Tag Archives: George Miller

Mad Max and the Bechdel Test: Gender Equality’s 65th Percentile

One matter regarding Mad Max: Fury Road has irritated me since the “Men’s Rights Advocates” first complained about it, all the way back when the trailer was first released. Stanley alluded to it in his second take on the movie. The shallowness of the Bechdel Test is clearly not lost on Stan, but the political ramifications of what, in my mind, is a “the only way to win is not to play” proposition, unnerve me. I’m a few months removed from having seen the film a couple of weeks after it came out, but fortunately for me the matter in question and its relationship with the movie is not particularly nuanced.

From its promotion and unrelentingly after its release, the aforementioned men’s rights advocates have railed against the purported politics of a two hour-long movie which, by my estimations, has between one and one-half minutes of combined dialogue. This started when the first trailer came out, because low-hanging fruit is low-hanging.

Discussion of the film’s feminism belie just how asymmetrical the debate of gender equality has become. For decades, the female audience has been increasingly sought by purveyors of action and carnage, and merely passing the Bechdel Test isn’t an indication, even remotely, of a film’s “feminism,” let alone even a semblance of equality. That literally every film that doesn’t have a contrivance for excluding women from the cast entirely (i.e., military and prison movies, movies about the U.S. legislative branch) or an inordinately small number of speaking parts (for instance, Cube, although that decisively passes the Bechdel Test) can’t pass the Bechdel Test is a reflection of the disastrous discussion in the United States about gender equality, which is as continuously muddled with non-factors and red herrings as similar discussions on racial and LBGT equality.

Feminism can be read into Fury Road. Someone might think: “Oh, hey, the women in this plot aren’t chattel, maybe the director is a feminist.” The women Max encounters have escaped their harem enslavement under the leader of the film’s city, the only real civilization that’s shown in the film. Not only did they escape, they decided to and succeeded all by themselves! Max is more reliant on what they have to offer than vice versa. But this seems less like feminism and more a harem ex machina: a way for the hero to survive an impossible situation and a way for the audience to look at underwear models who are suggestively dousing themselves in water when Max first awakens in their midst.

Charlize Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, is the leader of this group, not a member of the harem but the most decorated… I don’t know, war-driver or something of city’s forces. I bet they have a cool automotive-derived name for whatever she is. She liberates the harem, who are relatively feeble compared to her. She is the classic liberator in film, taking others to safety who cannot take themselves. While they prove capable when the noose is tightening in the film’s climactic sequence, this doesn’t read as anything more than an easy way of putting more action into an action film.

This role could have been Max’s, but Max is the wanderer. Only the first Mad Max was about his breakdown as an individual in a world gone mad. In every movie since, Fury Road included, he’s served largely as a more-capable-than-thou apocalypse-dweller. That oil refinery had gas. He just kind of wanted to get the fuck away from Tina Turner and her Thunderdome. This is not a complex character. The first movie shows you why his life is ruined, the other movies are him going through the instinctive motions in response to the threat of dying. Furiosa’s role as the liberator of the harem means her character must convey some authority and power. None of this reads like the setup for a feminist exploitation car movie. Death Proof, this ain’t. But then, Death Proof wasn’t even anything like what it set out to be.

The women scrawl “WE ARE NOT THINGS” on their cells before escaping, which… what? Is this supposed to convey anything beyond the feeling of anyone locked into any fashion of bondage or its derivative abuse, let alone women referred to in this role as “breeders?” Neither they nor Imperator spend the movie spouting anything about the treatment of women where they were, nor about male/female relations, but simply how they were treated and why they escaped.

Is Fury Road a poignant warning about the dark future that awaits women should society crumble? You could choose to view the movie as this huge, overarching framing device for analyzing gender roles, but you could also call Star Wars a deconstruction of the transference of propaganda themes into popular media, which overlooks that the tropes from propaganda films were in Star Wars because the propaganda in question was meant to look intimidating and that fit the tone Lucas was going for in those shots.

I went to Fury Road intent on shutting off my brain. It’s rare an action movie allows me to do this, but Fury Road did even as I spent the better part of it looking for evidence of its “feminism.” What justification are they giving that I’m not seeing here? Is this all not enough? Isn’t it possible George Miller thought “Hey, this is an action movie, you know what would be better than one person punching people? Two people punching people!” and with Imperator already established in this hypothetical nascent plot outline as a strong character, decided she would be his other people-puncher?

Feminist? Mad Max is barely about anything. Which is not to say it doesn’t have an engrossing and well-groomed world: indeed, the continuity and self-assured authenticity of it is why two hours of almost-constant car chases works. It might actually constitute an art piece comprised of car crashes, but culture is a fickle thing, and at best maybe the children of those fortunate enough to have seen Fury Road will see a time where, during driver’s ed, in full costume, ala Rocky Horror screenings, they get to the documentary that’s all gory car crashes and their aftermaths.


A few days ago, the Atlantic ran “How the Standard for Gender Equality in Culture Became Known as the ‘Bechdel Test.'” The article serves mainly as a setup for a pedestrian “ask a smart person about a trivial element of this topic”-type interview, instead of highlighting the idea that gender equality is “achieved” in media by passing the Bechdel Test. As a social imposition of politics upon art, this is nothing short of a disastrous failure of the societal brain’s cognitive functions. Failing the Bechdel Test, save for the aforementioned contrivances, is not an indication that a movie could “use some work” in the female character department: it’s an indication, a very strong one, that the movie is a fucking disaster, featuring female characters with only one setting: vapid.

Fury Road is also an explicitly feminist movie, with Furiosa and Max joining forces to take down a literal patriarchy.” – VICE, “The New Mad Max Movie is Both Badass and Totally Feminist” (But does anyone in the movie actually say the word “patriarchy?” Or any word that even suggests they know what patriarchy is?)

In the title of this essay I call the Bechdel Test the sixty-fifth percentile of gender equality, but really it’s like the twentieth, or the eighth. Failing the Bechdel Test for most movies is a reflection that they’re attempting to engage women so little they’ve basically resorted to negging. It is hard to say if this reflects individual writers or actors, but as I’ve heard it told, Hollywood filmmaking is about pain-in-the-ass compromise and personal politics even more than actual governmental politics is, and compromise reveals nothing better than the will and the enthusiasm of the culture. Art is the energy of the culture that feeds it, and Hollywood is a lot closer to being the best of the best than it is to being the worst of the worst. The zeitgeist is the zeitgeist because it’s the cumulative present, not an arbitrary collection of modernity always somehow derived from the lowest common denominator because, Oh my god, certainly not, have we really gotten that fat? There must be something wrong with this mirror…

The reality is that the lowly Bechdel Test has become our cultural standard of gender equality in creative media because the culture, one of male privilege in just the same manner as the culture of white privilege to which our society has given much discussion of late, wants it that way. Jackasses are much happier trying to argue you away from a standard so low it may as well have been meant as a joke (oh, wait…) than actually having a pointed debate on specific reasons why a film is “feminist.” Feeding into this Bechdel Test crap is starting healthcare negotiations by revealing you don’t want universal healthcare. It’s a compromise position that frames the context of the real debate in a radically uneven way.

The critique of a film as “feminist” for suggesting, essentially, that women may in fact be people too, is already a victory for misogynists of the world: it frames feminism through the cultural stereotype of equal-rights activists as sex-averse second-wave feminists, the sorts that were either always on the fringe or moved further and further to the fringe before the so-called “sex wars” decisively removed them from general conversation amongst the feminist. They represent feminists as a concept no more than South Park‘s Big Gay Al represents gays and often stake claims to feminism the way people using descriptors like “big R Republican” or “big L Libertarian” stake their claims: increasingly contrived No True Scotsman designations that rely on the grade of their contrivance to disguise just how contrived it is. When opponents of gender equality continuously transmit this trope into the cultural perception, this idea that self-appointed “big F” feminists–largely relics of the past at this point–are the only feminists or have ever represented feminism, it degrades the conversation as a whole. When this presumption is the basis of the debate, you’re already losing.

How do we come to cultivate our standards into these shapes and forms? Haven’t we been complaining about Common Core non-stop since the alliterative, media-friendly moniker was first unleashed on us? There’s something about glass houses and stone-throwing in here, but that’s trying to have an even broader conversation than this one which, as said, is tenuous even in its existence. When you’re arguing with a misogynist and the argument revolves around “feminism” in film, application of the Bechdel Test is a quality of either ignorance or outright dialectic malice on the part of at least one of the conversants. For this, I propose a Second Bechdel Test, three simple rules that can be followed in order to make sure you’ve walked into a rational conversation about feminism and its role in a given work.


1) Be familiar with the Bechdel Test in the first place. Since you’ve gotten this far and I haven’t actually bothered to describe it in the text anywhere above, I’ll assume you’re good on this.

2) If you even have to think about if a movie passes the Bechdel Test, it almost certainly can’t possibly be “feminist.” A movie that has an interest and role for the women of its universe will not come remotely close to straddling the line.

3) Remember that the beauty of arguing for equality is the sheer simplicity of the argument you need to make: everything should be the same for everybody, “everybody” depending on the sort of specific equality you’re going after. As such: if a male character in the place of a female character did the thing that caused the female character to be labeled “feminist,” would he be labeled feminist? Characters voting in movies that take place before suffrage do not count.

There is, of course, an important zeroth rule meant to serve as an indicator that a film is feminist: it knows that feminism is an equality movement, not a supremacy movement, and talks about it in a positive light and/or advocates for feminism.

Now, weary travelers: Ride to Valhalla, shiny and chrome!

A Second Look at Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Earlier this year, I watched Mad Max: Fury Road, mainly because everybody else was. I wanted to see what all the hype was about. I came away distinctly underwhelmed. I also wrote a review that, in retrospect, is also quite underwhelming. I clearly didn’t get it.

At the same time, writers I admire were singing its praises. Freddie deBoer, for example, called it “a character-driven, intelligent, action-packed, well-developed, romantic, genuinely epic blockbuster film that doesn’t insult its audience or play down to low expectations, a story with high dramatic stakes that are fully earned and an ending that is deeply satisfying and ultimately positive, achieved with real sacrifice.” Chauncey DeVega almost broke his leg getting to the movie theater. He still came away thinking that it was “more amazing and wonderful than even the commercials hinted at.”

So I decided to give Mad Max: Fury Road a second look. The opening, where Max is kidnapped and turned into a living “blood bag” by Immortan Joe’s greatly impressed me. When I saw Imperator Furiosa I began to feel stupid. Charlize Theron is an excellent actress who projects the right combination of strength and vulnerability to make her an almost perfect female action hero. When the film got to the point where Max decides to form an alliance with Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s “breeders,” I was ready to admit I had been wrong, that Mad Max: Fury Road is a legitimately great movie.

But then I looked at the time. There was over an hour left to go. As I watched car chase after car chase, my opinion of the film went down. I also began to zone out. I just couldn’t stay with it. My fingers began to wander along with my mind. I checked out the traffic on my blog, got into a debate on Twitter about the Civilian Conservation Corps, and looked up some of the characters on Wikipedia. I thought the tall blond, “breeder” looked familiar. It was Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, the Victoria’s Secret model. In my first review, I had called the breeders “a multi-racial harem of underwear models.” I was right. One of them actually was an underwear model. More importantly, they were all wearing underwear. By the end of Mad Max: Fury Road, I had lost the plot entirely. I know that Furiosa kills Immortan Joe. Then she, Max, and the breeders bring back his corpse to the citadel at skull mountain, where they let his slaves know they’re all free. Max and Furiosa exchange soulful glances before he disappears into the crowd, but I still felt confused and unsatisfied. Intellectually, I understood Mad Max: Fury Road. Emotionally, it left me cold.

In the end, I came to the same conclusion I did in my first review. Mad Max: Fury Road was a good idea ruined by lousy execution. So why did Chauncey DeVega and Freddie deBoer like it so much? Both of them are smart, independent thinkers unlikely to write glowing reviews about a bad movie simply to go along with the crowd. It’s not often that I’m so bored by a movie everybody else rates as one of the ten best films of the year. A gap in perception this wide is a gift that shouldn’t be passed over lightly. Thinking about it lets you ask questions like “what is the purpose of mass culture? Who watches big-budget action movies and why? Can a fundamentally reactionary art form like the Hollywood blockbuster be enlisted in the service of a progressive cause like feminism?”

Mad Max: Fury Road was made with a budget of $150 million. That kind of money allows a director like George Miller to spend a lot of money on set design, stunt people, car chases that don’t depend on cgi, and to hire a good cast of A-list actors like Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. But it also comes with a price. Anybody who can secure $150 million in funding for a film has to come up with a marketing strategy. My guess is that George Miller came to his investors with a plan that looked something like this. Even though Mad Max: Fury Road will be completely different from the The Mad Max franchise that enjoyed great success in the 1980s — The original Mad Max cost about $350,000 and made over $100 million — it’s worth keeping the name “Mad Max.” That will bring in both middle-aged men, who remember the film from their childhood, and their kids, who grew up listening to their parents talk about it. Mel Gibson is far too old to play Max Rockatansky, but Tom Hardy, who is a geek superstar by virtue of his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is, at 35, just about the right age.

Mad Max: Fury Road has car chases, explosions, women in lingerie, and a character that looked a bit like he belonged on the cover of an Iron Maiden album. It has a strong female heroine, and a feminist message. In other words, the script has something for everybody. It could also be fine tuned to let it be marketed on the Internet. It worked better than George Miller, or anybody, could have expected. First of all, some of the very men the car chases and underwear models were supposed to appeal to rebelled. MRAs (Mens Rights Activists) hated Mad Max: Fury Road so much they mounted a campaign against it on social media. None of that, of course, would stop men from seeing a big-budget, widely distributed film that was in every multiplex and discussed on every Facebook page. What’s more, Charlize Theron’s strong performance as an action heroine resonated with women, especially with with younger women in their 20s who grew up with a geek culture that often excluded them. For left-wing men in their 30s like Freddie deBoer and Chauncey DeVega Mad Max:Fury Road was a dream come true. DeBoer, a frequent critic of identity politics, and often labeled a “brocialist” by his political opponents, had found a feminist movie he could love with all his heart. DeVega, in turn, is a black Democrat who despises the white supremacist politics at the heart of the Men’s Rights Movement. He’s also a long time aficionado of geek culture, of professional wrestling and action movies. Mad Max:Fury Road was a very successful, lavishly funded production within a genre he had been following for years that pissed off racist assholes he hated.

None of this, however, explains why I didn’t like it. What are the reasons? Is it because I’m a sexist? That’s possible, but my being a sexist didn’t stop me from enjoying a low-budget feminist classic like Born in Flames or a newer feminist movies Australian desert, like Tracks, which was also, interestingly enough, set in the Australian desert. Is it that I’ve simply never been a fan of geek culture, of comic books, graphic novels, and action movies, all of which Mad Max: Fury Road draws from. That probably hits closer to home. Mad Max hit home with DeVega and deBoer partly, I think, because it was a radical departure from the post-1980s action film. They could appreciate a film that broke the rules of the genre because they knew the rules of the genre. By contrast, I compared Mad Max: Fury Road to classic action films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear or Howard Hawk’s Only Angels Have Wings. For me, Mad Max: Fury Road broke rules I consider essential for a good movie. There was, for example, no sense of physical vulnerability. People fall off trucks traveling at 100-mph and don’t break their necks. Pale skinned women like Rosie Huntington-Whiteley wander around in the middle of the Australian desert and don’t get sunburned. Max Rockatansky gets strapped to the front fender of a hot road as a living “blood bag” and yet still seems as strong as an Olympic athlete after he escapes. There’s a shortage of food and water. Yet Immortan Joe’s “war boys” seem almost as invulnerable as human cockroaches. Compared to the scenes in Wages of Fear where Charles Vanel gets trapped in a puddle of oil beneath a moving truck it all seemed vaguely cartoonish. But that was also the point. Mad Max: Fury Road was marketed to fans of graphic novels, not Henri-Georges Clouzot movies.

I also think there’s one other reason why I couldn’t enjoy Mad Max: Fury Road. In his pod cast, Chauncey DeVega talks about going to see a film as a “communal experience.” The fact that he almost broke his leg on the way to the theater probably made the bump and grind of a cinematic car chase that much more realistic. By contrast, I usually watch movies at home on my Dell 24” monitor. Streaming a movie off of Amazon can’t quite compete with seeing it at the multiplex. The small screen privileges narrative over action, quiet moments over car crashes and explosions. Part of the fun of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road on the big screen in the middle of a crowd of drunken frat boys was probably seeing so much loud, aggressive male energy subverted by a feminist screenplay. Film makers rarely spend $150 million to put their movie on a computer screen. If I didn’t understand what all the fuss about Mad Max: Fury Road was, then it may simply be that I was looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Next time, I’ll just have to turn it around.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is not only an homage to the original series, it’s also a clever feminist deconstruction of one of the most reactionary films of the 1980s, the openly fascist Conan the Barbarian.

If John Milius imagines Conan as the white muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Aryan avenger who restores a proper racial order by killing the black cult leader Thulsa Doom, then George Miller flips the script. The Temple of Set has become the Handmaiden’s Tale. Thulsa Doom has become Immortan Joe, a strange man who looks like he belongs on the cover of an Iron Maiden album. Thulsa Doom had a gaggle of brainwashed, white teenage girls. He occasionally orders one of them to kill herself just for kicks. Immortan Joe keeps a multi-racial harem of underwear models imprisoned under a skull symbol, a clear reference to the horrible American Sniper, but he uses them as brood mares. Surely it’s not much of a stretch to see him as a symbol of the anti-abortion movement. He also hordes all the water and the food. He’s a neoliberal tyrant for a neoliberal wasteland. His army resembles a group of Neo Nazi skinheads. Their promised reward? A one way trip to Valhala.

Conan the Barbarian did feature a strong woman, Valerien, played by Sandahl Bergman, who does save the hero’s life, but she’s a sidekick, not the heroine. What’s more, Conan does attempt to inspire an uprising of Thulsa Doom’s white concunbines. The kidnapped princess is tied to a stake, brainwashed, and plays no part in her own rescue. In Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, Max Rockatansky, and Imperator Furiosa not only work as a team — Charlize Theron resting her sniper rifles on Tom Hardy’s shoulder is indeed a striking image — they lead a group of rebels on a long march to a promised land. After the “Green Place” proves to be as much of a barren wasteland as the rest of their world, they return to Immortan Joe’s citidal, and, with the help of a ferocious group of old women called the Vulvalini, kill him Joe and liberate his slaves. Max helps restore the badly wounded Furiosa with his own blood. Mad Max: Fury Road, in other words, is a socialist feminist movie with a radical left-wing agenda that deserves all the praise it’s getting on soical media.

So why didn’t I like it?

Alas, as well-acted as Mad Max: Fury Road is, as much as I liked its politics, the film’s pacing is terrible. Fascist asshole though he was, John Milius at least knew how to stage an entertaining spectacle. After an illustrious career that included the original Mad Max, George Miller seems to have forgotten. The whole film is really just a long car chase with little or no dialogue or character development. What’s more, from the very first frame, Mad Max: Fury Road turns the volume up to eleven. Try to imagine the 1812 Overture cut down to the last 5 minutes, then repeated 20 times over the next two hours, or the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan bulked up into the whole movie. There can be too much of a good thing. After awhile, it just gets boring. I fell asleep twice before the whole thing was finally over. I did root for Max and Furiosa to escape, kill Immortan Joe, and restore the world’s balance, but it was my brain, not my heart that cheered them on. I wanted them to win, not because I liked them, or identified with them, but because I had read enough rave reviews on social media to know what they were supposed to represent.

It is possible, even likely, that as a 50-year-old man who prefers Mozart to heavy metal and Preston Sturges to video games, I’m simply not among the film’s targeted demographic. For people who grew up with iPhones and Grand Theft Auto, comic books, graphic novels, books, and a constant barrage of super hero movies, the pacing and the plot probably work just fine. I might be an old man who just doesn’t get it. I suppose I’ll run a test and watch it a second time, just to see if my expectations of a more traditional plot that never materialized short circuited my enjoyment of the film’s action, but, to be honest, if it weren’t for all the astroturfed publicity on social media, I’d probably just forget about it. I suspect that when all the hype dies down, Mad Max: Fury Road will be revealed as a good idea ruined by lousy execution.