Monday, June 1, 2015

Maxed out

I don't know about you but I'm a little maxed out by all the RAVE reviews of the latest Mad Max as a feminist frontier film, just between you and me and this spookily sandy skull.

This weekend I was finally dragged out (just kicking, not screaming) to watch the much vaunted Part IV of the Mad Max series and was struck by three things: the number of men in the theatre, the number of men on the screen, and the number of sculls everywhere, sculls that were probably male too, but it's hard to tell - one can only hope.

What is it with men and sculls? I don't get it.

Anyway. Being a little more serious, I will say that apart from the sculls, which always seem to me more spoofy than spooky, I quite enjoyed Fury Road. The scenery/cinematography was striking and the guitar guy kind of cool and kinky in a not-taking-itself-too-seriously sort of way. Perhaps the film is a spoof on the genre of wanky macho action films. I like the idea of that!

But that's not quite what the film is, I don't think. Fury Road is still in that macho genre of male speed, violence and a sculls! Mad Max himself, a typical bulky, grunty sort of hero, bites the head off a live double-headed lizard in the opening scene, for starters. These are heroes men want to see, not women. I prefer my men to stick to eating cooked and headless creatures. Call me old-fashioned.

Still, there is Theron's gutsy (if gorgeous) shaved-headed character, Furiosa, as well as the basic feministy plot centred around abused women making their escape from the male-run world of desperate cruelty and debauchery. The world as it will become if men are left in charge to run things according to their base instincts until there's nothing left but sculls in the sand, so suggests the film.

Obviously this plot borrows heavily from THE REAL WORLD. If you go to many parts of our planet still, and all parts of it once, this is pretty much how it is and was: women systematically used by men as sex/domestic slaves in countries constantly - and unsurprisingly - at war, with their armies and even parliaments of angry, unenlightened, superstitious and sexist men under the sway of psychotic ass-hole tyrants. Why do men follow ass-holes so readily? What are men so afraid of ? God's wrath? But they invented God. Why are men so easily fooled? Why are so many men so incredibly sexist? Why can't they respect and honour women as fellow human beings?

These are questions I want a truly feminist film to ask and try to answer. I'm not sure the 'action' genre can. For me, the problem with the so-called feminism of Fury Road is that we're still mostly watching men fighting and the fighting is mostly productive. Guns and fists - mostly men's fists - still save the day. When the escaping women run out of ammo, Max heads off into the night and returns with a necklace of bullets enough to wipe out the world, as well as the other guy's blood on his face. Classic tough-guy hero.

Meanwhile, Furiosa is mostly a Joan of Arc character working within this basic storyline as a token female warrior in a male dystopian fantasy world. Max is still a macho hero who saves Furiosa's life when all the other women around her can't. Perhaps she saves him too, as the reviews of the film claim, and perhaps this is the feminist message of the film: that men need women to save them, just as women need men. But DO women need men? I'm not sure. How can women ever trust men to save them when they have consistently shown their preference for saving themselves? Are there any male heroes in real life? You can be sure there are none that use their fists.

And female heroes? well that's an entirely different matter. The hundreds of millions of women worldwide who endure lives of constant domestic abuse and domination for the sake of their children, or risk their lives to try and escape their violent partners, again for the sake of their children, as extensive academic studies attest, suggest that the world is full of women heroes. Malala is a powerful present-day example, as was Benazir before her.

Fury Road gives us a sexy female hero who helps save the world, but leaves the ultimate macho fantasy of men as tough-guy heroes who save women and the world mostly unchallenged. The 'feminism' in the film is too thin to provoke any serious rethinking of the basic myth of heroic masculinity that I believe is responsible for the enduring idolisation of males as primary and females as secondary support/servants; the world's governing mythology that underpins its enduring cruel and violent patriarchy.

Feminism - female liberation, equal power and respect between the genders worldwide - is hard; Fury Road makes it look easy, or at least uncomplicated, provided you have plenty of bullets and a big enough truck - and a big strong man on your side.

Still, if the uber macho action films previewed before the main event this weekend are any indication of the alternative in that genre, Fury Road is a step, even a giant leap, in the right direction. If we can get powerful women and anti-macho themes into all action films, then we might just see this deeply conservative genre work to open the eyes of the millions of men who watch these films every year.

For alternative points of view see:        

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