Mad Max: Beyond Patriarchy — On Fury Road’s (2015) Visual Rhetoric and Apocalyptic Social Rebirth

If you haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road (2015; dir. George Miller) yet, I highly recommend it.  Unexpectedly, it turned out to be a film I didn’t know I wanted.  There are a lot of things worth discussing here, but in particular, I want to explore two elements of the film that I think make it a significant work of cinema.

Visual Rhetoric and Mad Max (in Brief)

In my review of  The City of Lost Children (1995), I argued that Mad Max : Fury Road is primarily interested in storytelling as visual versus a story funneled to us through narrative proper.  The point I want to make about the visual qualities of Mad Max — an idea that also applies to The City of Lost Children, albeit mobilized for different purposes — is that there is so little in this film that is told to us as a narrative (i.e., in exposition, dialogue, or in literal narration) that it compels us to focus not on the narrative (the plot), but on the conveyance of meaning within its visual landscape, both in the straight symbolic sense and in the characters-doing-things sense.Max Max - Fury Road

Fury Road is deceptive in its simplicity, since it is on the surface merely a villain, some unlikely heroes, and two hours of on-and-off chases.  That is not actually the story we are presented, though, and that becomes clear almost exclusively through the way the film shows us the things that are happening without telling us what to think about them or how to interpret them.

We can see this so clearly in Fury Road.  When we first see Immortan Joe and the Citadel.  Nobody tells us that the Citadel is ruled by a religion of appearances — with Immortan Joe as the central creator of false images — or that Immortan Joe supports an exploitative system.  We see it in action through images of the milk mothers and in the vault scene where it’s clear what value Immortan Joe gives to his wives (who are exposed to us properly shortly after); we are led to interpret the values these images, symbols, and cultural elements impart as they are revealed to us.  Immortan Joe, too, is complicated by imagery.  He is first is coded as the villain from the start because of his actions — using religion and water resources as a mechanism of control.  That image is complicated later as we learn that, however vile a creature, Immortan Joe does appear to care for his slave wives, for their bodies and what they carry within them, and we see his grief plainly in his eyes when he holds the body of Splendid after he has run her over — grief for her body, for the child she carries, but also, I believe, for her in his own twisted way.  That leaves nothing said about the film’s visual treatment of its female characters, which deserves its own blog post.Immortan Joe -- Mad Max Fury Road

That even the villain can be symbolic for so many different ideas is rather significant because it tears down the notion of a simplistic story.  Fury Road is far from simplistic at any point.  It is suggestive of simplicity, given that its overarching narrative is straightforward, but the further we dig into the visual landscape of the film, the clearer it becomes that we are dealing with a complicated, symbol-driven world of characters with spoken and unspoken motivations, complicated desires, and, yes, downright vile (and difficult to unpack) perspectives on morality.  Action films, I would argue, rarely do this, let alone action-oriented science fiction films. [1]

And it’s that last piece I want to talk about in the next section, because part of what I think is so brilliant about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it is, indeed, a feminist tale.  That element, too, is revealed to us visually.

Mad Max:  Beyond PatriarchyThe Women of the Green Place -- Mad Max Fury Road

However haphazardly, the above leads me to what is my ultimate point about Fury Road:  it is an anti-patriarchal epic the likes of which we have never seen in mainstream cinema.  No other film I can think of has managed to perform the following sequence of events without ever devolving into melodramatic (almost pandering) villainous explanations or exposition designed to convince us of any particular premise:

  • Introduces a violent and ruthlessly sexist system of mass abuse and exploitation related almost entirely in images (often without ever showing us how horrific Immortan Joe’s world really is)
  • Introduces a male main character whose primary interest is survival, not abuse
  • Introduces a female warrior who, for reasons only partially revealed to us, rebuffs the system into which she has been raised
  • Pits a ragtag group comprised of a vagabond, an amputee warrior, former sex slaves and a former religious fanatic against the film’s primary villain (initially for escape or survival)
  • Shows our two main characters as allies in the same fight (an anti-patriarchal fight)
  • Presents us, as a visual counterpoint, a clearly matriarchal “alternative” which has failed
  • Merges the ragtag group with this matriarchal counterpoint to create a mishmash of cultures which is eventually pitted in direct opposition to the patriarchal empire of Immortan Joe
  • Results in the near total destruction of the Immortan Joe’s patriarchal culture both literally and figuratively
  • Replaces that patriarchal order with one which is, on the surface, seemingly matriarchal, but in truth is clearly an egalitarian social order whereby men and women (among other binaries) are visually suggested as equal benefactors of the resources of Immortan Joe’s “castle”

If the MRAs were frothing at the mouth at the feminist underpinnings of this film, they’ve probably exploded by this point.  The fascinating aspect of the film’s feminism is that it is one with which we can’t even argue.  Because to argue against the kind of feminism presented here is essentially to argue for the most depraved, abusive, immoral, violent, and exploitative culture imaginable (almost).  There is no reason we should wish to see a system like Immortan Joe’s upheld — at least, no reason which is moral.  We’re supposed to receive catharsis as that system crumbles (even more so because we see it crumble in part by the sacrifice of a man, Nux, who becomes the symbol for a reformed feminist man who willingly puts himself in the crossfire).

In this respect, the MRA argument against the film is rather comical, because by identifying this film as feminist and suggesting with fervor that men must wholly reject this message they have rhetorically aligned themselves with the very system, however extreme, that the film uproots and destroys — the irony of the status quo, as it were.  The most abject form of patriarchy one might imagine must not be witnessed; Mad Max: Fury Road‘s feminism cries out, “Witness me,” and MRAs want us to turn away.  Because to witness this narrative is to witness the very thing which feminists have fought against, to witness our culture being filtered down to its most extreme qualities and soundly rejected (destroyed).  Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that presents a message that is so perfect in its absolute rejection of patriarchy (and sexism) as a structure of power, that any argument that rejects that message as “wrong” essentially becomes the voice of patriarchy speaking back.  We should be thankful that when it does speak back against Mad Max: Fury Road, we recognize its voice as hollow.The Citadel -- Mad Max Fury Road

That hollowness becomes clear when one delves into just how terrible the world of Fury Road really is.  There’s nothing in this film that should lead us to desire Immortan Joe’s world.  The film makes that clear by implying abuse — as is the case when we realize that Immortan Joe has been keeping women as his personal breeding animals — or visually tying filmed abuse — Joe’s use of water resources to control the masses — to forms of patriarchal abuse.  As my friend Jen Zink noted on The Skiffy and Fanty Show (episode forthcoming), so much of what Immortan Joe does reduces human bodies, especially female bodies, to commodities to be exploited.  And aside from a couple passing lines about women not being things (uttered by the women in appropriate moments), the film never has to tell us any of this.

The film, as such, shows us in “glorious” fashion the extent to which this system will abuse everyone, especially women.  Even Max, the titular hero, is harmed by this system, as we see right from the start when he’s reduced to a blood bag to keep the irradiated half-lifer Nux from falling apart.  As Tansy Rayner Roberts notes in her review:

Because one of the messages of this film is, no fucking kidding here, that patriarchy hurts men too. They live in a terrible world, and everyone is hurting, not just because the environment is actively trying to starve them out, but because the society they have built is even more soul-sapping than the poisoned mud on the far side of the desert. Whole generations of young men (called War Boys and, tellingly, War Pups) have been bullied into a toxic gang mentality and rewarded with the dodgy panacea of awesome cars, Significant Steering Wheels, a religion based on being somewhere other than here, and being sprayed in the mouth with silver paint (what the FUCK, movie?). They are part of a culture that makes them think they can win, while the privileged old men still take everything they damn well want and to hell with anyone else.

Everyone is hurt by this system.  Everyone.  And we see that repeated to us visually over and over and over.  We see the destitution.  We see the lies of image peddled to us by those in charge.  We see the suffering imposed by this system in the bodies that populate the film.  And the only conclusion we can draw is that this is undesirable, that anything would be better.

However, Fury Road doesn’t give us an “anything.”  It rejects patriarchy, wherein men reign supreme, abusing everyone around them by intent or by inaction, and gives us a matriarchal alternative that has already failed.  Why it has failed is unclear, though I suspect that the water which was the source of their “Green Place” was actually poisoned by one of the main male-dominated cultures around them.  What matters is that this female-centered direct opposite to Immortan Joe has failed and that its suggested return in the film is symbolically destroyed as the remaining women of that matriarchal culture are killed off one by one by Immortan Joe’s men.  Patriarchy and Matriarchy go head to head and destroy themselves, leaving the rest to find a working alternative.

So, in fact, the feminism of this film is such that we are compelled to accept the egalitarian suggestion in the concluding moments — an egalitarian world not run by king and queen, which would be symbolically true if Max and Furiosa ascended into the Citadel together, but one to be run by Furiosa, the former wives, the war pups, the destitute masses, the milk wives, the former overseers…everyone.  Fury Road begins with patriarchal feudal capitalism and ends with egalitarian democratic socialism.  And it does all of this in one two-hour action sequence, beginning and ending where it all began in one glorious cycle of life — a social rebirth, if you will.

Mad Max: Fury Road, in other words,  is pure genius.Imperator Furiosa -- Mad Max Fury Road

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[1]:  A clear counterpoint to this is Jupiter Ascending, which spends copious amounts of time explaining its premise to us because the narrative and visuals are structured in such a way that it cannot avoid doing so.  Indeed, it so often extends beyond merely expositing narrative to us and becomes an almost farcical, dialogue-laden melodrama in which we are presented not just with the ideas of the film, but also to the interpretations — as in the case of Balem’s wheezy declaration that “life is an act of consumption,” which is followed by what I view as rather pretentious pro-capitalist villainy.  Rather than allow the viewer to interpret the visuals for themselves, Jupiter Ascending tells us what to think about what we are seeing — sometimes in what amounts to a secret version of the “as you know, Bob.”  Jupiter Ascending relies on hammering that message over our heads over and over.  This is so unlike what Mad Max: Fury Road does (indeed, Fury Road seems to use melodramatic visuals to convey a narrative of exploitation rather than using hammers).

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  1. What fantastic analysis.

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    • Thank you! I could probably have said more, but I figured 2k was long enough 🙂

      I’m guessing you loved the film as much as I did, yeah?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I really loved it. I’m going to see it again on Saturday in 3D. This work is a visual orgy. I really appreciated your analysis because so much whipped past me as I tried to take in all the aesthetic details. A very dense film. Much could be written on just Furiosa and her one organic arm and her one mechanical arm and how this could be viewed as the embodiment of female (the body) and male (mechanical arm/tool) and how symbiosis is required for success. Or that’s one way I saw that part of the movie. I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Once again, great examination.

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      • It’s a film that benefits from multiple viewings, and yet it’s always super entertaining each time. It’s not one of those “you have to see it again to really appreciate it” films. You can just appreciate it for what it is on the first go: an action film (or, rather, a completely insane action film). On a second go, you can look at the details and see what it’s doing beneath that glossy surface.

        And I agree that much could be written about Furiosa. I guarantee you at next year’s pop culture academic conferences (PCA/ACA and ICFA) there will be numerous papers on her. You’re right to point out all those interesting details about here, too. I wanted to talk more about her in my essay, but there just wasn’t room…she’s just such a rich character!

        And I’m glad that you’re going again. It’s going to be a successful film (financially), but I want it to make such a massive killing in the box office so we can get more stuff like it. It’s just…a thing of beauty :).

        I, too, plan to see it again!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The awesome looking Guitar player and the drummers are all also part of the culture and have a very real basis in reality. Just look as recently as the American civil war, army’s would carry instruments such as flutes and drums into war. Go back further and this is seen everywhere. In a cultural that worships kinetic energy and must survive the heat of ruthlessness of the desert, people need things equally as ruthless and heat bearing to to keep spirits high.

    And I’m not totally sure that biker culture is a product of the 1980’s. Yeah it was more prevalent in American media then, but by all accounts biker gangs have grown over the past few decades, the mainstream media no longer focuses on them. Heck just a few weeks ago there was a massive biker shootout in Texas which has only served to show just how ruthless they can be. Calling this a product of the 80’s just sounds fairly uniformed.

    I find the “characters being too thin” excuse to be totally missing the point here. We are informed about these characters by what we known about them, but also by what we don’t know. Mad Max is a myth, with keeping in the tradition of the last 2 films, the movie is told though a different characters perspective, in this case Furious who is seeking redemption, by which Max is able to find it as well and reclaim some of his humanity. The story is one of learning to trust, how to respect and gender unity is far more powerful than division and “destroying the patriarchy” (which is a silly and outdated notion at this point) as obviously about sacrifice.

    Now this isn’t to say that I think this movie is some literal interpretation of what a future might be like. But to view it as such is basically missing the point, don’t look at the movie you want about a literal interpretation of the future, but the one we are given, which is more a fable. This is compounded by every shot in the movie looking absolutely stunning. I could take screen and hang on my wall and call it art.

    Interestingly George Miller had this to sum up Mad Max. A few years back, there were Gasoline shortage in his native Australia. People were restricted to filling up once a week and normal gasoline (guzoline as it’s called in Mad Max) was could only to be used regularly for emergency vehicles. It took just ten days for the first shot to be fired. He wondered what the world would look like if that had continued 10 years, 30 years, 50 years and so on. He wondered how would society react? how aggressive would we become> What would happened? etc. . .

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  3. While I don’t know about any “patriarchy” that you are talking about (even in interviews, when asked Miller and Theron said it had nothing to do “patriarchy”) I do believe there is plenty of literally content to this movie that many have missed.

    The movie treats the viewer far smarter than most action films of today do, thus it may have been difficult to pick as we are so used to transformers and Ninja Turtles ruling the screens.

    Subtext is key here, this isn’t a movie that’s about spoon-feeding themes and ideas, aside from the very obvious survival and desperation thematic elements. Looking at this simply as an action movie is doing it a total disservice. Yes of course the action is front an center, yet, a lot more is happening going on in the background than many have given it credit for.

    I find it interesting how it was mentioned that this movie is a cultural throwback, but I don’t necessarily agree. If you look to places in central Africa and some areas in the Middle East, this isn’t too far off from being reality. (different locations, yet lets think thematically here) George Miller has discussed in great detail, things such as how many different cultures are able to make beauty from certain situations, referencing impoverished areas in India and Pakistan. Even in extreme poverty or extreme deprived circumstances, people create, people find deities, people create hierarchies, all of this is there, yet never especially told to the audience. We are left to come to our own conclusions.

    There are a number of interesting religious parallels going on here, where the radiated wastelanders view Imortan Joe of somewhat a God figure or redeemer of their “Sin.” (He gives them life though water and must maintain his image [plastic armor] to keep the people in check) The illusion continues. . . About the cars, the are particularly worshiped as they are seen as these artifacts of a prior age that somehow survived the apocalypse. Once again with subtext, this is never outright stated, but we infer this from the way they are viewed and a single line about “almighty V8” which is very poetic in nature. Yes the cars are over the top. But you know what else could be considered “over the top” from an Alien Cultural Perspective? The Pyramids, The Statue of Liberty, the 8 wonders of the world, the crucifix or any other number of cultural artifacts. It’s fairly shallow minded to write this off.

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    • A couple things:

      1) Immortan Joe’s society is structurally patriarchal. There, women’s bodies are not their own to do with as they please; they are subject to male desire (Joe’s wives) and male-based capital (the milk mothers). Even at its most basic, it fulfills the standard dictionary definition of patriarchy: “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.”

      2) I don’t put much stock in what a creator intends to do when it comes to analyzing that work. What one intends may or may not determine what the end product *is,* and intent cannot account for social conditioning. One can, after all, intend not to be sexist and still *be* sexist. So Miller can say he didn’t intend there to be a feminist message in his work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there or that the work can’t be read to have one. And in this case, the message is pretty clear. Violent patriarchy = no good.

      Now to the rest :):

      I completely agree that this film benefits from multiple viewings, as much of what occurs on screen is deceptively simple. It’s very subtle and there is so much going on during all the action. Whether they intended it to subvert the traditional action movie model, they did so. It’s completely about visual storytelling at its most direct.

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