A hopeful ecofeminist ecology in Mad Max: Fury Road

Studying culture at the University of Technology Sydney gave me a chance to explore this iconic Australian dystopia film with regard to some of my favourite topics: environmentalism and feminism. If you don’t mind the academic language, hopefully, you find it as fascinating as I did!

Applying an ecofeminist critique to contemporary science-fiction texts can offer both insight and hope within an era of ecological crisis. Strong resonances of ecofeminism are evident in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic film Mad Max: Fury Road (2014), as the film exposes the subjugation of both women and nature under the patriarchy. Miller uses the progressive potential of fantasy, empowering his female characters to realise a fairer world. The film’s dark, dystopian representation of the patriarchy offers a metaphor for modern capitalism, which is critically constructive in our unsustainable times. On the other hand, we can critique the film’s matriarchy, as it also fails to present a fully sustainable state of the world, free from peril. By replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, the film perpetuates the subjugation of nature by human culture, a key concern of ecofeminism. Overarchingly, an ecocritical reading of Miller’s Fury Road illustrates areas of hopefulness for a future, characterised by social and ecological equality. 

An ecofeminist viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road promotes a world characterised by ecological and social balance. Ecofeminism originates from ecocriticism, being the various representations of human relationships with the non-human, which are often destructive (Marland, 2013, p. 847). While the first wave of ecocriticism was mainly celebratory of nature’s existence (Marland, 2013, p. 849), the second wave was more critical of society. Ecofeminist Sylvia Mayer (2006) argues that environmental damage is mainly caused by those with socioeconomic power – a male elite (Mayer, 2006). This perspective resonates in Fury Road, as the director Miller links “the male exploitation of the female body with human exploitation of the Earth.” (McLean, 2017, p. 372) The film employs a dystopian form to critique hierarchical social authority and offer a design for a more sustainable social and environmental ecology. 

Mad Max: Fury Road presents an ecofeminist narrative of hope that frees women and the earth from subjugation. As Yates (2017) argues, capitalist patriarchy often links women with nature as both are nurturing and reproductive. This link with nature is thus used to deem women as biologically inferior (Yate, 2017, p. 354). Miller critiques this belief in his hyperbolic dystopia: women are lined up and suctioned into milking machines, referred to as “breeders” and valued mainly on their reproductive ability. The earth’s resources are similarly dominated by patriarchy: fruit-bearing trees are harvested on the top of the Citadel, and the earth is pumped for “guzzoline” (oil) and “aqua cola” (water). In these opening scenes, Fury Road critiques capitalist patriarchy for exploiting both women and nature (Yate, 2017, p. 355). Miller continues to present a narrative that topples this patriarchal system with female communal leadership, grounded in the hopeful restoration of nature. 

Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Home Video, 2015

Dystopian film Mad Max: Fury Road highlights the progressive potential of fantasy texts to provide an alternative, hope-filled ecological reality. The director, Miller, uses the fantasy genre to progress past the conventional after-Eden narrative, which positions nature/women as passive against an active man/culture (Yate, 2017, p. 356). Baker (2012) employs Marxist theories to highlight the potential of fantasy to emancipate readers’ thinking from dominant capitalist narratives (Baker, 2012, p. 437). Barker (2012) critiques the vast majority of fantasy, which submissively reproduces conservative politics (Baker, 2012, p. 438), taking Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an example. The series’ escapism backwards into medieval Middle-earth and its themes of xenophobia and nationalism can be seen as unprogressive and even reinforcing a dominant capitalist ideology (Baker, 2012, pp. 439-440). Barker (2012) celebrates fantasy which reimagines dark places in our society and defamiliarises readers with their preconceptions (Baker, 2012, p. 442). Fury Road aligns with Barker’s (2012) celebration of progressive fantasy, defamiliarising viewers with capitalist ideologies that subjugate women and nature. 

Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Home Video, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road exemplifies progressive fantasy by reimagining the traditional Edenic recovery narrative through ecofeminism, presenting a future with environmental hope. The Edenic recovery narrative was popularised in Hollywood’s late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century and presented women as one with nature, needing saving and protection by men (Yates, 2017, p. 356). The previous Mad Max film, The Road Warrior (1981), exemplified this narrative. At one point, ‘Eden’ is literally presented to Max in postcards with women posed proactively on beaches (Yates, 2017, p. 356) – a romantic ideal he is challenged to restore. The new rendition of Mad Max, Fury Road, inverts this narrative to present the human fall from Eden due to patriarchal capitalism – which is presented in the form of mining for “guzzoline” (oil) and “aqua cola” (water) (Yates, 2017, p. 358). Rather than a male protagonist, the film’s heroic agent is the female warrior-driver Furiosa and the Five Wives, who seek escape to “the Green Place”. Nature becomes a space for ecofeminist opportunity, not in need of male agency (Yates, 2017, p. 358). When the women discover that the Green Place no longer exists, they decide to return to liberate the Citadel, reclaiming their agency. The film disrupts the Edenic recovery narrative, linking women with nature not through subjugation but environmental liberation.

Finding hope in times of ecological crisis involves not just reimagining the future but also being critical of our unsustainable present. Mad Max: Fury Road exposes patriarchal capitalism as destructive of nature, presenting a mythos applicable in our unsustainable times. Morgan (2010) highlights the importance of speculative fiction and ‘myths’ in personally engaging audiences with problems in our present. While Fury Road is a hyperbolic dystopia, Morgan (2010) argues that this does not make the film less real but instead a heightened version of reality (Morgan, 2010, p. 388). This version of reality appeals less to our rational thinking, or “logos”, and more to our deeply personal psychological thinking, or “mythos” (Morgan, 2010, p. 388). Morgan (2010) takes the example of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy text renowned for invoking a life-long personal connection with the environment (Morgan, 2010, p. 396). Morgan (2010) explains that the naturally wondrous Middle-Earth drew from Tolkien’s love of the English Midlands. Correspondingly, the evil Isengard drew from the industrialisation Tolkien witnessed encroaching upon his home (Morgan, 2010, pp. 390-393). Hyperbolic myth forms, such as The Lord of the Rings and Fury Road, are powerful tools for engaging audiences with the problems in our unsustainable present and inspiring personal commitment to futures characterised by hope.

Mad Max: Fury Road employs its dystopian mythos form to personally engage audiences with the problems in our modern society, the places of darkness that must change to avoid the ecological crisis. The film’s villain, Immortan Joe, is presented as an entrepreneur discovering market essentials; he controls industry, farming, and water within an otherwise desolate world. This metaphor for neoliberal privatisation deepens as Immortan Joe’s sons and wives enjoy the resources, while the masses and the rest of the environment are helpless (McLean, 2017, pp. 79-81). Miller presents Immortan Joe as a deity in the eyes of his army, known as the War Boys, and therefore suggests capitalism is a similarly ill-founded and destructive religion in today’s society (McLean, 2017, p. 83). The white body and face paint covering the War Boys’ symbolises the majorly white-male patriarchy, which upholds and benefits from today’s capitalism (Yates, 2017, p. 362). The war boys and Immortan Joe present a mythos of our unsustainable times, designed to personally engage us with the problems that must be faced to reach a future of hope for our environment and all those who live within it. 

Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Home Video, 2015

While Mad Max: Fury Road glorifies a matriarchal solution to the ecological crisis, Anderson (2012) warns that we must approach hopeful apocalyptic literature with criticality. Twenty-first-century apocalyptic literature tends to relish in the destruction of the world itself (Anderson, 2012, p. 267) and can offer confused or problematic environmental messages. Anderson takes the example of Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008), suggesting that the film’s depiction of environmental destruction by consumerism contradicts its nostalgia for consumer goods. The protagonist robot, WALL-E, is humanised as a nostalgic collector (Anderson, 2012, p. 270). Audiences are invited to empathise with his fondness for Christmas tree lights, shiny DVDs and sporks (Anderson, 2012, p. 269) while paradoxically understanding that these items have transformed the world into an unlivable garbage heap (Anderson, 2012, p. 279). Overarchingly, it is positive that we see the critical interrogation of science fiction texts, like WALL-E and Fury Road. Such interrogation highlights a self-awareness of the ecological problems we face and a movement towards reaching reliable ecological solutions. 

The matriarchal response to the environmental crisis presented in Mad Max: Fury Road includes contradictions, which audiences should investigate to achieve more reliable ecological solutions. The female protagonists, Furiosa with her family from the Vuvalini and the Five Wives, are presented as the counterpart to Immortan Joe. The women exemplify collaborative leadership and care for their environment and the disenfranchised. However, they do not present an alternative solution to the environmental crisis (McLean, 2017, p. 383). Symbolically, the “Seed Keeper” plants her seeds in the soil, despite admitting they never grow (McLean, 2017, p. 385). Additionally, it is only through violence and the death of Immortan Joe and countless others, including their own, that the women can gain agency (McLean, 2017, p. 386). Challenging the matriarchal idealism presented in Fury Road (2014) highlights that a more complex solution is needed for meaningful environmental hope. 

Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Home Video, 2015

To extend this critique of Mad Max: Fury Road, the film problematically elevates humankind, whether patriarchy or matriarchy, above the earth. Latour (2014) highlights humanity’s concerning trend of characterising nature as an objective. Latour takes the example of a news headline that presents nature as a passive subject: “the threshold of 400 ppm of CO2, the main agent of global warming, is going to be crossed this year” (Latour, 2014, p. 2). He questions how humankind can understand the severity of our ecological crisis from such an objective description (Latour, 2014, p. 2). In preference, we must characterise nature as active: celebrating texts that present humanity in dynamic engagement with strong natural agents like rivers, landslides and volcanoes (Latour, 2014, p. 8), and scientific texts that employ storytelling to animate the environment as much as humans (Latour, 2014, p. 14). Texts should present nature with as much agency as humankind, unlike Fury Road, which only replaces patriarchy with matriarchy over the dominion of the earth. By encouraging narratives that animate the earth, we will be able to reconcile the modern elevation of culture over nature, which has characterised our ecological crisis. 

An ecocritical viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road reveals the film’s progressive potential, but an ecofeminist lens can also challenge the problematic elevation of active human culture over passive earth. Feminism has traditionally been concerned with equalising women as part of a male-dominated culture. However, this fight reinforces the binary where culture is valued above nature (Yates, 2017, p. 355). Ecofeminism is concerned “not only with women’s liberation, but also with the liberation of nature from objectification” (Yates, 2017, p. 355). Positively, the film challenges the divide between female/nature/object and male/culture/subject (Yates, 2017, p. 360). As the women give up their journey to the Green Place and instead return to recover the Citadela, the film challenges the idea that society can recover Eden elsewhere and highlights the importance of recovering the world we live in (Yates, 2017, p. 367). However, throughout this storyline, the natural world remains passive; therefore, further hope lies in texts that challenge the divide between an active human and a passive natural world.

George Miller’s post-apocalyptic film Mad Max: Fury Road (2014) provides a hopeful ecological vision and invites more discussion surrounding possible solutions at this time of crisis. Ecofeminism is strongly evident in how the film links the subjugation of women and nature under the patriarchy. The empowered female protagonists who work together for ecological betterment highlight the progressive potential of fantasy. The film’s idealist matriarchy also invites critique and further discussion about tangible solutions to the ecological crisis. While replacing the patriarchy with matriarchy presents some opportunity, an ecofeminist reading highlights the need to equalise women with men, and then, nature and humankind. Overall, an ecofeminist viewing of this science-fiction film offers both insight and hope within an era of ecological crisis.

Reference (APA 7th Edition) 

Anderson, C. (2012). Post-Apocalyptic Nostalgia: WALL-E, Garbage, and American Ambivalence toward Manufactured Goods. Literature, Interpretation, Theory, 23(3), 267–282. https://doi.org/10.1080/10436928.2012.703598

Baker, D. (2012). Why We Need Dragons: The Progressive Potential of Fantasy. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 23(3), 437–459. https://web-p-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.lib.uts.edu.au/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=0&sid=11469c35-a426-44a8-a254-55f79748d9ec%40redis 

Latour, B. (2014). Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History, 45(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1353/nlh.2014.0003

Marland, P. (2013). Ecocriticism. Literature Compass, 10(11), 846–868. https://doi.org/10.1111/lic3.12105

Mayer, S. (2006). Literary studies, ecofeminism and environmentalist knowledge production in the humanities. In Nature in literary and cultural studies (pp. 111-128). https://www.academia.edu/12022666/Literary_Studies_Ecofeminism_and_the_Relevance_of_Environmentalist_Knowledge_Production_in_the_Humanities 

McLean, B. (2017). “Who Killed the World?”: Religious Paradox in Mad Max: Fury Road. Science Fiction Film and Television, 10(3), 371–390. https://doi.org/10.3828/sfftv.2017.25

Morgan, A. (2010). The Lord of the Rings – a mythos applicable in unsustainable times? Environmental Education Research, 16(3-4), 383–399. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504621003613111

Yates, M. (2017). Re-casting nature as feminist space in Mad Max: Fury Road. Science Fiction Film and Television, 10(3), 353–370. https://doi.org/10.3828/sfftv.2017.24

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