Mad Max: Women and Civilization

In Part One of my critique of the Mad Max franchise I talked about the use of the Triple Goddess Myth from Pagan folklore in the movie’s narratives. In this post, I’m going  to tie the Triple Goddess mythology to the idea of women as literally the  keepers/ carriers  of human civilization, throughout the entire franchise.

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For some reason, people see the social messages of Mad Max Fury Road as either a fluke, or some sort of SJW plot. This is not the case. George Miller has always referenced women in his movies in ways that made statements not just about their humanity, but their role in the creation of a civilized world. Miller’s feminist sensibilities are  not new, and his movies have always been about people losing their humanity at the end of the world, and then  regaining their humanity (and civilization) through cooperation. These ideas are usually represented through women. Except for the first movie, all of Miller’s films end with a new beginning for civilization to reassert itself.

In most of the Mad Max films, it is women who hold the keys to restarting civilization. Even  in the first Mad Max movie, women are depicted as the last bastion of stability, before mankind’s descent into the  barbarism, rape, and pillaging, represented by men. This premise is made more explicit in  The Road Warrior, and Thunderdome, and clearly stated in Fury Road, as if the other movies had been leading up to the message of Fury Road.

In Mad Max, civilization has not yet been destroyed, and Max’s boss tries to talk him into staying on the police force, after his partner is brutally murdered by  members of a biker gang. Max’s excuse for quitting is that he wants to hold on to the last shreds of his sanity, and can only do so by leaving the force to spend time with his wife and child. This implies that it is parenthood and marriage that are the holders of Max’s sanity, (not the  law and order he represents), and after their loss at the hands of the same biker gang that killed his partner, Max does indeed go mad. The message here is that his wife Jessie, and their child Sprog, were Max’s emotional anchors, after which, just like society itself, he  descends into insanity and violence, as he kills the gang in a murderous spree. The loss of his wife and child  represents of the total loss of civilization, so it isn’t just Max who descends into barbarity, but all of society.

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By the release of The Road Warrior,  all men have gone mad, and it is their madness that has made the world a funhouse mirror, where the Triple Goddess myth has been twisted and corrupted. because the women of this world have had to adopt to new roles to survive it in it.  In each of Miller’s films, the lack of civilization is represented by men behaving badly, as it  is primarily men who are rampaging through towns, raping random strangers, and killing and stealing at will. The men of this universe are a force of destruction and entropy. This is an idea explicitly stated in Fury Road, when Immortan’s wives ask the question,”Who killed the world?!” The answer, of course, is…

The first movie is setup for the next three films, where we see the world attempting to recover from the madness inflicted on it by men. Society is held and remembered by the women of these films, who are attempting to rebuild it,  in fits and starts, while being harried by the men.

In The Road Warrior, there are three women of note. I discussed this in my post about the use of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone archetypes of the Wiccan belief system, in Miller’s movies. The women are not  the genesis of civilization, at this time, because they are still in the process of survival, but they are tied to that concept by their roles in the film. One of the nameless women is a warrior, a corrupted Mother, who in this world is not wise and nurturing, but traffics in violence, and she dies by violence, just like the Vuvulini from Fury Road. There is the equally nameless Maiden, who is  a symbol of new beginnings, who finds love, and  rides off into the sunset with the new leader of the compound, and there is the nameless Crone, rendered irrelevant, as her counsel is not heeded as it is sure to get them all killed.

The Road Warrior is also a story told in flashback, from a future world of safety and stability by the “Feral Child”, the wild, orphaned, boy that Max encounters in the wastes. It is a future that can only occur because of Max’s actions and the presence of the two women.

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Thunderdome is, next to Fury Road, Miller’s most explicit message that women are the holders of civilization. Aunty Entity, (this is the Crone motif again), played by Tina Turner, is the leader and chieftain of Bartertown. In her backstory, she says she was a nobody without power, but after the world ended, she somehow managed to scratch a town out of the desert. She is a maker of civilization, or at the very least, the foundation of it, as this is not unlike how actual civilization began. She  hopes to rebuild society as it once was. But it is not to be, as her attitude isn’t any different from the old one that caused the world’s destruction. Bartertown is ultimately destroyed by her greed, her ego, and her inability to share leadership with her male counterpart, Master Blaster, and also perhaps because that is not the direction in which a future society should go. She cannot begin a new society because she is too beholden to the old one.

It is interesting to note that none of the people in Thuunderdome are  outright villains,  as was depicted in Road Warrior (and even in that movie the bad guys were capable of love and reason, ulike the villains of the first movie, or the ones in Fury Road). The bad guys and women are  deeply flawed individuals, who survive to the end of the movie. Aunty Entity is not a bad woman, but a regular woman who does bad things, due to the flaws in her character.. This is also true of Master Blaster, as it is his urge to put Aunty in her place as subordinate to him is what prompts their feud. Master Blaster seeks to assert his authority against a woman that he thinks disdains him, while Aunty refuses to be cowled by him. It is their inability to find common ground, to treat each other as equals, or  share leadership, that destroys Bartertown. These are the same attitudes that destroyed civilization.

Once again, in Thunderdome, we have the Triple Goddess figures at odds with each other. It is Savannah’s belief that civilization still exists, called Tomorrow-Morrow Land, that motivates the secondary plot of the film, and sets her on a collision course with the other female leader, Aunty Entity. All of the primary roles in this movie, the characters who set the plot in motion, are either marginalized men, like Master Blaster, (a team up between a mentally disabled young man, and an older man with a physical disability), or women and girls. At the end of the movie, we see that Savannah has become the the leader of a new society being built amid the ruins of the old. Civilization no longer exists, so Savannah, like Aunty will have to make it herself. However, unlike Aunty, she is successful, as once again, the movie is told in flashback, from a more prosperous future.

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The Triple Goddess motif plays out again in Fury Road. Immortan’s wives are the holders of civilization, as they are the only members of Immortan Joe’s society that are educated, so they are the ones who know the real history of the world,  unlike the Warboys  who only know the world by  what has been passed down to them by word of mouth. The wives espouse the philosophies they learned from  the books they’ve read, that is distinctly anti-consumerist: that people are not things to be used. They hold within them the memories of civilization, while  the Vuvulini carry the seeds of it, which are later passed to the wives, as the Vuvulini, murderous crones all,  are too corrupt, (too much a part of the old world), to play a role in any new beginning. The wives have remained pure in their compassion, and have knowledge of the mistakes of the past. Unlike the Vuvulini, they  have grown up in the aftermath of the old world, and were not a part of its fall. Like the maidens in the other two movies, they get to be the ones to rebuild.

After the release of Fury Road, I saw plenty of complaints about what a shame it was that Max was sidelined in his own movie. This isn’t new either. Except for the first film, which is meant to establish  his character, Max has always played a peripheral role in his own movies. By the time of the making of Fury Road, we are to understand that Max himself is  but an archetype. A myth. He is  a legendary figure told in the stories of the civilization that came after, as  all of these movies are flashbacks from that time,  and he may or may not be a real person. Of the three movies that hold this theme Fury road is the only one told in present time.

In Fury Road  the wives ask Nux, “Who killed the world?” the answer of course is men. Men killed civilization, and most of the men in these movies are the embodiment of all that is destroying civilization,  greed, and consumption, and hoarding. But these movies are not just a rebuke of male authoritarianism, although in neither Mad Max nor The Road Warrior, are women part of any of the anarchic pillagers traveling the wastelands, each film contains  the possibility for redemption for any man who rejects the rampantly and consumerist lifestyle being led by the other men in the film.

The overall message of all the Mad Max films is that when men and women work together, society flourishes, and when they don’t, when women are not accepted as equals, or treated as consumables, society devolves. In The Road Warrior, the women of the compound, the counselor, and the warrior woman in particular, are treated as equals. They are allowed to speak, be heard, and make their own decisions regarding how to survive in the wastes.

In Thunderdome, Master Blaster is so intent on getting Aunty to submit to his authority, (because he believes she disdains him because of his disability), that it forces her hand. They are both people from marginalized groups, who should come together to create a new society but they do not. Instead, a disabled man, and a Black woman, fight over who gets to be in charge. Their inability to treat each other as equals,  results in Bartertown’s destruction.

And in Fury Road, Max and Furiosa  learn to accept each other as equals, and trust in each other’s strengths,  to survive Immortan Joe’s army. Once again you have two marginalized individuals, the mentally unstable Max, and the disabled Furiosa, but unlike in Thunderdome, the two of them manage to reach an accord where they work together, and respect one another, resulting in the survival of the group.

Along for the ride, and equally important, is the Warboy, Nux, who has one of the strongest redemption arcs in the movie. In each movie we get to see at least one other male character’s atonement. The overall message is not that men are so flawed they can never find redemption, but that only by giving up toxic forms of masculinity, and working together with women as equals, can they achieve anything close to it.

In The Road Warrior, the gryocopter man gets a redemption arc, too. At the beginning of the film, he tried to rob Max, was captured by him, and ended up in the compound.  This only occurred because Max chose not to kill him in retaliation. Later, because Max chose not to kill him, the gyrocopter man is then in a position to save Max’s life.This is another one of several threads in common between all the films. Max’s compassion prompts him to spare the life of another, which results not just  in the redemption of that character, but sometimes Max’s salvation, at a later moment in the film.

In Thunderdome he spares the life of Master Blaster, having been manipulated into a deathmatch against them by Aunty Entity. When Max discovers that Blaster is just a  mentally disabled manchild, he spares his life, but  is exiled to the desert for his choice. Max saving the life of Master Blaster  eventually saves everyone’s lives, as it provides an opportunity for him, the children from Crack in the Earth, and Master  to escape Aunty’s wrath after  destroying Bartertown.

In Fury Road, this redemption character is Nux. Max had the opportunity to kill him twice, and each time chose to spare him. If  Max not done saved him, Nux wouldn’t have been in a position  to meet the wives, or sacrifice his life to save the them later. Through both Max, the wives, and Furiosa, Nux is given the opportunity to reject Immortan Joe’s philosophy of rampant consumerism,  and adopt a new one, that of respect cooperation, love, and friendship, something he had never known among the Warboys. At the beginning of the movie, his only goal is to die in service to Joe, but he eventually dies in service to something far greater than Joe, because of experiences he never dreamed he would have, like Capable’s love.

Immortan’s wives treat each other, and Furiosa, with care and respect, work together to achieve their goals, and the Vuvulini fight and die, to protect each other, and the group. This is the definition of civilization, disparate groups of human beings working towards the goals of social progress and enlightenment. Across the Mad Max franchise, George Miller has placed the burden of this endeavor squarely in the hands of women.

In the films of Mad Max, women may not rule the wasteland, but they are its ultimate destruction.

 

*In the third part of my critical look at the Mad Max movies, we’ll  talk about The Promised Land myth that is used throughout the franchise. 

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