The release of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road could not have come at a better time. In the midst of a glut of disappointing, CGI-laden blockbusters came a vision of chrome and rust, a cynosure of dazzling practical effects leaving both critics and audiences breathless. Those familiar with Miller’s previous Mad Max films perhaps expected such technical brilliance from the savant who helped define the look, feel, and tone of the post-apocalyptic genre. But few, if any, expected that the film would also be a veritable feminist action movie manifesto. With a plot centering on a group of sex slaves fleeing captivity led by a one-armed, face-painted road valkyrie gloriously named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Mad Max: Fury Road has gained the awe of feminist groups and the ire of “Men’s Rights Activists.”
Most of the film’s feminist evaluation centers on the aforementioned Furiosa, an unapologetically bad-ass action hero whose driving skills and fighting prowess stand toe-to-toe with those of the series’ titular hero Max Rockatansky. Especially in the queasy wake of Joss Whedon’s “handling” of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in the underwhelming Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Furiosa comes as a breath of fresh air for audiences seeking competent, powerful, and well-developed female action heroes.
But in my humble opinion, the film’s most feminist moment does not come courtesy of Furiosa. Instead, it involves The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), one of antagonist Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) “breeding stock.” Heavily pregnant with Joe’s child, Angharad performs one of the film’s greatest acts of heroism: she shields Furiosa with her body when he tries to shoot her.
This scene inverts the power dynamics of Joe as the oppressor and Angharad as the victim by utilizing her victimized body, the very source of her objectification as a sexual object, as a weapon. But there’s another crucial detail in this scene: Angharad isn’t just using her body as a shield, she’s using the body of her unborn child. The film mentions that while Joe may have some feelings of twisted affection for his slaves—one is even mentioned as being his favorite—he views them first and foremost as disposable wombs for his bastard children. When Joe recovers Angharad’s body after she falls from Furiosa’s War Rig, he immediately tells his doctor to cut the child out and ignore the well-being of the mother. When the baby is revealed still-born, Joe’s agony isn’t over the death of one of his wives but over the loss of a potential heir.
It isn’t difficult to interpret this scene as a metaphor for the modern struggle for female reproductive rights wherein the rights of unborn children are placed above those of their mothers. Angharad’s survival, and by extension the survival of all of Joe’s slaves, is superfluous as long as they can produce babies every nine months. But in shielding Furiosa with her unborn child, Angharad uses the abuse of her reproductive capabilities as a means with which to fight back and defy her terrorizer.