Mad Max Is Not A Feminist

Andrew Klavan writes that critics are praising the new Mad Max because it upholds the feminist ideal. I think he's quite wrong that it does any such thing. Here's his argument.
....while I consider feminism a dishonest and oppressive philosophy, I believe good feminist stories can be told. This is because even a philosophy that is a lie in general may be the truth in a specific, individual case and stories are individual and specific. Dishonest outlooks can produce honest stories. The left has been living off this fact for decades.

So while ideologically corrupt critics are going wild over Fury Road because it’s feminist, I’m not criticizing it because I’m anti-feminist. I’m criticizing it because it’s not very good. Its title character is ill-defined. His mission is emotionally muddy....

What Fury Road does have is a female warrior (played by the always-watchable Charlize Theron) who does the work that any good story would have reserved for its central character. She has a back story that matters. She performs the major action tasks. She travels over a personal arc within the plot. Some in Hollywood fear that female action leads bomb. So Fury Road sneaks the female lead in by giving the female sidekick all the good stuff to do. As a result, however, the center of the movie is empty and the story collapses into it.
I've complained often enough about the need for female warriors in contemporary movies, but they're less unbelievable in movies set at or near the modern period in which guns are available. Nevertheless, the new Mad Max is not at all a feminist film.  I'll put the counterargument after the jump so as to keep you from encountering spoilers.

1) The film is totally clear on the differences in physicality between men and women. When men and women fight physically, which they do often in this movie, the women lose every time. Five women at once against a man and the women lose. Even if one of them is the 'female warrior.' This character is a better shot than Max, at least with her own rifle. But there's no fantasy that she's his physical equal.

2) Women in this movie are reduced to actual slavery. Just as in the actual Iraq where the civilization has broken down and ISIS has taken over, there's no illusion about what that would mean for women.

3) There is a band of free women who live without men. They survive only by keeping away from men, or trapping and killing them ruthlessly, and they aren't really surviving: their numbers have been reduced steadily to a mere handful who are too old to reproduce, and couldn't reproduce without men anyway. If these are the film's feminists, they're on the glidepath to extinction.

4) The 'war boys' who make up the dominant male's oppressive class are all male. They're willing to take orders from a slave because he says they should, not because she is in a position of any sort of authority in her own right. The other women from that society appear to be kept locked in a vault and actual chastity belts, or old crones put to starving in menial tasks.

So the suggestion that this is a 'feminist film' strikes me as absurd. The main feminist fantasy is that civilization is a kind of systematic structure of male privilege that forces women into submissive postures, and if we could overturn that society women would assume positions of equality. Mad Max dynamites that idea: there's nothing remotely like female equality in the wasteland it imagines. As in ISIS-led Iraq, again, the truth proves that any sort of political equality -- especially equality for women -- is an artifact of civilization, that it is not suppressed but created by civilization. Even the hunter-gatherer societies beloved of anthropologists have power structures, and they must accept whatever existence they can manage on the fringes left to them by more powerful societies. The natural condition is hierarchy, with the top position held by the strong and successful at war.

Mad Max accepts that as the most basic truth of its world. Klavan's analysis is simply wrong.


Texan99 said...

Who knows what the word "feminist" is supposed to mean any more? But it does sound as though this film, while depicting female slavery, at least adopts a POV objecting to it, and has characters who'd rather become extinct than knuckle under to it.

In contrast, for instance, I've just been proofreading a 19th century novel about a woman author who marries a man who objects to her continuing to publish. She writes a novel under a male pen name and publishes it secretly; it's a great hit, even with her husband, who speculates about the brilliant man who must have written it. Faced with the suggestion that it might have been written by a woman under a pen name, he explains first that no woman would have been capable, and second that any woman who was capable would by definition have undermined her femininity and invited a divorce. If the story were told entirely from the husband's POV, it could not easily be called a feminist novel. If it were told from the POV of the woman, who magically triumphed over her society, it might be called feminist but ridiculously unrealistic. If told from the POV of the woman and realistically accepting that she's in a jam she'll never get out of (at least not in that century), it might be something you could call feminist: sort of "protest" feminist rather than "triumphal." We have anti-war movies in which war isn't abolished, after all, and anti-racist movies in which ethnic strife continues apace.

While I was growing up, it's amazing how many books, TV shows, and movies I encountered whose plot hook was "woman's success destroys her marriage." I'm not displeased that there are popular movies now in which a woman's decision whether to strive or surrender is made on the basis of other considerations. If some of these movies are futuristic action fantasies, they understandably will not adopt a nuanced or realistic view of social dilemmas, but surely that's a matter of the genre and not the feminist slant per se?

Grim said...

Fair enough. My point is simply that this isn't a movie given over to blind ideology. Mad Max's own stance might be called feminist by you, since it is opposed to female slavery; I might call it chivalry, since it is the willing service of the mounted warrior, giving of his strength to serve those weaker than himself rather than exploiting his power over them. This is the union of our positions, odd as it may seem.

The point is that it is a good movie. I don't think Klaven is right on his terms, even if the movie is 'feminist' on your terms. But it is right, as far as it goes.

Texan99 said...

That's funny, isn't it--that "feminist" might equally describe both those positions. In that sense you could call chivalry feminist, though of course it's possible to decline to exploit one's power over others without, for instance, putting them on a pedestal or insisting that their role in life must be completely separate from yours in honor of their status, or whatever. We freed the African slaves without going down that path, for instance. We decline to enslave dwarves without declaring them irretrievably "other"; they simply do whatever they can do, like regular people.

The problem is that "feminist" apparently means "some kind of philosophy that focuses sympathetically on how things end up for women considered as a special class, considering their smaller size and tendency to become pregnant." It can be almost anything, from female supremacy to man-hating to aggressive equality or meritocracy to a demand for respect for diversity. Sometimes it's no more complicated than an aversion to blind male supremacy--as if a discrepancy in physical strength were the only important measure of worth in life.

Grim said...

I'm not sure it's true that we freed the African slaves without putting them in a special class; the story of the next going-on-two-hundred years has been a series of efforts to integrate them, or to resist integrating them, which hasn't worked itself out even yet. By some measures American society is as segregated as ever, though no longer by law. We certainly treat them as a conceptually different category, and they speak and think of themselves as separate and different as well.

That seems to be true even though race is a false category, a fantasy created to justify slavery. Sex is a true one: the differences you mention are real and undeniable.

But if 'feminist' merely means that you like women and want them to be happy, most men are feminists. Only some men hate women or despise them. The general run of men like at least the women they choose to be close to, and want them to feel happy and appreciated.

I don't get the sense from talking to my friends who are feminist philosophers that they mean quite that, although they certainly appreciate it when someone likes them and wants them to be happy. Still, as you say, there's a lot of give in this particular philosophy: it regularly comes to competing, even opposite conclusions (as for example on the question of whether pornography is good or bad).

I suppose the story arc in Mad Max is his movement from treating women as competitors who might be exploited for his needs, to genuine chivalry: giving of himself and sacrificing for their survival, protection and flourishing. Their ceasing to be slaves and attaining a position of real personal authority in the altered society flows from Max's actions. Klavan misses that entirely, somehow. It's not a feminist victory, in the sense of women forcing men to X. It's a human victory, following from Max's shift to chivalry. That enables a better society than the one they found themselves in at the start of the film, and it makes Max a better person than he was as well.

Texan99 said...

Race may be a "false" category in that it fails to justify most of what we read into it, but it's nevertheless a very real category in terms of the predictable behavior of groups. Race has continued to bedevil this country many years after we quit treating black people as a separate class that we were entitled to exploit by force. That's disappointing, but not too surprising as an example of ethnic strife and the difficulty of integrating a culture that had been isolated and mistreated.

The distinction I was trying to draw, though, was that when white Americans decided we shouldn't mistreat our black neighbors any more, we didn't choose to achieve our goals by declaring them special and separate (at least until affirmative action came along). We at least tried to emphasize that they were simply people, like ourselves, and entitled to be judged as individuals, and entitled to assume whatever roles in our culture suited their proclivities and abilities. If we instead insisted that they serve exclusively as basketball stars and R&B artists, because that was the only way white people could find to control their tendency to exploit black people to limit of their natural abilities, we would create a situation much closer to the one that "feminism" traditionally deplores.

It's so difficult, apparently, for any of us to decline to exploit the relative weakness of others out of an uncomplicated conclusion that it's wrong to do so. Our natural tendency is to insist that they signal their deference constantly, in order to avoid triggering our aggressive response. That's how, I think, you get the double-bind cultural phenomenon in which the message to a woman was "You, being a woman, obviously are incapable of X and shouldn't even try, and if you somehow do try and succeed, you're no longer a proper woman, so we're entitled to go back to overpowering you with brute force." In other words, we love and respect you only as long as you project your physical weakness into a number of other areas where physical strength and size aren't really important. To use the dwarf analogy, we don't simply say "You obviously won't excel at basketball, but if you don't want us to beat you up on the street all the time, you also have to agree not to run a successful restaurant or write commercially successful novels."

Texan99 said...

So now, even though I'm unlikely to catch the movie itself until it comes out on cable, you've got me interested in the reviews. Here are a couple more:

both from conservatives, one anti-feminist and one pro-feminist. Both seem to object that the central character is female, which leaves the male character as a cipher. Hmm. Reverse that, and it sounds like 99% of all movies ever made.

It would be good to get beyond the "four legs good, two legs bad" binary approach to art. Maybe we could have both male and female characters be people? Maybe we could all learn that we can be people without reducing people of other flavors to props, chattel, sidekicks, and foils?

Grim said...

I don't know about that. I think it's possible not to want to beat up women who are good at basketball, even. On the other hand, we're currently trying to introduce them to Ranger School. At some point, what you're calling a double bind becomes fair game (at least for the woman who obtains a Ranger tab and joins an infantry unit).

In any case, Max starts the movie willing to fight girls to get what he wants, and ends up choosing to fight for them instead. And beside them, if you like. It's a good ending, but precisely because of the shift from self-interest to self-sacrifice.

Grim said...

Didn't see your second post while responding to your first.

Obviously it doesn't irritate me that the women fought (and fought well, in realistic ways). I don't find the complaints against the movie compelling, and I thought it was a pretty intense spectacle.

I get annoyed by the anti-realism you get from certain strands of feminism. I don't mind an honest portrayal of a woman in which she is strong, knows her mind, and pursues her interests. That's fair enough. Just don't give me a reality in which women are just men in drag. Hold forth the truth about the difference, and the women can be as strong as women really are. I like that, apparently, given my reaction to the movie.

Texan99 said...

I agree with you there: I have no patience with assuming that the only way for a woman to be a real person is for her to become the same kind of cartoon figure that Hollywood traditionally reserved for male leads, especially in empty-headed action flix. When it's a fresh irony, you can play the role reversal for laughs, as in "Network," but it's gotten old. (Not that "Network" was about fistfights, but the Faye Dunaway character acts out stereotypical male-executive flaws, in one of the earliest examples of that dramatic trick I can remember.)

We watched "Capt. America: Winter Soldier" last night. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but (not being 100% up on the series) I couldn't figure out whether the Natasha spy-chick character was supposed to have been magically altered, like Capt. Am., or was simply unbelievably effective in martial arts according to the usual Hollywood bizarro conventions. If the whole movie had been one fisticuff after another, with male or female machine-like warriors winning or losing, I'd have dropped off to sleep. Luckily, the script also included some suspense about whether relatively vulnerable people would nevertheless find the strength of character to do the right thing. That keeps me on the edge of my seat, even in a cartoonish context, in the way that the fight sequences never ca--though in this case even the endless fights were imaginatively staged.

Grim said...

I wasn't able to make it through Winter Soldier. :) It was too dull. Constant fight scenes, even well-staged ones, aren't enough for me either. Maybe I just didn't get to the part where interesting moral questions were being posed.

I don't know enough about the comic books to tell you if Natasha is magic or not. If it were Star Wars, maybe, but comic books have never been my thing.

Texan99 said...

My problem probably is that I haven't been watching the movies in order. If I ever saw the comic books at all, it would have been 50 years ago! Definitely not retaining the plot points.

I enjoy Capt. America's use of his super-hard shield as a throwing disc, and the skill of the animators or special effects guys in making him bounce off things and so forth. It's just not possible to care who's going to win the fight, though, at least for me. The enjoyment is in whether the scriptwriters will think up something surprising: will our hero suddenly cut a hole in the floor and escape that way, just when the bad guys thought he was trapped? Empty-headed pleasures.

I enjoyed "Guardians of the Galaxy" earlier this week in just the same way. Doesn't seem to be my week for pleasures of the exquisite Henry James variety.