Breaking the princess complex

Breaking the princess complex

A visual anthropologist’s take on George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
—By Ife Olantunji

“I think Fury Road is a timely and groundbreaking work of fiction, expanding on the roles of women in film, and questioning the effects of war on women.”

I have been a documentary filmmaker for almost 10 years, but I have loved film my whole life. Born in Los Angeles to filmmakers, cinema is in my blood. I make observational cinema that examines daily life of women and girls, using anthropological methods of research & production. While documentary is my speciality, I love fiction film, 3rd world cinema, television and new media. Anthropologists have always been interested in visual documentation. Margaret Mead, Jean Rouche, and David MacDougall have explored ethnography through photography and observational cinema. Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North blurred the lines between documentary and fiction. As the relationship between ethnography and cinema grew, anthropologists began to examine the constructs and impacts of cinema on society itself. Film can often reflect popular cultural notions of origin, folklore, gender and ethnic constructs. Through analysing the narrative, film production, distribution and the time and place in which a film is made, social sciences can gain a unique insight into the concerns of contemporary society.

As a filmmaker and an anthropologist, I am always looking for films that explore popular topics from an unlikely point of view. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is such a film. There are a lot of road trip movies, and apocalyptic end of the world movies, but never one told like this. Fury Road is another episode in the world of Mad Max, according to creator and director George Miller. But the star of the film is not Max, as the title would have you believe, but rather Furiosa and the five wives. Unshaken by fear of death, the women are resolved to escape from the war lord, Immortan Joe, and his band of henchmen, the War Boys. Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is the mangled and fearless heroine, who leads them on a journey ‘to the green place’. This film is set 40 years in the future, after war has ‘killed the earth’ leaving little water, food, or healthy people behind. It is clear in the film that women bear the full weight of this patriarchal society. Healthy women are pumped for ‘mother’s milk’ and kept captive for ‘breeding’. Ultimately these same women must fight to reclaim the only viable place for living, the Cinedell. At its core, Fury Road is a tale about hope, redemption and women’s place in saving the world.

I think Fury Road is a timely and groundbreaking work of fiction, expanding on the roles of women in film, and questioning the effects of war on women. I was blown away by use of symbols and visual cues that really told the story of the women’s journey to freedom. At every phase of production George Miller goes the extra step to break the conventions of blockbuster action films, and provide us with a new framework to consider women’s role in the traditionally male dominated field. Given the fact that Hollywood has recently been accused of creating a glass ceiling by denying women stronger roles, and executive positions, Miller’s film proves audiences are interested in stories by and about women.

There is no singular definition of feminist film theory, but I have studied feminist centered fiction and documentary films throughout my fieldwork. I think it is important to expand the conversation of ‘what is feminist film’ by examining films that challenge our notions of race, gender and sex. Cinema criticism by feminist theorists and activists usually focuses on the type of characters women play. But Fury Road is a shining example of what a feminist film could be, not only because of the type of female characters it features, but also the production of the film, and ultimately the narrative itself.

In its trailers Fury Road may seem like your typical hyper-masculine action movie, but although Max narrates the story, the action is driven by Furiosa; the unrelenting hero, sojourner, who has smuggled others to freedom. If it had not been for the few glimpses of Theron in the trailer, I probably would not have seen the movie at all, but her presence on the cast convinced me to give it a shot. When casting the role, Theron seemed like a logical choice, according to Miller, because of her athleticism and undoubtedly her career as an action hero. Unlike most mainstream actresses, Theron made a name for herself playing ‘ugly’ characters. Furiosa is no different. Theron rejects the notion of beauty as the defining feature of a female character, and was free to decide how Furiosa would look. She has no hair, drives a war rig, and has a mechanical arm: not your typical woman even in the world of Mad Max. While she remains attractive throughout the film, her face is often covered in gas, dirt, and blood. I believe that she represents an ideal feminist character, not because of her looks, but because she is focused, precise, and determined.

Max’s face is covered by an iron muzzle which effectively silences him at the start of the film. Tom Hardy has little dialogue but I didn’t notice because his every thought and emotion is conveyed through his body language and eyes. Max is also objectified in this film. In its introduction he is captured, tattooed as a universal donor and used as a human blood bag. It is Furiosa’s willingness to save Max along with the women, that transforms him from a violent brute to loyal warrior. While some critics have pointed out that Tom Hardy may have been the supporting actor, I think his cool silent character represents the importance of both women and men working together. Max does not overpower or undermine Furiosa’s direction, but rather willingly follows her lead. Without romance or the threat of sex, the relationship of Furiosa and Max is intimate and intrinsically connected. Miller brings us to the place where we understand that Max’s freedom, and thus that of men, is tied to the freedom of women. Tom Hardy never questioned why there were so many women on set, or if he was the star of the action thriller, which resonates through his character.

Fury Road has broken with a longstanding tradition in action and sci-fi films of placing female characters in what I call ‘The Princess Complex’. I am always shocked that outside of a few rom-coms, and the occasional female lead thrillers, female characters continue to be written as either the victim who needs to be rescued by a ‘prince’, or as the prize to be ‘won’ at the end of the film. These type of women would never survive in a war torn, diesel fueled society, and are far removed from the realities women face in such situations. To break the ‘Princess’ construction, Miller brought in Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues”, to coach the actresses on their characters’ backstories and motivations. Eve has been a women’s right advocate for more than 20 years, speaking out against violence and sex trafficking of women. She spoke with the actresses in Fury Road about the real life conditions of women captured in war, raped, impregnated or sold into trafficking. Eve helped them achieve a depth of performance that showed complexity rather than confusion. The women in Miller’s film are willing to risk their lives to escape, but they refuse to use guns, or kill more than necessary to survive. They despise the war lords, but find space to accept a War Boy along the way. Eve’s coaching helped the actresses to create complex characters who showed that both fierce determination and unrelenting compassion were necessary to defeat the villain. It is safe to say that not one of the female characters in Fury Road fits into the antiquated construct of women typically found in action and sci-fi films.

Le drapeau de la victoire

Fury Road has broken with a longstanding tradition in action and sci-fi films of placing female characters in what I call ‘The Princess Complex.’

Having said all this, I am critical of film for not featuring any African or Indigenous people in the future. As a black women who loves films, it is hard to completely suspend disbelief when there are NO characters that look like me. It seems unrealistic to have no black or brown actors in fiction films, considering the diversity of our world. And given the fact that Fury Road was filmed in Namibia, it troubles me that more black actors were not included in the production. Although Zoe Kravitz was a member of the cast, Miller could have gone further to reflect the interconnected nature of gender, ethnicity and class in the future. Miller misses an entire audience of women of color, who see little connection between themselves and the film trailers. The exclusion of women of color is a common pitfall in feminist work. It is especially problematic in science-fiction as it disregards the existence of people of color in both the future and the past. By eliminating the discussion of racial constructs in Fury Road, Miller fails to inform the viewer of how much more vulnerable women of color are to being objectified and enslaved. I empathise with the idea of beautiful white women being held against their will, but also recognize the reality that African and Asian women are also being kidnapped and raped by warlords in our present time. Films allow us to see the perspectives of others and develop empathy for experiences we otherwise would not have. When women of color are excluded from these works the viewer is denied an experience in the lives of such women. Given the subject matter, I believe many women of color would enjoy the film, but may be turned off by the lack of diversity.

The feminist perspective is not only found in the characters and the story, but also in the construction of the film itself. Editor Margaret Sixel, had the job of editing 480 hours of footage in a comprehensive fast paced two hour action movie. Although Margaret is a seasoned editor, she was reluctant to edit her first action film. But George Miller convinced his wife that it was her perspective that would visually set the film apart. Boy was he right! Editing is often an invisible skill, that allows the eyes to focus, and the mind to be totally involved in the story. Margaret edited for 2 years, roughly 6000 hours of detailed, complex, grinding post-production into a masterful work of art, far beyond the caliber of the previous Mad Max films. Under Margaret and George’s direction not a single detail was missed, from continuity, and sound, to the 3D and special effects mixing. Margaret’s editing introduced a woman’s perspective behind the scenes as well as on screen in the creation of the final product, demonstrating yet another ‘feminist’ layer to this film.

The messages of Fury Road run contrary to popular western media in many ways. Where many films glorify fictional violence and aim to justify war, in Fury Road war has clearly destroyed the environment, leading to more violence, poverty and objectification. Women have borne the brunt of these changes, but are not subjected to ‘The Princess Complex’ as they have been in so many other action films. The message is clear: women are not things, and ultimately have the power to change the course of society. It may be too soon to discuss the impact of Furiosa’s character on popular culture, but I look forward to hearing the response of women abroad, and especially in locations where the mistreatment of women can be public and brutal. Perhaps this film will turn the tide in film production and encourage more stories from women in a diversity of roles both on and off the screen to create films representative of the conflicts experienced by women around the world. George Miller encountered many obstacles over the 16 years it took to produce the film. Undoubtedly executives were not sure a female driven action film would be successful, but after grossing more than 144 million dollars in its first month, Miller has proved that audience will come and stay for films featuring women.

Considering the popularity of Fury Road, there may already be talks of creating a series of films based on the stories of Furiosa. This would be a much welcomed break from the action films of the past decade. I think characters similar to Furiosa, could encourage real women to see themselves as their own heros. I hope to see Furiosa become a feminist film icon!

For more information and to hear directly from the cast and crew, check out this Cannes Festival Press Conference, with George Miller, Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Doug Mitchell and Margaret Sixel filmed May 14, 2015.

Ife Olatunji is a visual anthropologist specializing in observational cinema and ethnographic methods with children. Ife completed her undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Photography and African American History at Syracuse University. She attended The University Manchester and studied methods in observational cinema and sensory media for visual anthropologist during her Masters. During this time she produced 3 short films on life for girls and women of Asian and African decent in Manchester, Muslim wedding traditions, and daily life for girls attending school in Pushkar, Rajasthan India. Ife’s film, ‘Lessons from the Tiger’ on life for girls in India, has been in several international ethnographic film festivals including: Culture Unplugged and Athens EthnoFest. Ife also won a New York International Film and Video Fest Best Documentary Award for her film ‘Fidel: A Hip Hop Activist’. She has been a media educator and child ethnography for Facets Multi-Media International Children’s Film Fest for 3 years in Chicago, Il, and has been developing methods for conducting child ethnography and cinema for more than 5 years as a professional anthropologist.

Share Tweet about this on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Google+ Google+ Email to someone
TAGS /Feminism / Film /