Imagine yourself wearing a pair of latex gloves, scraping some dust off the surface of your favourite book or movie with a scalpel and tapping it into a glass vial of clear fluid. Now seal the vial and shake it, stare into its contents. When little Venus symbols to start floating in the solution you can declare to all willing to hear, “This! This is a feminist text!”
A lot of effort goes into arguing whether something is or isn’t feminist. In fairness, this is as tricky a question as people make it out to be. If we are to accept that an author’s intentions don’t always reach the text and that the reader reads themselves in a text than it follows that some amount of, say, feminism, may exist in anything. It also may be that in reaching for something to identify with, audiences may nominate a toothless champion for their defence. This might be the case with Mad Max: Fury Road, about which Eileen Jones concludes:
All this emoting and signifying and extravagant visual lusciousness seems to constitute a new kind of popular Ham Art—overacted and overdone, and gleaming with meaty pinkness. And people eat it up. It’s a strange feeling to love action film and yet feel disappointed in what is apparently considered the greatest action film in a generation. And frankly, I admit I envy everyone who could enjoy the exhilarating chases along with the “Visit the Grand Canyon!” color scheme and the mortifying melodramatic poses and pauses, just because of the sheer genre film ecstasy I’m missing out on. But I can’t envy those who are embracing the dumb faux-feminism as well. That is pathetic, as well as unforgivable. (“Actually, Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist; And It Isn’t That Good, Either.” In These Times. May 18 2015.)
Jones is a little harsh but she wrote a strong piece of film criticism, which is more important than protecting the image of a multi-million dollar for-profit action title. It isn’t that Fury Road has nothing of value or that you’re wrong for liking it, there may indeed be a useful and enlightening conversation to have about Fury Road and some part of that conversation may be related to how it represents women (Schnelbach, Leah. “We All Agree that Mad Max: Fury Road is Great. Here’s Why It’s Also Important.” Tor. May 20 2015.). But it’s possible to mistake windmills for giants. Reading and interpreting a text’s ideology is not about aligning it with your own politics to justify liking it, even if that’s possible to do sometimes. Liking a thing or not will happen more-or-less automatically and feeling one way or another about it, on its own, says nothing about a person although I admit it feels like it. The significance is in understanding the why of the matter.
One of the most useful theorists I’ve discovered this last year is Gayatri Spivak. Like a lot of deconstructionists, she has a wide range of interests and she writes in several different fields, among them literature but that’s hardly her only interest. In one of her essays, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (Critical Inquiry 12.1. 1985.), she compares Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea and Frankenstein. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre takes the perspective of a working-class woman growing into her own and ascending a rigid social order; yet it also includes Bertha Mason, the mad-woman uncritically imprisoned in Mr. Rochester’s attic and used as a device to emphasize Rochester’s pain. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea responds from the perspective of Antoinette, the Jamaican woman whom Rochester would violently rename Bertha Mason, refocusing the story from the mad woman’s gaze; yet also the black women in Wide Sargasso Sea, Tia and Christophine, are alienated and Othered from Antoinette and reduced to “third-world womanhood.” Spivak notes that it isn’t that Brontë or Rhys were sexist or racist people, just that their texts are emblematic of empire and imperial interests: a category of people is always subjugated.
Although “there is plenty of incidental imperialist sentiment in Frankenstein” (254) it does not prop up binaries between people. Where Bertha Mason is the anti-Jane or Christophine is the anti-Antoinette, “Frankenstein is not a battleground of male and female individualism articulated in terms of sexual reproduction (family and female) and social subject-production (race and male).” The text creates a world and characters without binary and imperialist relationships to one another. That doesn’t make Frankenstein better than Jane Eyre or Wide Sargasso Sea, it just frames a different way of thinking about texts.
These texts could easily be called “feminist” texts; these texts could easily be called “sexist.” The point is that power does not flow in one direction. In voicing middle-class women, Brontë’s novel is emancipatory, just as Rhys is for voicing colonized women. Brontë’s novel is oppressive for silencing the mad woman made property, just as Rhys’s novel is oppressive for silencing black women made property. Frankenstein presents the possibility non-colonial relationships between people, but it also comes loaded with its own assumptions of the world and the people in it. The key is teasing apart how texts behave because meaning is always in motion.
The way to understand texts is to incorporate more voices into texts both as producers and critics of them. There is no such thing as a final signifier. A text’s meaning can’t be contained, it can only be endlessly opened up, meaning deferred from one reading to the next. More readers mean more readings, meaning more meanings. And we all benefit from that. But to pin something down as “feminist” attempts to close signification. That’s what a reading does, temporarily, but to label a movie is an attempt to freeze it in place. And in Fury Road there may not be enough substance.
I thought Fury Road was okay. I liked that Max was a sidekick in his own movie, that his role as audience surrogate was tempered by a first act spent in chains, getting kicked around or having miserable hallucinations. Consider the opening scene of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, where each hero rushes through the forest at super speed, showing off their powers by knocking down evil Hydra troopers. The opening scene demonstrates each Avenger’s power. Max is isolated and vulnerable and he gets beat up. When he finally does show up in the film, it’s largely as an observer and participant of Furiosa’s escape and insurgency. He’s good at punching and shooting people, but not that much better than any of the other sidekicks in the ensemble: Furiosa is absolutely the protagonist. That doesn’t necessarily make the film good or bad and it doesn’t make it feminist or misogynist.
Rather than getting caught up in evaluative judgments, I think critical discourse would be enriched by dedicating more energy to interpretive argument. What is gained by deciding whether or not a movie is good? Creators surely benefit from understanding the execution of craft and how techniques prompt different effects, but what do regular audiences gain from declaring This Text to be “good” or “feminist” or “smart” without making an analytic argument?
There’s a breed of criticism that compares texts directly to reality and judges its plausibility against the real world. While that kind of criticism can be funny I don’t know what we’re supposed to gain from it. For example, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the antagonist, a gorilla named Koba, attacks a human camp with a group of other apes on horseback, firing a pair of assault rifles. Those experienced with living in the real world are likely aware that charging down a narrow street into a fixed defensive position is tactically unwise, not to mention that the apes are incapable of using firearms and they certainly shouldn’t be experts with them after only an afternoon. Moreover, the apes’ horses have presumably never heard or seen gunfire before: where did they get the discipline to maintain their charge in oncoming fire without extensive training? And what about the weapons? Since the apocalypse, have the weapons all been maintained in the proper temperature and moisture conditions to prevent deterioration? And how do either side keep their weapons supplied?
The answer to all of these questions is “shut up and watch the movie.” There are no bonus points in noticing that apes can’t actually fire guns. We all know that fiction is fictional. Instead, what can we glean from this scene? Koba’s uninhibited aggression accentuates his callous ambition, the human settlement’s vulnerability is exposed when forces of nature turn against the forces of urbanity, the still salient World War imagery reminds the audience that inter-group mistrust fosters organized, mutually destructive conflict, which is the film’s thesis. Maybe you’re unconvinced, which is good. Maybe the scene is just cool. But why is it cool? What about the scene evokes its particular sensation and how does that interact with the rest of the piece, with the cultural narratives around the piece, with you as an audience member participating with the piece?
I get that time and finances are limited resources and that it’s nice to receive approval for spending either on a thing. But I think there’s more to get out of discourse than validation for consuming a media artefact. I hate the language around media; I hate the word consumption and its various tenses. Media is not food and people don’t consume and destroy it for nourishment. Media is a part of a conversation and whether they attend to it or not audiences participate in these conversations. Like Spivak’s analysis of Frankenstein, we should avoid slotting everything into neat binaries and like her analysis of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea we should acknowledge the oppressive subtext that can, without contradiction, appear right alongside emancipatory sub/text.
So Fury Road is not just feminist, even if feminists have seen it. Fury Road isn’t good or bad even if some audiences liked it or disliked it. We can get something far richer by observing and attempting to understand what its bizarre cinematography and sparse exposition means (Kunzelman, Cameron. “‘evocation without the dead weight of explanation’: on Mad Max: Fury Road.” This Cage is Worms. May 18 2015.) or how the film couples femininity with violence (Apple Cider Mage. “Mad Max: Fury Road: Bear Witness, For Glory, For Feminism.” Apple Cider Mage. May 19 2015.). Deciding whether or not it should exist is useless: Fury Road does exist and even if a lot of people weren’t participating in it (they are), its existence has an impact. It behooves us to understand what that impact could be.
Further reading: Huston, Shaun. “Black Widow and the Burden of Being the Female Avenger.” PopMatters. May 20 2015.
Lady Geek Girl. “Sexualized Saturdays: Captain America & Male Virginity.” Lady Geek Girl. May 16 2015.
Sarkeesian, Anita. “Dollhouse Renewed? Why not Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles?” Jun 22 2009.