Deconstructing the Furies of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

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WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!

In Greek and Roman mythology, the furies (or Erinyes—“the angry ones”) are creatures represented as the female embodiments of justice and vengeance, born from the primordial goddess of Night more powerful than Zeus himself, and tasked to punish the unjust. Well-meaning civilians honored the furies as patrons of legal and moral order, and although often depicted as hellish beasts arising as bats or as storm clouds, they were also not incomparable to the three Graces of charm, beauty, and creativity.

How fitting, then, that director George Miller would clarify his continuation of the Mad Max saga—this time, a film led by female defenders of justice in a crazy, mythical future—with the subtitle Fury Road.

And with actual storm clouds, to boot.

I can’t be sure that Miller or his cast intended this interpretation of the title, since the dominant emotion on screen certainly screams of fury in the vernacular sense, but I’m almost certain that they did. After all, I don’t think anyone who hires Eve Ensler for the specific purpose of consulting on all things feminist would overlook the obvious equalization and overwhelming competence of the women in this film, and how the very appearance of them in the male-dominated world of action blockbusters might as well rarify them as otherworldly creatures.

But it isn’t just their number that makes Fury Road’s women notable. Rather, it’s their characterization amidst their surroundings that seems to have garnered people’s attention and praise. Neither the camera nor the titular male hero, for example, observe them as sexual objects, as the repeated line “We are not things,” illustrates. Female lead Furiosa, after all, doesn’t even arrrive on screen with all her body parts in tact, eliminating a sense of perfection in favor of the intricacy and resourcefulness symbolized by a prosthetic arm. The women are also allowed to feel sadness and doubt, emotions too often lost on all kinds of action heroes, regardless of gender (and also used to great effect, I might add, in Netflix’s amazing take on Daredevil, another action series way ahead of the curve, in my opinion).

They’re also allowed to be pretty old, which is pretty awesome.

Even the subtleties of Charlize Theron’s constantly-watering eyes—on the verge of tears or just withstanding the biting dust?—spoke volumes about the complexities of heroism. She is, like the mythical furies of ancient Greece, a tenant of a sort of underworld, accustomed to witnessing suffering and subjugation, dedicating what may be the last of her life to punishing the perpetrators. In this instance, the symbolism also suits the specific pain of female suffering, a feeling of social lowness also attributable to recognizable phrases like “the glass ceiling,” beneath which many women find themselves. And yet, even in a hellscape, the film hangs tight to themes of fertility and growth, and not just the biological kind. Here, even an elderly woman world-wearied of the fight for justice still tries at every opportunity to plant seeds of flowers and fruit, filled with hope—another theme of the film—that one day they might prosper into a new environment. Change, after all, doesn’t happen overnight. It must be tended with patience by people like Furiosa, who withstand all sorts of bad weather until the roots take hold.

Behold, the tears of badassery.

But it must also be tended by people like Max, which is why I’m frustrated to hear remarks’ like ones I found by self-proclaimed feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian, who wrote:

“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!’”

Her last statement, especially, fails to take into account the work these action sequences do to to enhance the equalizing goal of the movie. Fury Road may not give a lecture on the history of sexism and how it works in society, but it does suggest an idea of how sexism might be undermined and conquered.

To see this, people like Sarkeesian must be willing to observe the film’s male leads as well, and note how Miller manages to subvert even traditional action-movie characters into something beyond driving fast and stoically killing people—which, I might add, is a gross oversimplification of Fury Road’s plot.

If someone could explain this, though… that’d be great.

All of the interactions between Max, the slave Nix (played by Nicholas Hoult) and the rest of the female cast, for example, unfold in ways that simply don’t  rely on the presupposition of sexism. Neither the camera nor Max/Nix ever gawk at the women’s bodies in an overtly sexual way, regardless of what they look like or what they wear. In fact, although the film obviously depicts the physical abuse and subjugation of women, Max experiences some of these things for himself as “Blood Bag,” Nix’s way of reducing Max to only his body. Contrariwise, when Max meets up with Furiosa and the wives, he never thinks twice of Furiosa’s physicality (not even the strangeness of her missing arm), and never expects her to be anything less than his equal both in and out of combat. Max is also willing to cooperate with Furiosa during a scene where he fails to use two of his last three bullets to take out an approaching threat, instead letting Furiosa, the better shot, use his shoulder as a mount to snipe them away. And in a surprising overturn of the “Blood Bag” situation from earlier, Max—previously forced to siphon his blood to Nix—chooses to give his blood to a dying Furiosa of his own volition, becoming a hero not through “driving fast and stoically killing people,” but through healing.

♪ Give a little bit… give a little bit of your blood to me… ♪

Nix, too, previously depicted as a loony villain intent on achieving glory in a fiery death in Immortan Joe’s service, also achieves heroism through sacrifice. He may still die a fiery death, but he dies it a free man, thinking not of being the “manly-man” he’d been taught to be, but acting out of the love he learned from the wife Capable.

For a film so full of death and destruction, I find Fury Road so notable for the way it uses these events to make way for the ideas I mentioned earlier—of hope, growth, and rejuvenation. Not just through the act of a woman fighting to save other women (which is already rare enough in action films), but for the men who see them as the heroes they are. Max—and later Nix— doesn’t view these women as creatures in need of a helping hand or a charitable push, but as people to admire and emulate, and to whom he would sacrifice part of himself to ensure their victory. In the final scene, they have left the truck’s secret compartment, succeeded in the secret mission, and hoisted onto a platform before a cheering crowd, finally raised above the hell of their desert life. Perhaps it takes a little fury, after all, for a woman to serve justice in plain sight.

Watch the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road below:

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