This summer has already been full of a series of unexpected box office triumphs. With the meteoric success of Jurassic World, the celebration of the emotionally driven storyline of Pixar’s child-friendly Inside Out, and the hotly anticipated, yet immensely criticized Avengers: Age of Ultron, movies in the summer of 2015 have already made all sorts of headlines. But one of the biggest headlines this summer are the films with high levels of surprising, and unexpected, feminism.
Mad Max: Fury Road was an oddball contender for any sort of mainstream success; the sequel to a trilogy of primarily narrative-absent Australian action films from the 80’s, expectations were not overblown for the return of the cult beloved series. Sales-wise, the movie was average, even under-selling female-led sequel Pitch Perfect 2 on opening weekend. However, critically, the film excelled. The darling of the Cannes Film Festival, in which it wasn’t even a contender, it amazed viewers at the festival and overshadowed the movies that were actually competing in the contest. Even now, three months later, the film still retains a 98% of Rotten Tomatoes, one of the highest ratings on the website.
But what’s truely unexpected about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it is a story almost exclusively about women. Max is a secondary, borderline tertiary character in this titular film, which, in many ways, is technically in line with the previous Mad Max films. The film focuses on the female escape from enforced constructs, ranging from conventional beauty ideals, male possession of women, to independence, rights, and gender equality.
On the flip side, Magic Mike XXL is a movie all about men. It’s about male friendship, male connections, male emotions, and male power. However, Magic Mike is intrinsically a film about the female fantasy: the female sexual fantasy at its basest (men stripping), but also on a deeper level it treats women as sexual beings and, more over, as human beings. The film features more women of different sizes and body types, more women drinking, eating, and acting like “men,” than most modern pop culture films today. However, the best part of the film is that all the women in the movie are addressed, and treated as, “queens.” Magic Mike is a movie about men constructed specifically for the female view.
Both films, in a broad sense, are about objectification. However, neither film objectifies the female characters, which sets them apart from other standard summer film fare. In Mad Max, the wives of Immortan Joe could be seen as being “objectified” in the scene they are initially introduced in, but the lustful gaze of the scene is actually specifically, and explicitly, directed at the water (and the women are shown literally and physically straining as they break away from painful bondage in the form of bladed chastity belts). In Magic Mike, the men are objectified in what is a subversion of the classic “male gaze;” the women play the voyeurs, but that voyeurism is much more about women being spoken to, asked what they want, and treated as equals than it is about muscular men stripping.
The question “is it a feminist film?” is intrinsically flawed. Feminism is a light through which films can be judged, but there is no hard or fast definition that makes a film “feminist.” It’s a series of concepts (of which there are multiple interpretations), vague definitions, and personally-based feelings. Feminism in film is as much about the person viewing the film, and the person who made the film, as it is the actual content of the movie. Even the Bechdel Test, though poetically simple and easy to apply to movies, is barely an actual standard for film (as acknowledged by creator Alison Bechdel herself); in theory, a film could fail at the Bechdel Test, yet still succeed as a “feminist” film. However, movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike XXL can easily and readily be interpreted as “feminist” films, and offer a new hope that the film industry is shifting, if slightly, not just in support of female viewers, but in favor of women in general as well.