"Imperator Furiosa." Now that is how you name a movie character.
Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist of the new Mad Max movie, played with a fierce vulnerability (and a shaved head) by Charlize Theron. A few phrases came to mind while watching the movie, the first being "stunning spectacle." Men bolted to steel poles wobbling dozens of feet in the air, which are in turn bolted to cars that seem to have come straight out of, well, a Mad Max movie. Then a huge truck rumbles by, featuring a guitarist whose guitar spits fire out of its headstock. If such a scene does not describe "stunning spectacle," then I don't know what does.
The other phrase that came to mind while watching the movie was "unbridled feminism." This seems to have come as a surprise to some viewers, but they must not be true fans of the original movies. After all, there was the crossbow-wielding Warrior Woman of The Road Warrior, and then the crossbow-wielding Aunty Entity of Beyond Thunderdome. Anyone who saw Tina Turner strut her stuff as the fearsome and quixotic Aunty Entity would have never been surprised by a character like Imperator Furiosa.
But it is not just Imperator Furiosa who carries the feminist banner in Fury Road, but also the motorcycle gang composed of elderly women. A geriatric women's motorcycle gang would seem an implausible idea, but one does not watch a Mad Max movie for its “plausibility." I also think there is a kind of bizarre logic to this concept, given that old women are always the ones who have seen and survived the most in life. My own grandmothers survived the Japanese occupation of Korea, World War II, and the Korean War. Joining an apocalyptic motorcycle gang would have been a piece of cake. Even the sex slaves escaping captivity in the film have their own strength, albeit one more nascent and uncertain than their peers. Watching them flee their warlord captors, I could not help but think that the story of being forced into sexual slavery seems to be just as much of a modern narrative as an apocalyptic one.
The third thought that came to mind while watching Fury Road was “I would never let my three daughters watch this movie.” It’s not just because they are too young (they are far too young), and it’s not because I am not a fan of female empowerment (I am a fan). It’s because of the violence. In the film, the empowerment of women is communicated largely through violence: that women are capable of holding their own with the men when it comes to crashing cars, wielding sawed-off shotguns, and maiming/killing people. Their equality as human beings is demonstrated primarily by their ability to commit acts of gratuitous violence.
And Mad Max is hardly the only example. I recently watched Taylor Swift’s new music video for “Bad Blood” (purely for research purposes, truly). Like Fury Road, you find images of empowered women, exuding cool confidence as they karate chop masked assassins and hoist rocket-propelled grenade launchers to their shoulders with their model skinny arms. Another anthem to feminism, employing images that glorify war and aggression.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand this concept. For too long, women have been relegated to the role of damsel in distress, whose worth and significance in a story is found only relative to the main male character. And in that context, role reversal seems to be a step towards equality. If only men like “Ahnold” could be the gore-spattered, gun-toting hero that mows down dozens of enemies, let’s have a women play that role instead. That’s progress. Right?