Does Having a Female Lead Make a Film a Feminist Film? (TLDR: No)

I’m finally going to take on the subject of inevitable controversy in any discussion where it is relevant…feminism. Particularly feminism in Max Max: Fury Road. Buckle up!

This film was, upon its release, the center of a rather massive social conflict among the media elites. Many in the media, such as Return of Kings writer Aaron Clarey, criticized the film as “feminist propaganda” and accused it of ruining a classic franchise by taking the attention off of Max and allowing a new, female character to take over the limelight and emerge as the strongest hero in the film. Others, such as Consequence of Sound writer Sarah Kurchak, shot back that this was an extreme exaggeration and the film was simply trying to tell an interesting story by shaking up the traditional story structure of Mad Max films.

To summarize this argument, I can understand where both classes of media elites are coming from. On the one hand, many feel like they were “tricked” into seeing a “feminist” film under the guise of a popular franchise known for shoot-em-up action flicks, and are concerned that Imperator Furiosa was only made the main character on the basis of her sex. They feel Hollywood is trying to socialize them by fooling them into watching a movie starring…a woman! On the other hand, many feel like feminism has become so stigmatized by American society that even having a female character as the lead protagonist in a film makes it subject to the immediate eye-rolls and snickers from the people who scream “feminist propaganda” every time they see a female, and that true equality only comes when characters are judged indiscriminately of their genitals.

My criticism of the first class of critics, the Clarey camp, is that they seem to have been blinded paranoia of what has been dubbed “feminazism,” or a form of pseudo-feminism that has gone too far in its attempts to correct a societal imbalance between males and females by employing reverse discrimination, effectively giving its opponents ammunition to belittle the accomplishments of all women as results of “affirmative action.” Critics like Clarey seem infuriated simply at the concept of a female playing the lead protagonist role. I understand they are disappointed that the classic Mad Max character was sidestepped in this film, but I wonder how Clarey would have felt had the character who took away Max’s limelight been another male. This is a perfect example of the effects of paranoia of feminism; people have a tendency to look for traces of “radical feminism” being “spoon-fed” to them whenever a woman is present in media, and to over-analyze any form of entertainment that includes a female as a relevant character. The pervasiveness of this paranoia effectively prompts an implicit fear among many entertainment makers of portraying too many prominent female roles and being labeled a radical feminist with a political and social agenda.

Simply because Imperator Furiosa is a woman, her character is accused of being the item of Hollywood feminist propaganda. Why can’t a filmmaker decide to add a new main protagonist to spice up the fourth installment of a franchise, especially when it has been nearly 30 years since the third installment’s release? Why can’t a film include a female protagonist who plays an unconventional role for a female and still be considered an action flick that can entertain guys? What quality does a film lose from having a strong, empowered woman in a lead role as opposed to a man? I get that Clarey is trying to fight what he sees as a culture that favors women over men, but the arguments he makes in his piece actually do more to legitimize the idea that a feminist movement still is needed in our society. Clarey’s alarm at the concept of a lead female role in an action movie is the textbook definition of sexist. If it were a man in this lead role, Clarey would be fine with it, but because it’s a woman in this lead role, Clarey calls it feminist propaganda. And many women read pieces like Clarey’s and are discouraged from pursuing a career in Hollywood because they are afraid that they will be branded radical feminists and all their accomplishments will be deligitimized by the media elites.

I find some aspects of Kurchak’s piece to be objectionable, but it’s mainly the rhetoric. She makes some great points about the film’s production history, particularly the past works of the film’s director, who has always done unconventional takes on traditional styles of films. She points out the obvious – maybe the filmmakers just thought it would make for a good story to include a new character, Imperator Furiosa, who just happened to be female. Kurchak also brings up that Clarey’s McCarthian accusation, the suggestion that Eve Ensler’s consultation with female cast members of Fury Road was some sort of secret feminist mafia meeting, is ridiculous…as Ensler was offering them advice on playing the part of a sex slave. These are all factual, logical points that can’t be disputed. Clarey’s piece relies mostly on emotional, alarmist, abstract rhetoric and making assumptions without evidence. Kurchak’s response is more measured and reasonable by contrast. She does not engage on a philosophical level about feminism and gender roles, as that inevitably leads to an endless discourse about no concrete issues that becomes increasingly less relevant to the entertainment produced for middle America.

My one issue is with some of the rhetoric Kurchak uses, which at times take on the tone of a condescending provocateur. Lines like “[a]ny male outrage…is ridiculous,” “the future does not belong to the mad men,” and “if guys don’t like that, they can always cry into their all-male Avengers playsets” seem implicitly sexist, as rather than targeting all the paranoid critics of Max Max, both male and female, who share views similar to Clarey’s, these remarks target only and all males, regardless of opinion, assuming that all men think alike and taking a condescending tone towards even men like myself who would agree with the substance of her article.

In conclusion, while it’s clear who I agree with more on substance, this debate epitomizes why average, everyday Americans feel the media and academic elites are out of touch with them. We have one writer who is paranoid that any trace of a prominent female character is hidden propaganda and rambles incoherently about abstract ideas that regular Americans don’t have time to worry about. And we have one writer who seems to dismiss all men condescendingly and exempt any women who may feel the same as her opponent from any criticism, largely for the sake of trolling her dissidents.

It’s a shame we don’t have a media culture where debates can be respectful, fact-based, and substantive. Our societal discourse has become more about trading provocative rhetoric than actually delving into the substance of what we’re talking about. People no longer care about trying to convince people on the other side to agree with them; instead they only want to energize the base of those who already agree with them and piss off the other side. And that is in part why as a country America has become so divided since the advent of social media.

How can we as a society unite people on both sides of the aisle of any social or political discourse and work to reduce the inflammatory rhetoric that only creates further division?



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