Written by the warrior woman, Jacqui Barr
Mother’s milk is sacred in the world of Mad Max: Fury Road. To see an adult male drink it is transgressive not just because we are squeamish about such things – after all this is a post-apocalyptic world and the film starts with Tom Hardy’s Max Rockatansky eating a live two-headed lizard – no, it is because this milk is being coerced from mothers – dead babies in arms – in order for men to trade it. In the brutal patriarchy that has risen in the wasteland even a woman’s breast milk is not respected. Therefore when Max, covered in another person’s blood, washes himself in mothers’ milk, he is definitively reborn. It is a hugely important totemic symbol to the women he travels with, and for the audience it signals that (blimey-oh-riley) Max has become a feminist.
As an elderly warrior woman howls with glee “Come on girls!” and shoots a bad guy in the face, it is Max we cut to next, the hero is one of the girls. Max’s stated mission “to survive” is no longer, his purpose now is to ensure the safety of his female comrades. Charlize Theron’s fierce, womanly Imperator Furiosa has not only beaten his ass into the ground but she has impressed upon him their shared need for redemption, and he has developed the good sense to listen to her. In this film Furiosa calls the shots (or in her case, drives the rig). Poor Max may face countless threats to his wellbeing – including being shot in the head – but these women save him; even his (dead) daughter teaches him to put his hand up at an opportune moment.
Max is not the hero of this film, he is the passenger. Furiosa is doing fine all by herself before he comes along. She has equipped her ride with a kill-switch, hidden guns, provided water and a safe hiding place for her passengers. She is the first to put herself in danger when one of her girls risks being shot in a hail of bullets. Furiosa is the kind of woman most male action heroes aspire to be; fearlessly brave, decisive, uncompromising. She keeps her convoy alive by any means possible; able to repair her rig while it’s still on the move, drive it while critically injured, be a sharp-shooter, etc etc. Having “reliable” Max along for the ride is just another of her smart decisions.
Thus women in this film are deified. The vile antagonist Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) prizes them as breeders, but the film portrays their life-giving not just in the literal sense, but in other ways too. Women are the keepers of knowledge, understanding, spirituality, sensuality and community – and let’s not forget they prize and protect the literal seeds to regrow a world killed by men. Nature does not do well in masculine hands, when Nicholas Hoult’s Nux encounters a tree, he cannot even name it. He then proceeds to knock it down (with the help of Max) – albeit while trying to help – when he finds a bug crawling over one of the escaped woman’s skin, although initially curious, he immediately eats it. This echoes the film’s opening, but at least Max couched his behaviour as ‘madness’.
Immortan Joe keeps nature at his beck and call, and like everything he does, he will not allow it to truly flourish but uses it as a means of control. Max’s aim is to put his female companions in a position where they can do something about it, but he knows he can never be a part of the world they create. In this way, Mad Max: Fury Road is a classic Western; Max can instigate the action, but he is not civilised enough to remain.
It is somewhat surprising that this $150m aggressively petrol-headed, adrenalinised movie chooses women’s courage and resilience as its central theme. I hope that one day this will not be the exception, but the general rule of films, and that equally women will be allowed to get behind the camera to share their own stories on this sort of scale. Until they do, Mad Max: Fury Road is the true worthy successor to Terminator 2; as action films of wonder, energy, and awesome female characters. It’s only taken the best part of 20 years to get us there.