Portraying Strong Female Characters, Except When It Doesn’t: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, dir. George Miller)

(Just a reminder, all CPBS articles potentially contain spoilers.)

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of engaging in BitchFlicks‘ weekly Twitter discussion, the topic of which was Mad Max: Fury Road.  Fury Road is a decent action film that makes up in style what it lacks in story and character detail, but it’s getting a lot of attention as a potentially feminist action film.  I tend towards skepticism when regarding mainstream media attempts at true progressivism, as I’m more likely to dwell on the problematic stuff that remains a constant.  A lot of the contributors to this afternoon’s discussion were more optimistic in their view of the film, which led me to concede that I was overlooking the positive aspects of Fury Road.  It’s amazing to see a big budget action film that features women defending themselves, standing up to the bad guy, striking out into the unknown, and doing it all because they know they can rely on each other.  Despite being the titular character, Max (Tom Hardy) plays more of a supporting role to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Over the course of their adventure, the two learn to trust each other and work together without resorting to a compulsory romance.  Furiosa’s goal is to liberate the Wives, five women who are sex slaves to Immortan Joe (Hugh Kyes-Byrne), a tyrant who controls a large source of water, and return with them to her matriarchal homeland, the Green Place.

However, Fury Road is a mixed bag with regards to body diversity.  Furiosa is an amputee, which is pretty huge, considering she’s the protagonist.  However, there are other people in the film whose disabilities aren’t quite as cool (Furiosa gets a neat-looking robotic arm), and seem to be present as props to convey how harsh life is in this desert setting.  Fat people are present in the film, but don’t fare very well.  When Joe is introduced, we see him in a room full of fat naked women whose lactating breasts are being pumped by machines.  These women are presumably his wives as well, or at least other women whose bodies are being exploited by him alongside the Wives.  Physical exploitation is a recurring presence in Fury Road.  Max is initially captured and held by Joe’s war boys so that his blood can be harvested.  The Wives are being exploited by Joe for sexual and reproductive purposes; they graffiti the walls of their rooms for Joe to find when he discovers they have escaped, bearing messages that they are not objects, and refuse to give birth to future warlords.  However, Max and the Wives escape from and confront their oppressors, while the nameless, voiceless fat women have no agency in this way.  The fat women’s bodies are in sharp contrast to those of the Wives– all five actresses playing the Wives have careers as models, and they are clothed in gauzy, pure white fabric.  The fat women do re-appear at the end of the film after Joe’s reign of terror has been overcome, giving the thirsty masses full access to Joe’s water reserves.  Although they participate in the liberation of the Citadel, that role reflected their earlier state captivity a little too closely for me to feel that there was true redemption.  They seemed to be stuck in an affliation with nourishing and abundance which made me uncomfortable, given the unsettling imagery of their captivity.

Another problematic fat figure is Joe’s ally, the People Eater (John Howard).  Although not given much in the way of characterization beyond being a Mini Boss, the People Eater’s fatness is linked to a sense of sadomasochistic hedonism, which are intended to inspire disgust in the audience.  The People Eater’s shirt has holes cut in it so that his nipples stick out; he wears clamps and chains on them that he has a habit of playing with.  He also has a metal grating covering his nose, which I interpreted as suggesting syphilis, which can cause the flesh of the nose to rot in advanced stages.  In the days before medical interventions, the decayed nose was a stigmatic mark of immorality.  Apparently, everything old is new again.  He also has exaggeratedly fat feet which eventually lead to his undoing, as Max forces his foot onto the gas pedal that leads him to crash.

There’s a lot about Fury Road that is refreshing in terms of representation, but the fat bodies present in the film get burdened with some tired tropes that detracted from my enjoyment of it.  One of the main ideas that the film presents is that bodies aren’t objects; unfortunately, that message doesn’t extend in practice too far beyond the normatively attractive characters.

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