Last week, the best publicity Mad Max: Fury Road could possibly have gotten — besides the nigh-universal critical praise, of course — was an angry anti-feminist blog post calling for men to avoid "the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things." The downright mad, or perhaps even furious article was picked up on The Mary Sue, CNN, The Hollywood Reporter, The A/V Club, and other sites, frequently under the headline that men's rights advocates were boycotting Mad Max.
This wasn't quite accurate. The primary source was one blog post, posted on the anti-feminist site Return of Kings and discovered by inimitable "manosphere" reporter David Futrelle. Return of Kings didn't organize much of a formal boycott, and it says it rejects the "men's rights" movement proper, although to outsiders, that's a pretty fine distinction. (As far as I understand, a major difference is that they hate women but want to have sex with them instead of hating women and pretending to not want to have sex with them. It's complicated.)
Mostly, the piece was an excuse to turn the snark fire hoses on full blast, particularly because author Aaron Clarey had not only called one of the most famous Australian films of all time a piece of American culture, he'd extrapolated his entire critique from trailers and interviews. The subtext was that this was a weird overreaction to someone finally making a movie where female characters — even just one "unrealistic" female character, namely the tough, shaven-headed Imperator Furiosa — could hold their own.
How can you tell a universal experience from an overused trope?
Outside the manosphere, though, we're having the same basic debate about Game of Thrones, whose frequent rape scenes spurred The Mary Sue to start a real boycott of the show. We're talking about what actually reflects human experience in fiction, and what's just an overused trope, an idea we've seen so many times that we confuse it for reality. And whether you're there for the narrative themes or the car chases, Fury Road is a film that actively deflates one of misogynists' most treasured fantasies.
Like Westeros, the apocalypse is supposed to be where women's freedom goes to die. Most people don't think that's a good thing as much as internet anti-feminists seem to, but it's a major theme in mainstream science fiction like The Stand, in which the female protagonist gives an extended internal monologue about how "women's lib ... was nothing more nor less than the outgrowth of the technological society." One of the rare female characters in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (played by Fury Road's Charlize Theron, actually, in the film adaptation) is so genre-savvy that she immediately kills herself rather than live after the apocalypse, and the other women appear most prominently as the possessions of warlords.
Mad Max has always had a complicated relationship with this. The first film is all about a man trying and failing to protect his wife, and there's an abrupt and graphic rape scene in The Road Warrior. But as others have pointed out, it's got a history of female fighters, and it distributes its victimhood fairly even-handedly, even if it was mostly a series of movies about men.
Apocalypses are supposed to be where women's freedom goes to die
Fury Road, though, explicitly balances Max's journey with a story about women and women's agency. Furiosa is almost a red herring here, because any piece of fiction can assimilate a single powerful female character. The real threat is that even the women who are everything anti-feminists smugly predict — enslaved, fragile, sheltered — can be brave and competent. For all the complaints about women being too physically strong, the really "unrealistic" difference is that they're not broken or terrified.
In fact, they're probably less broken than the men chasing them. There's a feminist concept usually summed up as "the patriarchy hurts men too" — the idea that our gender stereotypes end up limiting everyone, not just women. Fury Road plays this out very literally. Villain Immortan Joe's patriarchal society privileges and is run by men. His "warboys" seem well above women in the food chain, set to enter Valhalla when they die. They're also short-lived, interchangeable, and desperate for approval. Nux (better known as the "what a lovely day" kid in the Mad Max trailers) has a fragile and violent masculinity that makes him deadly, but the moment he slips up, he loses everything.
Parts of the men's rights movement worry about this too. One early men's movement book refers to men as the "disposable sex," pushed into high-risk jobs and defined by their earning capacity. But their answer usually seems to involve doubling down on the same old stereotypes. In Fury Road, there's a way out, and it's rejecting Joe's empire altogether. When Nux encounters the "wives," they're the ones who end up trying to help him — not because of women's civilizing influence, but because they already understand how rigged the system is.
The patriarchy hurts warboys too
Fury Road is built around pregnancy, the thing that supposedly makes women incapable of surviving the apocalypse on their own. Women are vulnerable because of their status as childbearers here, but once they escape, it's also presented as a weird kind of power. Mother's milk is one of the desert's few viable foods, and the wives protect Max and Furiosa by using their pregnant bodies as human shields. Immortan Joe isn't trying to get back his pleasure harem so much as he is frantically hunting for something he can never get by himself: an heir.
Maybe most importantly, the movie doesn't just try to avoid making women's subjugation titillating, it rarely gives the audience the satisfaction of seeing it at all. And that's a huge step. It's a step away from Game of Thrones, which embraces and aestheticizes abuse in the name of realism. It's a step away from some explicitly feminist apocalypses — books like Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, which embraces and aestheticizes abuse in the name of criticism. It breaks the rule that in order to tell a story about women overcoming suffering, you have to make sure everybody can see for themselves, over and over, just how bad the suffering really was. If you're the sort of person who wants to watch the suffering and skip the recovery, you'll be gravely disappointed.
Clarey is right: Fury Road isn't realistic. But neither are almost any of our other apocalyptic fantasies, including Return of Kings editor Roosh V's final-stage feminist takeover in which "roaming witch mobs actively surveil and monitor men who hint at having normal levels of testosterone." They're all stories we — modern men and women enmeshed in a delicate network of social connections — tell ourselves about which human beings should be treated as human beings, which ones get to control their own lives. And the stories we pick, no matter who we are, can either destroy us or make us strong.
Verge Video: Breaking down the chaos of a Mad Max car chase