Why Imperator Furiosa, not Mad Max, is the hero for our age
When the world succumbs to forces of darkness, you want a strong, ethical woman on your side. At least that’s what it increasingly looks like at the movies.
Right now, you want Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, the most fearless heroine ever to drive a War Rig. The female savior-hero took a while to get to cultural center stage, but in the form of Furiosa, her presence is so powerful — even with only one arm — that many male action-film fans are enraged that she has stolen the show.
It’s difficult to say what effect the backlash has had on opening weekend ticket sales, which were respectable at $44.4 million in the United States, if more than $20 million behind first-place Pitch Perfect 2. But globally that weekend, Fury Road beat Pitch Perfect 2 $109.4 million to $108.4 million.
Women action heroes are starting to supplant males in the 21st century. In the 20th, the action heroes were invariably men with bulging biceps. And they certainly didn’t surround themselves with tough-as-nails, leather-clad elderly women astride motorcycles, as they do in Fury Road. But George Miller’s fourth installment of the Mad Max franchise is bursting with feminine grit and power.
The film’s plot is set in motion when a fierce warlord’s five enslaved “wives” decide to defy him and escape with the aid of Furiosa. Miller was so eager to present the female perspective that he hired Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, to coach the actresses on how to express the horror of rape and impregnation by a monster. Though Mad Max comes along for the ride to offer assistance and a few grunts of dialogue, Furiosa is the gravitational center.
A few men may be helpful to the cause, but it is a matriarchal band known as the Vulvani who will ultimately save society from evil oppressors in this flick.
In the 21st century, as terrorist attacks, climate change and global financial horrors breed widespread anxiety, the female savior has grown in significance. The first female action hero came after World War II, reflecting the societal changes in America as women entered the workforce en masse. She was Wonder Woman, who handily dispatched bad guys in her signature star-spangled panties. She was also clearly a fantasy object and, like the big-busted Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise, not particularly threatening.
But Theron’s Furiosa is no creature of the male gaze. Like Lisbeth Salandar in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she is sinewy, defiant and sports a look that is more Goth than glam, her eyes blazing resistance through the smear of black grease she uses as war paint.
The rise of the female savior may reflect a sense that, as classic outsiders, women are particularly well suited to challenge entrenched powers. In 2010, a Time magazine cover featured Elizabeth Warren, then head of the congressional panel monitoring Wall Street’s financial bailout; Sheila Bair, then head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and Mary Schapiro, then head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as the “New Sheriffs of Wall Street” taking on villains in the financial sector.
In popular culture, The Hunger Games brought the female savior-hero to blockbuster status, presenting the young heroine Katniss Everdeen as the ultimate challenge to a corrupt, male-dominated government. In 2010, Phillip Noyce, the director of the spy thriller Salt, asked Angelina Jolie to play a part originally written for Tom Cruise; CIA agent Edwin Salt turned into Evelyn Salt, a formidable female action hero. The star of the successful sci-fi action film Divergent (2014) is Tris Prior, played by Shailene Woodley. She leads a rebel faction in post-apocalyptic Chicago. Even in the high-octane, muscle-bound Fast and Furious franchise, racecar driver Letty Ortiz, portrayed by Michelle Rodriguez, is the equal of her male colleagues on a dream team of good guys saving the world.
Women are also regarded as savior-heroes because so many are saving the day at home. The Great Recession, which threw large numbers of men onto the unemployment rolls, increased the number of women who are their families’ sole breadwinners. Women lost jobs, too, but not at the rate that men did; data shows that by 2011, men had lost 4.9 million jobs compared to 2.5 million for women. By 2013, almost 40 percent of families with children under the age of 18 were headed by women.
In organizations and businesses, women are gaining the appreciation of their male colleagues for qualities like collaboration and efficiency. Researchers tracking the work of Congress from 1973 to 2008, for example, recently found that women are more successful than men at getting their bills through the House of Representatives.
Studies have also shown that stocks perform better when women sit on company boards, and some business experts argue that women make better bosses because they are especially good at motivating employees, offer superior creativity and care less about the status quo.
In a recent paper, researchers Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval found that women may be more cooperative than men and have more confidence in the ability of their co-workers. Studies have also shown them to be more altruistic. Fury Road depicts women not just committed to their own survival but seeking the common good for all society, particularly the downtrodden. Unlike Mad Max, who is more of a loner cowboy, they excel in collaboration.
“My name is Max,” he says at the start of the film. “My world is reduced to a single instinct: survive.” In the end, he does not join the women poised to rebuild society. He prefers to travel the road alone.
The fan backlash against Fury Road, despite the critical acclaim, may reflect another societal shift in which many men feel that their social and economic power has been threatened. In a blog excoriating Fury Road, Aaron Clarey warns that male viewers could be “duped by explosions, fire tornadoes and desert raiders into seeing what is guaranteed to be nothing more than feminist propaganda, while at the same time being insulted AND tricked into viewing a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their very eyes.”
Clarey’s screed seems to channel the sense of outrage and betrayal brewing among guys who no longer feel like men. More and more, they end up behind the counter in service jobs at Wal-Mart instead of working in more “manly” traditional roles as builders or physical laborers. Brawn and bravado do not earn many men points in the newer modes of employment. In addition, Congress seems uninterested in funding infrastructure projects that would create the sorts of high-paying construction jobs wiped out by the Great Recession.
In the home, men are no longer solely in charge. Sometimes they aren’t welcome in the family home at all. As researchers June Carbon and Naomi Cahn have pointed out, many working women who are not affluent are deciding not to marry because dealing with an unemployed or underemployed male is too much of a risk. Who wants another mouth to feed?
The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin published a book in 2012 that calls up anxiety about how men fit into the new millennium, or rather how they don’t: The End of Men: And the Rise of Women.
As the United States considers the possibility of the first female president, questions about women and how they lead will continue to proliferate. Of course, being female does not mean that you can’t be corrupt or fail.
But there is excitement percolating about what women can accomplish at the highest levels of responsibility and what they have to offer both men and women who follow them. Even Mad Max, the epitome of ornery and damaged masculinity, responds to Furiosa’s call through the chaos of fiery destruction. “Wanna get through this?” she demands. “Let’s go!”
Furiosa’s leadership is Max’s best chance not only for survival, but also for redemption.