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Mad Max: Fury Road and the Changing Roles of Women in Action Movies

in Current Issue/Views

by Jana Záhoráková

In 2015, a movie that was supposed to be just another action-packed summer blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road, turned out to be, especially for women, a lot more than that. This article will analyse the film’s female characters and discuss the different decisions director George Miller made in order to make his film stand out from other action movies.

The first time we see the female lead character of Furiosa (Charlize Theron) the shot opens on a close-up of her nape where we can clearly see the branding of the symbol of Immortan Joe’s army, marking her like a head of cattle. To Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the unsparing leader of his post-apocalyptic community, she is just another piece of meat. However, as the story of Mad Max: Fury Road unfolds, we see that Furiosa is hiding an extremely free soul underneath all the post-apocalyptical demeanour and that she does not belong to any man.

More than meets the eye. Furiosa with some of the wives and Nux, a warboy that joins their side. Photo courtesy of Freeman Ent.

It is refreshing to see that a heroine can be more than that which meets the eye. There were strong female heroines before Mad Max such as Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Electra (Jennifer Garner in Daredevil (2003) and Xena (Lucy Lawless) in Xena: Warrior Princess  (1995- 2001). More current characters have arisen such as Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman  (2017) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in Captain Marvel (2019), but unlike Furiosa they are all portrayed as beautiful as well as powerful and dangerous. As well as being the main heroines of their stories, which is on one hand very empowering, they are at the same time on the other hand objectified because of their good looks. Furiosa breaks the moulds. It is not that Charlize Theron is not beautiful, but she is portraying a fighter and survivor first it is only a minor detail that she is also a woman. She has a boyish profile; she sports a buzzcut and is an excellent warrior. She is definitely cut from a different cloth than the wives in white. She uses black oil to mark her forehead as one of the generals of Immortan Joe’s army of men (or rather of boys). When the wives complain about their situation outside the Citadel, Furiosa simply replies that: “Out here everything hurts” (Mad Max: Fury Road 38:50). Furiosa, who is also missing her forearm and uses a metallic prostheses, is a character that has clearly withstood a lot of hurt in her life, physical as well as psychological and it has hardened her soul.

The difference in this movie is that the wives don’t just wait around to be saved. Instead, they actively participate in their own rescue mission.

The war boys respect Furiosa as a leader until they realise she is doing something behind Joe’s back. She has an authority that a lot of women would envy. Immortan Joe’s minions are willing to die on her behalf. The director invites us to imagine exactly how she got this much respect. It is not shown exactly how Furiosa managed to earn the respect of the war boys but her missing arm is sufficient proof of the fact that she must have gone through her share of nasty fights and wars.

The other female characters, the wives, seem at first to be prototypes of damsels in distress. They are dressed in white which emphasises the fact that they are innocent victims and it also signifies the way they are seen by Immortan Joe, who is their incarcerator but perceives himself as their saviour, preventing them from the cruel reality of living in the wasteland. Their bodies are the price of his protection. They all wear locked chastity belts to which only Joe has the keys. But the difference in this movie is that the wives don’t just wait around to be saved. Instead, they actively participate in their own rescue mission. They cannot all be as “badass” as Furiosa but do pull their own weight: they count bullets, reload guns, patrol the Rig. Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), as the favourite one, uses her pregnant body as a human shield to protect Furiosa and Max (Tom Hardy) from Joe’s bullets. There is an instance when the youngest of the wives, Cheedo (Courtney Eaton), loses her cool and attempts to return to the Citadel because Angharad has just died and she no longer sees the point in being free. This scene of betrayal is redeemed later on though, when she pretends to desert the wives again only to help Furiosa on to the car with Joe. 

Max used as a bloodbag with the transfusion tube covered in chain. Photo courtesy of Freeman Ent.

When Angharad falls from the car, the girls want to turn the Rig around and go back for her, but they ultimately trust Max when he states that he has seen her die even though the director leaves the audience guessing. Angharad dies because Joe wants to save the child she is carrying rather than her. She dies a heroic death, protecting those dear to her but to Joe, her death is reduced to a minor incident compared with the crushing realization of losing his unborn child. To the rest of the wives, she was the symbol of their unity and freedom and losing her threatens their courage and resoluteness to fight against their male enemies.

The motif of rape permeates the story from literal rape of the wives to less obvious examples of people in power abusing the bodies of the weaker ones like the war boys using Mad Max as a blood bag and even referring to him as such. The whole plot can be taken as an act of rape with Furiosa using the phallic symbol of the war rig, a precious possession of Joe, to flee the patriarchist society and then using Joe’s own car to penetrate the Citadel and enter back in. Thus, finally humiliating Joe, punishing him for his crimes against females and weaker humans in general and achieving her redemption.

The movie does not in any way suggest that a matriarchal society is superior to patriarchal one. Instead, it strives for an equilibrium between the two sexes.

One of the main messages of the movie is that people of both sexes manage better when they work together. There was an uproar from antifeminist blogs about the fact that Furiosa seemed more prominent in the movie than Max himself, but I argue that they both received approximately the same amount of screen time and as I mentioned before the emphasis was on their cooperation rather than some ideas of women being better than men. However men are not used to women being so important in the grand scheme of things in an action movie as is confirmed by a question that one journalist asked Tom Hardy, the actor playing the protagonist Mad Max, during the press conference for the movie in Cannes: “Tom, I’ll preface my remarks by saying that I have five sisters, a wife, a daughter and a mother so I know what it’s like to be outgunned by oestrogen. But I just wanted to ask you, as you were reading the script did you ever think ‘why are all these women in here. I thought this was supposed to be a man’s movie?” Luckily, Tom Hardy’s answer to this was very straightforward: “No.  Not for one minute. That’s kind of obvious” to which Charlize Theron replied: “Good for you!” Hardy then quickly changed the topic by referring to the fact that having an actual script was a luxury they simply did not have while working on this movie. 

In one of the most talked about scenes of the movie, the perception of Furiosa’s actions seems to be misjudged or exaggerated by most of the audience: after the team escapes through the canyon and the war rig gets stuck in the muddy terrain, they notice a tank led by one of Immortan’s captains approaching them. Max takes the biggest gun they have with only three bullets left in it to stop the vehicle. He shoots twice and misses both times again and then decides to let Furiosa have the last shot. Many people assumed that this scene establishes Furiosa as the better shot of the two and depending on their political views on gender, they either praised the director for this surprising twist or damned him for pandering to feminist audience by making the titular hero inept. However, the key moment in this scene comes after Max passes the gun to Furiosa: instead of trying to shoot the same way Max has seconds before her, she uses Max’s shoulder to steady the gun and tells him not to breathe. In other words, where Max attempts to do something as an individual, Furiosa opts for teamwork and thus fulfils the task successfully but the main point is, that she would not be able to do so without Max’s help.

There is an archaic idea of what women should be like, created and supported by the different aspects of culture throughout the world – mild, nonviolent, non-threatening. It is still well-nourished nowadays even in the real world, but is especially underlined in this movie. This image of women as frail beings is juxtaposed with the realities of the post-apocalyptic world that Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in. For example, the wives persuade Furiosa not to kill Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the war boys, when he attacks her. Angharad seems to be the leader of the wives and therefore the most exquisite model of this mild femininity. For example, she calls bullets ‘antiseeds’ because when you plant one, someone will die. The wives think they are going to live happily after all the struggle in a society that tolerates no violence and are therefore surprised to see the Vuvalini women from the place of The Many Mothers armed with lethal weapons from head to toe. One of the wives, the Dag (Abbey Lee Kershaw), has a conversation with one of the Vuvalini women about all of the violence and killing that they do: “Thought somehow you girls were above that” (Mad Max: Fury Road 1:23:10). The older woman then shows her the seeds she is keeping safely with her in order to find a healthy place to plant them successfully. She also explains that in the past there was no need to shoot and kill people because everyone had their own space to live in.

Immortan Joe’s army full of action-hungry warboys that Furiosa and her friends have to defeat. Photo courtesy of Freeman Ent.

But the movie does not in any way suggest that a matriarchal society is superior to patriarchal one. Instead, it strives for an equilibrium between the two sexes. The Green Place is set up to be a ‘magical’ place of only women living in perfect harmony, but it turns out things are just not that easy and when men are scarce the women have to protect themselves. The non-existence of the female paradise could be perceived as an assertion that such a purely non-violent society is a luxury that cannot last long in a post-apocalyptic world. In the end, the characters come to the conclusion that isolation within a female circle is not a viable solution and instead return to the place of the oppressive patriarchy in order to destroy the toxic warlord and create a new balanced society. The best person for this job is Furiosa as she has lived through both. Thus, the seeds, representing the feminine fertility and the bullets (or ‘anti-seeds’), representing the potential destructiveness of the male strength merge into a state of equilibrium.

One of the most important and distinguishing aspects of the movie is that there is no romantic subplot between Max and Furiosa. According to Miller, the character of Furiosa was created as a female counterpart to Mad Max. They are both broken people who have overcome tremendous hardships in their struggle to survive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Both actors play the roles solemnly: they do not enjoy the car chases and the carnage. Instead they see it as a necessity in their fight for freedom and survival. This is in contrast with the war boys, who essentially live for their chance to die a violent death on the fury road. Violence is romanticised in their culture and their adrenaline infused behaviour contrasts with the solemn and weary demeanour of Furiosa and Max. Even though the full backstory of Furiosa’s character is never fully told, glimpses of the world within the Citadel reveal enough to imagine what she had to go through. The relationship that develops between her and Max is one of two individuals who have very much in common and acknowledge their similarities after evaluating each other’s actions. Their partnership is built almost without words and expressed through several looks of understanding and trust that they share over the course of the film. The movie completely ignores any possibility of a romantic subtext, focusing instead on the importance of this partnership of equals in a gender-neutral way.

This article has summarized how the movie Mad Max: Fury Road pioneered a new kind of female heroine that will be remembered and adored by men and women equally for her achievements and strong will. Director George Miller brought an amazing archetype of a character to our screens in 2015 and we can only hope that this was only the start of many more to come.

This article is based on author’s final paper which she submitted in the Academic Writing course.

Photo by Ľubomíra Tomášová.

Jana Záhoráková

Jana is excited to be a brand-new member of the Re:Views crew. She enjoys watching movies and a number of TV series as well as, swimming and travelling. She had previously  attempted to study English and American Literature in Prague but did not succeed and enjoys the friendly student atmosphere here in Brno. She is a combined student so when she is not reading or sleeping (her two favourite pastimes), she is working away in an office doing administrative work.


Works Cited:

Captain Marvel. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Walt Disney, 27 Feb. 2019.

Daredevil. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, 20th Century Fox, 14 Feb. 2003. 

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Directed by Simon West, Paramount Pictures, 15 June, 2001.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller, Warner Bros. ,7 May 2015.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patti Jenkins, Warner Bros., 15 May 2017.

Xena: Warrior Princess, Created by John Schulian and Robert Tapert, NBC, 1995- 2001.

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