On a sweltering day this past June, I tumbled from the darkened aisles of the cinema and into the blinding sunlight with tears streaming down my face. In dark, smoke-y lines down my cheeks, streaked eyeliner and mascara, the back of my hand stained with the smeared remnants of my painstakingly applied wingtip. An elderly woman passed me by, concerned, hanging her head, probably wondering what movie currently showing had left me in such distress.
Perhaps something about an ill-fated family pet? (I still haven’t forgiven you for Marley and Me, motion picture gods! Or I Am Legend, for that matter. Will Smith, why?!? We trusted you!)
Or maybe a tragic love story? (Yeah…despite attending many a slumber party in my single-sex education life, I have yet to finish the Notebook, no matter how devastatingly handsome Ryan Gosling happens to be. I was only able to skate by throwing some lines out about being a bird or writing letters. Hell, for all I know, that movie was centered around carrier pigeons.)
The violent sobbing came at the conclusion of a post-apocalyptic hyper-realistic action film, a rebirth of a campy late-seventies Mel Gibson flick. Mad Max: Fury Road had emotionally destroyed me in the best way possible.
Allow me to clarify. Though Max’s story of losing his wife and child at the hands of vicious road warriors is certainly heart wrenching, the strong response that Fury Road had generated had absolutely nothing to do with the character whose name was plastered on billboards. Despite what the franchise affiliation may sway you into thinking, Fury Road wasn’t really about Max or how goshdarn Mad he was all the time. (And really. He was pretty pissed.)
Yes, despite his billing in the film’s title, Max is most definitely second fiddle. And despite his alliterative nickname, he’s not even the angriest character in the film. Both of those titles belong rightfully to Imperator Furiosa, portrayed with a serious mix of strength, vulnerability, and rawness by the incomparable Charlize Theron. Yet it is the character of Furiosa and the other women in the film that illicited such a guttural response, generating Oscar buzz, earning cheers from passionate feminists everywhere, and even drawing men’s rights activists out from behind their fedoras to call for a boycott. No one expected the jet-fueled explosion-laced blockbuster to open up a conversation on the writing and portrayal of female characters in entertainment, but the runaway hit became an anthem for not only equality, but total liberation without apology.
I’d rather not spoil the film for anyone in case they haven’t seen it (and in the case you haven’t seen this film, you need to remedy that immediately), but the plot essentially follows Furiosa as she attempts to help a group of female sex slaves, meant to be used for breeding purposes, escape their captor, the monstrously cruel tyrant Immortan Joe. (It’s worth noting that in writing the film, George Miller consulted feminist icon and playwright Eve Ensler to work with the cast on how to appropriately portray thematic elements dealing with violence against women, a subject that is so often approached with a complete lack of understanding and empathy, let alone basic tact.) Along the way, Furiosa meets with an entirely female clan of warriors, her tribe, the Vuvalini, a group of survivors so tough yet so sentimental, so diverse in thought and emotion, each woman a character in lieu of a caricature. And it was a triumphant moment between Furiosa and these women she had traveled and fought vigilantly with at the near-ending of the film that caused me to burst into loud sobs in the theatre, my brother eying me nervously.
“Are you alright?”
I was more than alright. “They’re…characters,” I spat out, gesturing at myself and then the slowly rolling credits. I had never seen myself represented on screen like that before. And it came in an action film where characters huffed chrome spray paint and had names like Nux and Cheedo, which is not really a typical Friday night for me, so it may seem inexplicable why a post-nuclear holocaust wasteland struck a nerve so deep within me. But unlike other “strong female characters” I had seen presented in film before, pre-packaged glistening babes with shotguns propped on their shoulders, the women of Mad Max had had emotions, ambition, wit, softness, with plenty of bite and hardcore hand-to-hand combat skills to match. To put it quite simply, these women were fleshed out, given a sense of autonomy and agency free of the patriarchal tyranny that left them, quite literally, baking in the desert sun.
There’s been a call for Strong Female Characters™ recently and, according to the clamors of movie reviewers across the web, there’s more strong females in film than ever before. But what made Fury Road (and others, such as the Alien franchise and the unforgettable Sarah Connor in the Terminator series) such a triumph was not the fact that these women glowered and wore grease paint smeared on their faces. It had nothing to do with the guns or the hyper masculine traits pumped into the poreless faces and chiseled cheekbones of model-actresses. You can’t expect your film to be recognized as a work of egalitarian, representative art if all you’re really advertising is, “Look! We made a strong, independent women who doesn’t need a man in her life (but will inevitably end up with one by the film’s conclusion)! She’s sassy! She makes sarcastic quips and can fire a weapon! Strong! Can’t you see the STRENGTH! Feminism!”
That’s not representation, that’s a cheap marketing ploy.
They break the rules just enough, with a coquettish smirk. The plot belongs to the men, belongs to those in charge, while they stand around with their arms crossed, making wry jokes. There is no development, unless of course you consider romantic development, typically with an opposites-attract hero. The issue with writing false-strong female characters is that filmmakers often fall into one of two traps. Firstly, the character can be entirely, truly badass, toting weapons, shooting off baddies, and doing backflips in high-heeled boots…but actually make no progress as a character, barely a facsimile of a human being. Or, secondly, the character does have a purpose…to push the plot forward for a male hero, for example, whether it’s through finding herself in harm’s way or falling head-over-heels for the male lead. Neither of these function as fully fleshed out characters. They are caricatures, barely ideas, either a character sketch or a fork in the road plot device.
These rough-and-tumble shadow characters are just snakes-and-snails-and-puppy-dog-tails, in no way better than the hypersexualized sugar-and-spice porcelain dolls of romantic comedies. Change out the stilettos for combat boots and the message remains the same; women are just pawns to be pushed from one scene to the next, their own agency never truly factoring in.
The word strong does not necessitate masculine traits. It can mean a variety of things, from a willingness to look for peaceful solutions before a fire fight to coping with, but not simply becoming defined by, the pain of the past and emotional trauma. And beyond that, it’s not that cinema needs more strength in female characters. It’s that there needs to be more…character. The figures we project onto the big screen are representative, on a greater scale, of every individual sitting in the audience. Shallow and one-note characters, paper dolls and one-word personalities, do not do anything to further the way we look at one another or the world around us. If entertainment is in any way indicative of our ideas and culture, it does not bode well that cardboard cutouts are still passable figures, that Mary Sues and two-dimensional silhouettes are lauded for the “strength”.
We need heroes like Furiosa and Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor and Laurie Strode and Clarice Starling.
We need characters, lest we lose track of what the word itself means.
In Fury Road, one of the escaped brides screams at another, guttural, echoing across the sand.
“We are not things!”
Maybe these four words were directed at Hollywood, an emblazoned attempt at declaring that women are not stock figures, not chess pieces on the black-and-white board that makes up a film’s plotline.
We are not things. We are not objects. We are not caricatures.
We are characters.