Pop Culture

The Forgotten Women of the Wastelands

          I’m INSANELY, pee-in-the-pants excited at the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road movie, a film that’s been staggeringly difficult to put together. I’ve been a fan of Max Rockatansky’s survivalist exploits since I was twelve, back when Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was a hit. I’d seen Mad Max, both the ridiculous dubbed version (thanks to panicky execs who thought we’d all be too stupid to understand Australian accents) and the original, and I’d played The Road Warrior on rewind mode over and over again (quite hard to do on a Betamax machine). They were the only films I’d ever seen where utter anarchy was pure sport, and the most outrageously authentic, over-the-top car collisions were placed on bold, fiery display every other scene. Decades later, I realized the full extent of my fascination with the Mad Max universe and everything about it.  For one, I’d never seen such savagery that was then instantly calmed by the presence of the Stranger. Granted, the stranger-in-town-who-saves-the-day is a classic Western trope, but, again, the brutality was unlike anything I’d ever seen on celluloid, and it still works its adrenalin-infused shock on my psyche every time I watch one of the films. It takes the Spaghetti Western concept and beats it to a bloody, shattered, sticky pulp.

Since the Fury Road trailer has gone hot over the past few days thanks to its sneaky appearance at SDCC this year, the fanbase discussion has been set ablaze. I was never into the whole breaking down a movie trailer, bit by bit, to determine what was happening in the film-to-be-released. However, I poured over those analyses on every site I could find, loving every minute of the online discussion. While the general consensus was that the trailer looked SPECTACULAR, everything a Mad Max film should be whether it was a “reboot” or not, there was one, nagging thing that grated my nerves to the point I had to actually walk away from a Mad Max discussion, of all things, and that was the faceless, typical misogynist reaction that’s par for the course in Mad Max fanland.

Responses like…

     “Too many chicks…”

     “Well, I hope there’s raping in the movie. Can’t have apocalypse without depicting.”

     “Fuck this girl power ass kick crap that every hollywood movie has these days.”

     “Throwing Charlize ‘where’s my career’ Theron into the mix won’t help since Max was a loner (we actually like the real    loner thing). We’re not looking for “Mad Max and Sally.”

While the Mad Max universe relies on the trope of the antihero Stranger (or, as mentioned above, the Loner), Max cannot ever be fully alone in his world, as he, like everyone else there, must find gasoline, food, and water at some point. Therefore, human interaction, with both villains and peacekeepers, is essential, and the role of the Woman becomes more of an absolute necessity than these particular fanboy cretins believe. I’m talking about female characters vital to this particular world. The Mad Max mythos itself is grounded in the themes of love and vengeance, of loyalty, responsibility, honor, and family.

The Ladies of MAD MAX

    The original film, Mad Max, is a romantic, violent, tragic story. The primary Woman in it, Jessie Rockatansky becomes the catalyst for Max’s breaking point that sets him off on a highway of fire and savage retribution.

Jessie

     Jessie was Max’s doting, loving wife and tender mother to their baby, Sprog. She was an identifiable Woman, creating a soft sense of humanity around their crumbling, vicious world. She was an oasis for Max. She playfully teased, she consoled, she nurtured. In a bittersweet moment, she even played the saxophone for Max and Sprog during a night when the world seemed to turn in on itself. When the Rockatansky family took some time together to get away to a beachside farm, not long after the devastating murder of Max’s partner, things quickly went dark for the family. One afternoon, while walking around the decaying beachside town and getting some ice cream to share with Sprog, Jessie was sexually harassed by Toecutter, the film’s villain, and his ruthless gang. Her cutting rebuff — in this world — would be the end of her. She and Sprog were run over by the gang, setting Max off on a never-ending journey of vengeance. Even long after he’d decimated Toecutter and the rest of the vicious gang, it wouldn’t matter. In his world, The Woman was key.

Another significant Woman in the original film was the brave May Swaisey.

mayswaisey

    While there was very little about May in context to the family’s relationship (she’s called “aunt” on occasion), there was no doubt of her significance to this world. She ran the beachy farmstead the Rockatansky’s enjoyed while on momentary reprise from the hell of the roads. When Toecutter and his crew make an appearance at the farmhouse while Max is off performing car repairs, May takes it upon herself to trap the gang in a rickety shed, giving her just enough time to assist Jessie and Sprog in a wayward escape. Unfortunately, the old adage of “strength in numbers” is true. Even while May is armed with a shotgun, it proves no match for the motorcycle gang who’ve set their sights solely on Jessie and the baby.

The Ladies of THE ROAD WARRIOR (Mad Max 2)

     The world has certainly shifted from the events in the original film. There are no cities, no townships to speak of. Nothing but arid, desolate wastelands. The savagery and madness of this world has been kicked up a notch, and man’s sole interest seems less on mere survival than on driving off the face of the earth. Unfortunately, the number one commodity, “Juice” (gasoline), is scarce in this world. Max himself has since become the Stranger, equipped with firearms and his V-8 Pursuit Special. He’s hardly a loner, however, as he’s got a trusty mutt to guard his transport and keep him company.  The primary action of The Road Warrior centers on tribal wars over an oil refinery that’s still up and running. The group that is in control of the mechanization of the refinery is a peaceable, but heavily guarded one, for good reason. If members of the compound wish to leave the compound for any reason, they are chased down and savagely attacked by the manic motorcycle army that circles the refinery day and night, plotting its eventual takeover. The prime goal of a rebellious bunch within the compound is to escape with an oil tanker, off to “Paradise” (apparently, an Australian in-joke –we’re shown a postcard with a tropical beach), anything to get away from the hellish landscape.

One thing that struck me about this particular version of the Mad Max dystopian universe is that characters were losing a sense of personal identity. Very few characters are actually named. That is, they’re known as mere credits or nicknames that had been given to them by the crew. I realize this must’ve been significant in that our focus was primarily on Max Rockatansky, who’d had an identity since the start, even if the characters around him in this particular film weren’t aware of it.

The Women in the world of The Road Warrior were, more or less, lacking in both name and screen time. It wasn’t a question of silencing them — I don’t think that was the intent (it’s Max’s journey after all), but I’d wondered if by barely including them in the story, director/writers George Miller and Byron Kennedy and co. were playing with a probable alter-theme in the Mad Max universe — that women had become a scarce “commodity,” as well.

At any rate, when the Women did make an appearance in The Road Warrior, it was still significant in that they solidified Max’s need for humanity and grace:

The Captain’s Girl is a nurturer. A bright-eyed, soft-natured blonde who takes care of the injured during gang raids. She and the Gyro Captain — another Stranger who scavenges the wasteland in his clunky, makeshift flying machine — engage in a bit of innocent flirtation, granting further humanity into this world of “fire and blood.”

CaptGirl

     Big Rebecca (perhaps the only one with an actual name) is a respected spokeswoman for the compound, alongside of its leader, Pappagallo. She is a voice of reason while the group determined whether or not to barter with Max, who’d agreed to transport an abandoned oil truck to them in exchange for provisions.

BigRebecca

     The Warrior Woman of Pappagallo’s tribe is easily the most recognizable of the Women in The Road Warrior with her white shoulder pads, wild crimped hair, leather headband, narrowed eyes, and perpetual sneer.  An armed sentry to the compound who was incredibly lethal with her bow and arrow. Initially, she’s suspicious of Max and his intentions. Later, however, he earns her respect, and they eventually become comrades in combat during the explosive race to escape the area with the truck and convoy in tow.

MM2_Warrior_Woman_done_800

The Ladies of MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME

     Beyond Thunderdome, the third entry in the Mad Max universe, wasn’t necessarily a fan favorite, no doubt due to its inclusion of children, a whole tribe of them in fact, and the lack of utter brutality we’d seen in the previous two films (the misogynists were upset, no doubt, that there was no raping happening here). Some even scoffed at the idea of having a famous singer as a top billing co-star — the first woman to share that title with Mel Gibson/Mad Max in the franchise (and she wouldn’t be the last woman to headline a Mad Max film, in fact). One has to admit though, Tina Turner, in all of her hamminess, embodied her flamboyant character so well, I now have trouble seeing her as anything but. The Women in Beyond Thunderdome, in my humble opinion, were standouts in the Mad Max universe, despite what critics may have said.

Aunty Entity — the sultry, megalomaniacal “queen” figurehead of Bartertown — is the first female villain in the Mad Max universe. She’s very much a woman who wants to be fully in charge of Bartertown and its laws, but she has had an ongoing bitter rivalry with Master Blaster, the actual brains and brawn “team” who run Bartertown’s power  via methane plant underground. She’s initially intrigued by Max, the Stranger in town who’s trying to retrieve his stolen camels and supplies AND who’s got certain skills that may or may not be able to help her conquer Bartertown. Of course, everything backfires on her once Max discovers her manipulative tricks and lies. Near the end of the film, showing grace under literal fire, she allows Max to survive the wastelands for another bleak day.

auntieentity

raggedyman

     Savannah Nix is an elder  and storyteller of the Lost Tribe, a clan consisting of surviving children of a downed commercial flight (its skeletal remains are still there, a shell of a reminder of hope, in the desert). After he is sentenced by Aunty Entity to “Gulag” (a truly bizarre form of banishment) from the Thunderdome battle, she rescues Max from the wastelands. Savannah is motherly, sisterly, loving, and incredibly protective of the children of the tribe. She and the children of the tribe are also somewhat delusional, believing Max to be the missing captain of the airplane that crashed and landed them there ages ago. Her curiosity and foolhardiness has her wanting to explore beyond the tribe’s oasis and far past the plane wreckage; she believes there is possibility of new life beyond the wastelands. In the end, she and her tribe begin anew in the remnants of a city. During the last moments of the film, she coddles a baby and recounts lost history to a crowd of people who are seated in the dusky ruins of the city. Her role as elder and storyteller, historian even, goes on.

  savannah

And finally…The Ladies of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

   It will be interesting to see a new actor (Tom Hardy) as Mad Max, certainly, but what fascinates me the most about the upcoming movie, as little as many of us know about it, is that the secondary protagonist has been advertised as “a woman of action.” This will be the second time now in the franchise that a Woman– Charlize Theron– will receive top billing for a Mad Max film, and I have no doubt that’s what’s causing the little uproar amongst the shit-hurtling apes online. I, for one, am enthralled by the idea of it. The rumor that her character may be the frontrunner for the sequel/second film makes me all the more excited. I just hope the first doesn’t let me down.

Here’s what little has been revealed from the images, trailer and the general script rumor tags and mill. Much of this won’t effectively be really known until 2015, of course…

Imperator Furiosa is a military rig driver and she and Max become “charges” of a group of young women called the “Five Wives.”  She has a mechanical arm that seems to be multifunctional (wrench, binoculars, weaponized attachments and all).

The Five Wives are a group of young women on the lam from whomever it was who’d deemed them as such (perhaps the villain Immortan Joe?). One rumor has them as being “the last fertile women in Australia.”

Furyroadwomen

(the oddball guy on the left is Nux, played by Nicolas Hoult)

    There are several other women who’ve been cast in Fury Road, which gives me hope that the role of the Woman in the Mad Max universe isn’t as endangered as we may have been led to believe no thanks to fanboy reactionary.

At any rate, I am so damned excited! 

UPDATE (3/31/15) It looks like the theories about the plotline/characters for Fury Road is on target. This looks even better:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mad-max-fury-road-debuts-explosive-new-trailer/

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11 thoughts on “The Forgotten Women of the Wastelands

  1. Great article! Really enjoyed it anf thanjs for posting. Women have plsyed a subtle and important part in the films. I love the action of Mad Max but if hes not fighting for something then what if the point. Having characters such as ‘the five wives’ stops the actiin becoming mindless and instead potentially gives the film some empathy and a stronger connection with smart audiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much! You’re so right in that the most important character element is motivation — In the Rockatansky universe, it’s revenge and love. Otherwise, what WOULD be the point?

      I can’t wait until Fury Road to see what goes on with the female characters, especially Theron’s character, Furiosa.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good read and good analysis! Thank you for the link. Max is a loner, and he may be reluctant, but he always ends up a nurturing and moral force. Dumbass fanboys forget that the raping, robbing, hurting,slaving shitheads in these movies end up splattered all over the road. Furiosa is the strongest female character in all four movies in my opinion. She could have a film of her own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you kindly! Re. Furiosa, a secret part of me hopes she gets enough of a strong fanbase that she does get her own movie. I’d heard the second was, originally, going to have “Furiosa” as the subtitle, but apparently, that’s changed. It’s now something like “The Wastelands.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I just saw the film last night and managed to avoid most hype and discussion beforehand–something i do more and more these days to enjoy the freshest experience when I see a film.

    It was a magnificent movie, and very literally an 80s road warrior on a nine digit budget. Charlize Theron was impressive(which doesn’t come as a surprise) and she seems to be the protagonist more than sharing credit with the protagonist. This film could just as well be called “Imperator Furiosa: The Road Warrior”. It would be a more accurate title. And there is nothing wrong with that. Max didn’t seem to mind. George Miller didn’t seem to mind. And audiences don’t seem to mind.

    Despite that, the way gender has been discussed about this film has been disappointing (not your essay though). There have been constant charges of misogyny to the filmmaker because the feudal villain had a harem of kept wives (who are liberated and defended by a woman who delivers them to a clan of women who, along with max decide to take on all of the villainous patriarchal ‘civilization’ that has been chasing them across the desert). And there has been all this allusion to an uproar among male misogynist audiences at feminism stealing Mad Max. It’s true, if you hunt you can find a few people saying that–but to characterize it as the norm or even anything other than anomalous is looking for a fight where there is none.

    I’ve had my own arguments defending Miller, and like your article notes, reminding people of Tina Turner’s awesome villain in the 3rd instalment, and the fighter in the second. How often is the main villain anywhere a female? How many warrior women were seen in the 80s in film? I almost never see the defensive feminist contingent discuss these things. Instead they focus on him losing his family in the first and harping on “woman in the fridge” tropes. Apparently its not ok to make a story where a man is devastated by losing that which is most precious and valuable to him–the people he loves, because that devalues women. Or I see discussed all the rape in the 4th (that doesn’t happen, btw), but with little talk of the women tearing off their chastity cages together after Theron liberates them

    ok, done ranting. It was nice to read your article that looked at the female characters of the franchise without any distorting agenda (in any direction). Despite the franchise being essentially action B-movie, it is full of interesting themes and ideas and metaphors. Gender is worth exploring in all 4 of the films, it is just generally disappointing the way in which it is done. I will take a look through your other articles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, thank you so much for reading and for the solid commentary. I loved Fury Road as well. Very much a strong, “adult” return for George Miller. What’s quite extraordinary about the movie, as you’re aware, is that, for a summer big-budget action film, it’s generated more thematic heat and discussion than any other summer blockbuster as of late (well, Age of Ultron, caused a little tiff amongst feminists, but in parallel, it’s all been nothing quite like Fury Road). I just finished reading another piece on the film, touting it as THE feminist film of the year. I get it, certainly, but it’s as you’ve said…it’s almost as if all of the reactionary from both sides is so surprised of the appearance of a strong woman in the Mad Max universe. Like it’s something brand, spanking new, and it really isn’t.

      I also agree with you in that there isn’t need to constantly bombard pop culture fans with sociopolitical, agenda-driven commentary, on and on, in response to the film.
      That said, I also don’t understand the fanatics like the radfem nuts accusing Miller of misogyny when Dr. Miller actually consulted a feminist to assist him with the themes he explored. As for the misogynist loons, the notorious Return of Kings site author called for a boycott (due to the inclusion of a heroine who, he implied, seemed to “overshadow” Max in the trailers) rather than seeing the damned movie for himself. To that, I say, Max was never once undermined in the entire film. He was portrayed, as ever, as a strong road warrior who joined Furiosa and co.’s journey to freedom. Diehard Mad Max fans know, aside from in the first film, he was always a reluctant hero — whether he was bartering his services for supplies (and later joining the “good” side) or, in Fury Road’s case, in the midst of escaping another fine mess.

      By the way, I got some MRA flack for my entry here, but I’d deleted it because it was really…well…insane. You have to check it out. I’ve reposted it here:

      https://thisonpurpose.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/dear-angry-peoples/

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There have been many complaints of women in strong, central roles, but women have been instrumental in moving history forward for centuries. Unfortunately these have been played down. I remember as a child being told that behind every great man was a woman. If she has that power then it’s time her own greatness is recognized. I think this has come about as many things have when we get tired of playing second fiddle, but at what cost? It doesn’t have to be at the cost of castrating men. Roles are changing or perhaps I should say melding, but it shouldn’t change one another’s importance nor our need or desire for the opposite sex. It’s not a race against the sexes (or color).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting! You’re so right in that women have been historically significant throughout history, but it’s as they’d been put by the wayside. It’s awfully telling that the generations before us have absolutely little to no idea of the impact of women in history since their textbooks had only covered the impact men had made (thus, we know more about them and have to perform our own research to learn of women who were so influential…but their work was considered initially inconsequential…I mean, HUH?).

      Liked by 1 person

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