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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!