milking Mothers (freed from their machines) are shown releasing the captive water supply to the masses, signalling an end to the abuse of female reproductive labour. In this shot, the association of women with nature is finally seen to function in the service of their mutual liberation rather than their domination. As Furiosa, the feminist cyborg, is raised up on a platform to take her place as the new leader of the Citadel, we glimpse the establishment of a new, liberal order emergent from the ruins of patriarchal capitalism. This triumphant ending epitomises the redemptive vision of ecofeminism presented by Fury Road: one that celebrates its potential to disrupt rather than reinforce the essentialist nature/technology dichotomy, and thereby work as a radical force for women’s liberation.
Isabel Sykes “Mad Max: Fury Road: A Feminist Redemption,” Alluvium, Vol.9, No.2 (2021): n.pag. Web 19 April 2021. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.2.05
About the Author
Isabel Sykes is a postgraduate student completing an MA in Contemporary Literature and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London, and is a recipient of the Birkbeck School of Arts
Peltz Scholarship (2020). Isabel’s research interests include critical theory, neoliberalism, and the intersections of gender, class, and labour. Her MA dissertation examines late capitalist
work culture and feminist anti-work imaginaries in twenty-first century US women’s fiction.
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