Breaking Down the Unexpected Feminist Debate About 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

From its empowered female lead to its 'Vagina Monologues' connection and the inevitable backlash.

Breaking Down the Unexpected Feminist Debate About 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Warner Bros.

A lot of people have been picking up on something unexpected in Mad Max: Fury Road. It might look like your run-of-the-mill shoot-'em-up at first glance, but under all that post-apocalyptic dust there's a movie with some unexpected feminist leanings. Not only has it won praise from some writers who pay attention to these kinds of things, but it's also earned the ire of Men's Rights Activists, which means it must be doing something right.

Here's a rundown of how exactly this movie ended up with some feminist cred, and why some people think it doesn't go nearly far enough. [Spoilers Ahead]

1. A Female Star

Fury Road may be a Mad Max movie, but it really belongs to Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa. As a one-armed wasteland survivor who makes off with warlord Immortan Joe's prized (female) possessions, she gets the best scenes, the best action, and she's the one who ultimately kills the bad guy. She's without a doubt one of the year's greatest action stars, and will likely be remembered for years to come.

2. The Whole Story Is About Women

The world of Fury Road is filled with men, but the story revolves around the women. It starts when Immortan Joe's "waifs" take action, running away from him under the protection of Imperator Furiosa, another woman. Then they join up with a band of older women to head back and take over Joe's citadel.

3. A Surprising Consultant

Eve Ensler is the writer and women's rights activist who wrote The Vagina Monologues. She's devoted years of her life to stopping violence against women, especially in war-affected areas of the world. George Miller recruited her to speak with the women playing Joe's waifs about what women who've been through their ordeal might be like.

"Just as we had the war boys, we had hardcore military guys give them a kind of background and training ... we had to do something for the wives," Miller told Entertainment Weekly. He explained: "She made the time for a week to come down and run workshops for the wives and Miss Giddy, the tutor as it were. Indeed it got to the point that even stunt guys were coming to some of the workshops. She came like the masked man and she left, and she left her imprint. She went back up to the Democratic Republic of Congo and kept on with her work. But she gave some glue to those wives, and to the story as well from that perspective. You just felt — it was nothing that was overt in the movie, but everyone had something to hang onto, so I was very very grateful for the time that she helped."

4. The Men's Rights Backlash

Fury Road has been criticized by men's rights activists for tricking guys into seeing it with explosions and action when it's actually trying to spread a feminist message.

"The truth is I’m angry about the extents Hollywood and the director of Fury Road went to trick me and other men into seeing this movie," Aaron Clarey wrote on the notorious "Everything VISUALLY looks amazing. It looks like that action guy flick we’ve desperately been waiting for where it is one man with principles, standing against many with none.

"But let us be clear. This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic. And this is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, further ruining women for men, and men for women."

Clarey goes on to call for a boycott of the movie for fear that its success could lead to a world where he'd "never be able to see a real action movie ever again that doesn’t contain some damn political lecture or moray about feminism, SJW-ing, and socialism."

Meanwhile another writer on the same site, Quintus Curtius, argues that Theron's character from The Road far more accurately predicts how women would react to a post-apocalyptic situation. They'd abandon their families and kill themselves.

5. The Resulting Discussion

Thanks to Fury Road and the reaction to it, we're now seeing a pretty active conversation about how women in action films are portrayed. While many have praised the film for its strong female characters, feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian isn't quite so impressed. She criticized the movie in a series of tweets that take issue at people treating it like a feminist triumph.

She tweeted: "Mad Max's villains are caricatures of misogyny which makes overt misogynists angry but does not challenge more prevalent forms of sexism. Viewers get to feel good about hating cartoon misogyny without questioning themselves or examining how sexism actually works in our society. It makes me profoundly sad that mainstream pop culture now interprets feminism to mean 'women can drive fast and stoically kill people too!'"

No matter where you land in the spectrum of reactions to Fury Road, it's kind of crazy that in quick succession it's been two very big budget blockbusters (Avengers then this) getting people talking about feminism. More than anything it's proof that feminism is taking up more and more room in people's brains, and getting them to think about their own reactions to things more carefully.

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