What a Lovely Day (For Feminism): Mad Max, Star Wars and Approaches to Gender Inequality | Film

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By Zoë

Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. It’s hard to dispute that the two films were both critical and commercial successes. Furthermore, they both achieved this while featuring well-written, complex female leads.

Both films could be considered ‘feminist’ in that they starred female characters who were not sexual objects, were multi-dimensional, and whose narrative arcs didn’t revolve solely around men. However, Fury Road and The Force Awakens had completely different approaches to the representation of gender and sex, and I want to explore this further.

In The ForceAwakens, gender does not matter. By which I mean, you could swap any of the male characters to female, or vice versa, and they would remain largely the same. The plucky desert orphan with a knack for piloting could have been a man. The runaway Storm Trooper could have been a woman. The characters’ defining traits were their skills, their personalities and whether they were on the side of good or evil. This is excellent, in my opinion, because it sends the message that it’s not your gender that is important, but what you do. Considering the number of children who watched this film, it’s a wonderful message for them to absorb.

This ‘gender-blind’ approach is often utilised in science-fiction, a genre which, owing to its fantastical nature, can disregard the prejudices of our own society. Jane Espenson, a writer on shows including Firefly, summed it up thusly: “If we can’t write diversity into sci-fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”

Fury Road, however, takes a completely different approach. In Fury Road, gender – or rather, sex – does matter. It matters entirely, because the oppressions faced by the women in Fury Road occur explicitly because they are women.

Sure, Furiosa is never treated differently because she’s a woman. There’s no holding back from Max when they fight each other, and Immortan Joe’s men respect her command until they realise she’s gone rogue. But let us be clear – Immortan Joe’s kingdom is a patriarchy. It is ruled by men, and women suffer from their abuse. The abuse of the women that Furiosa rescues cannot be separated from their status as women. They are raped and forced to bear children, kept in sexualised outfits and essentially treated as chattel. Their inferior status is inscribed upon their female bodies. You could not swap the characters from male to female and retain George Miller’s highly political message about the abuse of women.

While The Force Awakens eschews gender politics, Fury Road confronts them head-on. The heroes of The Force Awakens fight the Dark Side, the heroes of Fury Road fight the patriarchy. They escape male oppression and search for a female-only utopia. Furiosa is a member of the “Vulvalini”, honestly.

I enjoyed both films immensely, as a film-lover and as a feminist. The difference was, The Force Awakens made me forget about sexism for two hours. (What a glorious two hours that was.) Fury Road demanded that I think about it. When it comes to gender equality, The Force Awakens shows us a world we’d like to live in. Fury Road, by contrast, shows us a representation of the world we live in now and just how devastating it is.

The oppression of women is an issue that we all need to be paying attention to. So thank-you, Fury Road, for making it the focus of a big, popular film. But sometimes, thinking about it all is unbearable. So thank-you, too, The Force Awakens, for giving us a fantasy to escape into. When it comes to female-centric films, we need both kinds. 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is now showing in cinema.
Mad Max: Fury Road is nominated for Best Motion Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards. 

Cause a Cine do not take any credit for the images used in this post. 
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