Post-apocalyptic Gender Roles

Jurassic World, as I argued yesterday, settles into a relatively prehistoric vision of gender roles. The prevailing narrative arc does belong to Claire, with all the men (and boys) in the film serving her self-actualization, but it is decidedly aimed at motherhood and her “natural” role as a woman. That she cannot be fulfilled until she becomes a mother is the issue, not the idea of motherhood as an end in itself.

Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, can be interpreted as a progressive Feminist vision (as many critics have already and astutely magnified). Like Owen in Jurassic World, Max (Tom Hardy, who thrives in roles where his face is covered) takes on the typically feminine role of subordination, guiding the typically masculine protagonist toward self-discovery in his destined hero’s journey. The typical male figure in this description is filled by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who sustains her empowerment throughout the film. Where Claire’s strength is a half measure, Furiosa’s is full. Full throttle, in fact. I typically don’t fall for pure action films; I’m entertained but unsatisfied unless there’s something more to it than cheap thrills. Mad Max, however, is so pure that I couldn’t resist it. It’s a 2 hour car chase that never runs out of gas, and even though it has minimal dialogue (what it does have can hardly be described as poignant too), the film does have a lot to say. Instead of language, it expresses its messages and values through action, which as we know, is the best revelation of character (and truth?) anyway.

In a post-apocalyptic world, it makes sense that there’s more space for social subversion. Jurassic World is pulling us into the past, Mad Max is projecting us into the future. Specifically, into a future where our concept of gender is not, or at least should not be, as we have come to understand, accept, and internalize it. By veering away from language, the film forces us into pre-conceptual experience, where we don’t have words to categorize and reduce what we’re witnessing. Indeed, the film leaves you speechless (and breathless). In place of the labels we might typically ascribe to the character’s we’re watching, we have nothing to refer to, and as a result, the characters are more free to live.

This is the exact liberation that Furiosa is hoping to achieve in taking the tyrant Joe’s wives to the “Green Place” (Furiosa’s home, which we later discover has been destroyed, leaving her officially abandoned and severed from her origins, prompting necessary self-creation, in response to this abyss of an existential crisis, and the formation of a new home, which happens in her return conquest to the Citadel and its subsequent independence, although the citizens will now worship her in place of Joe). While Claire is directed to motherhood, that possibile ambition for Furiosa and the wives is categorically dismissed with the shocking death of Angharad, Joe’s pregnant wife, and her unborn child. With this (admittedly tragic) pivotal moment, these woman are free to be defined by more than their breeding worth.

Furiosa and Max explicitly state that their shared ambition is redemption; Max had given up hope on this possibility, having failed in some past attempt to save loved ones (an ambiguous backstory we are never fully aware of but don’t need to be to get his inner motor), leading to persistent nightmares about this loss. In any other action film, Max saving the women would be the normal move. And he does inevitably do this, but it is fairer to say that he helps do this. Furiosa’s redemption comes through the exact same salvation, except that her tale adds the element of reclaiming their home and getting what is rightfully theirs. Max is a wanderer; he has no home (as far as we know) and nothing to which he can return.

Now, you could argue that Furiosa returning to the home while Max remains mobile is a problem, but let’s be more generous and see the positivity in Furiosa’s rise to power and liberation of the oppressed (with the help of the oppressed, which makes the liberation more meaningful and enduring, at least in the case of the wives; the citizens of the Citadel…we’ll see in the sequel, I suppose). In the end, despite its title, this is her story. As Fuller argued (forgetting that I told him this right after we saw the film…just sayin’), she is our Odysseus, and Max is our Athena. Which is to say, Furiosa is the hero, Max the marginal sidekick helping the hero to self-fulfillment.

Owen and Claire get trapped in an artificial theme park; Max and Furiosa find the open road and create their own path. The pairs work together in both cases, but Owen and Claire converge on stereotypical gender roles, while Max and Furiosa diverge into new possibilities.

Is apocalyptic reality our only way out of social order as we know it?

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