Anna Mae Duane
WHEN ONE OF THE YOUNG, beautiful Wives in Mad Max: Fury Road starts running back toward her enslaver, insisting that he had given her a “good life,” she is stopped by one of the most often quoted lines in the film. “We are not,” another Wife cries, “things. We are not things!” The message is clear: death as a human is preferable to life as a thing. Better to live without clean water and reliable food than to sell one’s humanity to get them. Like Barb, Mike, and Alexis, I find myself drawn to the binary logic that drives much of a film widely reviled for its supposed attack on gender hierarchies. For me, it is in this moment of insistent distinction, of parsing human from thing, that this film taps into a particular form of Christian/Cartesian dualism that formed the historical bedrock of nineteenth-century antislavery messages. The parsimonious greed of Immortan Joe, who hoards water and beautiful women, and the cruelty of a regime that robs mothers of their milk and warriors of their blood offer a bold depiction of precisely the sort of objectification that Frederick Douglass and other nineteenth-century abolitionists would decry as slavery’s primal sin. I suggest that Fury Road, consciously steeped in antislavery rhetoric, enacts a vision of innocence that has done incalculable harm to both the women and children the filmmakers ostensibly wish to celebrate and has justified the environmental damage that the Mad Max franchise continuously mourns. Rather than a depicting the horror that arises when humans become machine-like things, the film demonstrates that our failure to see ourselves as machines (breakable, finite, needy, overdetermined) is a deadly form of denial.1 By the end of the film, both the story of Immortan Joe’s brutal objectification of bodies and its counternarrative—the belief that the human body is inherently sacred, somehow outside and above the capitalist exchange of money, blood, and water—seem equally culpable for killing the world.
The marketing materials around Fury Road encouraged viewing it as a modern-day work of antislavery art. In addition to foregrounding the proclamation that “we are not things,” much of the promotional material touted the consulting services of antitrafficking activist Eve Ensler. In interviews, Ensler stressed the dehumanizing effects of “modern-day slavery” and the profound alienation of sex trafficking victims who could no longer lay claim to their own commodified bodies. “After you are raped,” she explained to a reporter, “your body becomes a place that you dissociate from, a landscape of terror.”2 She argued that the dehumanizing effects of selling sexual access were widespread, even in the United States where, she argued, sexual enslavement was “rampant.”3 In her depiction of a victim’s body as an alien “landscape of terror,” Ensler spoke in a familiar lexicon for modern antislavery activists, who in turn draw much of their rhetoric from nineteenth-century abolitionism.
In the nineteenth century, one key argument against chattel slavery involved dwelling on the horrors inherent in using the world “chattel” to discuss the disposition of human beings. For abolitionists, the conflation of a person with a thing—be it an item of livestock or a set of silver—was an act of blasphemy. Human beings, they insisted, are sacred, a realm apart from anything that can be bought or sold. The famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison introduced the enslaved fugitive Frederick Douglass to the public by pointing out the sacrilege of turning a person into an object. He recoiled at the thought of Douglass, “a man of high attainments,” an “intellectual and moral being,” being reduced to “a piece of property, a beast of burden, a chattel personal.” Douglass himself would make this case throughout his first autobiography, arguing that much of slavery’s evil lay in its ability to turn a man into a thing through brute force: “I was broken in body, soul, and spirit,” Douglass wrote. Like Eve Ensler’s depiction of trafficked women, Douglass was alienated from his own body. “My natural elasticity was crushed,” he related, “my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”4
And in truth, the aim of slavery’s brutal system was to transform the human into a being of pure efficiency—a cog in an endlessly whirring machine. And to some extent, they were successful in that aim. In the cotton South, drivers systematically raised productivity—not through technological innovations but rather by turning their enslaved workers into technology. The years from 1800 to 1860 saw a marked rise in cotton output, even without substantial mechanical innovations to speed production. Instead, as Ed Baptist notes, gains were achieved through a ruthlessly efficient system of torture designed to drive the body past its natural limits. Planters referred to their methodology as the “pushing system.” Baptist calls it the “whipping machine.”5 In either case, slaveholders continually escalated the violence perpetrated on human bodies to gain more output per person. The “pushing system” extended beyond cotton production to include human reproduction. As enslaved women were sexually exploited, the children resulting from these rapes appeared as items in the asset column of a slaveholder’s account books.
For antislavery activists, the degradation of motherhood was perhaps slavery’s greatest sin. Building on the Victorian idealization of motherhood, abolitionists insisted that a mother’s body needed to be held wholly apart from the language of capital and the machines that produced it. In the best-selling antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an enslaved father takes note of the blasphemy that reduced a child to a product and motherhood to a cog in the “whipping machine.” “What pleasure is it that [our son] is handsome, and smart, and bright?” George Harris asked the mother of his child. “I tell you, Eliza, that a sword will pierce through your soul for every good and pleasant thing your child is or has; it will make him worth too much for you to keep.”6 In this tableau, slavery violates the sacred ritual of a mother taking pleasure in her child’s attributes by rendering that child a thing assessed only for its ability to produce profit.
The opening scenes of Fury Road provide a dizzying array of similar violations of the division between human and object, between flesh and machine. At almost every turn, we are faced with the horrors that arise when one attempts to turn a person into a thing. In addition to the Wives, who are trapped in sexual subjection, the camera lingers on women whose breasts are hooked up to industrial milking machines. We see small children mindlessly walking on a giant mill wheel, cogs within the larger system. Perhaps most disturbingly, Max himself becomes part of this array of products consumed by Immortan Joe and his feral War Boys. Max is barely on screen for sixty seconds before he is pursued, captured, and hooked up to an elaborate structure that effectively renders him a human blood bank. His bodily fluids become just one more resource to feed the machine, his lifeblood akin to the guzzoline that keeps the vehicles running, his very body transformed into fuel for others to consume.
Max’s capture and subjection—along with his eventual deference to Furiosa—enraged a particular subset of male “fans” who recoiled at the indignities inflicted on their hero.7 They had, they insisted in an extensive online trolling campaign, been promised an “action guy flick” featuring “one man with principles, standing against many with none.”8 These “fans” complained that instead of being an ode to radical independence, Fury Road forced an unwanted “lecture on feminism” upon them. This forced feminism, at least for one particularly offended viewer, consisted of a message that “women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic.”9 A still more disturbing message for these “fans,” I suggest, was the film’s equal-opportunity commodification, as Max’s subjection suggests that we are rapidly approaching a world in which White men’s bodies are as liable to be consumed by a voracious marketplace as women’s bodies have always been. Watching Max become a product (his blood is pumped with as little fanfare as Mother’s Milk) would be particularly unsettling for viewers invested in a particular vision of White male impermeability—a vision in which one good man’s strength can conquer the world.
Yet even as Mad Max: Fury Road turns the “man of principles” into an accessory for a War Boy’s muscle car, much of the film actually reiterates the very gender and racial hierarchies that have positioned the impermeable White man at the pinnacle of a worldview for which alt-right fanboys fairly ache with nostalgia. As Barb discusses in her essay, Joe’s army is entirely White and male. The soldiers spend their days hopped up on stimulants, paying homage to a bastardized version of Norse mythology.10 They apply war paint by chroming themselves with a substance that seems to exist in the realm between cocaine and spray paint—a practice shared by their leader Immortan Joe, whom we see being powdered by attendants as he prepares to greet the crowd.11 Such adornments result in bodies that are blindingly, cartoonishly, White. Indeed, for a film that explicitly positions itself as an antislavery epic, the palette is overwhelmingly pallid. In addition to Furiosa and Max, the other protagonists—the Wives—are quite pale, with the exception of Zoe Kravitz. (Notably, Kravitz’s character is the only one of among her fair cohort who seems immediately capable of engaging with the machinery around her, particularly firearms). As a whole, the Wives easily fulfill a model of femininity that many male Mad Max fans would find quite reassuring.
The overt message of the film is that women should not be property; their bodies should not be subject to the whims of men who are eager to own everything they see. Yet the filmmakers introduce the bulk of the film’s women as the seductive stars of a lustful mirage. Young, beautiful, heavily made-up and scantily dressed, the bikini-clad Wives first appear on screen using a hose to freshen up after the first leg of their escape, wasting prodigal amounts of water in the process. Their appearance fulfills all the clichés of a delusional man-in-a-desert fantasy: Max stumbles upon a vista where there’s plenty of water. A bevy of silent, glistening supermodels smolder in the distance, a tableau of tempting consumables. Best of all, when Max first sees them, a blonde has just snipped off the chastity belt that would have proved an impediment to accessing her sex.
The Wives’ ability to free themselves from the iron contraptions that mark them as property only heightens Max’s anxiety to shed the machinery that makes him feel like a thing. Indeed, it is Max’s frantic need to remove the heavy metal muzzle marking his captivity that forces him to throw in his lot with Furiosa in the first place. Even as they are chased by a murderous horde, speeding down a road at breakneck speeds, Max can concentrate on little else until he has, in the words of Furiosa, gotten “that thing off [his] face.”
The visual shock that comes from seeing metal attached to flesh has long testified to slavery’s violation of the body’s natural state. Alexis’s essay pushes us to think about how we as viewers are invited to share Max’s anxiety to free his face from its metal cage, how the film plays with our desire to unshackle his beauty from the ugly trappings of his bondage. I would add that our discomfort doesn’t just come from a desire to see Max’s handsome face. We are made uncomfortable because the very definition of Max’s beauty—a form of ideal humanity—has been crafted and clarified through its opposition to the trappings of slavery. From nineteenth-century depictions of the brutal iron mask to twenty-first-century depictions of sex trafficking victims packaged like commodities on a conveyer belt, the juxtaposition of the market and the body, the machine and the flesh, continues to generate a profound sense of desecration of “natural” human beauty, an assurance that the natural order has been violated.
Fury Road’s reliance on the visual rhetoric of antislavery campaigns implicitly reinforces the abolitionist belief that there is a sacrosanct divide between body and machine, the human and the market. Historically, that discourse has been intensely gendered. As the Industrial Revolution created the conditions for the work force to become more segregated by gender, the fantasy of separate spheres took hold, offering an idealized model of the divisions between the home and the market. In this fantasy, the pure atmosphere created by a woman unsullied by the predations of the marketplace was the male wage earner’s oasis and the site where children could grow up to be properly socialized citizens.12 This model took on additional power in the wake of abolitionist literature focused on the harrowing specter of families torn apart by a slaveholder’s greed. In the years after slavery’s legal abolition, freedom itself became defined as an inviolable home where pure maternal love, rather than dirty money, set the rules.13
The division between the pure woman and the market-savvy man was always raced as well as gendered—enslaved African Americans, by definition, did not have the luxury of cordoning off their homes from the predations of the market. After slavery’s abolition, early twentieth-century reformers revisited the division between an inherently pure girl and an insatiably greedy market to clarify that such purity was the rightful domain of White families. “White slavery” was a term coined to convey the idea that White girls and women doing sex work was analogous to the chattel slavery that had legally rendered generations of Black people “things” of the market. Now largely acknowledged as a moral panic about sex work, the White slavery scare built on the rhetoric of separate spheres to render young White women as preternaturally innocent. Their beauty, virginity, and incapacity to negotiate the sexual or commercial world created compelling viewing for horrified onlookers. As historian Micki McElya has demonstrated, the “iconography of the White slavery panic was spectacular, pervasive,” and often “titillating,” as viewers were asked to gaze upon images of “young, white girls and women forced into prostitution.”14
In legal proceedings designed to protect fragile, innocent White women from the mercenary aims of voracious men, legislatures decided that women and girls needed to be relieved of the burden of having to negotiate with the transactional world. Unable to cope with either saying yes or no, women and girls were deemed res sacra—so sacred as to be beyond value.15 Literally unable to be categorized within the terms of the marketplace—the sacred cannot be categorized by the profane—the White slave needed saving, whether or not she had chosen to pursue her line of work. The “law must defend her,” the anti-White-slavery statute insisted, “even against her own weakness.”16 In other words, the law sought to render young White women and girls incapable of making the decision to place themselves in the marketplace. The love of a young White woman, lawmakers agreed, could never be a thing for sale.
The lovely, gauze-clad women of Fury Road are right at home in the dichotomy created in White slavery narratives: they are too innocent and, not coincidentally, too beautiful for the corrupt and filthy world around them. Even as they drive through dust storms in an oil-belching supertanker, their bikinis and diaphanous miniskirts remain largely free from black grime. Their skin remains impossibly dewy in a landscape that hasn’t seen rain in months. Like the White “slaves” that fueled the fears—and the rescue fantasies—of antitrafficking reformers in the early twentieth century, the Wives need saving. For much of the film, Max and Furiosa enact the role of parents shepherding this group of lovely girls toward a sequestered, Edenic land, a “Green Place,” a “land of many mothers” somehow free from the predations of a greedy and starving world. This Green Place is, like the original Eden, innocent of the sins of the marketplace—of knowing too much, of eating too much, of all forms of calculation and ambition. It is a place where people aren’t things, where Mother’s Milk flows freely and is always given as an act of love. The desire to leave the machinery behind, to live where nature serves as a nonreactive mother, animates the film despite the growing realization that such a desire will never be fulfilled.
Even as the film’s plot echoes the rescue fantasy one might find in a White slavery novella, Fury Road critiques the fantasy of fetishizing the human body as both separate and superior to the world around it. We soon learn that the Green Place of many mothers is as brown and desolate as everywhere else. We are invited to recoil at Immortan Joe’s dehumanizing talent for rendering the bodies around him consumable, but we are also disallowed the illusion that there is any place where humans can remain innocent of the things they want, need, and use. The Wives’ engine of deliverance is loaded with guzzoline, water, and breast milk. It burns the products of death to carry life and, in so doing, offers a motley juxtaposition of the sacred and profane. Perhaps, the film suggests, the answer is not to reassert the division between blood and gasoline, milk and machinery, but for us to finally recognize the uncomfortable equivalence between them. The human body, after all, cannot survive a day without exchange in the world of things—water, milk, blood, air—and the world containing those things is in turn profoundly shaped by the human bodies walking through it. Furiosa’s own left arm is mechanical, her ability to run to the Green Place dependent on steel welded around flesh and the guzzoline burning through her war machine. To pretend that we are somehow separate from the stuff of the world, that we are innocent of the things we use and the things we make, is to obscure the violence that the fantasy of sacredness requires. It is precisely this desire—to divide the world into people that matter and things that don’t—that enables both the slavery the film decries and the environmental degradation the cinematography depicts.17
By the film’s halfway mark, the makeshift family of fugitives realizes that running away from the brutalities of the world is not a feasible solution. There is, quite simply, no other place to go. And so our heroes, and their story, do an about-face. They no longer seek rescue and escape but instead head straight back to Immortan Joe’s blasphemous compound. Their journey requires them to function within a complex web of relationships between things and people, metal and flesh. The Wives become competent in fighting as well as fleeing. Max, first dehumanized as a blood bank, willingly steps back into the role when Furiosa is injured. He grabs a metal needle and punctures both of their bodies to create the makeshift machinery that allows Furiosa to consume the products of Max’s body.
Yet the final scenes of the movie undercut the hopeful narrative where the film’s feminists might fully evolve from rescued slaves to formidable leaders. Having defeated Immortan Joe, Furiosa and the Wives return to the triumphant cheers of the downtrodden people who populate his domain. They are, for the moment at least, in charge. But the women’s initial act as rulers reasserts the fantasy narrative they embodied at the film’s beginning. When we first met the Wives, they were standing in the middle of the desert, wantonly passing a running hose back and forth, letting water spill over their bodies and the ground with no concern for their future need for it. Upon return to Immortan Joe’s compound, their first act is to loosen the great valve at the heart of Joe’s Empire, letting hundreds of gallons of water—that precious, scarce, life-giving thing—splash on the ground, and the people, with absolute abandon. As the camera pans away, the water is still running. The new regime will be kinder to other humans, it seems clear, but they seem no wiser about their place in the environment or their relation to the things their bodies are made of, and thus they are no closer to figuring out who killed the world.