Four feminists walk into a bar . . . and next thing you know, there’s a 30,000-word monograph on Mad Max: Fury Road.
WE HOLD UP THIS SILLY joke as a methodological manifesto for a conversation that moves between the popular and the academic, between debate and friendship, between—to use the language of a recent conference call—fury and fun.1 This text is the result of an after-class conversation among friends who, after a long day of teaching, found they still had much to say about Mad Max: Fury Road. That first conversation took place in 2015, when it seemed as though Fury Road occupied a unique moment in which accelerating feminist representation and aesthetics crashed up against the elaborate and proliferating defenses of a particular type of male fandom.2 Looking back at this popular movie released the year before a U.S. presidential election with a plot that features a decrepit and lecherous old man surrounded by sycophants literally blowing white smoke, it all seems terrifyingly prophetic.3
Now we realize that Fury Road was not simply a watershed moment; it should also be seen as the beginning of an era that the film itself chronicles. In 2019, revolts have become part of pre-film conversation, with self-appointed guardians of a cultural rear guard serving as online censors and bullies and with “discussions” of canonical films such as Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Wonder Woman, and even the Disney short Bao functioning as thin veils for racism, homophobia, misogyny, and ableism. In short, Mad Max: Fury Road exemplifies the experience of twenty-first-century popular culture in which something that is supposed to be fun and even comfortingly nostalgic—like a long-running summer movie fantasy franchise—instead elicits a hysterical response to evolving gender politics that have become increasingly attached to fandom. The film initiated a cultural moment in which fans insisted that art provide a set of ideological deliverables. In this era, offering divergent readings of the same text places one on threatening, enemy territory; a text refusing to give the viewer what they want generates rage, retrenchment, and recrimination.4
Furious Feminisms offers a collective response to individual and ideological claims on art in this moment of highly contested gender politics. We too, came to this film wanting something, representation and affirmation among them. In our collective discussions, we reckoned with how this film disappointed us and how that disappointment helped us to imagine and articulate alternate landscapes that reflected our utopian desires. Inspired by the Forerunners: Ideas First series, we sought a new forum to express the fury we felt when this film reified racist, sexist, and ableist tropes—even as online trolls claimed that the film was nothing more than a “feminist lecture.” Harkening back to the theoretical dialogues of the 1990s and early aughts, we crafted this intervention as a multivocal exchange that provides a space for rethinking cultural critique in an era of perpetual outrage.5 This is a collectively authored text in which the goal is neither cohesion and consensus nor discrete, freestanding arguments. Rather, we see this as an experiment for a collaborative criticism that opens to fissures and ruptures that remain unresolved, to disagreements that stand in tension, but also to respectful dialogue. And of course, since we were committed to working collaboratively, writing this short text was itself a journey with multiple twists and detours, including intercontinental video chats, early morning text messages, bustling Dropbox files, and even a conference presentation. In other words, we wanted to write our feminist fury in a new way, experimenting with new scholarly methods and approaches and using the future technologies that will soon represent our past. Indeed, we sought perhaps to mimic a cinematic creative experience and honor the collaborations between George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris on the screenplay for Fury Road and then the fictive collective efforts between Furiosa, Max, the Wives, and Nux as both offered us reminders of the potentialities (and challenges) embedded in collaboration.6 As Du Plooy contends, Fury Road is “clearly about collaboration and cooperation as essential for the redemption of a world in which gendered inequities and abuses of power remain deeply disconcerting obstacles.”7
Mad Max: Fury Road offers an extended meditation on the pulls and pitfalls of individuality. In writing about the film, we too are interested in the productive ambivalence that exists between the authorial voice of “I” and the collaborative echoes of “we.” We have crafted this text as an experiment in voice that both evokes the critical dialogues of the 1990s and offers new possibilities for feminist scholarly discourse. The conversation occurs on several different registers, each with a different level of transparency about the work of scholarly production—and the fruits of scholarly friendship—as we move back and forth between collective and individual voices. This Introduction speaks primarily as a collective “we,” punctuated by our individual voices as we introduce ourselves and explain our disciplinary approach. The four essays that follow reflect our individual approaches to the film and thus return to the more traditional authorial “I” that academics so often deploy to mark scholarly and disciplinary territory. The Conclusion offers another variation on the relationship between “I” and “we” as the back and forth that has operated under the surface throughout the four previous chapters becomes explicit once again through an extended dialogue.
Each of us has a different origin story, arriving in our feminism through different routes, and the tools we bring to this film sometimes compliment and sometimes clash with one another. Those disciplines shape not only how we view a cultural object but also what we want it to give us and how we express our delight and frustration with the gap between what could be and what exists on the screen. As a way of introducing the “we” of this book, Alexis L. Boylan, who first initiated the process of transforming our dinner conversations into the text you are reading, is an art historian who was inspired by the idea of a job that allowed her to look for a living. Alexis writes, “I love being an art historian and visual culture scholar. It is deeply important to me professionally and personally that I teach art history and that visual culture is a crucial discipline in the educational construct. But, I want a better field of visual culture. One that is inclusive and about the now. One that questions the ancient and the new and the lasting and the temporal in critical ways. Then, as a feminist, I am devoted to the fissures. Feminism has never been to me a smooth-sailing operation. I resist all the various herding impulses. And so, I wanted to try to write to these ideas. I want to be challenged, to be wrong, and also to be listened to. That’s the balance I hope for between us. That’s why I wanted a new kind of writing structure and dialogue, so all the messiness could come forth and not be cleaned up.”
Anna Mae Duane comes from an English department and was struck by the layers of old stories that both amplify and obscure the new ones the film purportedly seeks to tell. “As a scholar of American literature, much of my career has been spent rethinking our collective love for stories about the sort of lone ranger, superhero ideal that stands in for national character. I was especially excited by how Mad Max: Fury Road gives us both the old masculinist story of individuality and a feminist tale of collaboration. In the process, the film generates several layers of audience dissatisfaction—a dissatisfaction rife with creative possibilities. I wanted to explore both that tension between competing stories and how hot takes and Twitter rants amplify that tension. For all its problems, the internet has ushered in its own rich era of criticism: we get to craft our own responses to the stories that move and enrage us, and, in turn, those stories evolve in response to others’. I was eager to work with Alexis, Mike, and Barb to create a text that rendered our own scholarly conversation more transparent and that reflected how deeply collaborative criticism often is, even when that’s not evident on the page.”
Michael Gill, from disability studies, was hoping for something more radical from the film. “What got me excited for this film was the varied representation of disability. I’m not really a fan of the earlier films, although there are some moments where disabled characters emerge. I guess we could argue that Max is the quintessential stereotype of a ‘tormented’ male trying to make sense of his losses, using guns and cars to replace partner and child. But that type of representation seems so boring, to be frank. I’m certainly not a fan of Mel Gibson. With this film though, there are disabled people everywhere, including Furiosa, but oddly I find myself more interested in the periphery where disabled people lurk and live not on the war machines, fighting back. And like Alexis, I too wanted something more from this film. I was hoping for more crip sensibilities to spillover. I wanted to know more about the day to day existence and resistance of disabled people at the Citadel.”8
Barb Gurr is a sociologist deeply embedded in a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program, doing work in Native American studies and speculative storytelling. “Thus I come to this endeavor carrying a number of gazes but primarily sociology, feminism, and critical race theories. I grew up with Max, and I both love and loathe him; I’m frustrated by his inability to change his own direction, but I also see him as a larger metaphor for masculinity and, via cis-heteropatriarchal systems, humanity. I want the postapocalypse to be better than we’re told it will be because, even if we refuse to see it, we’re already there. This project, like this film, fascinates me for what it offers: tension, conciliation, history, progress, and a mitigated but dizzying kind of openness located in a closed, self-replicating system we can’t seem to get out of but can’t stay in.”
Mad Max: Fury Road is smart enough, odd enough, popular enough, and problematic enough for us all, from vastly different disciplinary locations, to tear in and find different aspects to consider. This is not a 1,000-word blog post with some cheeky and insightful thoughts on a film. (Although no shade to those blogs! We love them and find tremendous value in them!) Likewise, we are not film studies scholars. We own that and recognize that this limits the text in some ways and will no doubt frustrate some readers. We leave that important scholarship to those scholars and look to instead contribute something else.
This movie deserves, in positive and negative ways, a closer look, and a closer look from people who had different but overlapping investments in this film and from popular culture more broadly. We believe that the space Mad Max: Fury Road carved out and continues to occupy can be a space of subversion, activism, and imaginative power. We wanted to explore the film in a format that reveals the real joy that can come from intellectual work and the real friendship and collaboration that a feminist approach can engender. As Sara Ahmed has so skillfully argued, feminists are often marked as killjoys, and she asks us to embrace this, redefine it, own it in new ways.9 We wanted to think therefore not only about writing our response in a (sometimes) messy and angry way but to also embrace that furious feminism as the source of deep intellectual friendship and ally-hood. We are not the same kind of feminists, but we help keep each other provoked, creative, and furious in the best way possible.
We envision this book operating on two levels: first as an enjoyable read for an audience who wants the experience of entering an engaged conversation that both deepens its appreciation of a cultural moment and invites further thinking on subjects as diverse as climate change, disability, slavery, and the aesthetics of ugliness. Second, we envision this book as a teaching tool for students who might not otherwise realize how messy—yet ultimately rewarding—scholarship can be. There is a long history of cultural studies scholarship that deep dives into one popular text. In a sense, Furious Feminisms is that kind of text, using one work to pull on a thread of dialogue to gain perspective on the larger tapestry of a cultural moment. In another way, we resist that sort of synthesis. We all want different things from this text, and we all pull at the film in different ways.
We close this intro with the advice Furiosa gives Angharad after she is shot: “Out here, everything hurts. You want to get through this? Do as I say now. Now pick up what you can and run.”