IN MAD MAX: FURY ROAD we are asked, more than once, who killed the world? We’re given the answer so many times and through so many different examples that it becomes undeniable.
Men killed the world.
More specifically, hegemonic masculinity (which is not restricted to people who identify as men either now or, apparently, after the apocalypse) is the weapon, wielded clumsily but with tremendous enthusiasm, that decimates all life as we know it. Hegemonic masculinity, which “typically draws strong boundaries around a narrow zone of acceptable behaviour and feelings,”1 reflects the socially, politically, and economically dominant cultural forms, always racialized, of properly being a “man”: strength and invulnerability, dominance and control, and cisgender heterosexuality are its hallmarks.2 Are other masculinities possible? Of course. But in the world of Mad Max, to be anything other than strong and invulnerable is a death sentence. There is a nihilistic irony here, as the very masculinity that killed the world continues to structure the survivors’ lives.
Arguably, all four of director George Miller’s Mad Max movies lead us to this conclusion about men and the world. Although the first film never clarifies the cause of death, the testosterone-laden celebration of decay, violence, and domination that increasingly drives the downward spiral of human civilization throughout the series asserts unequivocally that hegemonic masculinity is deadly. We see this narrative develop from the first film, where all the villains are men, and through the entire canon to Fury Road, where all the villains are men, with an only slight deviation in the form of Aunty Entity in 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome (although one could argue that Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity is one of very few people of color in the franchise with visible agency; as such, she also potentially represents a reactionary survivalism, rather than cause of destruction). Max’s increasing isolation and his growing reluctance to become involved in the lives of other survivors whether as hero or antihero is a microcosmic enactment of the macrocosmic breakdown of the social order: whither goes Max, goes society; and society, like Max, is driven by a masculinity that continues, even in the time of its own death, to assert its dominance. The conclusion is inevitable: hegemonic masculinity is a death drive, and all our bodies are caught in its wake.
The addition of Fury Road to the canon offers the narrative twist that women—wise, nurturing, perhaps tougher than we gave them credit for—will save the world. This assertion is made so unequivocally that men and men’s rights groups protested the film and urged boycotts of its “feminazi” message, and 2015 became the year that Mad Max won the feminist internet, initiating a firestorm blog and Twitter debates (my favorite summary is O’Neal’s “Mad Men Mad at Mad Max for Having Mad Women”).3 Fury Road angered so many of its stalwart male fans (and perhaps made so many new feminist fans) and was, perhaps, seized upon by so many men’s rights activists who may in fact have cared little about the franchise itself because it presents us with a reductive dualism, one that is seductive in its simplicity: there are men, and there are women, and ultimately the women are better than the men. It is Furiosa, after all, who at the end stands tall and faces the future, her gaze weary but sharp. Max, once again, walks away and is left with nothing—his self-imposed isolation is his own choice, but it nonetheless serves to keep him ostracized. The viewer is left to wonder if men are salvageable at all in this future and, in the essentialist argument of Fury Road, what salvation even looks like.
In this essay, I explore this assertion about gender and salvation, keeping in mind that race also plays a key role in this narrative. If Miller is clear in his Mad Max oeuvre that men killed the world, and they continue to kill it, he makes it equally clear, though less obvious, that it is White men who constitute the most direct and dire threat to humanity’s survival. Despite the backlash against the film for its supposed feminist message, this idea about race was not taken up in the Twitter storm that followed the film’s release. However, though race does not seem to be salient to the popular reception of the film, its presence is palpable. I argue therefore that Fury Road offers an imperfect freedom at best, a dangerous palliative, and a regressive accounting of gender and race that relies on a profoundly limiting—even deadly—essentialism.
The film undoubtedly presents a feminist tale: it gives collective voice to women’s rage, visualizes women’s agency, and refuses to keep female characters simple or one-dimensional. Furiosa, for example, is actually quite complex with her sharpshooting skills, her driving skills, her mechanical arm, her courage and despair, and her ability to care about others as she forges relationships willingly or not; one of the Wives escaping the Citadel with Furiosa (Cheedo the Fragile) exhibits mixed feelings about leaving Immortan Joe, alternately wanting to flee and return; and masculinity, even as it is critiqued, is allowed a new (though unfulfilled) potentiality. Women have more dialogue than men, and the two leading men are both visually and narratively silenced at various moments (both Max and Immortan Joe are physically muzzled in similar masks, asserting an uncanny similarity, and each actually has very few lines). Despite this, Fury Road does not necessarily present a liberating space, either via gender or race. This complexity relies in part on Miller’s inversion of the Just Warrior and the Beautiful Soul motifs and the nihilistic absence of their traditional motivators.
Although these figures have a long and rich history, in this essay I rely predominately on Jean Bethke Elshtain’s4 development in which the “Just Warrior,” the ideal masculine type for Western society, protects the innocent while the “Beautiful Soul,” the ideal feminine type for Western society, remains innocent and in need of protection. Men, in this construct, are always ready to enact violence, but only when necessary to protect home, hearth, family, and, by extension, nation. Women are at home, being protected, but also providing the motivation for men’s war activities and, importantly, raising future Just Warriors. Men and women, in their separate spheres, are mutually exclusive, but they are also mutually interdependent; one simply cannot exist without the other. Of course, both of these types are not only gendered and heteronormative but also, always, raced, reflecting long-held Western notions of whose bodies hold value and whose freedom matters—or is even attainable.
In thinking about gender in the postapocalypse, we must also consider what Isiah Lavender5 calls the “blackground,” the unnamed ever-presence of race. Max’s story, like so many in dystopian fiction, begs the question, Why do only White people survive the apocalypse? The absence of indigenous bodies—indeed, of people of color generally throughout all four films—reflects the White supremacist arc of settler colonialism in Australia (the presumed geography of the film) and elsewhere and furthers a narrative that seemingly relies on gender but is always already raced, as only certain bodies are visible, only certain bodies are active, only certain bodies are worthy of survival after the end of the world. This is made clear by Anna Mae’s argument that the film is deeply reminiscent of historic and contemporary slave narratives, which rely on both race and gender and Mike’s argument that the value of bodies is linked to their productivity. Alexis further argues that the very beauty of the Wives, their physical wholeness in this world of broken bodies and broken cars, is in fact “the very trait they seem to loathe about themselves and must overcome to win the viewer’s affection and admiration.” In Fury Road, bodies matter, and value is inextricably linked to them. These bodies—raced, gendered, disabled, beautiful—are scattered across the always already postapocalyptic landscape of Australia, a settler colonialist nation where name and identity and meaning have been erased (again) and reformed along particularly raced and gendered lines (again), pulling even the landscape into the narrative.
This White supremacist, heteropatriarchal narration of the past/future is embodied with stark brutality by Immortan Joe. The patriarch of the Citadel is in some ways a study of confused contrasts: he is seemingly all-powerful, wielding control of the water and thus the community; dominating his sons, his wives, and everyone else; and having convinced the War Boys that the best hope of their salvation is to die in his name. At the same time, he is physically vulnerable, having to wear a breathing apparatus and protect his deliberately whitened body with a clear outer shell. However, Immortan Joe is in every sense the figure of the settler colonist: he steals and hoards resources, is fantastically violent, and is a serial rapist whose primary concern seems to be successful primogeniture for whichever son proves worthiest; he rages at the loss of what he considers his property (wives, babies, water); and he is White. It is no accident that Immortan Joe’s body is perpetually painted and powdered white. Even his long (and frankly rather luxurious) hair is white. His visual representation goes beyond merely that of a skeleton, that classic figure of death, to embody in every way, physically and symbolically, the death wrought by White hegemonic masculinity. However, Immortan Joe’s is not the only narrative presence of Whiteness or hegemonic masculinity in the film.
Fury Road opens the only way that it can: with a sweeping view of the illimitable, burnt-out desolation that used to be Australia, back when nation-states mattered, and which now mirrors Max’s own descent into chaos and nihilism. Of course, Fury Road was filmed in Namibia, another site of genocidal settler colonialism, and that irony has meaning also when we think about gender and race under the rubric of the postapocalypse. As Junot Díaz6 and Theodore Steinberg7 have argued, and science fiction writers from Octavia Butler to Nalo Hopkinson have narrated, apocalypses are deeply political. People of color generally, and indigenous people specifically, are already surviving a postapocalyptic period. Their general absence in Fury Road provides what Carol Adams8 and others refer to as an absent referent—their very invisibility marks their presence as it enacts the settler colonialist fantasy of White supremacy.
Director John Ford’s Westerns are perhaps the cinematic progenitor of the vast unpeopled landscape as visual symbol, and I have written previously of the work accomplished by the apocalypse to empty out the landscape in service to U.S. settler colonialism, manifest destiny, and White supremacy.9 Apocalypses are delightfully multipurpose, however, and it is worth considering how Miller’s visual expulsion of humans and our societies from the landscape both enables and reflects hegemonic masculinity’s rapid descent to its teleological conclusion. For example, the opening action of the film, set in a dully colored and visually harsh vista, shows Max grabbing and quickly eating a lizard, clearly telling us from the start that in this world of toxic desolation, it’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. There is no mercy. There is only survival. Miller himself has described Max’s world as “kind of forward into the past. We regress to a neo-medieval dark age where there are no rules other than to survive.”10 The hegemonic male, the Just Warrior, understands this rule.
In Fury Road, other than Toast the Knowing (played by actress Zoe Kravitz), the women appear racialized as White. Kravitz is not the only biracial actress in the film, but she is the most ethnically ambiguous, and her character Toast is also the only one of the escaping Wives who handles weapons with confidence. Her backstory (missing from the film but part of the larger canon) includes a familiarity with the violence of the Wasteland from which the other Wives have been sheltered (although certainly they, too, have experienced violence). This backstory indicates that she was kidnapped by War Boys and brought to the Citadel, making her an outsider to the community—a “foreigner,” an “immigrant.” In this way, Fury Road reproduces White supremacist fantasies of the need to protect White women against violence, particularly sexual violence11 through the visual and narrative fragility of the Wives, who need help and protection from Furiosa, then also from Max, then from Nux the War Boy, and even from the Vuvalini (although it must be noted that as the movie progresses, so too do the Wives’ own abilities to protect themselves and each other). Toast, one of the few people of color in the film, a woman from the dangerous Wasteland, is the most prepared of the Wives to enact violence, belying any claims she might make to Beautiful Soul status, which historically (and postapocalyptically) includes the need to be protected and sheltered. In Max’s world, gender continues to be raced, and women’s worth is unevenly conceptualized.
Losing (Already-Raced) Gender
The murder of Max’s wife and son in 1979’s Mad Max is Max’s own personal apocalypse and unmoors him from the domesticity and civilization that is already unraveling around him. After the loss of his family and then ultimately his job as a Main Force Patrol officer (because the job itself, like his family, ceases to exist), Max loses his claim to Just Warrior status as there is no one left to protect. Nation is gone; family is gone; all is lost. It is Max’s desperate efforts to reinstate his identity as a Just Warrior that lead him to occasionally help other people, but this altruistic streak is by no means authentic. Max has lost his identity as a man, an identity that was inextricably linked to notions of hegemonic masculinity and the Just Warrior, and he seeks to recreate it in ever dissatisfying ways because that kind of man—the kind who protected home and family against evil bikers while killing the world through environmental exploitation and nuclear bombs—can no longer exist. That way is dead. Ironically, men killed it.
Having lost his Just Warrior identity, the Max of Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) transforms from Just Warrior to Australian cowboy, riding his V8 Interceptor across the postapocalyptic frontier. He is ever isolated, often defending the weak but unable to build or sustain relationships, stripped of a foundational element of the Just Warrior motif, as heteronormative family in fact provides the ultimate inspiration for war. Max leaves everyone who could care about or for him, or they leave him. This increasing disconnect from the familial and the familiar furthers his spiral into madness just as Australia’s and, we assume, the world’s landscape is also degenerating into a perverted apocalyptic reflection of the 1980s’ first world excess of prosperity.
Fury Road’s Max once again lends his strong arm in service to the underdogs of an inhospitable community, unwillingly in the first third of the film and then, though still clearly reluctant, increasingly willingly as the movie progresses. In this film, as in the previous three, the viewer witnesses a few small cracks in Max’s performance of hegemonic masculinity as he acquiesces to a woman’s command role and, indeed, depends on this collective of women to keep him alive (the actual vulnerability of the male body, despite its orgiastic self-celebration, being a running theme throughout the film). Nonetheless, at the end of Fury Road we find Max still again, unable to sustain relationship or community, once again cut off from and willfully abandoning what is represented by women/Beautiful Souls (domesticity, safety, community, family, water, green things, sharing) to isolate himself in his own/Australia’s postapocalyptic landscape.
At the same time that such existential meaning has been stripped from Max, the Just Warrior defines Furiosa’s character and contextualizes her actions. She inhabits the identity that Max has lost (in a not-so-subtle “women are taking men’s jobs” kind of way), but she does not necessarily redefine it, using her wits, her strength, and her skills to defend (someone else’s) Wives. Max has lost his Just Warrior status, but Furiosa embodies it, in an undeniably feminine body. With her adaptive prosthesis, her hints of cleavage, and her driving and shooting skills, Furiosa seamlessly adopts the hero’s persona, while Max continues to struggle with it, finding only tenuous moments of genuine heroism. Thus Fury Road leaves us with an essentialist binary that has been inverted but not abandoned; after all, there is still a Just Warrior in the world, and there are still Beautiful Souls to be protected.
Perhaps, however, there is a way out of the essentialist conundrum this story leaves us with. Not through Max, who remains too tied to his own pain and lost life, increasingly isolated in the masculinity that is as toxic as the land around him—this is, after all, both cause and symptom of his madness. No, Max is not the redemptive figure of this story. Nor is it Furiosa, although I wish it were. We could argue that she embodies a kind of androgyny, although as theorist Brian Attebery12 and others argue, as so much androgyny is, hers is an androgyny that tilts heavily toward masculinity both visually and in her skilled, though reluctant, violence. There are others, however, on the sides and in the interstices of the story, who potentially offer a more nuanced and productive conceptualization of gender-as-survival.
The Wives, for example, evolve to provide a postmodern, feminist mash-up of both the Just Warrior and the Beautiful Soul: they are visually delicate, dressed in wispy, virginal white, presenting a collective image of fragility in need of (masculine) protection (initially provided by Furiosa’s inverted Just Warrior, then later also by Max and Nux). As Immortan Joe’s prized breeders, they are objects to be hidden away and used, kept apart from the rest of the War Boys’ society. Yet they are also full of rage and resistance, and their own agency ejects them from the domestic sphere (such as it is) to flee across a public landscape where they are nerve-rackingly visible, literally chased by a horde of angry and violent men.
Despite their clear inexperience with the wider destroyed world, the Wives belie notions of passivity and fragility through their proclamations, written graffiti-style across the walls of their domestic space: “We are not things,” and “Our babies will not be warlords.” They thereby refuse the very essence of the Beautiful Soul, which is, ultimately, to serve as homebound inspiration for war and to provide the bodies of future warriors through their reproductive labor. Their rage-fueled refusal to be “things” and to give up their children to the inevitable violence of hegemonic masculinity thus mitigates their Beautiful Soul status, but the solidarity with which they move through their escape and its aftermath is in direct contrast to Max’s inability to forge more than temporary alliances. The Wives’ actions insist that they can still honor the domestic space of family and relationship, not as cause for violence, but as inspiration for mutual aid and support. They may live in a world where there is no mercy, only survival, but they remake that world through their solidarity, collectively refusing the safety promised by Immortan Joe if they surrender and instead insisting on caring, and fighting, for each other and for a new kind of community.
The War Boy Nux offers a similar potential escape from Miller’s hegemonic masculinity. Over the course of the film, Nux moves from enthusiastic and unquestioning participation in the death carnival that is masculinity in the Wasteland to a yearning for something other than violence, death, and suicide for the glory of the all-father Immortan Joe. The bond he begins to build with Capable, one of the escaping Wives, powers his first few tentative steps away from the absolutism of War Boy society, where relationships are predicated on violence, competition, and intimidation. Yet these steps don’t take him far enough, and his death as he tries to aid the Wives is both ambiguous and multivalent. It is clearly a cognizant sacrifice, as the camera on his face just before he is brutally killed reveals his knowledge that that this will be his end. It is likely the same destiny he would have suffered had he never helped the Wives. Yet this death is not for the glory of Immortan Joe; it is in service to a different cause, one predicated on compassion and relationship and hope that these women, these Wives, can create something better. Regardless of the meaning of his death, Nux’s life and his unfulfilled evolution in his final hours from a War Boy to a young man who feels tenderness and yearns for an authentic relationship potentially offers an understanding of gender outside of a rigid, essentialist binary. But it is a fleeting transition, stolen from us in an instant by the grinding wheels of Immortan Joe’s refusal to be denied absolute control. Nux, then, is punished for his transgressions against the “father.” Miller is clear: there is no mercy here, no tenderness, and ultimately no salvation for men.
There Is No Salvation in a Dead World
Thus, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that hegemonic masculinity is death. We’re given this meaning relentlessly by the hypervenerated Australian car culture (wherein, in the postapocalypse, cars are ruthlessly cannibalized and reconstructed into muscular and fantastical machines that serve as the steeds of both the lonesome cowboy, Max, and the posse that sets out to retrieve the fleeing women); by the blatant homo-hating we see represented throughout the entire arc from the first movie’s villains to Immortan Joe and the unceasing heteronormativity of, well, just about everyone; by the overwhelming Whiteness of the film canon’s cast, which works to preserve a settler colonialist narrative that necessarily limits non-Western expressions of gender and replaces these with whitewashed versions of binary gender; and by the environmental devastation that is a logical consequence of the overuse and abuse of natural resources and the nuclear (dare I say phallic?) bombs that finally ended the world.
If we are set up to believe that hegemonic masculinity—violent, dominating, controlling, and White—is death, we are seemingly equally set up to believe that women—both Beautiful Soul and Just Warrior—represent life. Women are, after all, kept in captivity as breeders and mechanically milked for sustenance, and the reproductive body is on display through most of the film. The seeds are kept by women. The water is ultimately liberated by women. The essentialist conundrum seems inescapable. Fury Road offers us a vision of gender in which women, Beautiful Souls, will better serve humanity than their gendered counterpart, the Just Warrior. This seemingly radical proposal, however, is not necessarily feminist, although it may feel good in its blatant empowerment of women (it felt good to me, anyway). It is a deeply binary conceptualization of the future in which women merely take the place of men, and men, ultimately, die out while nonbinary, non-White expressions of gender become little more than flashbacks viewed through Max’s insanity.
However, Fury Road’s most visible gender narrative, always already raced, is not its only gender narrative. Glimmers of something different also emerge in Fury Road, and it is in these moments that feminism is most productive. Nux’s burgeoning understanding of a different kind of masculinity, despite his severe punishment for his transgression against the patriarch, is one of these moments. The determination of the Wives to protect each other, even by committing violence, is another. Max’s willingness to follow Furiosa’s lead and to work collaboratively and, perhaps most striking, his willingness to share his blood in an intimate act of making relationship, may just tell us that after the apocalypse, if we have the courage to reject the cause of death, better ways to live might begin to emerge, like green things growing out of the parched earth or babies of choice rather than forced and failing pregnancies. We may possibly do more than merely survive, if humanity can escape the death drive of hegemonic masculinity that has in fact already pushed us past the brink of survivability. The potential for a less essentialist, less rigidly binary gender lurks in quiet moments throughout this admittedly never quiet film. This is where Fury Road offers us a feminist potential—not in the men’s rights assertion that “nobody tells Max what to do,” and not in the flipped script of a woman embodying the Just Warrior, but rather in the barely glimpsed interstices between essentialist constructions of always already raced gender. The drive toward a richer, more complex expression of humanity in which gender is more, or perhaps something other than, an inverted binary, is the film’s longed-for liberation.
This narrative urge for unity is reflected in the Wives’ collective emergence from domestic captivity, in the hope symbolized by the seeds carried across the Wasteland to the freed water, in the return of the surviving, previously separatist Vuvalini to the larger community, and certainly in Max’s blood sacrifice to sustain Furiosa. However, Max once again rejects relationship in favor of isolation. In the final narrative moment of the film, we see him once again walking off, alone, into the postnuclear sunset just as some semblance of freedom-in-community is reached for by those he leaves behind. Miller refuses to allow Max, his (White) hegemonically masculine hero, to do more than merely survive. Nux’s burgeoning but aborted evolution away from hegemonic masculinity further signals Miller’s narrative intent to refuse salvation to men.
If the story arc continues on its present course, Max will continue his fruitless search for an identity that he simultaneously denies himself through his self-enforced isolation but that he can also never truly find again anyway because this identity, the Just Warrior, has been so thoroughly perverted by the apocalypse. Men killed the world, after all, leaving us with a landscape that refuses both meaning and mercy. Max is this landscape, emptied of meaning and hope; Max is this masculinity, unmoored from its previously presumed noble intent; Max is madness, because his inability to abandon his preapocalyptic conceptualization of masculinity is also a refusal to do more than merely survive. This is not a feminist triumph, despite the many moments of varying feminisms throughout the film. Ultimately, though Miller may have offered us small glimpses of hope wrapped up in an explosive, woman-centered (and somewhat existentialist) car chase, he still leaves us in a dead world, the world that men killed.