So like basically every other feminist fan of Mad Max: Fury Road, I was hugely disappointed by the short comic detailing Furiosa’s backstory and the awful responses by one of its creators, who also worked on the Fury Road screenplay. Having seen Fury Road no less than five (five!) times in theaters, and having spent a large part of my free time these past couple of weeks designing feminist Mad Max t-shirt designs (shameless plug!), I’ve been thinking a lot about the feminism of Mad Max and about why the comic fell so flat.
One thing I find particularly strong about the film, and why I think it’s important to label it feminist, is that it deals not just with the struggles of women within patriarchal structures of power, but also with a more ephemeral struggle between coded feminine and coded masculine ideals. We can see this embodied in the clear differences between the Vuvalini of the Many Mothers, who raise children communally and emphasize growth, agriculture and life, and Immortan Joe and his cult of toxic masculinity in which the highest privilege for children is to leave their families and ultimately die in his service (and often, it seems, in the pursuit of destruction via slave raids). The wives dream of a better society than the one Joe presents to them, one more like the Vuvalini’s–and the culmination of this dream is the final battle in which they retake the Citadel and are lifted up with Furiosa as its new leaders.
The Furiosa comic had a lot of potential to be a strong follow-up to this story. Furiosa, unlike the wives, has become successful within Joe’s society not as a resource (a “thing”), but as a person who commands respect among her male subordinates. She has somehow managed to gain this respect in a society that sees women (especially attractive, cancer-free women) as resources to be collected and hoarded, and femininity as weak (“soft”) and inferior. She has done so by existing within the system; by adopting traditionally masculine traits like short hair, physical strength and combat proficiency, and black face makeup. (Notably, as Furiosa escapes the trappings of Citadel society, she loses the makeup, then puts it back on for the motorcycle mountain pass people and the second major chase with the Immortan, then loses it again before meeting the Vuvalini, and finally goes through the final fight without it.) We also know that she is searching for redemption, and she seems to find that redemption by taking the Citadel, killing Immortan Joe, and destroying his cult of masculinity.
A story about Furiosa’s struggle to adapt herself to a patriarchal system, and the humanity that she loses in that struggle, would have been amazing. Instead, we got garbage–and garbage that didn’t even give us Furiosa’s backstory past the few weeks before the film’s opening. So I’d like to outline what I think would be an excellent replacement for what we had. Let’s pretend that the Furiosa comic was a dream, and imagine this as the reality.
One important presumption before we begin: according to an interview with Charlize Theron, Furiosa was at some point one of Immortan Joe’s wives, who was “discarded” because she was infertile. I have issues with this backstory, but having come from Theron, I take it as canon. I also don’t think it’s inherently problematic to have a backstory that involves sexual assault, as long as it’s dealt with critically and sensitively. That said, I’ll try to do so in my idea.
With that behind us, here goes.
“Mad Max: Furiosa” Done Better
- We open in the present, with Furiosa as the new leader of the Citadel, taking the vault door off of the wives’ biodome and repurposing it as an office and war room. She has installed the wives and remaining Vuvalini as her lieutenants (with the Dag managing the sustainable growth of the seeds kept by the Vuvalini) and is teaching Toast and Capable physical combat and weapon proficiency so that they can eventually go out on their own for supply runs. Gastown and the Bullet Farm are still nominally under Citadel control, but there is significant unrest there since their people are less familiar with Furiosa; Furiosa discusses with the wives and the Vuvalini potential courses of action for bringing them into the fold.
- At the end of her day, she returns to her bedroom in the Biodome (the Wives sleep elsewhere, uncomfortable with the biodome given what happened to them there). As she drifts off to sleep, she recalls that she’s slept with one eye open for more than seven thousand days, and sleep can hardly come to her anymore. Kept awake by her memories, she thinks of the first day.
- We don’t see the green place, but we get some exposition from Furiosa about how lush and peaceful it was. Furiosa wondered what there was outside of the Green Place, but the elders told her that while she is free to leave, she may not like what she finds: when you live in a desert where there’s nothing but death all around you, death becomes your life, and that poisonous way of thinking is almost impossible to cure.
- We see Furiosa (at about age 10) and her mother taken to the Citadel as slaves. Her mother is severely injured and obviously dying. At first, they’re kept in a holding area where they’re to wait for placement, but her mother dies there on the third day and Furiosa is forced to fight for food and water. Finally, she is brought with other children before the Immortan, who sees her and takes her. She is locked in another pretty vault/biodome, which at this point is empty (it being earlier in the Immortan’s rule, he doesn’t have any wives yet).
- Furiosa lives in the dome for several years, but she is kept in isolation with strange two-way mirrors with people lurking behind them, and only occasional visits from the Immortan, who looks at her like he might look at a doll. He has violent fits, and Furiosa learns not to be “willful” with him. During this time she is educated (she makes friends with Miss Giddy too at this point) and internalizes the gazes from the mirror, performing for them by singing and tending to the gardens. Terrified of living around death, she tries to convince herself that the life here is like the life at the Green Place, but she feels death creeping in from the corners and can’t force herself to believe what she tells herself. She keeps herself sane with books and performance–by becoming a perfect “thing”.
- It is left ambiguous as to whether she is abused by the Immortan at this point. It’s disrespectful to directly depict abuse, especially of a minor, and the point of this section is that Furiosa internalizes her enslavement by objectifying herself. Perhaps Furiosa has blocked out the abuse and alludes to it as beatings, or perhaps she wasn’t abused physically at all because she hadn’t menstruated yet, or maybe she just doesn’t see it as an aspect of her narrative–but that should be left to the reader.
- When she hits the age of 13-14, she is examined by a doctor and found to be infertile and is suddenly treated with disgust. She is immediately discarded and left in the bowels of the Citadel. For weeks she lives at the edge of death and starvation, confused about what she did wrong, how she could have been more perfect. She finally comes to the realization that things can be discarded–she didn’t do anything wrong because as a thing, you can’t act. She asserts to herself, I am not a thing, and vows to survive and return to her home.
- She trains herself physically and beats off the War Boys and slaves who try to attack her. She kills a War Boy in order to take his place as a lancer, and from there begins to rise in the ranks. She implies that she killed many people in order to get to her position. As she says (and as Max said in the film about himself), her only instinct becomes to survive. She loses her arm during this time (though it’s not specified how).
- She is allowed on a slave raid, and during the raid she saves a young girl from her clan, who would rather kill her than have her enslaved. The girl looks up expectantly at Furiosa, thankful to be alive though terrified at the destruction and death around her, and hopeful that Furiosa, the only woman among the raiders, will help her. Furiosa gives her hardly a look and takes her back to the Immortan. She becomes his favourite wife, Splendid, and Furiosa is promoted to Imperator for bringing such a treasure to him. Furiosa sees Splendid’s terrified face as she is brought to the vault, but turns away.
- This part is important–Furiosa becomes accepted in the Immortan’s hyper-masculine society not by simply being extremely powerful, but by objectifying other women. As many women with influence and power within patriarchal societies do, she disassociates herself from other women and from the common cause they have against the oppression they face, and this is how she is finally accepted by the Immortan.
- Furiosa almost comes to believe in this new life, but she thinks of what the elders from the Green Place told her about being surrounded by death. As she is allowed more independence (going on runs and scouting missions alone), she forms many plans and even starts on the road a few times towards the Green Place, but always turns back. At this time, she occasionally sees and interacts with the Wives (only when she has business with Immortan Joe, and he summons her to the vault instead of to wherever else he goes).
- This frustration at herself and her inability to just leave builds up, and finally comes to a breaking point after her closest call, when she turns back and makes it to the Citadel just before she would be missed. She realizes that the Immortan has made her into a prisoner again, and that the only solace she can find is putting other people into smaller cells. She realizes that her sole instinct to survive isn’t enough anymore–that she has to survive and be free. She starts to form her escape plan by watching for desert storms, acquiring the War Rig, and making a deal with the mountain pass people.
- She goes to speak with Miss Giddy, and Miss Giddy perceives from Furiosa’s emotional state that she is planning to leave and that this will probably be their last meeting. The next night, Miss Giddy seeks Furiosa out and sneaks her into the Biodome. The wives are waiting, and they beg Furiosa to take them. Miss Giddy has told them about the Green Place (Furiosa told her when she was in the vault) and they are adamant that Furiosa must take them. She absolutely refuses until Splendid tells her that they must leave because they are not things. Furiosa finally agrees.
- Splendid doesn’t resent Furiosa for imprisoning her; in fact, during this dialogue, it’s suggested that she has intuited to some extent Furiosa’s conflicted feelings on the matter, and understands her plight. On the other hand, Furiosa, who viewed Splendid dismissively in the past, comes to respect her in this scene and realizes that she must be incredibly strong to maintain her sense of self and personhood having been locked in the vault for so long. It is Splendid’s strength of character, then, and not only her words, that inspire Furiosa to take the wives.
- We return to present-time Furiosa. She lights a candle and opens a book at her bedside table, apparently a gift from Cheedo, who has taken to drawing. She has drawn pictures of all those they’ve lost, some from memory and some from Furiosa’s descriptions: Splendid, the Valkyrie, the Keeper of the Seeds, Nux, and many younger faces, War Boys and War Pups she had to kill. There is a picture of Max, disappearing into a crowd of people. Furiosa realizes that she hasn’t redeemed herself yet–in order to cure the poison of death, she must make life around her by creating a place where it can flourish. But she must believe that she has moved forward, because that is her instinct now and it is what keeps the poison at bay. As she narrates this to the audience, we get our final panels of the candle going out and Furiosa’s eyelids becoming heavy. The final panel is of her asleep, clutching the book in her hand.
What do you think? I wanted to work within the canon while keeping faithful to the themes of the film. Theoretically, this could even work as an accompaniment to the existing comic, with only slight changes to how Furiosa ends up taking the wives. And whatever you think of this summary, I think we can all agree it’s better than the comics. Now if only the writers would take their heads out of their asses and think about what they’re creating…