Why This Feminist Isn’t Furiously in Favor of the New Mad Max

I am stepping outside of books for this post to get a rant about the new Mad Max film off my chest.

I did not see any of previous Mad Max franchise films and I had no plans to see the new one until I read that Eve Ensler was a consultant and that Charlize Theron had gone above and beyond in physically preparing for her role as Imperator Furiosa.  My feminist friends posted calls to see the film and, once they had seen it, posted paeans of praise for Eve Ensler’s single-handedly turning the masculine-bound action franchise on its head.

So I tromped to the theater to enjoy this feminist dream.  I was horribly disappointed.

Yes, the film revolves around the rescue of a handful of sex slaves.  Yes, the rescue is led by a woman (Charlize Theron) who is the leader of her warlord’s shock troops.  She even bears the awesome title Imperator Furiosa.  And she’s missing half an arm.

Others have commented on the failings of this film as a feminist venture (such as this article by whatculture.com or this by inthesetimes.com).  These writers bemoan the scant clothing of the rescued breeders as well as the fact that they are breeders.  They point out that there is a romantic interest and some frisson between Furiosa and Max and that, although Furiosa is tough, Max saves the day and then rides off into the sunset (well, walks).

What I have not seen, however, is anyone commenting on what, to me, was the most egregious anti-feminist element of the film.  When the film takes us into the warlord’s fortress, before we see the empty breeders’ chamber with the famous red graffiti “Who destroyed the world?” (because women could not possibly have been involved in that), we see in a chamber full of the warlord’s henchmen a series of chained women whose pendulous breasts are attached to milking machines.  The henchmen grab jugs of “mother’s milk” and down them thirstily.  The women are captives, exposed, whose bodies are continuously violated to feed the literal thirsts of the warlord and his men.  Why is there no outcry about the plight of these women?  These women are not young and lithe.  They are women we would likely call plus-sized and whose hair and makeup have not been professionally done prior to any rescue.  They are not the type of women our gaze has been trained to find pleasurable.  Surely, however, a feminist film would call attention to their equal exploitation, would categorize them as sex slaves equal to the young breeders?

Instead these women are abandoned when the great rescue takes place.  They are physically and figuratively left behind.  Neither Furiosa nor the breeders comment on their sisters in exploitation who remain chained and whose bodies continue to be violated.  Instead, the film focuses on training all eyes in the male gaze as we together watch their winded cloths slip and fall from their young bodies and as we together watch them remove one another’s chastity belts that are presented less as horrifying than as titillating S&M objects.  Supporting this analysis is the fact that, while numerous images of the breeders and their chastity belts are readily available on various websites, I was unable to find any of the milk women.  They and their exploitation are, once again, omitted.

Why have more feminists not raised an outcry about this gross discrimination?  Young attractive women are worth saving while older, heavier women are not even worth mentioning.  In fact, Furiosa’s truck contains mother’s milk, which the rescuers drink.  They benefit from the other women’s exploitation. Their exploitation is completely unexplored. Why do the men want to drink mother’s milk rather than something else?  How did the women become milkers?  Were they first breeders?

This omission screamed at me in the theater and has continued to scream at me as I have read criticism of the film.  All women are equal, but some women are more equal than others is the message.  While that may be the historically realistic message of feminism (as white, middle-class feminists have ignored or degraded the needs of women of color and lesbian or transgender women, for example), this message is not the theoretical message of feminism, which calls for the equality of women and men.

Let us not rejoice at crumbs, ladies.  We can celebrate the film’s advances while pointing out its shortcomings, just as we do with the society from which it arose.

(Images still from Mad Max Fury Road, a Warner Bros. film.  Linked from time.com and whatculture.com).


Dark Places–Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn’s head must be a dark place.  Dark Places was her first novel and, having read it last, I was relieved that the female protagonist was not twisted or evil.  Her worst faults were laziness and a milk kleptomania, which was understandable given her horrid childhood.

Libby Day survived the massacre of her family in their Midwestern farmhouse late at night.  One sister was strangled in her bed, another was chopped down with an axe, and her mother was shot in the face and chopped.  Libby escaped through a window and lost a finger and a couple of toes to frostbite from hiding in the woods.  Her older brother, Ben, was charged with the murders and sent to prison, in part due to her coached “eyewitness” testimony.

The novel begins with Libby’s banker telling her that the funds donated by concerned citizens when she was a child have run dry and that she needs to find a way to make her own living.  Libby has not made much of herself and her guilt over having survived is obvious.  She has anger to spare, which includes plenty for herself.  Desperate to avoid the work world, Libby agrees to meet with the Kill Club (for cash) to talk about her family.  That visit leads her to talk to the people involved in the demise of her family, first for cash, then on her own quest for the truth as Libby slowly wakes from the haze she seems to have lived in since that night.

Gillian Flynn is dark, but she is also skilled at slowly drawing a reader in and feeding just enough of the story to keep the pages turning.  She intersperses Libby’s investigation with diary-like chapters from Libby’s mother and brother.  Her mother is a sympathetic character–single mother of four children left to run her parents’ farm alone and saddled with a huge debt accumulated by her good-for-nothing ex-husband–but she is also weak.  In a terrible series of chapters, Patty Day realizes one of her girls has peed the bed and the sheets reek of urine, yet she is overwhelmed by the events of the day and does not change them and the sheets remain urine-soaked the night of the murders.  Benign neglect that does not always seem so benign, especially when it comes to Ben.

Ben is a teenage boy in poverty and the head of a family of four women.  He rides his bike in the winter cold back and forth to school to work as the weekend janitor, where he tries to avoid being seen by the athletes.  He is a skinny, hungry, tired young man who is mocked by his no-good father, his classmates, one of his younger sisters (Michelle), and even his girlfriend.  He begins a friendship with a pretty fifth-grade girl who embodies all of the privilege he wishes he had, but even that friendship goes bad as she claims he molested her.  Ben is sympathetic, but also dark and dark enough that Flynn lets us believe may have been guilty right to the end.  As in her other novels, guilt and innocence are not clear-cut categories for Flynn.  Instead there are degrees of guilt and shades of innocence.  Although Libby is the protagonist, Ben was the most memorable character of the novel, perhaps because he remains emotionally static, trapped in the time of the massacre and the teenage drama that surrounded it.

As in most thrillers, the “whodunit” reveal was a bit of a disappointment.  Writers are so skilled at stoking our imaginations that having to choose one reality and bring it to the page means competing with what our imaginations have created, and that is a loser’s game.

Finished 5/5/15