Women of the Wasteland: Dismembering Gender Discourses in Mad Max: Fury Road
by Jessica Melendez
A dystopia is a place that isn’t real or an imaginary setting where people in that place are unhappy and usually afraid because of how they are being treated. To elaborate even further, a dystopia can appear as a utopic place for some, yet there seems to be a group that is marginalized by some hegemonic force. While reviewing Mad Max: Fury Road, by George Miller, and Performativity, by Judith Butler, it is not difficult to identify the extremities in a dystopic world that displays the hyper feminine. The women in Mad Max: Fury Road, perform female roles that are rendered recognizable through hyper stylized regulatory norms; enforced by the tyrant Immortan Joe. Women in Fury Road, before we meet the Vulvini, signal traditional female roles in such heightened and disturbing ways so as to call attention to the force of their regulations throughout the film, which goes on to reiterate Butler’s theory that gender is not innate; it is socially constructed; wherein lies the conflict; wherein lies the gender discourse, especially in a film that is criticized for showcasing women as tall and willowy models in skimpy outfits, referring to the breeders or wives; for a slightly less vulgar way of calling them slaves. Miller also presents the women who produce the mother’s milk in bloating and disturbing visions of the Madonna and child. The film becomes critiqued for being anti-feminist, when Miller’s intention was to do just the opposite; which can be seen consistently throughout the film. Miller breaks down the social constructs that are enforced in the “Citadel” by delineating strong female and male roles that question the status quo and are fighting back against the subjugated world as they know it.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that is set in the future of a post-apocalyptic setting where a dystopic society known as the “Citadel,” is presented; Max, whom is a survivalist is captured by war boys, and is only able to make his escape when the tyrant Immortan Joe sends a war party after Furiosa and his wives, who have escaped his clutches. The group takes off into the wasteland in search for a land called “the Green Place.” in search of a better life, only to find it no longer exists. Max realizes that to have the best chance at surviving the women must go back to the Citadel, since it’s the closest place with water. They make the journey back, taking out loads of war boys and desert trash along the way. The thing that really seals the protagonists’ deal though, is the slaying of Immortan Joe and Furiosa becoming the new leader of the Citadel; with hopes to change things and start anew.
According to Judith Butler, gender is not something people are born with. Gender is assigned from the moment a person is born; constructed by their society. In Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller presents a world known as the “Citadel,” where gender has assigned specific roles for men and women, and he takes it a step further; making his characters either hyper masculine or hyper feminine, according to their biological sex. Since Butler believes gender is performative she also believes people have the ability to stop gender from existing, which becomes depicted later on in the film. The issue with gender is that from the moment of birth someone already has their gender laid out for them; often times not questioning it. Butler says, “Gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce appearance of substance.” (Judith Butler’s Theory of Gender Performitivity). To elaborate further, Butler says people construct and reconstruct ideas about gender, and that the people who are in control are responsible for that. Throughout Mad Max: Fury Road, Miller attempts to break down those constructs with his female protagonists.
Butler’s theory about gender being performative is controversial because there are those who believe gender is innate. According to Butler, when gender is being performed, that person is acting. Butler says, “When we say gender is performed, we usually mean that we’ve taken on a role; we’re acting in some way, and that our acting or our role playing is crucial to the gender that we present to the world.” (Judith Butler: Your Behavior Creates Your Gender). The wives proceed to act their gender roles until Furiosa offers a way out to their tyrannically enforced reality.
So what makes a woman in Mad Max: Fury Road hyper Feminine in the first place? Let’s start with the breeders. In this post-apocalyptic wasteland, according to their physical attributes; appear as shiny and new. In an interview with Zoe Kravitz, who plays “Toast,” she explains, “The wives are clean and that’s something that is very rare in this world,” (“Wives” Featurette: Youtube). All other women in the Citadel appear to be dirty and malnourished. When the wives meet the Vulvini for the first time; the elder women can’t believe their eyes, even noting how soft their skin is and how their teeth are intact. The wives dress all in white, are super model thin, with perfect hair, are well groomed, well fed, extremely healthy, and look as if they had never known a day’s labor in the entirety of their existence. But we all know how looks can be deceiving. Now given the current state of the apocalypse this is not a reality most people living in the Citadel can relate to, especially when there is the water shortage and diseases spreading. Their sole purpose is to procreate with Immortan Joe and to give him healthy male babies, who will then take over the Citadel. In addition to looks; the wives come into this world performing their gender as women; acting as property of Joe, which we don’t notice when we first meet them; seeing as they have already escaped, but their purpose is not exactly difficult to depict. They are portrayed as slaves to the tyrant and are even forced to wear chastity belts with lock and key. Their entire existence as they know and dread it is to please Immortan Joe in any way he sees fit. That is certainly no way to live, and Miller makes that evident in the film that this is not okay by his protagonist’s actions against that way of life. Because of the way Miller portrays how the women look it is easy to suggest this is an anti-feminist film, however he is only doing this to get his point across about the hyper stylization of gender performance and gender discourse.
Next there is the women who supply the mother’s milk, whom appear to be an over exaggeration of the pregnant female. In the film, they are all overly obese and hooked up to milk pumping machines, which they are chained to. The image is startling, making them seem like they are cattle in a dairy farm. These sad women never speak and are taken advantage of much like the breeders, for their usefulness to Immortal Joe. There is evidence of this once Furiosa leaves on a gasoline run and one of the war boys is testing the mother’s milk. These women also barely get any screen time, because unlike the wives are not used as sex objects, but they are certainly used as objects of other sorts. These women, much like the wives are enslaved and this is the only life they have come to know exists, which is just heartbreaking.
The women in Mad Max: Fury Road are constantly being exploited for their reproductive organs. The wives make the babies and have to be physical with Joe; Bleh, and the women who supply the mother’s milk produce enough milk that the war boys can use to trade in exchange for gasoline. Until they fight back, the women are portrayed as subservient and maternal creatures abiding to the patriarchy they have become accustomed to. Eventually the wives get sick and tired of this way of life that revolves around patriarchy and violence, which becomes quickly evident in the film. In Arthur Chu’s article, “Mad Max,” he explains the women’s take on changing the world. When referring to Furiosa, he says, “It’s because of the women she’s saving; Immortan Joe’s wives, who see the potential of a better world beyond fighting and killing. It’s because of the reappearance of people in the Mad Max universe who aren’t warriors and demonstrate a way to life that isn’t war.” (Mad Max). The women, Furiosa included, who is the leader; believe in something other than the life they know of the Citadel. To them the Citadel is a nightmare, and rightfully so.
Before the escape from the Citadel, the wives make it a point to graffiti the wall of their imprisonment, bearing words that basically tell Joe where he can stick it. They write, “Our babies won’t be warlords.” and “Who killed the world?” (George Miller. Mad Max: Fury Road). This is their stance against performing the genders that are assigned to them, and acknowledging they are human beings, not objects to be used and abused, or raped and chained down.
While there is ample evidence of hyper femininity in the film, The Protagonist, Furiosa breaks down those binaries right from the beginning by not performing the gender assigned to her sex. For starters, Furiosa is the toughest warrior in the Citadel and commands her own party of war boys; she even gets to drive the war rig. Furious is not presented as a feeble and subservient breeder, instead she is a powerful badass. We learn in the film that Furiosa was stolen from her homeland of the many mother’s; where women have a reputation for being tough, so it’s not too surprising she is the way she is, appearing already unlike the typical female in the Citadel.
The message that George Miller and Judith Butler want to get across is to challenge gender discourses, because ideas about gender are in a constant state of change. Gender can be reshaped to the point where it ceases to exist entirely if people are more self-aware and allow it. Just because someone is assigned a role doesn’t mean they should perform that said role, rather they want us to question these roles. Miller and Butler want us to challenge the patriarchy and question right from wrong, and to break down the social constructs placed on us by hegemonic forces, until there is no reason to anymore; then everyone will truly be equal.
Butler, Judith: Performativity. Youtube.com
Chu, A. (2015, May 20). ‘Mad max’: How men’s rights activists killed the world. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com/docview /1691078307?accountid=9625
Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron. Warner Home Video,