“Wait, my son – no respect for this, my child? The breast you held, drowsing away the hours, soft gums tugging the milk that made you grow?” -Aeschylus’ Oresteia, first performed in 458 BCE
In the fatal hour of a giddying high speed race, through skies afire and scorching wastelands, The Splendid Angharad is killed. Flung out of the racing vehicle and thrown under the wheels, she was the heavily pregnant ‘favourite wife’ of tyrant Immortan Joe. As Angharad takes her last breath, the child is cut from her and declared dead. Concerned only with the sex of the baby, Joe is informed that he has lost a boy. Much rage ensues at a son being stolen from him; his patriarchal lineage has been stamped out. The umbilical cord is savagely bitten off.
I was eager to see Mad Max 4, especially after viewing the fabulous trailer released so many months ago. When I heard that the MRA were annoyed by the films ‘feminist tricks’, I must admit that I was curious and amused. Despite that, I held no high-hopes. The debate over whether Mad Max: Fury Road was a ‘true’ feminist film seemed impossible to determine. There is no perfect feminist film, much like there is no perfect feminist art, literature, or even person. We are all flawed, and we are all products of this society. The film undeniably perpetuates the prevailing and tired patriarchal tropes, whilst also simultaneously offering innovation and hope. Mad Max is an action film, and action is a genre that traditionally kills off, ignores, and objectifies women. It is a genre that measures strength in hyper-masculine ideals of brutality and violent force. This hasn’t changed simply because of subversion, because a woman has been allowed to step into the conventionally male protagonist’s sandy boots, or because rape victims can now rescue themselves (or, more correctly, as usual, be rescued by someone else, even a woman.) Mad Max 4 still employs an unapologetic male gaze; and though it contains many female characters, they are mostly comprised of barely-speaking models in underwear who miraculously manage regular lingerie-changes in the apocalyptic desert whilst fighting for their lives. The film doesn’t restore a balance, nor does it speak perfectly for feminism. However, it breaks the genre open and allows for new, parallel stories to germinate. This story is one of an eternal returning, of inclusion and a common connection: one that I would argue is a remembrance of the maternal relationship, of her body and the urgent call of her agency.
Not all of us are, or will be mothers, but we all share an origin; our maternal roots. The aftermath of conquerors born of matricide and trading only in death and reckless exploitation is an inevitable collapse in civilisation. Aeschylus also noted that “ancient violence longs to breed, new violence comes…” This dystopia is where Mad Max begins. He narrates from an arid land, hell-bent on existence while struggling to barely survive. He emerges as the archetypal hero against evil who has proliferated in blockbuster action films with little variation. Typically, the hero (singular) is the hyper-masculine ideal fantasy, reflecting a cultural tradition of tapping into the speculum of the same until the flow is so concentrated as to poison itself. Time and again, action films have turned back to salute in this ongoing hallway of mirrors. The hero of the single-syllabled-name doesn’t need women, in fact, his mother should be dead, and usually the mother of his child should be, too. They would only get in the way. Instead, he should be fiercely independent (except for his dreams of the silent muse who died to inspire his hunger for retribution, of course), and he angrily uses his master’s tools to dismantle, disembowel, and destroy his master’s house, and the remaining life along with it. Max is as thirsty for change as the people who he is soon captured by. These are a population ruled by the vicious Immortan Joe, who controls their water supply. Joe is the figurehead of patriarchal institution and environmental exploitation, controlling life-giving elements in the name of his structures. Max is captured, chained and tubed up by the War Boys of Immortan Joe’s personal army, and used as a human blood bag. This state of stolen transfusion is quite a confronting comparison to the barriers of bodily autonomy too often imposed onto women – especially women carrying unwanted pregnancies. Even in Australia today, abortion is technically illegal in most states. It is considered a crime for women and doctors in both Queensland and NSW, with the loophole of doctor’s discretion in terms of offering abortions to those who risk life-threatening psychological or psychological repercussions. It isn’t only the women of the Citadel who would be enslaved as birthing vessels and milk givers…
Enter Imperator Furiosa, trusted driver of the War Rig. She is expected to collect oil, but secretly planning to smuggle out Angharad, Capable, Cheedo, Toast, and the Dag; the five captive wives who were previously enslaved as Joe’s ‘breeders’. They have left graffiti around the Citadel asking “who killed the world?” and asserting that “we are not things”. Furiosa fiercely led them, forging a path that could offer death or paradise, but either way they would find themselves free. These escapees are all worn down, tired, and afraid, but they show themselves to be capable of unimaginable strength, resilience, and bravery. When Furiosa drives a perilous, bloody road back to the place of her birth, she is resituating herself and her place as daughter of a mother, as a participant in the story. She is practising what Adrienne rich called a re-vision, where the only hope lies in courageously tracing the umbilical cord back to the origins, re-entering her story and reclaiming it as her own. Her vessel is headed for the source; the lush birthplace of her clan, and of the maternal origin that Western Culture, with all of its accoutrements, has battled to forget. Our culture has feared it so much that the usurping of the maternal has become the foundation of patriarchal culture; fiercely upheld in religion, literature, drama, and politics. We have been taught to fear becoming our mothers, and instead to uphold the vision of our fathers. To truly be free, we were shown that we must cringe, strain, and gnaw at our umbilical connections. Identity is threatened by the strong bond with the mother, and we celebrate independent detachment by renouncing her, instead. We kill our mothers in all of our oldest stories, and from Ancient Greek epic to the most recent Mad Max. These connections initially sear, deplete, and weigh down Max, in his memory of a family he could not save, and in the chains that attach him to those who seek to draw strength from his blood. Max was forced to carry deadweight in the form of his capturer who was chained to him, without immediately understanding the value of the connection. Later, that deadweight would redeem himself as not just a sick War Boy, but loveable Nux, who would help them escape the clutches of Joe. Max interrupts Furiosa, looking to thieve her war rig, but he soon finds that he must work with her in order it move at all. There is a middle ground between arrogant independence and a dangerous mergence of selves, and they must find it. Max eventually aids in the plans that Furiosa has made, and they negotiate intersubjective gifts, much like a mother’s body does with a child. It is only later, after recognising the value of their connections, that Max freely offers to transfuse his life blood to a critically injured Furiosa, rather than making his usual offering to death. Max discovered that blood must be freely given.
Ultimately, Furiosa did not discover her mother. The women of her clan, the Vuvalini, informed her that she had already died. Much as we cannot undo what has been done so far, the matricide as old as Orestes and Clytaemnestra has been committed even in this film, but we no longer need to tell stories only about fathers and their sons. A richer, more complete story allows us to all celebrate both the strengths and weaknesses that shape us, and weave our futures from our mothers’ gifts. Furiosa and her clan of rebels were tempted to, but ultimately decided against spending the last of their resources on risking a new life that would be separate from those who had abused and exploited them. They chose instead to return to the Citadel, a culture built on the shoulders of their exploitation and slavery, where their capture began, and contribute to the building of something new for everyone. Voluptuous women who were once used for their milk unleashed a flow of water for all, celebrating in generosity and nourishment. Mad Max: Fury road invites us to cast a new eye over that which we have inherited. Fighting and abandoning our own Citadels will not lead us to positive change. We are called to a common cause- that of constructive projects rather than destructive ones. Constructive art like this celebrates connections between people, rather than ripping them apart. Much like Mad Max finally figures out that he can share his blood, if he consents to it, we are all asked to carry on from our maternal ties, and give our blood to each other. The engendering mother is our common source of life, and perhaps, as Furiosa searched for, our only redemption.