The Ecofeminism of Mad Max

the vuvalini

This article includes plot details about Mad Max: Fury Road. To read a spoiler-free review, click right here.

I went into Mad Max: Fury Road expecting to see a lot of explosions. The film’s trailer made the movie look like one long bloodbath, with bizarre baddies on souped-up vehicles racing through the desert while our stoney-faced hero defended himself with a stockpile of guns, bombs, and whatever stabby thing was within reach. I was surprised to find, then, that the film is actually not about the glory of blowing shit up.  Instead, Fury Road says violence is not the answer—the strongest humans in the film are those who are empathetic, tender, and devoted to fostering the growth of both plants and people.

Mad Max opens on a clear villain: A patriarch with a scary facemask who has built a small society on the foundations of gas, war, and fear.  Immortan Joe’s desert Citadel literally farms women, using their bodies to produce and sustain an army of War Boys. In a brief scene that’s now forever seared into my memory, we see a room full of women hooked up to machines that extract their breastmilk, like they’re cows. In addition to using women as heifers, Immortan Joe hoards the natural resources of the earth. His powerful savior-image comes from his control of water that he dishes out to the less fortunate in lavish waterfalls meant to display both his control of the land and its desperate people. Meanwhile, the young men in the Citadel know only violence—there is no space for kindness or compassion when the greatest honor in their lives is to die young in battle.

 What a waste! 

The link between the exploitation of women and the exploitation of Earth is a connection many people have made—but it’s typically not the driving force behind a blockbuster action film. Instead, this connection is the center of ecofeminist philosophy. As writer and organic farmer Alison Parker articulately summed up for Bitch in 2012, ecofeminist thought sees environmental destruction as a form of violent oppression. “Ecofeminism focuses mainly on likening the oppression of nature to the oppression of women,” writes Parker. “Both environmentalism and feminism are essential building blocks of the fine architecture of a just and healthy society."

I think Fury Road’s writers got this. Significantly, it's clear that Immortan Joe’s exploitative framework for society isn’t just bad for women and nature—it’s bad for everyone. Only a handful of people ever get access to a standard of living that’s higher than eating sand for dinner. Those who do, the War Boys, are racked by disease and battle wounds and have no life beyond battle and chrome. In a culture built on violence, patriarchy, and fear, even the men lose in the end. The best they can hope for is the ability to scrape out a little more time, a little more water, and a little more gas. 

        Read this next: Mad Max Complicates Action Hero Masculinity—And That's Great
        Read this next: You Can Now Search for 2,000 Films Where Women Get the Most Lines

From left: Escaping wives Capable (Riley Keough), Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton) and The Splendid Agharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). 

In a typical action film, the protagonists would meet Immortan Joe’s violence with more violence. They’d win by shooting him and every War Boy to death. Or they’d blow up the Citadel like the Death Star. Instead, the first clear sign that Fury Road has a different ethos in mind is when Immortan Joe discovers five of his prize “breeders” have fled, with the help of war rig driver Imperator Furiosa, who hopes they can reach the “Green Place” of her youth. When the women flee the Citadel, they leave a message painted on the walls and floors of their room, “Our sons will not be warlords.” There is another way to live, this message says, a way that doesn’t have violence at its core. The reason humans are in this dystopian mess, the women in the film agree, is because generations of people have hacked out life in selfish ways that may have been good for them as individuals in the short term but have ruined the earth in the long run.

This anti-violence thinking guides the women’s decisions in the film. Along their escape route, they make crucial choices rooted in peace that help them in the end. When the red-headed Capable discovers War Boy Nux stowed away on the wives’ escape vehicle, in any other movie she would have killed him—or he would have killed one of the women. But instead, she greets him with tenderness, expressing care and concern over his wounded and upset state. Even as the women flee three warlords’ armies at once, they stick to a compassionate rule: No unnecessary kills. Nux, one of the most rabid recruits to Immortan Joe’s cult of personality, goes on to recognize the power of helping people and plays a key role in aiding the women’s escape from Joe’s clutches. 

the vuvalini

The Vuvalini defend themselves with guns. But they'd rather heal the world with seeds. 

One of the best and cruelest moments in the film comes when the women, Nux, and Max finally find the long-lost family Furiosa is seeking: the tribe of women called the Vuvalini. Instead of living in the lush Green Place, though, the group of half a dozen mothers and grandmothers ride motorcycles across the dunes and are crack shots with sniper rifles. They reveal that the fabled Green Place has turned into a ghostly bog, its life-sustaining water turned toxic many years before. When the earth sickened, so did their society. Instead of being able to live as egalitarian farmers as they’d like, the women of the Green Place are forced to eke out a meager life in the desert, shooting all people who threaten them. When one of the Vuvalini tells escaped wife The Dag (Abbey Lee) that she has shot every single person she has met out there in the desert—perfect headshots, all of them—The Dag is upset. “I thought you were above that,” she says. The older woman replies by pulling out her bag and showing her a treasure: a collection of seeds she saved from the Green Place. Every chance she gets, the Vuvalini try planting them, but they have yet to grow anything in the water-parched sands. Greeting every visitor with a headshot isn’t their way of life, it’s just a temporary and unfortunate means of survival that they know won’t sustain them for the long haul. Even as they try to get by in the desert, the Vuvalini are still trying to grow their seeds. After she shows her collection of seeds, the older woman pulls out a skull that she’s turned into a makeshift planting pot, a small green plant poking its leaves up through the animal’s bleached white cranium. It’s a beautiful scene, one that speaks to the feeling of hope that Max, particularly, has forced himself to abandon. 

After all the hype over its graphics and battle sequences, the twist in Mad Max is that the most badass people in the film are not any of the war-mongering guys with names like The People Eater and The Bullet Farmer. Instead, the toughest people you’ll meet in this dystopia are a collective of old women who are diligent heirloom seed savers. In the midst of the desert’s chaos and murder, they see a clear path forward: Find a way to heal the earth. The secret weapon of Fury Road is not a bigger gun, a faster car, an improbable spaceship, or a boy genius. It’s a pile of heirloom seeds. In the end, nothing is more powerful in the desert than the simple forces of soil, seeds, water, and tender care.  

        Read this next: Mad Max Complicates Action Hero Masculinity—And That's Great
        Read this next: You Can Now Search for 2,000 Films Where Women Get the Most Lines

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. She's interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Great perspective!

I just saw this movie and hadn't thought of it in terms of eco feminism. That's so interesting! Though I did feel that the older women really did steal the show.

Also: "Even as they try to get by in the desert, the Vulvalini are still trying to grow their seeds." ...Vulvalini? I mean...

Possible correction?

Hi there! Was reading your article, having recently watch the film myself, but I think you mixed up two characters - it's The Dag (Abbey Lee Kershaw) who asks the Vuvalini about the seeds, not Capable! The Dag is the mother with the long blond hair, who forms the connection with woman who carries the plants around. Great read though!

You're right!

Thanks for noting that—you're right, I misremembered the scene. I just changed the names in the article to be accurate.

Hilarious Typo/ Wonderful Article :}

Every chance she gets, the Vuvalini try planting them, but they have yet to grow anything in the water-parched sands. Greeting every visitor with a headshot isn’t their way of life, it’s just a temporary and unfortunate means of survival that they know won’t sustain them for the long haul. Even as they try to get by in the desert, the Vulvalini are still trying to grow their seeds."

VULVALINI FUNNIEST TYPE EVER

That being said, as an environmental activist and aspiring filmmaker I can't wait to see this movie, and am thrilled that they are reaching mass audiences with a message like this.

It's still a bad movie

Yes, there are female characters. And yes, if you can get past all the shooting, trite makeup and bad special effects, there is a theme about desecration of nature and women. I suppose we're lucky in this day and age to have that. But it's still a terrible movie. Sad that in this day and age, this movie--THIS movie--is a rare statement for taking care of the planet and treating women as more than milk ducts and breeding machines. Don't waste your money or your time. I wish I hadn't---and in fact, requested and got my money back.

Opinions

One person's bad movie is anothers favorite. I have friends who saw it twice, and raved about the cinematography. A lot of people are into super cheesed up cars as well.

Feminism and essentialism

Good article. I am still waiting for a discussion from within the feminist movement over whether Fury Road's essentialism is a good or a bad thing. The equating of women with nature, women as pacifist and "keepers of the seeds", Agharad protecting Furiosa with her big pregnant belly. The only positive thing Furiosa has to say to the other women about Max and Nux is that they are "reliable."

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