Note: This post contains spoilers for Mad Max: Fury Road. Consider yourself warned!
Much has been said about the feminism of Mad Max: Fury Road—and justly so. The story centers around the attempted rescue of a group of women held in sexual slavery to the violent warlord Immortan Joe. It’s a rescue, by the way, led almost entirely by women—first by the completely awesome Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, who basically carries the movie), who’s grown fed up with Immortan Joe’s reign of violence and oppression, and then by the Vuvalini, a matriarchal society of women who’ve somehow managed to survive and cultivate a humane community in the desert. Even in the midst of nearly non-stop action, Furiosa, the Vuvulani, and Joe’s “wives” all come off as three-dimensional people, possessing characteristics too often denied women in Hollywood movies: strength, courage, leadership, complexity, and most of all, total badassery. It’s basically a movie about a group of women who rise up in revolt against a violent, misogynist system.
It’s also about men becoming allies in this struggle, learning from the women how best to stand with them in their fight against patriarchy. Ultimately, the movie’s women teach the men that the only way they’ll ever reclaim their own humanity is by standing in solidarity with the oppressed.
The film has two male characters who come to be allies with Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini in their struggle against oppression: Max, played by Tom Hardy, and Nux, played by Nicholas Hoult. Though these two characters are redeemed by the film’s end (redemption is a major theme of the film), they hardly start out as heroes. One stands in direct opposition to Furiosa’s rescue attempt (Nux), the other is apathetic to the wives’ suffering and their struggle to be free (Max). They’ve got a long way to go before they can learn how to be allies to the women.
Let’s start with Max. Imprisoned by Immortan Joe as a “blood bag,” a thing to be bled dry for Joe’s War Boys, Max is more concerned with escaping Joe himself than with helping Furiosa and the wives. When he finds his chance to escape, he actually fights the women and steals their war rig—their only means of escape—so that he can get away. But he doesn’t make it very far without them; only Furiosa knows how to run the rig and override its kill switch. If Max wants to survive, he needs the women—and he needs them far more than they need him. So he joins in their escape attempt, slowly coming to sympathize with the women and their plight as they fight off their pursuers together (One of the great strengths of the movie is how character is demonstrated through action. We know that Max is changing because of the things he does, and the action scenes, in addition to being awesome, are extremely consequential on a human level.)
Max has begun to fight alongside the women as an ally in their struggle. But as an ally, he doesn’t just rush in and take charge—he follows Furiosa’s lead just as often as he takes initiative to do things his own way. It’s just like the rig’s kill switch: without the guidance of the women, he’s not going to get very far.
There’s one scene in particular that demonstrates how Max needs to follow, not lead, in order to be an effective ally. They’re being pursued through the night by a vehicle with a spotlight, and Max is trying to take out the car with a sniper rifle. Problem is, Max isn’t such a good shot with the weapon—and they’ve only got three rounds left. Max takes one shot and misses. Another shot, another miss. Then, knowing that Furiosa is more likely to put the final bullet to good use, he hands over the gun, leans over so that she can use his back as a prop for the rifle, and holds his breath exactly when she tells him to. Furiosa takes the shot, and gets the kill.
Now, I know that this scene isn’t exactly cuddly—Max and Furiosa are teaming up to kill a dude, after all—but I still find it to be strangely beautiful. Max steps down. He lets Furiosa take the lead. He literally provides a support for her to do her thing. And with him helping prop her up, she nails it. Together, they win.
Nux has a much longer journey to become an ally to Furiosa and the wives. He’s a War Boy, a child soldier helping keep Immortan Joe in power. He’s been led to believe that his greatest value as a person is to die fighting for Joe, and that if he does die a glorious death for his warlord, he’ll be granted entry into Valhalla, the afterlife. So, when he learns that Furiosa has liberated the wives, he sees his opportunity to gain glory and status in Immortan Joe’s eyes, either by bringing the wives back to him or by dying in the process.
But then something strange happens. When Max has an opportunity to kill Nux, the wives stop him, protesting, “He’s just a boy!” This was a surprising scene. Nux poses a threat to the women, so why would they save him?
The answer comes in their own revolutionary ideals and beliefs, which are a core theme of the film: “We are not things.” These words are scrawled on the walls of the living quarters they escape from. The women are not things, not slaves, not sexual objects to be owned by Immortan Joe. They’re people.
But if the wives have empathy for Nux, it’s because they believe that these words, “we are not things,” apply to him as well. Nux is not a War Boy whose only value is to die in service of Immortan Joe, and Max is not a blood bag whose only purpose is to keep others alive. They’re people. It’s often said that patriarchy hurts men as well as women. Not as much as women, of course—but the movie demonstrates that Nux doesn’t emerge unscathed from his contact with the same violent, oppressive system that treated Joe’s wives as sex slaves. His mind has been warped by an ideology of violence and domination—and I think that his story will ring true to any man who’s ever been told to “suck it up and be a man,” who’s been called “girly” or “gay” by people who believe those words to be insults, who’ve heard rape or domestic violence justified because “boys will be boys” or “that’s just the way men are.”
Max can’t see Nux as anything more than a threat, but the women look at him and see a damaged, confused boy. And so, they spare his life and lead him toward a better way.
Participating in a system of oppression that denies basic rights to one-half of the population may bring privilege to some, but it also has a dehumanizing effect on the oppressors. There’s a soul-sickness that sets in, I think. Participating in injustice deforms a person, deep-down. But by standing in solidarity with Furiosa, the wives, and finally the Vuvalini, Max and Nux achieve a sort of redemption. They’ve been damaged by the things they’ve seen and the things they’ve done. But by learning from the women how to by allies with the oppressed and against the oppressor, they reclaim some measure of their humanity.
The film demonstrates this, once again, not through words but through action. In a climactic scene, Nux sacrifices himself so that Furiosa, Max, and the women can escape. And Max, discovering that Furiosa is wounded and unable to go on, gives his own blood to save her.
There’s something poignant in the way that Max and Nux become, once more, a blood bag and a War Boy at the film’s end. Immortan Joe told Nux that his only value was to die, but Nux rejects Joe by dying for a different cause instead, one he really believes in; and Max, who’s bled against his will at the beginning of the film, gives his blood willingly by the end. Rediscovering hope in what the world could be if these women took charge, they find something that they’re willing to fight for, to die for, to bleed for—and reclaim their own humanity in the process.
Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of the men who apparently want to boycott the film for being feminist. Honestly, I feel sorry for them. They seem like Nux at the beginning of the movie—confused. I wish every MRA could see this movie. I’m confident they’d like it (the action does kick ass, after all). Some of them might even be challenged by it—challenged to see and recognize that they, in fact, have nothing to fear from feminism, and plenty to gain. Contrary to the ridiculous MRA portrayals of feminists who wish to destroy men and eradicate masculinity from the world, Mad Max: Fury Road portrays a feminist revolt against patriarchy in which men have an important place as allies, learning from women, and learning, along the way, how to be more fully human.