Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Politics of: Mad Max Fury Road

The Omnivore snuck out on Memorial Day to see Mad Max and remember the military heroes who died for our country (that's the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran's Day--remembering the dead vs. celebrating service!). The first part here reviews the film. The second discusses the politics and assumes you have seen it.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Years in development-hell (since 2003, at least), the 4th installment of Mad Max has finally come to the theaters. It doesn't really act as a sequel so much as a re-boot--but with 30 years between it and the first film (and around 125x the cost) that's fine. Kids in the theater today probably haven't even seen the earlier movies--and know Mel Gibson as that crazy-old-guy-anti-Semite . . .  If they know him at all. The Omnivore feels ANCIENT.

In Fury Road we are taken again to the world of endless desert, nightmare battle-vehicles, and over-the-top warlords. It's a world where water, ammunition, and gasoline are in short supply--and more valuable than diamonds--or even food. It is a world where you take what you can and trust your bald, zero-percent-body-fat wariors to hold it for you.

Fury Road dials up the crazy with a warlord that crosses Darth Vader with Hannibal Lecter, scared-up albino shock-troops, and a vast desert fortress with its own battle-rig giant truck. The vehicles are crazier than we've seen before (The Omnivore is assured most of the F/X are practical!) and a female lieutenant (Charlize Theron) who is nearly bald and has a cyber-looking prosthetic arm (which is CGI).

Max (Tom Hardy) is a terse road warrior who is embroiled in a local politics (such as they are) and has to survive and maybe--eventually--and perhaps against his better judgment--do some good. The film is action packed, virtually non-stop, and opens with an apocalyptic scene that leaves you wondering where it can go from there.

The answer is more apocalyptic battle scenes. The movie is more or less one long chase scene with a few pauses to build tension and explore some of the characters (a bit). There are some vulnerable women--pregnant with the children of the warlord--who need to be protected. These characters serve as the moral grounding around which the battle circulates. The two principals, Theron and Hardy, who trust no one, eventually have to trust each other to try to get these innocents to safety.

The movie, in Mad Max tradition, doesn't go in for much dialog which leaves its characters having to use their expressions to convey toughness, vulnerability, or whatever. The direction and acting, however, is up to the task: Mad Max might be one vehicular fire-fight after another--but while it won't win any Oscars for its 'heartwarming' storytelling, it has enough emotional weight that, when combined with its jaw-dropping vistas (CGI was used to enhance the landscape), it packs enough of a punch.

In The Omnivore's opinion, the original Mad Max was pretty much a just-after-the-collapse revenge motorcycle movie that had some exotic credibility due to being filmed in Australia (Gibson is American--but was raised in Australia). The series came into its own with The Road Warrior which gave us the real post-apocalypse world. Thunderdome was a disappointment after that.

Fury Road picks up the major notes from The Road Warrior and plays them harder and louder. It completes a cultural iconographic feedback loop that re-connects the Borderlands video games, which heavily leveraged The Road Warrior vision, with their original source material (in some cases, literally: there is a character in Fury Road's warlord's army who is strapped to the front of a truck with a mass array of speakers behind him and plays a flame-spewing electric guitar when they go on a raid--that's right out of Borderlands).

We get weirder vehicles and more guns--along with harpoons, flame-throwers, and cross-bows. The visuals are crisp in some cases stunning. The movie is maybe a bit long for its content--but it delivers the goods.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics of: Mad Max Fury Road

The politics of Fury Road are the politics of everything looking like a conspiracy, an orchestrated attack, or having coded messages for you when you are caught up in the culture war. Yes: being a culture warrior--whether for Great Social Justice or Glorious Men's Rights--induces a kind of self-congratulatory paranoia that creates a perception that your views are being expressed or oppressed depending on what you interact with.

Fury Road isn't a political movie--it just isn't (trust The Omnivore)--it doesn't even have anything complicated or insightful to say about gender roles or anything. It uses ecological collapse as back-story to get us to cars and guns--not as a message (and the MM series was doing this in the 80's, well before today's climate-change politics*). Fury Road just had the bad luck to get caught in the wheels of the Culture War when someone in the Manosphere part of the culture war called for a boycott of it because a guy who saw the trailer decided it was overly feminist:
But then my spidey senses started noticing a couple things. 
Charlize Theron kept showing up a lot in the trailers, while Tom Hardy (Mad Max) seemed to have cameo appearances. Charlize Theron sure talked a lot during the trailers, while I don’t think I’ve heard one line from Tom Hardy. And finally, Charlize Theron’s character barked orders to Mad Max. 
Nobody barks orders to Mad Max. 
Sure enough, what I suspected (but desperately wanted NOT to be true) was confirmed with two articles in the past week. One, Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues” was consulted by the director to consult the female actresses in Fury Road about what it’s like being sex slaves. Her presumed expertise in this area was based on work she claimed to have done in the Congo. Work I investigated and deemed “fishy” in a recent podcast(around the 1hr 6 min mark).
He lets us in on the conspiracy:
The truth is I’m angry about the extents Hollywood and the director of Fury Road went to trick me and other men into seeing this movie. Everything VISUALLY looks amazing. It looks like that action guy flick we’ve desperately been waiting for where it is one man with principles, standing against many with none. 
But let us be clear. This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic. And this is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, further ruining women for men, and men for women.
He implores men NOT to see the movie. Don't admit the horse!!

The Manosphere and Men's Right's Activists

If the above has you scratching your head--considering that the dude hadn't even seen the movie yet--you're probably not familiar with The Manosphere. The Manosphere is a collection of thought (Wikipedia says blogs, websites, and Internet commentators) that centers around men's issues seen through a prism of men-vs-women. It includes the Pick-Up artist community, the anti-feminist movement, and Men's Rights Activists--a strain of thought that in the modern world it's men who are under attack--men who society has decided to put down . . . and then kick to death.

We should take a moment to note that one of the key voices in the Manosphere, A Voice For Men, has apparently said there is NO call for a boycott of Fury Road and saying otherwise is a feminist lie! (AVFM even gives it a reasonably thumbs-up review). However, the post that originally did call for a boycott was on Return of Kings, a site planted firmly in the center of the Manosphere. As with #GamerGate, there's no test for membership. Both AVFM and Return of Kings are are deep in the Manosphere and both represent, essentially, the same things.

What got Fury Road caught was (as noted) the casting of a female c0-lead and the use of a name-brand feminist as a consultant. The guilt-by-association played directly to the paranoia since (a) Mel Gibon's public persona is pretty Manosphereic and (b) Mad Max is a masculine icon (after a fashion, anyway). 

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of millions of tiny voices whining as loudly as they can, usually ineffectually, and usually on the Internet. That's what we're going to look at.

The Culture War's Conspiracy Mindset

This is a post on #GamerGate from Popehat, a civil liberties blog, back from October 2014. It attempts to explain #GamerGate in terms of a (perhaps literal) thousand-year-war between Red Teams and Blue Teams. In its formulation, Red Teams (for whom The Manosphere is a moderately extreme Internet Incarnation) are being beaten by Blue Teams (progressives, for whom Social Justice Warriors are a moderately extreme Internet Incarnation) who have hit on the strategy of 'entryism:'
The blue team has made amazing progress over the last three hundred years. Occasionally by force of arms, but usually by a much more clever strategy: entryism
Entryism, for those not hip to the lingo, is "a political strategy in which an organization or state encourages its members or supporters to join another, usually larger organization in an attempt to expand influence and expand their ideas and program. In situations where the organization being 'entered' is hostile to entryism, the entryists may engage in a degree of subterfuge to hide the fact that they are an organization in their own right."
Basically leftists have infiltrated the media and universities and have leveraged that to take over, well, The World. Oh--and this plan? It's working. It has been working for years. On the receiving end of this spear is Red Team--let's do its shorthand as which he shorthands as  Catholic Conservatives (to be sure there are plenty of others--and Catholic Conservatism is only kind of grandfathered into the Manosphere's philosophy). 

While Catholic Conservatives aren't the most definitive voices of The Manosphere they are in its inner bulls-eye (it is no accident that Gibson is a big-time Catholic Conservative). To this end, The Omnivore gives you a post on the recent Ireland Gay Marriage vote (it was "Yes"):
There can be no doubt that elites embraced the gay marriage cause early, and have campaigned relentlessly for it. The propagandist role of the news and entertainment media, which barely pretended to neutrality, is one that will be studied by future historians. But we must resist thinking that this outcome is one forced on the rest of us by elites, and we should take this landmark moment to reflect philosophically on why it happened. And, we should stop reacting to every single one of these advances, and step back and consider the long game. 
One of the most difficult things for many American conservatives, especially religious conservatives, to accept is that gay marriage did not come from nowhere. It is the logical outcome of the Sexual Revolution, which in itself is the logical outworking of Enlightenment liberalism. What do I mean?
Rod Dreher, a sober, intelligent writer on religion, sees the Blue Team (he doesn't call it that) prepared to 'sweep the field.' He believes that the Irish vote is nothing short of a complete rebuke of Catholicism--from what one of the most Catholic of nations. 

His plan is to retreat from the field of politics, turtle up in small religious communities, and try to weather the coming spiritual dark age.

The takeaway here should be that from the perspective of someone who self-identifies as Red Team, there is a massive Blue Wave--a string of victories--that has basically eroded the foundations of moral conservative thought in America and the west to the point of collapse.

Unlike the Manosphere proper, Dreher doesn't seem to believe that this assault is so much an actual orchestrated, coordinated conspiracy, as the net effect of liberal Democracy which can decide that slaves need to be freed--and then that gays ought to be allowed to marry--and then . . . what? Maybe that backwards religious views need 'enlightened reeducation'? Don't sneer: It happened--the baker who wouldn't bake a gay cake had to get mandatory sensitivity training--court order. Yeah: it's not a concentration camp--but imagine if YOU, dear enlightened reader, were getting 'reeducated' on something you didn't agree with. If you can honestly manage it, maybe the chill you just felt is enough to make you take a look at your self-righteousness? Ehh. Didn't think so--but it was worth a try ("My morals are totally different because they are based in enlightened precepts unlike  . . ." yeah, yeah).

Whether you were fist-pumping in victory, nodding sadly, or frowning perplexedly at the above section, keep it in mind for our next stop: a look at two reviews of the same thing from different sides.

Fury Road: A Tale of Two Reviews

Towards the end of Fury Road, Hardy, Theron, and their crew make it away from their pursuers, across dead lands--and almost to the "promised" Green Place--a place Theron remembers from her childhood. It's a land of "Many Mothers" and she is trying to return to. Unfortunately, when she gets there, she finds a handful of grandmothers, one younger woman--and nothing but dunes and endless salt-flats. That's all that's left: The Green Place is no more.

So they decide that since the bad guy's whole army is still out hunting them they should turn around, crash through the front lines of the massive attack force, and get back to the citadel ahead of their enemies. The citadel is practically undefended.

Let's look at how Red Team and Blue Team review this part of the film:

Red Team

Here's a piece from the Manosphere's A Voice For Men review:
Here’s where Miller’s supposed feminist vision falls to absolute pieces. This matriarchy of the Good Mothers have been getting raided by many parties looking for women and resources, and they have killed every single man they could in their paranoia irrespective of their character or intentions. #killallmen anyone? In their absolute paranoia they have failed to increase their numbers by procreation (every man they see they kill on sight), and failed to secure any male protection making them incredibly vulnerable. Now feminists will contend they do just fine, but when Furiosa is surprised to not see dozens of women, if not hundreds, we come to one inevitable conclusion. True matriarchies either destroy themselves, or are subject to the whims of conquerors. Either way, like this feminist utopia, true matriarchies die due to their own paranoid delusions. This single scene does more to hurt feminism and its goals of matriarchal domination than any scene in the history of cinema. This all from a supposedly feminist film.

Blue Team

For Blue Team we go to the Daily Beast's Arthur Chu--an e-celebrity for social justice who writes that his main reason for buying the Mad Max ticket was to piss off Men's Rights Activists. You can google him if you like: The Omnivore finds him a 'good' spokesman for Blue Team (this is not a compliment to Chu or 'Blue Team'). Let's see what he writes (The title of the review is: "How MRA's Killed The World"):
To un-kill the world, our heroes need to break that cycle. Someone like Max or Furiosa out-badassing Lord Humungus or Master Blaster or Immortan Joe won’t do it, it’ll just create a new warlord with a new ridiculous name. The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome presented escape as options—fleeing into the desert to the coast, getting in a plane and going to “Tomorrow-morrow-land.” Maybe if we go into a new, virgin territory where the men tainted by violence have never been—the North Coast, the radioactive ruins of Sydney—we’ll be able to start over. 
Well, Mad Max: Fury Road takes that option away. If the biggest surprise in Fury Road is elevating an enemy henchman to a hero, the second biggest is the climactic twist that the former “Green Place,” home to a utopian matriarchal society, no longer exists, having been destroyed by pollution long ago—and the only option is to go back to the hellhole they came from, to confront and kill Immortan Joe rather than running from him, and to build a new utopia on the ruins of his dystopia. 
That’s a really radical message for an action movie, even a “feminist revenge” movie—that we can and in fact must aim higher than escaping society, that we can rebuild society. That Immortan Joe’s Citadel—still staffed with half-grown War Boys who grew up steeped in Joe’s cult of rape and murder—can be redeemed into something better. That the frenzied enthusiasm with which Joe’s crowd of downtrodden peasants cheered his war parties can be redirected to cheering Furiosa’s mission of growing green things and rebuilding the Earth. That we can build our Green Place where we live.
You can read the rest of his review--but it has these headers:

  • Masculinity is Violent
  • Violence is Hell
  • Violent Men Damn Themselves
  • The Only Escape From Violent Masculinity Is To Start Over Without It

In other words, to escape hell we must jettison masculinity itself and start over without it. We can't even really get help from masculine guys in doing so. 

Okay then.

Red Team vs. Blue Team

Arthur Chu wins on points: he's right about things the Manosphere Writers are not. Notably:

  • What drove the women out of the Green Place was poisoned water--not raids by men.
  • Despite the cry that Theron shouts orders at Mad Max--which "no one does" (in the boycott post), Chu correctly notes that Max--in all four movies--isn't really in charge of anything. He's always working for someone. He, uhm, does get ordered around to a degree all the time.
That said, the real question here shouldn't be which is right and which is wrong--certainly the mothers, while reasonably bad-assed, are not tough enough to win/survive against the men without help (Max is a better warrior than any of them save maybe his female counterpart). No, the point here is that once you have an ideology your whole world is seen through it and you can't escape that because it's  happening inside your head.

The result of that is that everything anyone does becomes, in your mind, agenda-driven--and so you inevitably construct either massive conspiracies (the Manosphere) or simply see massive disparate things (societal change since the 50's) as driving from a mere handful of perspectives. 

With the magic of confirmation and intentionality bias the whole world becomes shaped around your disease. The more radicalized you are the stronger your biases--and you are caught in a positive feedback loop from which rational analysis cannot escape. There's a reason Rod Dreher's essay on Catholicism connects to Mad Max: Both are apocalyptic

That's the other reason that Mad Max got caught in the fray: it speaks to chaos and end-times--and these are powerful motivating forces for The Extreme (it's a major reason ISIS's brand is stronger than the Al Qaeda brand it eclipsed). For the hard-core culture warriors--especially on Red Team (who see the rapidity of the Gay Marriage movement as a coup de gras by Team Blue)--the end is coming. You need food, ammo, and water. Oh--and gold--it's good to buy gold.

It's no surprise that conservative and conspiracy web sites sell all these things to their members.

This doesn't mean it's true though--quite the opposite. As Fury Road shows, it's possible to see the political in shapes in clouds, tree-bark, or a blockbuster summer action flick. That doesn't mean the politics are there.

If the Culture War views on Fury Road are wrong, what about the views on everything else?

The Truth About The Culture War

There is no coordinated plan to get people into positions of power secretly and then take over. People don't work that way over the long haul--and that large on a large scale. The drivers for the rise of the NONES (people identifying as no religion) probably have more to do with tectonic economic shifts that are impacting wage-earning men negatively (at the blue-collar and entry-level position part of the scale) and driving more women into higher education.

The church, as an institution, has never had to compete with economically, socially independent, empowered women--and traditionally lower education-level men have been able to be (or forced to be) a sole provider for  family. Today that is far less viable than any time in the past 2000 years. Part of the society's underlying structure has been altered in the last few decades (you can start with pharmaceutical birth control, really--and work up from there). That's not all though.

The Catholic church itself has been hammered by sex scandals which it has dealt with poorly. It has a new Pope who is, surprisingly, on Blue Team, creating a form of spiritual whiplash for Catholic Conservatives who, just one Pope prior, were right about the universe itself. 

Combine this with the fact that sometime in the 90's, young people decided that gay rights looked like civil rights (for black people) and you have a change that is more organic than agenda driven--and less part of an organized front than a sudden philosophical rip-tide (for the converse, young people today are less favorable to abortion than years prior). 

Finally, there is little reason to think the church cannot adapt. They can't change doctrine like they change their under shirts--but if they could embrace evolution it is possible that Catholicism can find some peace with gay marriage and still maintain its essential character. If nothing else, the Roman Empire had two centuries of peace and stability without Christianity. While, yes, maybe that was God's plan (Jesus came about 70 years into Pax Romana), it seems possible that America can survive a little longer with a female president and a handful of married gay people.

The Culture War is less about facts than about identity--this is why it is fought over icons first and foremost and policy second (See the outrage about Marvel Comics diversifying its line-up: a female Thor, a Hispanic Spiderman, and a black Captain America!). Social policy is a hard sell--but we don't get our identity from policies . . . we get it from things we choose to adopt: Membership in a church, our heroes real and fictional, powerful books that shaped us, and so on.

These are the playing-pieces in the war and when one of them even seems to kind of fit the bill it'll get appropriated into the battle being waged in our own minds. Fury Road isn't even a major skirmish--it's just a timely one.
If You Don't Get It, You're Probably Happier That Way

* Although notably, one thing the Max Max series may well accidentally say is something about the pointlessness of prepping. In the case of a real collapse, strongholds, goods, and gold will be pretty useless: if society goes full Hobbsean warlords will have actual armies and will not trade for goods--they will take them. It will be decades before there is enough of a balance of power for money or trade items to become useful to non-warlords.


  1. Politics? I mean, flame throwing guitars! That’s the politics.

    It’s so fucking metal that when I saw it I said, “That was so fucking metal!”

    Like non-ironically. Can you imagine me saying that non-ironically?

    Oh so politics. Uh, that Popehat article is form Clarkhat, not Ken White, so it’s kinda out in the weeds. Which is to say, that guy is pretty much borderline NRx these days. I take Ken White pretty seriously. I find Clark to be a loon. So, one website, two guys. Worth noting.

    On entryism, yeah I love when some #gamergate ninny accuses me on entryism. As if no “blue tribe” people grew up as actual nerds.

    On the tribe of women in Mad Max, I actually got to have lunch with the author of this book: (which is one of the strange perks of my job). Anyway, myself being a history nerd, I had a really cool conversation with her. I find her research and insight to be solid.

    So related to the women in Mad Max, it turns out there probably was a tribe of women who formed the historic core of the Amazon myths. The most likely tale is this: They were a smallish band of Scythian warriors who migrated into Anatolia, where the men in the group were wiped out in some fight, but the women survived. Those women refused to submit, since like many Scythians the woman could fight from horseback. Thus they kinda carried on as a weird band of raiders. For a while. Until the returned across the Black Sea. Which itself is a cool story, cuz there they again refused to marry into a tribe, but instead temped young men away from their own tribes.

    It seems a reasonable story, and it matches the history and archeology. The point is, however, they did not remain forever a matriarchy. They married men. I’m sure those men wanted voices in the tribe. How many generations does this last?

    The women in Mad Max could exist. In fact, there are enough crunchy lesbian separatist nature freaks with motorbikes that they probably would exist.

    And they would want children. And thus they would interact with men. And their kids would *not* be lesbian separatists, since most people are straight. So anyway. It would be cool for a while.

    (I wonder what they would think of me? I bet I wouldn't make it too long in Mad Max world. It’s no accident you never see trannies in these things.)

    (Which actually gives me a hilariously awful idea for a movie.)

    Anyway, yeah. Great fucking movie. I saw it twice, plan to again.

    -- veronica

    1. Yes--I knew who the Pope Hat in question was (and his "I'm not really Red Team--I just like GamerGate--oh, and Vox Day" is ... what's the word? Oh: precious. It's precious.

      Like Gollum.

      -The Omnivore

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