George Miller's film Mad Max: Fury Road has sparked furious debate about the role of women in cinema and the connection between the female body and violence, especially in action orientated films. Miller's reboot of his original story is a dynamic piece of artistry, incorporating beautiful cinematography with brutal violence and the question of what happens to humankind when society as we know it collapses into the dust of a post-apocalyptic world.
Post-apocalyptic films have become something of a staple for Hollywood production companies hoping to make a box office hit. The recent upsurge of violence in African countries coupled with the rumblings from Russia and the continued fighting in the Middle East has given movie goers an especially bleak outlook on life, and the post-apocalyptic film both nurtures and condemns that outlook.
Despite its popularity, the post-apocalyptic film world has always been an inconsistent one. Either horrifyingly bleak or inappropriately optimistic, the films never seem to be able to balance the broken futures they show and the implication that our present may morph into those futures. One of the main detractors of the authenticity of post-apocalyptic films is the depiction of women. The films often degender women so that they become simple reflections of the men, not unique in their gender, or the films gratuitously exploit the female form in terms of violence.
Mad Max: Fury Road was therefore birthed into a genre that is both hetronormative and male dominated. Perhaps George Miller noticed this when he created his reboot or perhaps it was something that happened unintentionally. But whether his motives were fuelled by the need to make a Hollywood cash cow reboot or to try and redefine the genre, he created a film which poses interesting questions about the female anatomy in post-apocalyptic cinema.
Miller's outlook on a brutal, devastated world is not a particularly original one, with John Hillcoat's The Road being a grimmer and a harder hitting film and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange being a more bombastic look into the future. But Miller's treatment of the female and female anatomy trumps most post-apocalyptic or even futuristic films. In Mad Max: Fury Road a part of the female anatomy is considered which is often ignored or sidelined in cinema of all genres: the female womb.
In modern times we have lost the importance that was once placed on reproduction. In a world that is overpopulated and with families which struggle to pay for one child; we as a modern society do not value the ability to reproduce multiple offspring as much as our primitive ancestors once did.
In modern times we have lost the importance that was once placed on reproduction. In a world that is overpopulated and with families which struggle to pay for one child; we as a modern society do not value the ability to reproduce multiple offspring as much as our primitive ancestors once did. Miller invokes these primitive standards in his film where offspring mean survival for a clan in an exasperated world which relies on numbers for strength. These standards are, as they often are, two-fold and in Miller's world the offspring must be male to lead to heirs and soldiers.
The reproductive relationship between males and females is a seemingly reciprocal one, but Mad Max: Fury Road shows the alarming power dynamics which crisscross this relationship. A man can impregnate multiple women at a time. A woman can only bear one man's child at a time. Women too are often physically more affected by the pregnancy, becoming slower and weaker than their male counterparts. Thus women become the frailer reproductive partner. This biological fact leads to the dominance of men over women even in the realms of pregnancy and childbirth because physically men have more strength than their pregnant counterparts. In the world of Mad Max: Fury Road and even in our own world, physical strength aids in survival.
In Mad Max: Fury Road the antagonistic Immortan Joe jealously guards a harem of beautiful women tasked with providing him with healthy male heirs to continue his legacy. These women seem genetically superior to the other women shown in the film and due to this, they are isolated from society. They are not weathered by the harsh climate nor are they malnourished or scarred by battle. But their genetic superiority comes at a price. It is implied in the film that they are often raped by Immortan Joe and they are forced to wear chastity belts so that he alone may have sexual intercourse with them. They have become like objects to him that only he is allowed to touch and interact with.
These women's ability to reproduce, their wombs, put them in a difficult position. They live a pampered life, but they also live in a gilded cage. Their anatomy allows them security, but their anatomy also consequently betrays them. The children they birth to Immortan Joe are both their loved offspring and also their damnation. They too must live with the guilt of if their wombs betray them and they give birth to a female child. It is not explicitly stated what happens if the child is female, but if the violent trend in Miller's world is to be continued, the child will probably be killed.
Miller's film is a bloody affair with young boys willingly killing themselves to go to a fabled paradise called 'Valhalla' and people shooting and dismembering each other, but his movie shows a bloodier kind of violence, which goes beyond the sphere of the physical and shows violence in terms of the internalised violence seen in the women of the harem.
The children they birth are an internalised form of violence. They are an actual product of rape or sexual violence.
The children they birth are an internalised form of violence. They are an actual product of rape or sexual violence. Immortan Joe subjects the women to a violence which goes beyond the external world and enters the very private and personal world of the inner body and inner being. His patriarchal rule extends beyond the women's physical bodies and enters the realm of their reproductive abilities as well as the realm of their children.
It is no surprise then that the audience smiles a little vindictively when Immortan Joe finally meets his grisly end. But his death does not signify the end of his violence, as it is suggested that one of the women in the harem is pregnant with his child. The violence of rape is a continued violence; it does not end when the rape has been ended. The violence directed at the womb is almost more terrible than the violence directed at the external human body because this violence continues forward into the future.
Miller does not shy away from this type of violence. He turns an unwavering eye onto the violence that the female body is subjected to in films, but is often half-heartedly portrayed. He creates in Immortan Joe a hateful patriarchal figure that may exist in a post-apocalyptic world, but lives out ideals which still resurface in our society and resurface inconsistently in films.
Mad Max: Fury Road is an imperfect film. But its imperfections do not detract from the fact that it is an important piece of cinema. It shows in its imperfect way the effects of violence upon the female body especially the womb and how a woman's reproductive capacities both free and bind her to a certain way of life. In a chilling way, the fallen world of Mad Max: Fury Road is not so far from our own.