Last weekend Mr Handmade and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Roads.
I haven't seen the first three in the franchise. I don't know how I've missed them; I think my Dad even has them in a DVD box set in their living room, but I've never (to my knowledge) seen any of them. I'm aware of the general idea (cars in a wasteland, and Mel Gibson being a silly action hero). Fine.
So we went and watched the newest one. You can probably guess whose pick it was; moreso when I say that I went in with little knowledge and no expectations. Cars, wasteland, some actors whose names I recognised, and he wanted to watch it, so okay. We saw it in 2D (we both hate 3D movies).
It wasn't until after we came out that he told me that it had been making MRAs (Men's Rights Activists, aka whiny anti-feminist types) angry. Had he told me that before we decided, I would have been much more excited to see it.
The premise of the film is pretty simple (spoilers ahead):
Max is captured by a society of white-painted 'War boys', led by their scary-faced repulsive leader who keeps a throng of people in thrall to him by limiting their access to water. Then Imperator Furiosa, the driver of their largest, most impressive vehicle (a tanker with half a VW Beetle welded to the top of it) rescues their leader's "wives" to take them away to a semi-mythical 'green place' where she grew up before she was kidnapped by the war boys as a child. One hell of a car chase ensues.
This film was not unproblematic. One of the biggest issues was the way that the main antagonists were so deathly pale - falling into the Evil Albino stereotype. I found it slightly unclear whether we were expected to infer that the warboys had their complexion due to painting themselves white, or whether they were meant to be that pale naturally, but the fact that it didn't wear off through the film in the way that the body paint of other characters did suggests to me that we are to infer that their pallor is natural.
There were also certainly moments of male gaze - shots of supermodels wearing nothing but gauze bikinis. The wives in general weren't particularly well fleshed-out, although they were shown to be intelligent people with their own wants and needs. I'm not sure that the characterisation they got made up for the slightly gratuitous semi-nudity.
On the other hand, this film defied Hollywood convention in many ways that I enjoyed. There was no romance, for one thing. The main characters were just that - characters. There was no love interest. No woman reduced to a hero's sexual plaything. All of the women were there on their own merits.
In fact, the men who did use women sexually against their will were demonstrated clearly to be evil men, symbols and products of an evil society. The good men were those who appreciated and respected women under their own merits - which is painfully rare in current film, particularly film of this genre.
However, what I loved most about this film was the character of Furiosa. A woman with a visible disability (left arm amputee) that's never used to denigrate her, who defies the will of her boss and takes control of a situation that nobody would want to be in. A butch woman whose femininity is not threatened. A woman who is brave, tough, strong, kind and loving. A woman shown to be capable of using many weapons, both physical (fists, elbows, knives, guns) and mental (logic, persuasion), and deciding according to the situation which is the best to use. A woman shown, in short, to be capable of many things. I think it's mostly Furiosa that has the MRAs decrying this film as feminist propaganda. As one parody puts it, she 'doesn't even show us her tits'. Furiosa is beautiful (played by Charlize Theron, of course she is) but not defined by it. Rather, she is defined by her formidable ability to survive in the harsh world in which they live.
After reading in many places that this self-consciously silly action film was being seen as 'feminist propaganda', I began to think about precisely which messages it was that these men had taken issue with. Propaganda is, by definition, misleading.
Was it the part of the film where a woman was shown to be able to throw a punch that knocked a man to the floor? The part where a woman could shoot as well as anyone else?
Was it the idea that a woman could be logical? Know how to fix or modify a car?
Or was it simply the message made explicit early in the film upon the women's escape from their captor? Perhaps the most chilling interpretation of these men's ire is that what may be the central message of the film is seen by these men as misleading, biased or in some other way 'wrong'. It's writ large across the film, painted onto walls and said by sympathetic characters many times: Women are not things.