Pretty much everybody loved Mad Max: Fury Road, amirite? And for good reason! Did you not love it? I loved it. I thought it was pretty rad. They could have (should have?) called it Rad Max: Fury Rad. It was meaningful without being especially smart, which is unusual; a friend of mine described it, I think correctly and in the literal sense, as “visionary.” As far as I know, the only people who vocally disliked it were a group who thought it was too feminist or something. Which is dumb for a lot of reasons (just having a badass woman in a lead role doesn’t make a movie “too feminist,” guys) but it’s a particularly silly objection because, in fact, Mad Max: Fury Road takes no stand at all on issues of gender politics or inequality. In MM:FR, gender is used strictly as a metaphor for those themes about which the film is actually concerned.
The real theme of the film is the resolution of an apparent ideological tension between a kind of collectivism or social utilitarianism on the one hand, and individualism on the other.
This collectivism, or instrumentalism, or utilitarianism (I can’t really decide which is the best or most precise word to use for this – they all connote slightly different related concepts – but I’m mainly going to use “instrumentalism” because it sounds the fanciest to me and it’s also the word that’s hardest for me to remember for some reason, which probably means it’s the most important) is the idea that any human’s value consists mainly in their capacity to contribute to a greater society – their value is, in other words, as an instrument for carrying out certain socially beneficial tasks. Individualism, on the other hand, is the position that each human’s life and interests are of primary value, and that the interests or functioning of society as a whole ought to be subordinate to the interests of the individual.
Stick with me on this for a couple thousand words: in Mad Mad: Fury Road, the performance of masculinity represents a kind of social instrumentalism or collectivism and is symbolized by metal; the performance of femininity represents political individualism and is symbolized by hair.
To illustrate the relationship, check out this graph:
As Fury Road opens, our protagonist, Max Rockatansky, is utterly alone in a desert wasteland. He’s unkempt, long-haired and bearded; he’s standing just to the side of an old and beaten-up car that appears questionably functional. By the time he gets into the vehicle and drives off – letting us know that it actually works – he’s being chased after by a number of bald-headed men in various dune buggies and motorcycles, wielding spears. Here’s where we get our first taste of the hair/metal dichotomy and their symbolism. Max, covered in hair, is the free man (for better or worse) and he’s being chased after, to be captured, by hairless men (these turn out to be War Boys). The War Boys – and N.B. that they are called War Boys, not in contrast with War Men but with War Girls – take Max prisoner and bring him to The Citadel, the closest thing to a society that we get in Mad Max’s post-apocalyptic Australia.
When Max loses his freedom, he also loses his hair: he’s shaved bald just like the War Boys. Throughout the movie, baldness is constantly associated with membership in a society, or more precisely, with devotion to the benefit of a society above devotion to the good of oneself. The War Boys are all deliberately bald, and those citizens of the Citadel who do have some hair on their heads seem to be in higher positions of power/freedom/individuality.
No one typifies this more than Immortan Joe, leader (well, dictator) of the Citadel. Immortan Joe has the most hair of anyone in the movie – and he also has the most individuality, the most power. On the other hand, he is also, in an important sense, the character who’s most devoted to the society that The Citadel represents. He makes the rules, takes wives whether they like it or not, distributes the water, and is the object of worship of the War Boys. That said, he is not a figurehead leader – he actually does make decisions and takes care of his citizens (in a manner of speaking). He has the most freedom but also the most responsibility – no one is keeping society together more than Immortan Joe, but no one has more to lose by the prospect of its dissolution.
How does Fury Road represent this visually? Immortan Joe, in addition to his long white hair, wears a metal respirator mask not entirely unlike Darth Vader’s. Here’s where we get the movie’s strongest image of its message about individualism and instrumentalism. Rather than pose them as conflicting opposites, which would imply a sort of balancing act or zero-sum game, Fury Road fully allows the two concepts to coexist in the same person. It’s not even a matter of the two having to be in proportion with one another; Immortan Joe has both the most hair and the most metal – i.e. he has both the most individuality as well as the most responsibility to his society. The rest of the characters in the film can similarly be identified on two-axis scale of hair+metal which corresponds to their degree of individualism+instrumentalism.
When Max is shorn, he loses all his individuality, literally becoming a source of blood for another person – Nux, a War Boy who is more important to society for his mechanical and battle skills than the lone-wolf Max. In a different sort of postapocalypse, Nux, who is suffering from some sort of illness, would be discarded as inferior or useless. But not in Joe’s Citadel. On the contrary, they go to a great deal of trouble hooking up Max to Nux so that Max, as a “universal donor” for blood, can keep Nux alive. This isn’t Survival of the Fittest. It’s a genuine society that takes care of its members – as long as those members are doing their part in keeping that society moving.
By the time Max escapes from being Nux’s bloodbag and sets off on his own adventure, his hair has grown back a little, meaning that he has regained a bit of his individuality. But by the time he gets access to a car of his own again, it’s not actually a car of his own at all – it’s Imperator Furiosa’s (stolen) truck, and Max has agreed to help her to get Immortan Joe’s fleeing wives to “The Green Place,” where they believe they can all live in peace. In other words, the truck doesn’t end up being Max’s means of escape from society but only a new association with a new society and a vehicle (literally) for joining up with what is hoped to be an even larger and more prosperous society.
It’s somewhat ironic that Fury Road symbolizes instrumentalism with metal, since, in Western society (and particularly in American advertising), cars and guns are typically symbols of freedom. But really, these sorts of technologies are ultimately symbols of society, or at least of a division of labour, of a large number of people working together for a common goal. No one person can build a car, or a gun, or a bionic respirator. The vehicles and weaponry in Fury Road not only began their lives as mass-produced objects of a highly advanced civilization, but have subsequently been modified, maintained, and even idolized by countless other people. In this world, even bullets come from a farm. Conversely, hair will grow on just about anybody.
Imperator Furiosa also fits perfectly with this interpretation. She’s highly “masculinized,” with her War Boy-style shaved head, and even apart from her control of the truck and the guns therein, she has a cool Terminator-style bionic arm that further emphasizes her devotion to a society – not the society from which she is escaping (The Citadel), but the one to which she, and the women that she has rescued, are attempting to flee. Furiosa is decidedly unlike the other female characters in Fury Road in this respect. She is only one devoted solely to the welfare of others. She puts herself at extreme personal risk in order to rescue the wives and to help them join the free and female-dominated society of her childhood; and while Charlize Theron certainly does not present as masculine, Furiosa is deliberately contrasted visually with the other female characters we meet until we reach the formerly Green Place.
That’s also what the escaping Wives’ initial devotion to pacifism is about: here, where femininity is only a symbol of political individualism rather than literal biological sex or psychocultural gender roles, the Wives’ reluctance to use guns refers not to any mothering instinct or respect for life’s sanctity, but to the fact that these five people are five people who are escaping from a society because that society has decided that their utility consists solely in their capacity to produce additional member of society rather than any value they may have as actually, you know, human beings. All the Wives are portrayed as extremely traditionally feminine in appearance – most clearly, of course, because of their long hair – and while in practical terms this makes sense because Immortan Joe is using them as breeders and presumably wants them to be stereotypically attractive for that reason, symbolically we don’t meet them until they’ve already escaped and are on the run. They’re going toward the Green Place, just as Furiosa is, but unlike Furiosa their intent is not so much to join that society as simply getting away from the one that forces the suppression of their individuality for its conception of a greater good.
When the Wives say “we are not things” (a phrase evidently coined by The Splendid Angharad, unofficial leader of the Wives and initiator of their plan to escape from Immortan Joe’s harem), it’s an expression of pure individualism – in the sense that they are human beings and thus don’t deserve to be treated like mere instruments to be used for the good of society regardless of their own feelings, desires and interests. But after Splendid is killed, when The Dag recites their mantra – “We are not things!” – Fragile immediately points out that “Those were her words. And now she’s dead.”
This is also the point at which the Wives’ devotion to “pacifism” (or really their aversion to guns) really begins to turn. Because until this point, their rejection of instrumentalism in favour of individualism was total. In the wake of Splendid’s death, however, they start to see things more in the way that Max and Furiosa see them, and how later we will discover that the Vuvalini of Many Mothers see things: that it’s the extremes of both individualism and instrumentalism that are to be rejected, but that more moderate versions of both are perfectly compatible with each other. Just as the Wives were treated as objects by Immortan Joe, so was Max; both were forced to have their bodies used for the benefit of others at the expense of their own autonomy.
This parallel between the Wives and Max in this regard is drawn using, unsurprisingly, metal: initially the Wives are forced to wear the same metal “cages” over their ladyparts that Max is forced to wear over his mouth – implying that the source of utility to society comes, with the Wives, from their reproductive capacity, and, with Max, from the information about the world that he can impart through speech. When they discard these cages, it’s symbolic of their rejecting those roles in favour of more personal autonomy.
There’s also a connection drawn between the Wives (the hairiest and least metallic of the movie’s characters) and the War Boys (the baldest and most metal): Immortan Joe has indoctrinated the War Boys into venerating him as a religious figure, and to believe in a quasi-Viking faith that dying in the service of the Citadel will lead them to a glorious afterlife for warriors in Valhalla. The Wives don’t fall for this, of course, but they don’t seem to be entirely faithless either. During a fierce chase, this exchange between Wives Toast the Knowing and The Dag occurs:
Toast: “What are you doing?”
The Dag: “Praying.”
Toast: “To who?”
The Dag: “Anyone who’s listening.”
Toast the Knowing’s faith is obviously of a much more nebulous nature than Nux’s, but this scene is very important for clarifying the movie’s themes. Immortan Joe uses religion as a tool to get the War Boys to subvert their individualism into instrumentalism in the interest of the Citadel; they’re not totally selfless in their devotion, because they’re expecting a glorious reward at the end of it. But the scene with Toast’s prayer shows that the film isn’t trying to portray religion qua religion as inherently deceptive or manipulative. Rather that it can also contain and promote both individualism and instrumentalism simultaneously: for the War Boys, they act in life in an instrumentalist way and are rewarded with individualism; for the Wives, they see themselves primarily as individuals but also can conceive of a Higher Power (that is, a pervasive force greater than that of human individualism) that cares about them and can take action on their behalf – in essense, “borrowing” from the power of something beyond themselves in the merit of what they’re trying to do for a society beyond themselves as individuals (the prospective society in the Green Place, and, later, the Citadel itself when they plan to return there).
It’s also no coincidence that Furiosa’s crisis coincides with her meeting with the Vuvalini of Many Mothers, the evidently all-female group from whom Furiosa was kidnapped as a child and to whom she desires to return. The “Green Place” that she remembered is gone, but the Vuvalini are still there, and they are neither hyperfeminine individualists like the Wives nor shaved and mechanically enhanced like Furiosa; in fact, they’re a little more like Immortan Joe. They have their long hair, but they also have their guns and motorcycles. This is the point at which both Furiosa and the Wives understand the message of the movie: that a person is not required to choose between individualism and instrumentalism. Rather, it is absolutely possible to be both – to maintain an identity that doesn’t flow entirely from the group of which one is a part, while also still maintaining membership in that group, working toward its general benefit, and fighting to protect it.
The Vuvalini also contrast with Immortan Joe in that, while they possess both hair and metal, they’re still real-looking people rather than the cartoonish Joe. While Joe believes that he is so important to society that it would crumble without him, the reality is that he is not indispensible and someone else could (and will) do his job when he’s gone. On the contrary, if the Citadel were to collapse, it’s Immortan Joe himself who would be destroyed by it. As much as he has devoted his life to keeping his society running, he has also devoted his society to keeping himself in power – which is why the movie makes Joe overflow with both hair and metal. The Vuvalini, on the other hand, are capable of maintaining their individuality even when their society dissolves – as it did to varying degrees when Furiosa was first abducted, when the Green Place went sour, and when they ultimately integrate into the society of the Citadel.
Note that the point at which the Bullet Farmer (who has worn a long wig made of bullets throughout the movie) is blinded and subsequently his righteous fury against our protagonists increases manifold, the metal wig is removed and we see that he actually has got hair on his head after all. This is the same moment where his actions – in his words, when he becomes the “scales of justice” – start to be motivated by personal revenge rather than simply a desire to return what belongs to the Citadel. When he loses his metal (instrumentalism), he gains some hair (individualism).
That Furiosa’s prosthetic limb is removable also speaks to this point. While she hasn’t got a wig that she can put on when the filmmakers want us to see her as acting as an individual rather than as a member of a society (as for most of the movie she still sees the two as opposing each other), she is capable of removing the metal from her body for indefinite periods of time – unlike Immortan Joe. So that when Furiosa punches Max with her stump rather than her prosthetic, we can know that she’s punching him for herself rather than strictly for the good of the society. Then, at the end of the film when Furiosa uses her mechanical limb to tear off Joe’s respirator, taking the arm with it, we also receive the message that while Furiosa has learned that her individuality can survive the loss of her society and that at the same time, her rejoining society doesn’t have to come at the expense of her individuality, Joe is the opposite: his individuality is dependent on his being part of this society in particular, and he is incapable of surviving either its destruction or simply its decision that it no longer needs him.
Of course maybe it shouldn’t be a total surprise that hair and metal can be symbolically deployed in the way that Mad Max: Fury Road does it. We all remember what happened when Metallica cut their hair, right? That pretty much says it all.
This is so great.
Hey, here’s a funny thing: if you look at the way the characters are laid out on the graph there, having a name seems to be associated with having a balance of metal and hair. On the Y axis, you have “The Bullet Farmer” and “The Doof Warrior,” on the X axis, you have “The Dag” and “The Splendid Angharad.” On the slope, you get Joe, Furiosa, and Max — and in the movie, it’s the moment where Max fully embraces group membership is the moment that he finally names himself.
I think it would be possible to read the hair/metal thing back into a feminist account of the movie if you wanted to — because certainly there are feminist critiques of neoliberalism out there (and neoliberalism is as good a term as any for the collectivism/utilitarianism/instrumentalism complex that you’re talking about here), and certainly some of these begin with some form of the question, “Okay, but if we’re not going to reduce people to utilitarian objects, how can we still function as a social collective?”
It’s the mark of a really great piece of theorization that, when you read it, you immediately start noticing other data points that support the thesis.
When the Warboys take their devotion to the collective to its logical conclusion by sacrificing their lives for the greater good, what’s the last thing they do before they die? They spray chrome paint into their mouths. They make themselves metal.