Monday, May 18, 2015

Woman Saves Women: Furiosa Runs Down the Patriarchy in Mad Max: Fury Road

Never, in a work of fiction that I can recall, have I witnessed such a brutal and desperately tenacious depiction of characters defending female bodily autonomy and freedom. Max Max: Fury Road is, at its core, nestled among retina-burning explosions and hypnotically nightmarish visuals, about freeing five wives/sex slaves/offspring incubators from a repugnant, patriarchal despot.


Fury Road is a stunning action film, two straight hours of relentless pursuit, spinning tires, sandstorms, and blood spatter, but the immediate plot is fairly simple, although set in such a well-established dystopic wasteland that it’s easy to immediately feel immersed and invested in the plight of the protagonists.

The virtues of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, as a fearless, cunning, resourceful, and definitively badass War Rig driving heroine, have been extolled in various reviews. She’s a woman who uses her rank, command of (male) underlings, and access to resources to smuggle five young women, selected to be breeders and kept in chastity-belted captivity as wives of the leader Immortan Joe, out of the Citadel and on a mission to freedom.

Along the way they team up with Max, who has escaped from also being held captive as a human blood bag for sick War Boys in need of transfusions. After a terrifying stint chained and manacled to a pursuing vehicle’s hood like an ornamental figurehead, simultaneously transfusing blood to its driver, he survives, becomes free, and meets the group of women.

While Tom Hardy’s Mad Max is a skilled fighter and a useful ally, he is not a savior and he does not drive the action. Max does not rescue these women – it is not his plan to lead them to safety, and even when he joins the effort, he does not approach them as a paternalistic protector rising to some inborn duty of helping the helpless.

Furiosa is far from helpless. When Max first crosses paths with Furiosa and the five wives, during a brief respite from being pursued by Immortan Joe’s vast vehicular army, he is afraid and distrustful. Having been alone, taken captive, branded and tattooed, enslaved, and hung upside down for blood, Max is scarred, desperate, and focused solely on his own survival. Even when he gets control of the War Rig and tries to drive away, leaving Furiosa and her gang in the desert, he doesn’t make it far – she is too clever, too well-prepared, and has rigged the vehicle to shut down if she’s not driving. With no other way to flee, he is helpless without her knowledge and skill.

So Max, while a great action character, never falls into the formulaic trappings of a machismo-fuelled warrior-saviour. He can fight, he can shoot, he can drive, and he makes an excellent co-pilot. During the opening title credits, Hardy’s and Theron’s names appear simultaneously – while Hardy plays the titular character of this well-known franchise reboot, it is clear, from marketing posters to trailers to opening credits, that Theron’s Furiosa is an equal, or more important, hero figure.

And while the wives are scantily clad in gauzy, billowy, white rags (this is a movie, after all), this rather titillating costuming can be justified considered they have just been smuggled directly from life in a tyrant’s sex cave. Furiosa, on the other hand, isn’t sporting short shorts (no matter how much Tomb Raider tried to convince us they were practical for archaeology and ass-kicking). There is no bare midriff, no conveniently misplaced bra – Charlize Theron is gorgeous even (especially?) with a shaved head, a face covered in axel grease and a mechanical, prosthetic arm, but Furiosa isn’t here to look pretty.

The wives aren’t helpless either. Considering they’re half naked, were kept in captivity, and (at least) one is pregnant, they earn their keep on board the War Rig and do their part during battle-chases.

Without any significant spoilage, just when you think you couldn’t enjoy the film’s depiction of female autonomy, resilience, and power any more, you stumble across a motorcycle gang of militant matriarchs in the desert – the Vuvalini/ Many Mothers. They are old, they are fierce, and they are women.

This is important. Reviewers and critics analyze female action heroes in film and television a lot. We have teenage to early 20s Buffy (the Vampire Slayer). We have teenage Katniss Everdeen. We have (somewhat) older heroines like Alien’s Ellen Ripley (like, before she goes into cryosleep and lives a million years) and the Terminator franchise’s Sarah Connor. We have the horror/action/sci-fi likes of Alice (Resident Evil), Selene (Underworld), Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo, a whole bunch of X-(Wo)Men and a scattered Avenger. What do they all have in common? They are young. Even if they aren’t teenage or depicted as particularly young, they are usually of indeterminate age and rarely depicted as “old.”

Men, on the other hand, keep on fighting into old age. Male action characters, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to James Bond, can be older. Gandalf gets older, almost dies, and only becomes more powerful and awesome. Liam Neeson has vitalized the “dad” action hero.

Movies like The Expendables are completely premised upon older dudes (characters and actors) continuing to fight, blow shit up, and have wild adventures while being older. Sylvester Stallone was like “I’m old and still wanna be an action hero!” so started a new film franchise for him and his buddies. Not unlike the situation for women actors generally, as women age the roles are fewer and different. Action and related filmic genres certainly haven’t maintained or developed roles for older women. We need to see strong, awesome women on screen, and we need to see them continue to be strong and awesome at later ages.

While the Many Mothers clan is not the focus of Mad Max, its warrior women are important, notably aged (for the most part), extremely wise, skilled in battle, and integral to the movie’s culminating battle-chase. Although I’m impressed with the actual portrayals of women characters in Fury Road, what strikes me as more significant is the fact that the action pivots around a story about freedom, specifically, women’s freedom. Women aren’t just depicted as strong and self-reliant, their actions drive the entire film.

So there you have it – a film chock full of post-apocalyptic car chases, brutal violence, and explosions, but the underlying driving plot revolves around a woman rescuing women, previously treated as object/possessions for the sole utility of sex and spawning, from a tyrannical patriarch. She steals his wives and liberates them. Furiosa literally fights the patriarchy.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Schools have a responsibility to create anti-sexist environments

Since last week, renewed focus has been devoted to the issue of school dress codes and the potential for sexism in schools here in Newfoundland and Labrador (and everywhere) regarding how we respond to the bodies of both girl and boy children and teens. Most importantly, the issue is connected to our extremely problematic societal tendency to tell girls that they need to dress a certain way because their bodies may be “distracting” to boys.

Similar stories of students speaking out against the oppressive nature of dress codes steeped in sexism – are popping up all over the place. I dont know if Im paying more attention, more closely following such reports than I did years ago, more in touch due to the greater connectivity of social media, or if, perhaps, young people are speaking out more.

A group of girls at Beaconsfield Junior High in St. John’s spoke out using typed signs – with impressive articulation and poise – about their frustrations with feeling that their bodies are sexualized and their clothing choices deemed inappropriate in a way that, they feel, is not the same as how their male classmates are treated.

While this event has raised many discussion points ranging from the problem of negative messages directed at girls about their bodies, to calls for the implementation of school uniforms as a potential answer to the problem, it’s crucial to analyze how bodies, clothing, and appearances are judged, scrutinized, and evaluated in a way that continues to be inherently sexist and marginalizing.

We all have deeply fixed convictions about what is and is not appropriate, and a lot of it is absolutely rooted in notions of propriety around sexuality and sexual expression, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. You cannot separate notions of attire and “respectability” from the social imperative against public nudity; there are parts of the body we’ve all been socialized to conceal in public. 

Most of us would agree that an elbow is fine to be seen in school, but an entire breast may not be fine. Sure. But why? Where do our ideas and assumptions come from?

We need to be critical thinkers when negotiating clothing and bodies around regimes of “appropriateness” and “professionalism.” These are not fixed absolutes. They are entirely deserving of challenge, and, when considering a multi-generational environment such as a school, we need to consider how ideas that have never been challenged have the potential to be damaging to kids and teens.

“It’s always been that way” and “we all know dressing a certain way makes people think you’re a certain kind of girl” are not valid justifications for a sexist dress code. Telling girls parts of their body “invite” male attention, and normalizing that boys “can’t help themselves,” are horribly uncritical messages to send to girls.

On another note, most of the discourse around school dress codes and discouraging sexual attraction or “distraction” among students is extremely heterosexist. Kids have same-gender attractions at many different ages, and it should never be assumed the attractions being discussed are all heterosexual in nature. Any notion of a dress code must also consider how to legislate the “appropriate” clothing for different genders in a way that is not cissexist and exclusionary – trans and non-binary kids need to be supported and have their needs and concerns approached in a way that is educated and sensitive.

Here are some things to consider when discussing teens’ bodies, attire, and notions of appropriateness:

Teachers and administrators should consider all the ways they can react to a situation in order to respect and centre the needs, thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the students actually involved. There is a range of ways to approach, consider, and reflect upon clothing norms and sexualization of pre/teen bodies without threatening suspension. I think teachers have a responsibility to conduct all aspects of their job in a way that actively challenges sexism and prejudice.

There is inherent sexism and oppression in how female/feminine bodies have more “no show zones” than male/masculine bodies. To pretend that patriarchy isn’t a thing, that there isn’t a long and deeply entrenched legacy of the marginalization of women, and that many of our contemporary ideas about female bodies are not intertwined with a history of suppressing and controlling women’s sexuality from earlier eras, is foolish and shortsighted.

Having been a teenage girl, I can attest to the negativity of early sexualization imposed upon me by others and the reinforcement of my developing body as aberrant. It’s embarrassing to have your body constantly scrutinized just for daring to wear something that fits your body better than a burlap sack. Until you know what it feels like to be in this position, from a young age, it’s important to ask those who can tell you about it.

Schools should be anti-sexist. Not just non-sexist – there is a subtle, but significant, ideological difference. Schools need to do more than just passively not perpetuate sexism – they should actively work to create environments that challenge sexism everyday.