In this series, “The Textures of Sexuality,” we have undergraduate students from two schools considering how the body is implicated in the storytelling devices used in popular media. Baker University student Mary Tusten looks at how Mad Max: Fury Road defies phallocentrism seen in most movies and challenges us to think about why we should start noticing what we are watching on our screens.
Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema analyzes phallocentrism in movies. Phallocentrism affects our cinema in many ways. Every movie is controlled by the need to fill the roles of an active male lead and a passive female subject. Women are used as props who are severely lacking meaning. Passive female roles allow the male viewer/spectator to project his fantasies onto the woman displayed before them.
For example, every James Bond movie that has ever existed has had an active male, James Bond, and a passive female (or three), the love interest/s. James moves the plot forward and controls the narrative while the women have sex with him and, often, die. All the women are ‘strong’ and beautiful yet unable to control any part of the narrative. They are glorified plot devices and perfect subjects for projection. Being able to project is all about control. Controlling the subject, the woman, is only natural, because of the patriarchy. We live in a male dominated world so everything is male dominated, even the women. Male domination equals phallocentrism in the media and lots of representation for men and not a lot for women.
Even things we should perceive as genderless, things only referred to as creatures or aliens within their scripts, are assumed to be male unless stated otherwise. In Alien what do you assume the seemingly genderless Alien is? The Alien is “a perfect organism”, the ultimate predator, everything a ‘man’ is. Despite Ripley’s efforts the Alien is in control, and because it is not weak it cannot be a woman. Phallocentrism is always present even among aliens we know nothing about.
It’s hard to come up with an example of a movie that has a woman take on the active role rather than the man. When this does happen, the woman is often sexualized and/or is helped through the plot by a similarly or even more active male. Men are rarely passive and even when displayed as the ‘nerd’, a stereotypically weak trope, they are victorious at the end of the film usually when they get the hot girl, a passive role, which then immediately gives them an active role.
So, let’s try and think extra hard to see if we know a movie that gives a woman a true active role. Maybe the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road? While named after the one and only Mad Max, the clear lead is the badass Imperator Furiosa. Furiosa is never sexualized, has more dialogue than Max, the ‘Savior’, and moves the plot forward. Max grunts a lot, kills some guys, angsts around, and drifts. Killing people isn’t really passive, but overall Max acts more like a sad prop than a typical white male lead. The other characters in Mad Max are just as rebellious of the roles usually assigned to them. The Wives, collectively, are on the run from the one active male in the movie, Immortan Joe, who is the absolute worst.
Their outfits can be argued as sexual, but they stand defiant every second of the movie and refuse to be props both for Immortan Joe and the (male) audience.
We also have another group of wonderful, murderous, women, the Vuvalini AKA The Many Mothers. The Vuvalini (what a name) are a matriarchal group taken to the extreme. No men, no way. They spend a lot of the movie fighting Immortan Joe’s War Boys and while they all die they do it creating a meaningful lesson to be learned. The best part of all this is that this female driven movie was a hit in the box office.
Mad Max: Fury Road proves that the phallocentrism we see in our media today isn’t necessary. There can be successful movies with authentic women and there can be movies with both gratuitous violence and emotionally complexity. It doesn’t have to be a matter of picking and choosing, and that’s exactly what phallocentric cinema does. The emotionally stunted ways of phallocentrism are without authenticity and are stale enough to destroy the art of cinema. The good thing is female-led movies with depth are on the rise. While there may be some hiccups we can be sure that there is hope for cinema after all.