Saturday, August 15, 2015

Feminist Story Writing: Not Just About Strong Characters, Female




I’ve not exactly kept it a secret that I am madly in love with Mad Max: Fury Road. Before it went out of theaters (BOOO) I saw it three times, and I enjoyed reading criticisms and analysis of it almost as much, if not more, than I enjoyed the movie itself. It wasn’t just the feminist aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was tickled by the bigness of the movie—the battles and the chases and Tom Hardy and ermigerd that giant sandstorm. And who doesn’t love Doof Warrior?


Because seriously.


In the end, though, I don’t think I would have been as sold on Fury Road if it weren’t for the feminist elements. I’ve seen a lot of people crying that it’s not that feminist, though, and to these people I say “Good day, sir!” because, um, yeah it is. And here’s why: it is stupidly easy to write a story that falls in line with feminist values. Literally all you have to do is write a story that seriously considers the stories of women and women’s issues. If you want to write a feminist story that goes above and beyond you write something intersectional: consider the stories of women of color and the unique sets of issues they face, or women with disabilities, or women with mental illnesses, or transwomen, etc. It is actually that easy, and though Fury Road didn’t manage to touch on race, disabilities, etc. it did consider the stories of women and it did consider the issues they face in a world which is, ultimately and in terms of society, just a hyper exaggerated version of our own reality. Woo post-apocalyptia!

Fury Road did take into consideration the stories of women. No, the characters of these women weren’t terribly fleshed out, largely as a result of the genre—the focus was on the action, not character, female or otherwise. And no, feminist politics did not take center stage in the movie—it was not propaganda, it was Mad Fucking Max. It did still take women’s stories into consideration, and seriously. Their flight to freedom from an oppressive patriarchy which viewed them as breeders and cows was the heart of the movie, for gods sakes (next to the badass war cars, of course). It also features a very strong female character, Furiosa, who can kick some serious war boy ass and can finish her own battles thank you very much, but who also exhibits emotional range beyond badass. Such as soul-wrenching grief.

That is all very, very cool, but Fury Road does something else that managed to be even more moving to me than all of the female empowerment. It challenged hyper masculinity, painting it for what it is: toxic as fuck.

I’ve read one other article about the ways in which Fury Road challenges action hero masculinity, and I disagreed with the vast majority of it. It is lovely to see a movie in which the lead male hero’s journey consists largely of working his way from feral to viable human being through rediscovering simple mechanisms of human communication and thus relationships. And it is lovely to see the Max saving Furiosa not by saving her from battle, finishing her fight or by killing the bad guy, but rather by taking the role of a caregiver. Nonetheless, I don’t think Max was the primary vehicle through which notions of action hero masculinity (read: hyper masculinity, ideas falling in line with the ideal of masculinity as domineering, aggressive, and emotionally shallow). Rather it is the war boy Nux who does this.

Where Max was a stranger to the hyper masculine, oppressive patriarchy of Immortan Joe’s Citadel, Nux was raised in it. He was raised on the belief that, as a male member of this society, his primary role was a fighter. Not only this, but he genuinely believed that the highest value he could have would be to die in glorious battle, Viking style (he would even get to go to blessed Valhalla). He didn’t see himself or others as whole human beings. He was not expected to have emotional depth and so he never cultivated it beyond his desire to fight and die in the name of Immortan Joe, so that when if confronted with a powerful emotion (grief and emotional hurt and confusion) he is utterly incapable of processing it.

Thank you, Feminist Mad Max. You make my point so well.

It is in that moment of trying and failing to process his pain and confusion that he is, presumably for the first time, shown true compassion and tenderness by Capable. What must it be, to be treated like a whole, valid and valuable human being for the first time in your life? Fury Road certainly aligns itself with a view of women as emotional and nurturing (though many of them are also bad asses) but it also views men as people who have been deprived of emotion and nurturing by hyper masculinity (a function of patriarchy). Once Nux is shown this compassion, the next step of his journey is to become an acknowledged member of this ragtag team of run-aways and castoffs. From there on out, his every action is motivated by the same compassion and tenderness which he was first shown on the back of Furiosa’s rig—up to an including sacrificing himself to ensure that the women and Max would make it safely back to the Citadel.

In the moment of his sacrifice Nux becomes a hero—not because he killed a bad guy, not because he kicked anyone’s ass (he categorically fails to kick anyone’s ass throughout the entirety of the film and is generally depicted as rather incompetent in battle) but because his genuine caring for these people motivates his self-sacrifice for the sake of their survival. No longer does he wish to die and enter through the gates of Valhalla—he only wants his friends, dare I say family, to survive and go on to thrive.

In this way it is Nux who most poignantly challenges the hyper masculinity that is so often idealized in action movies. Coming out of a society which hinges itself on hyper masculinity, he sees through the guise of its figurehead and sees the system for what it is: a whole lot of really awful bullshit that survives on the sacrifice people’s lives and humanity. When shown an alternative path—one motivated by compassion—he embraces it whole-heartedly and ultimately choses to sacrifice himself to see the people he loves successfully make it to the end of that path. And Nux’s death gets me every time—right here in my feelers. I’m talking tears, guys. I cried in Mad Max. I am at peace with who I am.

So, to me, Fury Road isn’t only an example of how a movie whose motivation is primarily entertainment can also tell a good story in line with feminist values. It is an example of how good feminist stories aren’t only about empowering women through their wit and strength. They can, and I think should, also empower men to see compassion, willingness to hand over the wheel (or the sniper rifle), and emotional vulnerability as strong and legitimate and viable ways to be men. As a feminist I firmly believe it is not only my job to support my fellow women, but it is my job to support men, too. Society has just as much of a strangle hold on men as it does women—that strangle hold just looks very, very different, and I think Fury Road did a decent job of not only showing this but challenging it by giving us a hero whose heroic action isn’t to fight, but to care.

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