One of the larger talking points of Mad Max: Fury Road has been the masculinity of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. While the arguments surrounding these points about the character are valid, one thing did manage to catch my eye and stick with me more so than these aspects. Something that’s easy to miss, because it happens so early. Something that only happens for about a minute. Something that’s fucking offensive. I’m talking about the blink-and-you-miss-it notion that only the beautiful women have merit that render them precious, placing value on beauty over personal worth.
|Key word here: lovely.
The scene is fairly short: a shot of women with pumps hooked up to their breasts, expressing milk. The introductory shot of this scene, though, is telling without having to utter dialogue in reference to it. Notice how we don’t get any facial close-ups: no one has a lovely face with perfect makeup. No one has meticulously styled hair. We are presented with overweight women, rolls of flesh billowing over their skirts, lounging idly in their chairs as they are pumping. Considering that Hollywood has a massive problem with acknowledging a body type that’s simultaneously above a size 4 AND attractive, and we’re getting hammered over the head that these women are not to be found beautiful or desirable. The close-ups we do get are of their breasts, and even then, it’s for the purpose of generating milk, a consumable good. These women are producing a product. Their purpose is not sexual, and therefore, we are not afforded the opportunity to find them attractive; in fact, pains are taken to make them less of people and more on the level of dairy cattle. The demeanors they are given does not help this cause any: they look bored and disinterested in the world around them, and no one seems to want to escape. No one moves a muscle when the alarm is raised over Furiosa deviating from her assigned route: each woman is complacent, immobile and, more damning, stripped of attractiveness. What we gather from this is that it’s somehow okay that these women are being treated this way. After all, these women are not being sexually violated: they’re producing milk, and no one is trying to rape them. Therefore, it’s okay to just leave them to lactate in their comfy chairs. Like it or not, this film presents these women not as women, but as a resource, and the perception of their energy level and physical attractiveness renders them nothing more than livestock. And at this point, no one is breaking their ass to try to fight for the rights of the cattle, despite that they’re people and don’t deserve to be either viewed or treated that way.
|Yeah, don’t hurt yourself trying to save the overweight chick.
The wives, by contrast, are viewed in a much different fashion. Their physical appearance is far different: each woman has long, flowing hair (save for Toast) and wears a white outfit. These outfits accentuate the breasts and belly, which we’re meant to notice: these are Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne)’s “prized breeders,” and as such, their value is attributed to their sexual attractiveness. These areas are associated with pregnancy; they are the visual marker of biological fitness to carry on genes. We get shots of these body parts because we’re programmed to find it enticing. It doesn’t stop there: when Furiosa meets up with the surivors of her childhood home, they observe of the women, “Where did you find such creatures? So soft!” and “This one has all her teeth!” We are are meant view them as beautiful; these are lovely, exceptional women, and as such, they are stripped of free will by a tyrant that wants to use them for sex and breeding. We see their struggle defined in a more acute fashion: they are kept in a vault by Joe, and the walls of said vault are decorated with the phrase, “We are not things.” We’re made to feel that they are being used, and this is confirmed when we first meet the group: they are stripping off chastity belts, which are branded with Joe’s logo and toothed around the vaginal opening. That they wear white identifies them as the role of the bride, who exists purely for his sexual purposes – they need to maintain sexual purity in order for the lineage to avoid questioning, and to enforce a notion that they are property. Our first reaction is that we want them to rebel against that role. After all, women don’t like being forced into childbearing. A woman being raped by a creepy old man? Yeah, not on the audience fun list. We want them to be rescued; no one deserves that life.
So how does this tie into the short scene? Simple: this film implies that the only women worth saving are the beautiful ones that can have babies. While it’s noble that the wives need to be saved – and I am not going to argue that these women don’t deserve rescuing, because anyone who is being kept against her will, raped and forced to carry the product of said rape to term deserves to be liberated from that – this film completely neglects that other women are being oppressed as well. No one is hurting him or herself to end the oppression of the wet nurses (for lack of a better term). No one has slapped chastity belts on them and demanded sexual purity. No one is scrawling revolutionary statements on walls behind them in the milking station. No one blows up a convoy in their name. Hell, Furiosa doesn’t even take a token one with her – the only thing that’s brought is a milk supply, identified as “mother’s milk.” We don’t even get to see one get treated as a human being that deserves freedom. Even the wives that are being oppressed don’t seem to grasp that they’re not the only ones, and that there are struggles outside of their own experiences. As an audience, we are directed away from these lactating women. We don’t even sexualize their breasts: they’re there for milk production, and as such, we can just forget about the fact that they’re human beings hooked up to machines and being exploited. And whether we want to admit it or not, this film didn’t present a pretty damsel in distress in this particular circumstance, so we’re not invested in the plight of these women. It shines upon an ugly truth: cinema doesn’t view women that are deemed conventionally unattractive as worthy of salvation and equality.
|Save the socially acceptable beauties, people.
Immortan Joe is told at the beginning of the film, “You cannot own a human being. Sooner or later someone pushes back.” It would have been nice if that same sentiment had extended to the women with a little more weight on their frames. Oppression isn’t just rape: it covers all aspects of social inequality. Everyone deserves to be a human being. Even the overweight woman that’s hooked up to the milk pump. You shouldn’t have to worry about being pretty enough for someone to want to help you.