Monday, September 21, 2015

Masculinity Monday: How To Be A Man with 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

I'm guessing that by now you guys have caught on to the fact that I really really really like Mad Max: Fury Road. Maybe you were tipped off by that article I wrote about it where I basically drooled over how good it is. Or perhaps you caught on when I kept reblogging fanart of Furiosa on tumblr for the last four months. Maybe you just heard my subsonic screeching every time I went back into the theater to watch it again. Any way you dice it, I figure it's no secret now that I adore this movie. It's amazing. It's right up there with Pacific Rim and Captain America: The Winter Soldier in movies that I honestly can't get enough of.

So, obviously we're going to talk about it some more. That's how this works.

As luck would have it, I noticed last week that my local cinema here in Massachusetts was actually still showing the movie. Thrilled and a little giddy, I persuaded my mother that this is a movie she absolutely must see on the big screen and so we actually went to go see it last week (this was my fifth time watching it in theaters because I am obsessives sometimes). 

Afterwards we went out for dinner, and over the meal, as we were talking through the film it occurred to me that Mad Max: Fury Road isn't just a really amazing examination of feminist rage and rape culture and the fight for female bodily autonomy, it's also a really important movie about men. So that's what we're going to talk about today.

Now, there's no real effort involved in explaining how Mad Max: Fury Road works as a representation of negative male role models. The Immortan Joe, the War Boys, the whole flawed system at Citadel and the Bullet Farm and Gas Town is its own screed on the dangers of toxic masculinity. Immortan Joe keeps his followers in line by feeding them a bastardization of hero worship and pseudo-religiosity, these cultish ideas that war is fun and the best way to die is fighting the enemy... 

It's not difficult at all to see how harmful this is. I mean, the War Boys are literally dying to get the attention of this old white guy who barely knows they exist and uses them as battle fodder.

Everything about life in the Citadel is toxic. From the way that Joe controls resources to create a false dependence and a hierarchical society with himself at the top, contriving a water shortage so that everyone will obey him, to the dehumanization of anyone whose body can be used to produce something. War Boys are good for being human shields, Milking Mothers produce breast milk which is food and nutrition, the Breeders/Wives produce healthy human babies, and ferals like Max produce healthy human blood. They're not people, they're things in this society. Livestock.

Like I said, it's not hard to see why this is bad.

The really interesting thing that Mad Max: Fury Road does, then, is not telling us why Immortan Joe and his society is bad for men, it's showing us how men can partner with strong women to create a new and different society that doesn't have any of these problems. The best part of Mad Max: Fury Road's exploration of masculinity is Max himself. His journey from committed loner to valued and respected member of the group is an examination of how men can help create safe spaces. And it's basically a picture of what a strong man, a real strong man looks like.

Granted, Max starts off the movie being completely and totally crazy. So we'll just skip forward to the middle of the film or so when Max is now invested in helping the women escape and has become a part of the team. How does Max display an incredibly healthy version of masculinity?

First, he listens. Max doesn't tell these women who they are or what they've experienced. At first he doesn't really care, but as the film goes on, one of the most powerful things he does is just listen to them. He asks Furiosa questions and when she answers them, he believes her. Max spends a huge part of the movie just listening to everyone else. Soaking it all in. Because Tom Hardy is such an amazing actor we can really see Max processing all of this, but it's not external. Max neither demands that Furiosa explain herself nor disrespects her when she shares her experiences. He just listens.

Second, Max defers to others' expertise. When Furiosa proves herself to know more about getting away from Joe than he does, he lets her be in charge. When Nux turns up and they realize that he's good at engine repairs, Max immediately lets him take that over. It's not that Max is insecure or uncomfortable in his own abilities or anything. Quite the opposite. Max knows exactly what he can do, and so he feels no shame in letting other people do the things they're good at freely.

Probably the best example of this - and one of my all time favorite scenes - is when they're out on the mud flats at night and they've only got three shots to get rid of the Bullet Farmer's searchlight as he comes after them. Max wastes two shots and misses with both of them before Furiosa comes up and wordlessly stands behind him. With just a moment of hesitation, and not a word spoken on either side, Max hands her the gun and even lets her use his shoulder as a rifle stand so that she can aim and shoot. This is a guy who not an hour before in the movie was literally biting people. He trusts her so much that she can shoot a gun an inch away from his ear and he'll sit there to let her do it. Why?

Because Max trusts her. And because Max knows that she's the better shot. His pride isn't getting in the way. He knows she can do it so he helps her do it. That is healthy masculinity. Seriously.

There's no posturing or angling for position. When the group goes from Max and six women to Max and Nux and five women, Max doesn't feel any need to show his dominance over Nux. He does nothing of the sort. He doesn't force Nux to prove himself, he doesn't posture, he doesn't argue, but he doesn't ignore Nux either. He just looks at Nux, looks at Furiosa, figures the kid is there to help, and lets him do it.

Before you go on, I just want us all to stop for a second and appreciate this character development for the rare beautiful flower it actually is. I watch a lot of movies for you guys. A ridiculous, obscene number of movies. And I can count on one hand the number of action films I've seen where the male hero was so secure in himself that he never felt the need take charge of a situation or talk over someone or grab for control or jockey for position. That's just completely not present in Max's storyline. 

Even at the beginning, when Max is still in his feral state, still thinking of himself as less than human, he doesn't do anything out of pride. He has no pride. He's dehumanized and miserable, but he's not fighting Furiosa or stealing the War Rig or shooting people because they've wounded his ego in some way. He's a hurt wolf lashing out. When he realizes these people are friends, he stops. It's never about his pride. That's a huge deal.

Going back to our list, the third really interesting way that Max exhibits a healthy masculinity is in how he fights. I talked last week about the idea that our culture tends to revere a fighting instinct. We think of good men as "always fighting the good fight". A good man is one who is always ready to fight for his beliefs. And there's an extent to which this is true, but there's also a level on which we as a culture have gotten too used to the idea that masculinity means violence.

Which is where our Max is so different. Yeah, he fights, but he always fights in response to something else. Max never goes out looking for a fight. Fights always seem to find him, but he doesn't fight first. Even when they're in the middle of these car chases and there are War Boys all around and tons of danger, if you watch closely you'll see that he doesn't initiate. Max responds to violence, but he doesn't create it. 

It's a very different conception of the male action hero. While he's not afraid of or even particularly averse to getting his hands dirty, Max as a character is not a man who particularly craves a good fight. He seems actually more like he would prefer spending a night in with a cup of tea if "nights in" and "cups of tea" were at all available in this hellscape wasteland.

So Max isn't a particularly violent man. When he fights, he does it because it's necessary and he does it with no real relish for the occasion. Max doesn't fight with artistry or grace, he just shoots or hits people until they stop trying to shoot or hit him.

The only time in the entire film (that I can think of) where Max goes off looking for a fight is when he leaves the rig to track down the Bullet Farmer and get the War Rig to safety. And what's notable here is that the camera doesn't go with him. We actually have no idea what ends up happening. Max just sort of reappears a few moments later with a bunch of bullets and a steering wheel.

The fourth way he's a really good example of healthy masculinity is in how he treats everyone around him with respect. This one goes hand in hand with the first example, about how he listens, and it's arguably the most important one. Max respects people. He doesn't tell Cheedo that she needs to stop crying and whining and begging to go back to Immortan Joe. He doesn't tell Angharad that her faith in the green place is stupid. He might think both of those things, but he doesn't say so. He treats the women with respect, and in turn they treat him with it too.

Again, probably the best example of this is at the end of act two when he comes back to the convoy to convince Furiosa that they should go back and take the Citadel. Max clearly has a solid plan worked out and as he explains it everyone around them gets really fired up. It's a scene where obviously if he wanted to he could just rally them all together and make them leave Furiosa in the dust. He doesn't need her permission. But he waits for it anyway.

Max doesn't need Furiosa to agree to the plan, but because he waits for it he shows how much he respects her as a person and a leader. "I won't do this if you don't agree," his actions say, and so we trust him that much more as a character.

And then, at the very end of the film, when Max and the Wives ride into the Citadel in Immortan Joe's car, Furiosa has been horribly wounded. She's barely alive. The men at the gate demand that whoever is driving the car come out, and Max comes out. In that moment, in most any other movie, he would be hailed as the conquering hero. But this isn't any other movie. Instead of standing there and taking the acclaim, Max immediately turns right back around and grabs Furiosa's arm. He's not standing out there to take credit, he's literally just there to hold Furiosa up so that everyone can see who really saved them.

Finally, the fifth reason is that Max is a great freaking role model inside the movie as well as out.

This all really boils down to Nux. See, Max might be crazy when the film begins, but he's also his own person. He's lived a long and full life before he ever came to Citadel. So his journey is more about him recovering himself, coming back to the man he used to be, than anything else.

Nux is young. It's pretty clear from his mannerisms and general character that he knows no life outside of Citadel and the cult of Immortan Joe. He knows no other world than one in which people are reduced to things and a sick old man has the power of life and death. That's normal to him. He can barely even think to question it.

When Nux finds his lot thrown in with the very women he was supposed to be capturing and the "bloodbag" who crashed his car and then escaped, it wouldn't be hard to imagine him being kind of a jerk about things. But he isn't.

I think, in large part, that's because of Max. Max is older and gruff and tough and clearly good at taking care of himself. He's made it this far, after all, as a loner in a world that eats the weak. If you watch the film closely, you can see that Nux goes through a lot of the movie taking his cues from Max. He watches how Max relates to the women and then he relates that way. It's a complete turnaround from where he was earlier. When Max defers to Furiosa, Nux defers. Max is helpful, so Nux is helpful. Max is a good role model, so Nux is a good man.

Sociology has shown this to be true, actually. Men respond better to positive social pressure than we tend to think. So if a man is talking down about women and a woman tells him to stop, he might stop or he might not. If another man tells him to stop, he is actually very likely to do so. Men listen to other men. We can be frustrated about how men need to listen to women more, but we can also pay attention to the great value there is in having men set good examples for other men.

I kind of doubt that this is what George Miller had in mind when he created Mad Max: Fury Road, but I can't say that I mind it. He's given us both an examination of how toxic masculinity and a patriarchal society damages everyone as well as a look at what a good, true, and healthy masculinity looks like. Max is a good man. If we learn nothing else from the movie we know that is true. He's a beautiful picture of what it can mean to be a man.

He's not proud, but that doesn't mean he devalues himself either. He listens when other people talk and he always treats them with respect. He protects those he cares about but he also trusts them to protect themselves. He doesn't start fights, but he can finish them. He's a good role model. And he makes sure to value the people around him as human beings and not means to an end.

He's a good man. It's no small thing.


  1. Great piece, I agree with everything. thanks for an enjoyable and deep article.

  2. I think, in large part, that's because of Max.

    I'd credit Capable for that too, as pretty much the first human being to connect with him on a human level. And he responds in kind: just as we've praised Max and Furiosa not being romantically paired, neither does Nux seem to crush in that way on Capable - which might be another example of taking a cue from Max and how he relates to the women - it's more like an epiphany that if she can decide to choose what she becomes, maybe so can he - hell, *that choosing what you become is actually a thing* is an epiphany for someone like him.

    1. You're very right. Capable plays a huge role in Nux's development. I think it's a very interesting statement on how kindness can remind us that we are human, but we must then act on that kindness. No one else can *make* you a better person, but they can inspire you toward it and show you the way. You know?

      I love the concept of choosing what you become being an epiphany. You're so right. Maybe I need to write another article on the meaningful depictions of free will in this film...