I made these points in a reblog, but I want to re-state them in their own post, so that it shows up in the main tag.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about sexists, told by non-sexists.
I know it’s a bit confusing, because we’re so used to seeing stories about sexists told by sexists. We’re so used to sexism being portrayed by sexist male filmmakers for the sake of a sexist male audience, that we’ve been fooled into thinking this is the only way sexism even can be portrayed.
eabevella’s review of MMFR pointed out that the villains never call women “bitches,” nor are they shown overtly leering at the women in the film, and took this as evidence that the villains in the movie are not sexist. That they objectify women, but only in the way that they objectify everything, and their objectification is in fact quite egaitarian.
While the assessment that the villains are not shown leering or spitting gendered slurs is correct, I’m going to go ahead and say that the conclusion eabevella drew from this is wrong, wrong, so very wrong.
See, there’s a great lie we’ve been told – that in order for an audience to understand that a character is sexist, women must be humiliated on camera.
The truth is this:
When a male character calls a female character a bitch in a movie, that is not the filmmaker’s way of showing the audience the character is sexist; that is the filmmaker’s way of showing the audience that the character’s sexist point of view is worth hearing.
Read that paragraph over and over until it sinks in.
Mad Max: Fury Road makes it absolutely clear that the villains are sexist, and it does so without ever once implying that their sexist point of view is worth hearing. Instead, we learn that they are sexist second-hand, through context and world-building.
We see that the wives have been dressed in ridiculous, impractical gauze bikinis. We see that the wives are not only young and healthy, but also model-pretty. Through these subtle details, the narrative makes it clear that Immorten Joe, the villain, chose these women not just as useful stock, but as sexual objects in which he took sexual pleasure.
In contrast, when the movie introduces the audience to the wives, the movie makes sure to portray them in as humanized, and non-sexualized a manner as possible. Even when they are literally bathing together, we don’t see any water running down chests while the models arch their backs and run their fingers through their hair and sigh pleasurably. Instead we see a bunch of women perfunctorily rinsing off legs and feet, looking exhausted. When they see Max for the first time, they take on fearful, closed off expressions, and project fearful, closed off body language.
Compare this to, for example, Theon Greyjoy’s castration in HBO’s Game of Thrones. We know he was castrated, even though no one ever says the word “castration” and the camera never shows a penis being lopped off. The filmmakers manage to convey that the mutilation has taken place, but respect the character enough not to make a lurid scene out of it (and yet proceed to make lurid scenes out of every possible denigration and mutilation of every possible female character they can cram into their commercial free timeslot).
As for Imperator Furiosa, it is hard for us, the audience, to not see Charlize Theron as a beautiful woman. But when we compare her appearance in the movie to that of the wives, it’s clear to see that Imperator Furiosa is, in fact, the opposite of what Immorten Joe and his war mongering culture view as desirable, beautiful, or womanly. They do not sexually objectify her because to them she is sexless.
If we ignore our own biased understanding of Furiosa – as a character that a beautiful actress is portraying – and instead immerse ourselves in the culture of the Miller’s world, it becomes obvious that Furiosa has taken great pains to make herself genderless under the villains’ gaze, and that her efforts have succeeded.
From Entertainment Weekly:
It was Theron herself who unlocked the image of the androgynous warrior—a woman who has escaped the fate of other women by erasing her gender.
“I just said, ‘I have to shave my head,’” Theron recalls. Furiosa is a war-rig operator living in a place where all other females have been enslaved as breeding and milking chattel. But Furiosa is barren and therefore of no value to the despot Immortan Joe and his soldiers. She is considered worthless. ”They almost forget she’s a woman, so there is no threat,” she says. “I understood a woman that’s been hiding in a world where she’s been discarded.” [x]
The villains in the movie are absolutely misogynist. They are absolutely sexist. They do absolutely view beautiful women as sexual objects that exist purely for the male gaze.
But the movie is not about them.
The movie, instead, portrays sexist men as obstacles for the heroes of the movie to overcome.
Can I also add that I love that the only time a character comments on the wives’ beauty (Nux) they do so in a way that a) adds to world building, and b) deliberately excludes the audience.
Nux doesn’t call the wives ‘sexy’, he doesn’t say ‘I’d bang that’ or ‘wow so hot’. He calls them ‘shiny and chrome’. We can guess at what he means but the nuances and any sexual connotations just doesn’t translate.