Women in a Wasteland – George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’

Mad Max

Furious is the word to describe George Miller’s Mad Max franchise. From humble beginnings the Australian writer and director brought the series from budget action project to multi-million dollar blockbuster over the course of six years, all whilst making a household name of Mel Gibson. There’s a definitive, tangible quality to films unique enough to warrant a cult status and the 80’s Mad Max trilogy ticked every box – shocking, abrasive, unashamedly silly and above all else, fun.

The original movies followed burly, handsome everyman Max through increasingly trying conditions. As the circumstances evolved, so did Max, developing from a hearty well-meaning police officer through to post-apocalyptic war hero. The films oozed exaggerated masculinity with gasoline, blood and sweat seeping from every pore. These were tales of automobiles and war and as such, Max developed its very own demographic. Just as it was on the silver screen, this was a world that captivated men. Years before the likes of John McClane and Indiana Jones, Max had cornered the market for fathers and sons, with car chases, fights and good ol’ fashioned shoot-outs. So with the announcement of production starting on a fourth film in May of 2009, there was a communal buzz of anticipation to see what Miller could bring to the big screen this time around.

When the first trailer was released in July 2014, some audiences were shocked. Yes, their rugged, virile hero was there in all his glory, the ever-brilliant Tom Hardy taking over from where Gibson left off. Yes, there was the orange-tinted wasteland we’d grown accustomed to from the latter stages of the original trilogy, a planet singed by the follies of war. And yes, there were the vehicles – cacophonous, mechanical beasts, roaring across desert plains. Amongst it all, however, there was something that had not been there before. Look past the sand and explosions and there was a female protagonist, a cast of women – women who looked like they might be there to be something other than prey.

Mad Max

And so began a rumbling in the bowels of the internet; a stirring on keyboards, blogs and forums. What if Max wasn’t the fertile, conquering hero he’d been built up to be? What if there wasn’t enough bloodshed and engines because too much time was being taken up by women? Anonymous voices were quick to criticize the trailer, in particular Charlize Theron’s character, the wonderfully named Imperator Furiosa. From the posters and footage that emerged in the months building up to the release of the movie it became apparent that Theron’s character was not going to be sitting on the proverbial back seat, which is so often the case with supporting female leads.

Miller’s original trilogy wasn’t void of women entirely. ‘Beyond The Thunderdome’, the third and final appearance for Gibson, featured Tina Turner in a much-revered role as one of the film’s antagonists. From nothing, Turner’s character Aunty Entity had fought her way to the top of the pecking order in Bartertown – a city of shacks and miscreants. But even from her position of power, Entity finds herself belittled and outdone by the courageous Max as he defeats her greatest warrior.

But Charlize Theron firmly grounded the latest chapter in the Mad Max tale as taking a stand for the women of the wastelands – “What really rung very loudly in it was the importance that women have in this world of survival. And, so clearly, the younger generation of women were represented in it; my generation was represented; then this older generation of women were represented in it.” Female roles, particularly in action films, have been under scrutiny for many years for lacking a sense of identity, seemingly on screen only for the sake of men. Film theorist Laura Mulvey spoke of the “Male Gaze” in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ – the idea that audiences are often put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. The theory goes on to say that on the big screen, women are there for two purposes: as an erotic object for characters in the film and as an erotic object for the audience.

The film’s release stuck further nails in the coffin of those hoping for this to literally be a one-man show. Max and Furiosa lead five women in an uncompromising pilgrimage across the wasteland, pursued by their tyrannical, polygamist husband and his entourage. The wives – played by an assortment of models turned actresses, are a vision of purity. Apparitions in white, they have been raised for breeding, living in captivity as sex slaves; handpicked for their beauty. But despite being raised as little more than obedient possessions, this team of women flourish, even under their exceptional, trying circumstances. Not just pigeon-holed into roles as pretty, screaming extras; these are characters with individual passions, emotions and ambitions. With the help of Furiosa, they’ve learnt there’s more out there, that they have more worth and that they deserve a better life. And so begins the chase.

Their journey was one that began long before the film. Eve Ensler, author of ‘Vagina Monologues’ was brought in during pre-production on the project, invited on by the director for her vast knowledge on women’s rights and history. Ensler, who has campaigned to end violence against women for over 20 years, worked closely with the cast to help create what she called a “feminist action film”. Ensler was able to give a sense of the reality of womanhood to a fantastical world. Her experience and knowledge of working with women who have been held in captivity as sex slaves and who have lived lives full of trauma is almost unmatched – and it comes across on screen with full force. These are compassionate women, filled with aspirations and desires, seeking liberation from an oppressive patriarchal dystopia. Upon first escaping the clutches of their husband they leave behind a message, sprawled in white paint – “Women are not things”.

Mad Max

And so, despite rave reviews from critics and grossing over $44.4 million in its opening weekend in the US alone, an online backlash began. Aaron Clarey, author of articles like ‘Genetics Guarantees That Feminism Will Lose’, took to writing an article encouraging his readers not to see what he described as “a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick”. Clarey goes on to say how audiences are being tricked into seeing a piece of American (Australian) culture ruined, claiming that Hollywood leftists will “use the film to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic”. Clarey does not seem to be alone in his opinion. His article has been shared online over 5000 times, with thousands of comments reinforcing and backing his view. The silver screen is another place where women struggle to be equal.

The response to the latest Mad Max flick isn’t the only time Men’s Rights Activists have kicked up a fuss. It only takes a quick look through the comments on the YouTube trailer for the new series ‘Supergirl’ to see more men squealing for their opinions to be heard, complaining about casting and whether there’s need for the show at all. ‘Meninism’ has reared its ugly head on Twitter, with over 850 thousand followers to date, a number that grows by hundreds every day. This is an overt series of misogynistic ideals; a way of thinking that is rooted deep beneath the surface. But what can be done to turn things around?

Well movies like the latest installment of Mad Max are a step in the right direction. The director and writer has indicated that he hadn’t originally intended for the film to strike the chords it has. In a recent interview Miller stated – “Initially, there wasn’t a feminist agenda. The thing people were chasing was to be not an object, but the five wives. I needed a warrior. But it couldn’t be a man taking five wives from another man. That’s an entirely different story. So everything grew out of that.” And that’s the way progress can come – not through forced subtext but naturally and equally. The upcoming episode in the ‘Terminator’ franchise features ‘Game of Thrones’ star Emilia Clarke as the hero, a bold step for a notoriously male-dominated series. Scarlett Johansson has carved herself in pole position as fan favourite in amongst a star-studded series of ‘Avenger’ films, with her own outing scheduled somewhere in the not so distant future. The tide, it seems, could be changing.

The experience of growing up as a male in Western society is a world apart from that of a woman. We find ourselves in a position of privilege, represented in every space imaginable from boardrooms to the silver screen. In order to break down these longstanding gender stereotypes that have been a hallmark of cinema since its conception, Hollywood must take responsibility for its far-reaching influence by representing women in an array of different ways. Enough of women as just eye candy; as mere sexual objects, as slaves, the dependent sidekick or the screaming victim! It is truly rare to find a feature film with a cast that isn’t dominated by men or made for men by men. It’s time for that to change.