Mad Max: Accelerating feminist appeal in post-apocalyptic filmography

Mad Max: Accelerating feminist appeal in post-apocalyptic filmography

The Academy has received a lot of flack through #OscarsSoWhite. Some of it is deserved.

But a lot of praise needs to be given for their selection of Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though the film is incredibly white washed, the film makes a ridiculous amount of progress regarding a slew of other intersectional issues.

Mad Max: Fury Road is nominated for 11 Academy Awards this year. That's monumental for a summer blockbuster, an Australian production, and an arguably queer white film.

I have a significant amount of love for action films full of explosions, special affects, and macho personas. I also have a significant amount of love for films breaking stereotypes all across the geopolitical spectrum.

Since Fury Road released, I haven't stopped fawning over how phenomenal the latest installment of one of my favorite franchises is. It meets every need of my love listed above.

I've watched it almost as many times as I've watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens (5, but who's counting?).

I've already accepted it's won all 11 awards it has been nominated for (Academy, don't let me down!).

And I've written two research essays in upper division college courses about it.

Today I'm sharing the first of those essays.

It's a work that analyzes the franchise as a whole and explains why the film is not only awesome as an action flick but also awesome for being a 40 year vehicle for progressive storytelling.

So, brace yourself. Run a couple of laps. Grab a stress ball. Try not to lose your mind over what I'm about to share.

Enjoy my film analysis and give me feedback in the comments. Oh, and watch the Oscars February 28. Mad Max is going to score. Big.


I. Intro of essay and thesis

II. Introduction to Mad Max franchise

III. General criticism for and against Mad Max franchise

IV. Analysis of Mad Max original film

V. Analysis of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

VI. Analysis of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

VII. Analysis of Mad Max: Fury Road

VIII. Intersectional concepts prevalent in Mad Max franchise


This essay is intended to provide a positive argument for the existence of the Mad Max franchise in a market that rarely appeals to progress in feminine reform. The argument will be supported by reflecting on the intersectional concepts prevalent in the franchise including geopolitical messages and feminist frameworks, exploring criticisms both for and against the franchise, analyzing the pros and cons of each film in light of the presented arguments, and concluding the significance of the series influence on post-apocalyptic filmography.

Begin essay

Post-apocalyptic filmography is grounded in folk-lore that traditionally accelerates itself with concepts tied to community hierarchies, colonial exceptionalism, geopolitical struggles and patriarchal advantage. The Mad Max franchise, which has gained significant media attention with its latest installment, is an example of a prominent post-apocalyptic film series that has over time both supported and contradicted traditional representations of the genre's portrayal of folk-lore.

The Mad max franchise portrays the decay of prior institutionalized concepts into primitive behavior policed by morally driven outsiders. Fundamentally, the series flawlessly matches the post-apocalyptic genre in narrative and tone. Beyond the simple abstract that the four films have built their stories off of, the series takes on a heavier task of breaking traditional expectations developed by the film industry and their intended audience (Gibson, Mad Max; Gibson 1979, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior 1981; Gibson, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome 1985). Mad Max: Fury Road, which was released May of 2015, exemplifies this in every way as it culminates 36 years worth of trial and error storytelling. It's title character, Max Rockatansky, is the picture-perfect profile of a broken hyper-masculinity figure trying to find his identity in a world that accepts nothing less than white, aggressive, successful male figure in any position of value. In each unique film Max remains a means of demonstrating how the abandonment of particular ideologies surrounding systems of oppression, privileged levels of leadership in small communities, exceptional treatment of dominant settlers and personal masculinity. His position as the stake around which every aspect of the story revolves tends to change as the weight of the social commentary increases through the franchise. But for 39 years, much of this has gone unrecognized as consumers have accepted the franchise either as cult entertainment or non-existent. Fury Road, released three decades after the third installment, function neither as a sequel or a prequel, but rather an independent installment that works as either. Because of the time gap, much of the films audience is unaware that Fury Road has a rich history that has influence its production (Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road 2015). As a result, the narrative of the film and its faithfulness to the genre have been questioned by young critics with socialized expectations - that are interacting with mad Max for the first time. The first critique to gain traction was published on the Internet by extremist male rights blogger Aaron Clarey shortly after the teaser released. Clarey gives a negative critique by chastising the director for directly attacking the post-apocalyptic genre and the art of action films as a whole. The teaser makes it clear that Max was the title character, but not the center of attention. It also makes clear that a small band of women, the characters who drive most of the narrative in the film, are working to deconstruct the masculine society they are fleeing from and find a utopia where their equality with men will be valued. In an effort to defend prior Mad Max productions which Clarey had not seen and slander the new Mad Max production, he insists that positive and excessive inclinations towards institutionalized dimensions of oppression and systems of patriarchy are necessary for a genre faithful and generally appealing story. After sourcing various articles published by mainstream news outlets regarding Miller's insistence on leaders of feminist reform being film consultants, Clary declares that Fury Road is a piece of propaganda with forced female characters. He states that the film deserves to be boycotted by all men who have respect from themselves (Clarey 2015). A handful of bloggers with similar sentiments follow suit. Meanwhile, an opinion columnist for The Verge named Adi Robertson is the first of many voices that responds positively to the film and discourages any idea that Fury Road does anything but amplify the positive aspects of the genre while encouraging a more comprehensive presentation of women's issues in film. Citing similar aspects of oppression and patriarchy, Robertson declares that Mad max deflates on e major masculine fantasy; that men are always in control and the only bearers of freedom. Reflecting on the franchises ability to historically applaud female fighters and its desire to distribute victim-hood even-evenhandedly, Robertson congratulates the film for being capable of encouraging a deflating set of institutions in a world that desperately and poorly attempts to hold onto patriarchal dominance. Max's journey shifts from his own concerns to a story that focuses on women and their own individual causes. He has no other choice as the narrative places him in a position where his survival is dependent on supporting their causes. His frail masculinity is dependent no longer on short-lived, interchangeable bouts of approval but rather the success of his female counterparts. Unlike Clarey's negative critique, which focuses only on promotional material for the last film in the franchise, Robertson's positive critique focuses on the installment's implications on the franchise as a whole in order to accurately assess what the promotional material is implicating for viewers (Robertson 2015). Robertson is one of a handful of authors to utilize the franchise as a whole to develop a defense for critical claims. However, even Clarey's reflection when looked at in a context that analyzes the entire franchise proves a positive argument for a once broken but now strengthened means of presenting post-apocalyptic folk-lore.

The original and first production of the franchise, titled mad max, was made in Australia bu George miller and released in the United States early 1979. Set in a fictional apocalyptic world, Mel Gibson portrays Max, a hyper-masculine male police figure who utilizes souped-up hot rods and physical violence to protect his wife and child from an aggressive biker gang. Max fails to do so. He loses his identity when both his wife and child are killed. His ability to be the man he expects of himself is lost in the violent transaction (Gibson, Mad Max 1979). The first half of the original Mad Max spends more time developing a geopolitical social commentary that becomes a fundamental part of the franchises storytelling before devolving into a masculine character study of a less than whole man. Vehicles, their maintenance, and their fuel are of utmost value to anyone in poser. One of the co-writers of the screenplay named james McCausland acknowledged that the original films are based on the concept that people will do anything to keep vehicles moving. Part of the depravity of humanity in the franchises apocalypse is that no nation will consider the significant cost of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it is too late. Greed and no respect for viable resources usher in the extinction of mankind. This is acted out through the cruelty of the gang that kills Max's family, and his immediate practice of vengeance that resulted from their wrong doings (Wilkinson 2015).

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is the second production of the franchise and an extension of the first film's social commentary and character study. It was released in the United States late 1981 and modeled after archetypal Western frontier film narratives to give the post-apocalyptic nature a means of deconstructing the negative aspects of its own narrative. It borrows from the idea that drifters assume they can redeem a community and gain undivided favor by defending that community from an enemy who wants to gain unparalleled control. The films narrative accelerates that notion as max is introduced as a hardened drifter clueless to what his purpose is and what his desire to live means. His only companion is his dog, which is also the only living thing he can muster compassion for. While searching for fuel to inject in his own vehicle, he witnesses a man fail to save his wife from a grisly rape and murder. Unable to show sympathy, Max convinces himself to help the man get back to a community of gas hording settlers in exchange for fuel of his own. Once he gets to the community of gas hoarders, the man dies before telling his comrades the agreement made with max. As a result, the deal is off and Max is exiled from the city. Desperate to survive, Max takes captive a wanderer who assists him in plotting to steal from the city. While developing a plan, Max and the drifter realize that the city is vulnerable to the same gang that killed Max's wife and son in the first film. Instead of stealing from the community, Max imposes himself as the only individual who can lead the community in battle against the gang. He slowly recovers his humanity, but at the cost of being dominant over an entire body of people and regaining part of his deeply desired identity as a supreme, white, hyper-masculine leader. After several hours of leadership, his renewal of identity is cut short as his dog dies, the gang is defeated, and the wanderer he took captive becomes the leader of the community. It becomes obvious to max that the community benefited from his assistance, but does not need him to survive. His secondary family was his dog, and similar to the first film when his family was taken away from him, he enacts vengeance and leaves the scene hallow. Damaged by the reality of the changing social climate, Max moves on, continuing to drift with no other purpose but proving he is capable of surviving. It's a story that diverges into other realms of a completely different genre to set a fresh template from which the following installment works from (Gibson, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior 1981).

the next and third installment, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, was released in the United States mid-1985 and takes audience members by surprise as it goes in a completely different direction than either of the franchises prior installments. Thunderdome strays from the traditional narrative of max as the only character of concern, takes advantage of the depth added to max's personality as the result of a deconstructed masculinity enhanced by the Western frontier narrative in Road Warrior, and introduces several plots of territorial exploration that makes Max's presence appear more as a secondary character. His secondary presence allows the geopolitical commentary to breathe and intersectional issues absent from prior installments to become known and take precedence. Subtle social message are incorporated into the larger plot points, an African-American woman is incorporated into a leading role arguably more significant than max himself, and more artistic action sequences are utilized to place less of an emphasis o human power struggles and more natural implications (Gibson, Mad max: Beyond Thunderdome 1985). Up to this point in 1985, Mad max was argued as a character study that focused on the personal ethical development of an individual in a post-modern society. But it was not argued that mad max was an account that reflected on good and bad societies or provided an answer on how to create the former (Sanes 2000). Once Beyond Thunderdome released, the conversation changed. The film introduces max once again as a drifter. But he is defenseless. A father son duo robs him of his goods and forces max to wander into a city called Bartertown. The city is a capitalistic melting pot dependent on its commerce and trade. If a character does neither they have no place in the city. It's a dirty and gritty reflection of what drives first-world, developed cities. It's all broken and chaotic and trying to hold itself together in the best way possible. The best way possible involves meeting the culture's pursuit of pre-apocalyptic standards of capitalistic supremacy for survival. there he encounters the franchise's first feminine warrior of color, named Aunty Entity and played by Tina Turner. Max is caught off guard by the fact that the person of power in Bartertown is a ruthless dark skinned woman. After proving he is a warrior himself, Max strikes a deal with Aunty Entity. He agrees to complete a task for her in exchange for supplies. The task involves him provoking a fight with an opposing leader of goods within Bartertown so that Aunt Entity, in accordance with the law, can send them into a gladiator ring and fight out their differences. Max is tasked with killing the individual he provokes the fight. But once the two men get into the ring, Max learns his opponent has the mentality of a child and is disabled. He refuses to kill the man and reveals to the community Entity's plot. The leader Entity wanted killed then threatens to shut down the city through his own power and reigns on the community. Enraged, Entity executes her opponent and exiles Max into the middle of nowhere. On the verge of dying from dehydration, Max is found by a female teenage wanderer who carries him back to her community called Crack of the Earth. Her home is an oasis full of children who survived a plane crash at the beginning of the apocalypse. Each believes that their parents, who left to find civilization, will return. Their survival is dependent on a hope that max knows is false because he experienced in Bartertown the closest thing to civilization. They worship their parents, and their parents return. It influences each of their actions and makes them naive to the reality that lies outside of their oasis. Crack in the Earth proves to be a mystical world grounded in hopeful spirituality. max reveals it's superstition, misinformed knowledge, and ignorance. He understands that without knowledge and without moving past superstition, Crack in the Earth is as empty as Bartertown. He tries to convince them of the truth, but a group of the children determined to find their parents leave anyways. Max is then asked to retrieve them. He finds them, but since supplies are gone by the time he reaches them, all are forced to visit Bartertown. Once in the city, the children and Max destroy a methan refinery that runs all of Bartertown and get needed supplies. Entity finds out and tries to stop them. Max uses himself as a decoy so the children can escape and flee back to their oasis. Entity captures Max, but chooses not to kill him out of respect for how he is identical to her in many ways of character. Unclear of what to make of him, and in awe of the fact that he survived two different environments, Entity sends Max back into the wilderness to wander without any personal growth to show for his struggle. His character fails to develop in any significant way (Gibson, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome 1985). Beyond Thunderdome is a satire of consumerism and post-modernist culture, based on appropriation and spectacle. Mad Max is an effort to bring a fictional world to life in order to show us essential truths, such as the naivety of religion and the false comfort of hope, about our own world. Much larger in scope and inherently more diverse in both narrative and representation of intersectional issues within Bartertown and Crack of the Earth, this film set the framework for the fourth and latest installment (Sanes 2000).

Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth and most recent installment of the franchise, was released in mid-2015; a year ripe with geopolitical social issues being tackled by few mainstream productions. Tom Hardy replaces Gibson as Max and Charlize Theron introduces herself as a new character named Imperator Furiosa. Creator George Miller utilizes the 30 year gap between installments releases to make Max's role titular but secondary, without question. Similar to Beyond Thunderdome, Max is a means of launching the larger geopolitical social commentary into the narrative and supports other leading roles. Seven leading women were introduced alongside three leading men in a story of survival that shared the extreme repercussions of sex slavery, female persecution by males , and abuse of community hierarchies. The film introduces a superior class of men that tease every class beneath them with water that they control. Women are at the bottom of any chain of respect as they must be kept as sex slaves and milk producers. The enemy of the film is a regime that controls water through a monopoly. The enemy promises eternal life to those who join in the regime's efforts of maintaining the monopoly. Furiosa is the franchise's second feminine warrior. She is motivated by revenge, a need to protect abused women, and a desire to start fresh outside of masculine oppression. She works to destroy the framework of male dominance but never becomes a pawn. Upholders of the regime are hyper-masculine, psychotic men chalded up in white substances. through a character named Nux, their identities are proven to be frail shells of masculinity that must be broken down by fellow upholders of the post-apocalyptic patriarchy. Furiosa finds a way to convince the leader of the primary colony controlling water, named Immortan Joe, to let her collect gasoline from a distant biker gang. She uses this as a disguise to kidnap and free Joe's five wives kept as sex slaves, milk breeders, and child bearers. Joe sends his crew on a suicide mission to retrieve the women. Max becomes a part of the story when he is found strapped to Nux's vehicle as an emergency O negative blood bag. Max escapes during a vehicle chase for the women that ends with a sand storm that destroys half of Joe's crew. During the fight, one of the sex slaves shows Joe that she is pregnant and then dies trying to protect Max. As a result Joe continues his effort to retrieve the women, but to get vengeance on Max instead. Max agrees to help the women continue to escape when Furiosa tells him that she believes in a utopia she experienced as a child. Nux, whose identity is crushed during the vehicle chase, joins their crew as the women still living try to help him rebuild his fractured psych. Furiosa returns to her homeland only to learn her utopia no longer exists. Max considers leaving the women until a vision of a child he failed to save plagues him, and then convinces him, into remaining with them until they found a city he remembered visiting called the Citadel. On their way to the Citadel they battle with Joe one last time. Before the fight ends, Nux sacrifices himself so that the women who helped repair his fractured identity can live. After all of the enemy forces are killed, Max transfuses his blood into an injured Furiosa so that she might live and continue to lead thew omen she saved. Max gets the crew to the Citadel where all of the women are openly accepted by the community. Before anyone can convince him otherwise, Max leaves the women and the community knowing that he has no place there. He continues to move forward in effort to find identity in something other than power through hyper-masculine behavior and dominance (Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road 2015).

In each film, Max can evidently be watched battling the concepts of institutionalized dimensions of oppression and systems of patriarchy. Patricia Hill Collins, who studies intersectional and institutional means of oppression, suggests that gender oppression – one of the most prevalent forms of oppression - can be structured with three dimensions. The dimensions include institutional, symbolic, and individual. The Mad Max franchise explores in most depth the symbolic dimension of oppression. Masculine and feminine roles carry characteristics that reflect a variation that mirror most that of North American culture. Masculine characteristics are aggressive, rational, strong, intellectual, and more inclined to lead. Feminine characteristics are passive, emotional, weak, physical, and more inclined to follow. When attributed to women of color, barbaric and animalistic traits are assumed to diminish some of that feminine behavior. When attributed to varying classes, only women affiliated with men of power have the ability to maintain varying traits of femininity while overcoming what is perceived as their flaws to become more like men (Collins n.d.). These characteristics are both supported and contradicted at various points throughout the entire Mad Max franchise. The first and second Mad Max installments were cast predominantly white and predominantly male. The female and adolescent characters were weak, expendable, and secondary. Graphic and explicit scenes of violence were enacted only on these weaker characters as male leads either inflicted the behavior or internally battled with the behavior they were witnessing. The script made hardened male leaders both heroes and enemies, (Gibson, Mad Max 1979; Gibson, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior 1981). However, in the third and fourth installments, while still cast predominantly white other characters of color were introduced. These characters of color acted contrary to what audience members expected. For example, the warrior of color in the third installment was played by Tina Turner. As an African-American woman of color and an international sex symbol, it is assumed her position of power would not be possible to achieve in Bartertown. She maintains her femininity, does not become overly barbaric, and has a sense of respect for others who match her power. She does not replace a masculine leader, but rather inhibits a traditionally masculine role without compromising herself (Gibson, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome 1985). The same is witnessed in Fury Road, where disabled women – with limited diversity of color – maintain their femininity and work through their lower-classed disabilities while proving they can be the alpha in a competitive, life threatening situation. Women become the warriors that are in charge and have the power to recruit assistance from independent people like Max or fractured people like Nux. Any inclination to support or contradict this presentation in the franchise is directly tied to instances where there are institutionalized behaviors, organizations, or hierarchies in the various communities portrayed throughout the series. And while the film producers chose to support more positive representations, not all audience members do. These institutionalized responses follow a pre-apocalypse narrative influenced by patriarchal social structures, where men aggressively lead through a means of controlled and pre-imposed dominance. This narrative is expected to flow over into post-apocalyptic media and be the primary source of momentum for all character development (Hardy, Mad Max: Fury Road 2015). Allen G. Johnson, who studies patriarchal systems, explains that the system of patriarchy pined after follows a cyclical structure of system before individuals and individuals before systems. Social systems are something we make happen. When we partake in a social system, we are shaped by it and follow a path of least resistance. Patriarchy, which has dominated most of human history, is dependent on male-dominated, male-identified, male-centered, and control-obsessed characteristics. Femininity is described as “other” and therefore a secondary position that should only be utilized if it advances masculine ideals. Johnson argues that patriarchy is exclusive to individual lives and, while prevalent in the mainstream society Mad Max is marketed to, is also prevalent in many forms of literature – both pre and post apocalypse. This prevalence drives consumers to desire it. And, while the Mad Max franchise delivers it on varying scales, it refuses to glorify it; rather making the cyclical habits an enemy integral to advancing moral policing or a cause (Johnson n.d.).

The Mad Max franchise is grounded in the traditional post-apocalyptic folk-lore that has always accelerated itself with the negative concepts explored in this essay such as intersectional issues regarding gender and race, institutional dimensions of oppression, and systems of male dominance. Mad Max declares that oppression and evil cannot be defeated by better institutions. Institutions are bad. Rather, individualism wins; especially when a select set of individuals work together to counter the established institutions. It tells us about the issues that are influencing culture and where our salvation lies. As made evident in the series evolutionary pursuit in deconstructing systems of patriarchy and other means of oppressive representations of gender, race, and class, the Mad Max franchise proves to be a prominent post-apocalyptic film series that positively exists in apocalyptic canons and maintains a positive feminist appeal.

End essay


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  2. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Directed by George Miller. Produced by Kennedy Miller Productions. Performed by Mel Gibson. 1981.
  3. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Directed by George Miller. Produced by Kennedy Miller Productions. Performed by Mel Gibson. 1985.
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller. Produced by Kennedy Miller Productions. Performed by Tom Hardy. 2015.
  5. Clarey, Aaron. Return of Kings. May 11, 2015.
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