AGAIN, in an attempt to speak together—as a “we” but also as individuals—and to try to model a kind of feminist and collaborative writing and dialogue style, we wanted a conclusion that honored the we/not we of this project. We also wanted, more broadly, to suggest the hopes of a utopian feminism and society where we might all be a “we,” not in the oppressive sense, and a “not we,” again, not in the oppressive sense. So “we” will ask questions and then “not we” (Anna Mae, Mike, Barb, and Alexis) will respond, deflect, defend, retrench, and shift. Again, this is a conclusion and yet very clearly not a conclusion but an invitation to pull our ideas forward and reformulate them as the reader(s) see fit.
WE: So what is “furious” about your arguments? Or to be more specific, what is furiously feminist?
MIKE: I mean, it depends on the definition of feminism, right? I’m reminded, Alexis, of how you explain the difference between liberal and radical feminism in your lecture courses. If feminism means getting an equal slice of cake, then sure, I guess Furiosa is the feminist hero some have been waiting for. But she is effectively playing by Immortan Joe’s rules.
ALEXIS: Indeed, this is not a smashing of the cake, a denunciation of the cake, a “fuck the cake” movie. If anything, it is a film, I think, trying to find a way for the cake to be okay and make it through the hard times, to stretch this metaphor to the breaking point. But I think in reading our pieces, no one sees this film as radically feminist so much as interesting in how it brushes close to radicalism but then cannot or will not commit. That said, I do think the film is trying at something feminist, and not just the easy liberal kind, in all moments. Everyone on screen gets to move beyond Carol J. Clover’s suffering victim meets avenging hero paradigm. Even Max.1
ANNA MAE: Yes, what—after reading and writing these essays—do we think that this film provokes us to think about feminism(s)? For me, the shifts between the moment when the film was released and our current moment seem part of the answer. In the film, women hope to find a Green Place, an oasis outside the rapaciousness of men. They then return to Joe’s shitshow to promptly give away all available resources, which almost certainly will create yet another crisis. Much of our conversation has centered around the film’s refusal to imagine a feminism that survives outside of a rather utopian model. That model wants a world where predatory markets do not exist and where resources are infinite. The women are still fundamentally better than—and therefore unsuited for—the world around them, which is ultimately a very limiting vision of a feminist future. Now, in 2019, we have had a veritable army of women walking into Congress (its own predatory marketplace, to be sure) and demanding a Green New Deal that promises economic growth through environmental stewardship. The right-wing response to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez seems every bit as vitriolic as the one Furiosa engendered. But in both the fanverse and the political sphere, women/femmes/allies have had to realize that utopian escape isn’t really an option. We have to fight Immortan Joe on his own turf while swatting away the War Boys who try to knock us off course.
Another thought: our current feminisms are being shaped by race—and racial conflict—more profoundly, and more productively, than perhaps at any other time (certainly more than in 2015). Our current Furiosa is not a blonde goddess, but a Latina from the Bronx. The Women’s March has risen in response to Trump and now has been challenged by ethnic and racial divisions.2 And of course, the intervening years between the movie’s release and our present moment has brought us #MeToo—a movement started by a Black woman but made mainstream by White actresses who then (to their credit) have sought to raise consciousness about how low-income people and women of color are both more vulnerable to harassment and abuse and less likely to receive recompense.
BARB: I think in some respects, though, the film is “perfectly” feminist in the sense that it both fails to imagine a “we” that can also be an “I” but nonetheless pushes the dialogue forward and invites/forces us to confront both the problems in our own and upcoming world and simultaneously continues to elide and ignore those very same problems. So the film itself is “feminist” because isn’t this what (alas) feminism so often does? Push, argue, present alternatives, fail to embody these alternatives . . . Fury Road almost gets us there (wherever “there” is) but in the end disallows utopia. And really, utopias are only utopias for some of us some of the time, right?
WE: So the name has been dropped, Trump. The film was released before the Trump presidency and the right-wing movements and strong men (Brexit, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Ousmane in Hungary) that anticipated and followed his election. We fear overdetermining the power of the alt-right, but we also cannot deny that this is happening, and it has changed so much. So can we talk about how the film might have foreshadowed the Trump era and how it speaks to it now that we are deep in it?
BARB: I do want to talk about how prescient this is in our present moment! I mean, wow—three years ago we Americans were cheering on Furiosa and snorting in derision at the internet trolls, and now we’re weeping and fighting over what is essentially a national rape. As Immortan Joe/Trump says, “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” It’s such a threatening line—do not be complacent in your civil rights, do not become “addicted” to having what you need for your survival—“you will resent its absence” is such an absolute. We, the viewers, the public, are promised its absence and thereby warned not to grow accustomed to its presence. The “it” could very realistically be water; or it could be safety from sexual assault, or the hope of equal pay for equal work, or quality, accessible healthcare. I find that line terribly prescient and terribly frightening.
ALEXIS: In the film, the vengeance about “stealing” women and challenging male authority seemed overwrought and over-the-top, suggestive of the general dysfunction of the Mad Max world. Yet this behavior is now more visible than ever in our everyday politics. The visceral hatred of women, both as a symbol and as bodies, is so clear, but so too is the rage and subversion. In that sense, maybe the film is better suited for a post-Trump analysis. Perhaps more women can see within the film the parallels to our own moment where contemporary female bodies are consistently understood as property and thus disposable. And yet, again, in the film and too often in contemporary society, many women of color are not seen enough, heard enough, or given enough voice. Thus the silences of the film are the silences of our moment.
But I do admit, I like that violence is the answer to violence in this movie. The end is nonsense and, as I wrote in my essay, a nonconclusion. But before that, the main growth from the Wives, for example, comes from them realizing that they have to fight. Honestly, that’s Max’s growth as well. Violence is the only answer that works in this world. And perhaps this is just a nod to J. Jack Halberstam’s idea of imaginary violence, but I think the hysteria around Furiosa was about her totally unapologetic violent streak.3
MIKE: The White man/boy entitlement in the film (as Anna Mae brilliantly explores in her essay) and in the United States at this moment reminds me of the pervasiveness of White supremacy and settler colonialism (as Barb contextualizes in her piece). The smugness of boys and men taking up space and trying to intimidate (and enact violence upon) people of color is all too familiar. As many have noted, including Pusha T, the MAGA hat is the new White hood in the United States: “The Make America Great Again hat is this generation’s Ku Klux hood. When was America so great anyways? Name that time period?”4 It is my hope that the new wave of women of color in leadership in the United States continues to shift landscapes and institutions including boardrooms, classrooms, and community centers toward spaces where intersectional justice can flourish—and White supremacy is continually in retreat.
BARB: Following this, Mike, I’m writing this response just a few days after video was released of a hostile but nonviolent confrontation between a group of White boys from a Catholic school in Kentucky and a Native elder. For those who may not know (or remember by the time you hold this book, given our rapid news cycle), these young men, wearing their MAGA gear, were bussed to Washington, D.C., by their Catholic school to attend a forced-birth (whoops, I mean anti-choice, whoops, I mean pro-life) march in D.C., which occurred the same day as the Indigenous Peoples March. The “confrontation” was primarily between one young man and a Native elder who stepped into a racially charged moment between these MAGA-wearing young White men and a smaller group of apparently verbally hostile, middle-aged Black men. My point here is that Washington, D.C., is Native land—it’s all Native land (very little land was actually “bargained away” in the treaties between the United States and Native people, and the rest was slowly—or rapidly—stolen). So all these folks in this situation are on Native land (the capital of the settler colonialist nation is on Native land), yet there is no recognition of that. You mention the “White man/boy entitlement” and the “smugness of boys and men taking up space and trying to intimidate (and enact violence upon) people of color,” and here it is, on our TV screens, on our Facebook pages, on our phones. Here it is, always, but this visual moment of these boys with their MAGA hats on, mocking and trying to stare down a Native elder, crystallizes for me much of our collective consideration of what this film, released just prior to the 2016 election, and this book, finishing up halfway through Trump’s presidency, is exploring (or failing to explore).
WE: We want to take a break from the politics of the orange U.S. President and pivot to a more hopeful green. Color seems to be a thematic presence throughout the film, both visually and metaphorically. For example, at several points in our essays, we have mentioned the barrenness of the landscape, the virginal but increasingly bedraggled White that the Wives are draped in, and, of course, the “Green Place.” Ultimately, what does color, its lack, its presence, and its uses give us in this film, and, specifically, what does the Green Place give us, or perhaps, deny us in this story and in our various readings of this story, as both narrative technique and symbolism?
MIKE: So green is Eden, right? Or some other version of mythical plenty. When the world is green, animals, rivers, and streams flourish. Green helps erase brown. I’m thinking here of the times I didn’t clean up leaves in my yard in the fall. Under thick layers of snow, these leaves change from reds and oranges to brown. When the snow melts, thick layers of brownness is revealed, covering the raw ground. As the ground slowly dries out and warms, green growth emerges, piercing the layers of decomposition. The early spring growth is a promise of renewal. In many locations, people forage in search of these sweet and bitter greens. Fiddlehead ferns, shepherd’s purse, and mugwort, along with many others, mark the transitions (and often blurrings) of seasons. The promise of the Green Place gives us a sense of false hope that the barren polluted world can be made whole, regenerated. How much does this renewal depend on humans? Is the earth (and greenness) resilient to destruction? Some versions of fantasy (and politicians) would like us to believe that.
ANNA MAE: I’m struck by the fact that this particular Eden is alternately called the Green Place and the Land of Many Mothers. It’s a place where the matriarchy lives in harmony with Mother Earth. It’s an environmentalist, feminist utopia that the film evokes and then destroys. To add to Mike’s point about hope and Barb’s discussion of the fragile seedlings, I think the film wants us to yearn toward a better, greener future but makes clear that the hope will be dashed.
ALEXIS: Really? See, I disagree. I think the film ends with this idea that the main characters believe all will be right now in their little water-filled corner of the world and that bad has been banished for a while. But I wonder also if this also reflects the more recent film Black Panther (2018) and the central moral question that underlies that film and the motivation of the “villain”: if you could save yourself and your town/city/people and make a utopia, would you willingly close the door on the rest of the world? In Black Panther, the “hero” has to learn to want to save the world (a position that was actually expressed by the “villain”), but I think the end of Fury Road argues the opposite. Furiosa saved her team and her people, and now they are going to stay put and live happily ever after (and as Anna Mae notes, waste all the water they want). Both of these films, in my head, are asking the question that scholar Rob Nixon asks us in his amazing book Slow Violence (2011): who are “we” saving with contemporary environmentalism? Is that enough if you just provide safety for your family or your city or nation? Is that all that can be saved? I think this film is dark in the sense that these people are like, “We saved ourselves, movie over.”
MIKE: It is interesting that you mention Nixon here. In my essay, based on your suggestion, Alexis, I do take up Nixon but don’t see the outcome you imagine. I guess I am not as hopeful it ends well for Furiosa. As Anna Mae encouraged me to consider, the water pouring out over the scorched earth is not a magical healing or saving. All we are left with is a big mess of mud and no water to drink.
BARB: Mike, I’m laughing a little because both times the water is set free, but particularly the first time (when Immortan Joe turns on the faucet and then turns it off), my first thought was, “ew, that water’s gonna get all dirty.” But this braggadocious (oh, I used a Trump word) display of what is clearly a precious, precious resource is interesting for how it reflects the problem that got us into this mess: it’s the unfettered greed and militarism of the West that prompts the apocalypse in the first place. Round and round we go. Biblically, humans got kicked out of Eden and can’t go back—it’s guarded by vengeful angels (or, in the case of Fury Road, a toxic swamp of twisted trees and creatures). We’re thrust into the wasteland by our own hubris. Now, I’m not trying to turn Fury Road into some huge Judeo-Christian-Muslim allegory. But . . . there do seem to be some circles in the story, as well as a straight back-and-forth car chase. I think the Green Place is the place we can never go back to. It’s the falsely informed nostalgia to “make America great again.” It’s a myth, a mistake, an inspiration, a dark history that’s grown rosier in hindsight, an impossible dream.
WE: Interestingly, we collectively spent very few words on Furiosa, the seeming center of the feminist maelstrom in and around the film. What are we avoiding there? Is she too pretty to love but too gritty to hate? Theron’s acting in the film has been praised; her character is clearly central both to the story and to the feminist feel of the film. Are we “bored” with the same old, same old “here’s a strong feminist character for you”? Or are we, even now, excited to see this somewhat complicated female character passing the Bechdel test and outshooting the men? Do we want more? Do we need more?
ALEXIS: I can’t help but be self-satisfied and note here that “pretty” is a reason to not love Furiosa. We are so manipulated by beauty in films! I also love the idea that if you cut a woman’s hair, she is all of a sudden serious and strong (see too Ripley in the Aliens franchise and Natalie Portman’s character in V for Vendetta). I have to think that Theron was playing with this in her next film Atomic Blonde (2017), where quite honestly her hair in all its peroxide glory is basically a character in the film and deserves its own acting nomination.
That said, as I noted in my essay, she has stiff competition in this movie for the most pretty from Tom Hardy. That was a tension I kind of liked in the film. She is not the most visually compelling woman in this film, Hardy/Mad Max is.
MIKE: Furiosa is a visibly disabled warrior who kicks plenty of ass in the film. (I do appreciate your continued engagement with Furiosa, Barb!) In thinking about why I don’t meaningfully discuss Furiosa in my essay, I browsed through Google image search. Not surprisingly, I found many images of people dressing up like Furiosa. She is an icon for some folks. Someone to be emulated, or at least temporarily dressed as. I do think she resonates with many White feminists because there can be a dearth of representations like her. It reminds me of Marlee Matlin winning the Academy Award for Best Actress (1987) for Children of a Lesser God. Matlin is often incorrectly named the only disabled actor to win an Oscar (Harold Russell won for his portrayal of Homer Parish in The Best Years of Our Lives ). This is all to say that when there are only a few to be the representatives, they are often held up as iconic, beyond critique. But I think the four of us feel very ambivalent about Furiosa and her “place” as a (White) feminist savior. As we discuss, the world she seems to “save” is a settler colonialist society. (And, of course, she is also not really an amputee, like Lieutenant Dan [Gary Sinise] in Forrest Gump, 1994.) Her version of disability, from my perspective, is a bit like the supercrip coming to save the world. I tend to focus on the crip, sick, and disabled bodies on the edges that we aren’t given much access to. I wonder who they are, why they are alive, and how they survive. And why can’t I access them beyond fleeting moments in the film?
BARB: I’m not going to lie: for all my academic headspace analysis of gender and race and failure in the film, I really dug it when Max stepped aside and let Furiosa take the shot—and her shot was good. It felt good, as a woman in a patriarchal world, to watch a man easily step aside to allow someone better qualified to do the job. In our current era of outsize backlash against the social and civil rights progress of marginalized peoples, it felt good to see a glimmer of hope that maybe we’ll have a chance to get rid of this bullshit empire of oppression we’ve so carefully built and maintained over the centuries. All it will take is one good apocalypse. But it’s actually not Furiosa who gives us this glimpse; it’s Max, when he steps aside so she can lead and when he gives up his blood to save her life. It’s Nux, when he begins to understand how he’s been manipulated into an unforgiving, death-driven masculinity. It’s the Vuvalini, who save the seeds and perhaps represent the wisdom of elders who have survived but who (interestingly) actually get very little screen time. So Furiosa’s cool and all, but as Mike points out, she’s not the most interesting character in the film.
Furiosa mitigates the “boobs and blood” trope of “strong female characters” we saw so much of in the 1990s through her mechanical arm, her bald head, and her covered body, but she doesn’t defy that trope; she doesn’t rearrange it. There’s been talk of a Furiosa sequel, and I sure would pay my ten dollars to go see it. But I don’t need it because we’ve entered this surreal world that maintains its misogyny but still gives us women-as-just-warriors. I don’t need another woman warrior. “I don’t need another hero” (that’s a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome reference). I like them plenty, but I don’t need them. I want something different. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I think it will directly deal with our discomfort over the continuing marginalization of so many “others” in this postapocalypse and our seeming inability to build lasting relationships and community.
WE: In her piece, Anna Mae writes about the tensions between the mechanical and the natural, between technology and the corporeal. So ultimately, does the film offer clues or even just solace as to how navigate the world where boundaries between humans and things are blurred? How does embracing being made into things create new ways of being beyond simplistic calls for equality and rights? Does it matter who killed the world? How can we resist reductive conceptions of agency?
ANNA MAE: Here I think Mike’s focus on disability is an important move. Disability scholarship—often in conversation with feminist and queer studies—has insisted that we rethink how we construe dependence (on other people, on prosthetics, on technology) in the law and in the stories we tell. As someone who works on childhood studies, I’ve thought a lot about how we withhold rights from those whom we consider dependent. To this day, many people under eighteen and people with cognitive disabilities are denied the rights of personhood (to give or refuse consent, to have access to reproductive choice, the capacity to testify in court) precisely because they do not embody the sort of self-reliance that we associate with citizenship and the rights attached to it. Being dependent—on adults, on the state, on robotic arms—is seen as a disqualifier for full, productive personhood. And in our current legal formulations, if you’re not a person, you are property. So, for much of the population, simply resorting to “agency” and “equality” doesn’t work. There are real distinctions in ability and capacity: no one thinks a three- year-old should be able to vote. But both law and custom see the person/thing distinction as a binary opposition, which invariably inflicts violence on both people and things.
ALEXIS: I actually keep coming back to the issue of “who killed the world” as a fundamental and much larger question. I’m a historian, so yes, I think it matters. And I think it matters all the more if who or what killed the world is not seen as killing the world. I think we live in that moment. Those who killed the world (and yes, I put that in the past tense because I think we are on very borrowed time on a corpse now) will not see it, admit it, or feel shame about it. I guess I do want a reckoning because I fear without one, as in the films, the same inequalities will just be rebuilt infinitely.
BARB: There’s this famous scene in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times in which Chaplin enters this large machine and is at first an almost seamless part of it, blending into the gears, a veritable cog in the wheels of industry. But soon he loses his equanimity and the machine swallows him up. Miller does something similar with the women on the milking machines and with the young War Boys who work the machinery of the Citadel with their own bodies, turning the water wheel, raising and lowering the platform, driving the war machines. The bodies are swallowed by the machines—the bodies in fact become the machines in this world with no electricity. We circle back yet again, repeating the same old behaviors whether at the beginning of the apocalypse or at the end, and like Chaplin, Miller is arguing that machines pose a very real danger to our autonomy. However, Furiosa’s easy relationship with her mechanical arm—it comes off, it goes on, it doesn’t seem to impede her though she must clearly make adjustments to her nonorganic body—offers a place to think about agency in the machine and our relationship in and with the machine world, a relationship that has perhaps always existed and certainly seems inescapable. Posthumanists argue that human evolution is hurtling us toward ever-greater interdependence with technology; cyborg theory argues against the idea that we have ever had “pure” origins anyway. Disability scholars, as Mike discusses in his essay and Anna Mae points out above, have long encouraged a different understanding of dependence that doesn’t eschew or denigrate the mechanical world. Perhaps embracing these ideas (truths?) would actually ease us toward greater agency in our relationships. But perhaps not.
WE: By way of ending a nonconclusion, the questions that haunted the Introduction were: Why us? Why this film? Why write it this way? Can we speak to the process? What was learned from the process as well as the product?
ANNA MAE: This one is hard!
MIKE: Indeed. I do think there is something capacious about the film where even someone like me (who generally doesn’t enjoy these types of films) can imagine an entire (short) book about the film from four different scholars. I’ve at times been thrilled by how quickly our thoughts are written on the page. I can awake in Seoul to find an entire new section being sketched out. But at times this project has felt like a secret lover, someone I don’t really talk about to others or even spend much time with. I hope we produced something worthwhile. It was a blast working with you all on this project.
BARB: I think I’d like to make at least two points about our process in developing this book. The first is that this whole book was written in relationships: growing and changing relationships with each other as humans, friends, and colleagues; relationships with our own disciplinary fields as well as our burgeoning interdisciplinary relationships with each other’s fields; the mingling of our essays and thoughts in relation to each other and the film. The second is that working this way—in community—is hard. Three of us are at the same university, but Mike is located on the other side of the planet. Meeting in person was almost impossible, so we Skyped (in other words, we used machines). Time zones had to be negotiated. Four individual schedules had to be meshed again and again. The very shape and form of this monograph had to be allowed to develop somewhat organically, but it also had to be shaped and trimmed and formed and re-formed.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Approaching this project this way not only taught me a lot about the film, but also about the various disciplinary approaches we each employed. But maybe next time we could spend a couple weeks at a writing retreat on an island somewhere (before all the islands disappear).
ALEXIS: And I would add to this, we can only do this kind of book project and give it the time and energy it needed because we all have steady employment and traditional single-author monographs under our belts. So this was a privilege of the very systems we spend the whole text critiquing. Which, alas, makes this a very contemporary feminist undertaking.
And I have enjoyed the “I” and “we” of this. “We” is the term I typically go nuts on with my students in writing classes. I have scolded, “who is we?” and “who are you to represent the we?” Yet I have found great solace in writing as a “we.” Now I know the “we”; I am represented and heard in the “we.” Yet as a scholarly experience, I have enjoyed speaking as part of a whole.
ANNA MAE: Now, after listening to you all, I want to chime in! Yes, I think in many ways this project and the film itself have been meditations on the joys and challenges of really considering what we mean by “we.” Our collective conversation goes in different directions—we return to the same tropes (the Wives, the dresses, the Blood Bags) to make different points about them. Our voices are different, our schedules incongruous; our readings diverged and overlapped. To Alexis’s point, the “we” that we’ve forged here occupies a really generative space between the imagined poles of authorial self-reliance and identity-obscuring collectivity. I’ve found it incredibly exciting . . . and challenging. I think we’ve all spent much of our careers pointing out the dangers inherent in our culture’s attachment to individualism. This project has shown me how unsettling—and thrilling—it can be to put my money where my critical mouth is.