Furiosa’s Silence in the New Mad Max Says a Lot About Women’s Agency

When George Miller was directing Anya Taylor-Joy as Furiosa, Taylor-Joy says he told her:

“mouth closed, no emotion, speak with your eyes”. That’s it, that’s all you have.

Taylor-Joy only has 30 lines of dialogue, but in the first half of the film, Furiosa is played (admirably) by a young actress, Alyla Browne.

But even when Furiosa isn’t speaking, the new films are a huge step forward in representing women’s stories in the world of Mad Max.

Science fiction disaster films

Max is silent for much of the first four films and he does not appear in Furiosa (discounting the glimpse we see of him on a hill). Our heroes have little to say in words, but the villains are more verbose. In Furiosa, Hemsworth’s Dementous is reprehensibly talkative.

The early Mad Max films largely didn’t focus on women. After the death of his wife Jessie in the first film, Max shows no interest in women sexually. But there is an underlying theme relating to female survival and fertility, while keeping the narrative firmly male-centric.

One way to read the Mad Max film cycle is to view it as an antipodean response to themes first explored in science fiction disaster films of the 1950s, such as Five (1951), Captive Women (1952), World Without End (1956) and Last Woman on Earth (1960). In these films, nuclear destruction results in an ecologically devastated world where surviving males compete for access to resources like fuel, technology, and fertile women.

In the first Mad Max film, from 1979, as civilization descends into chaos, women and families are quickly eliminated. Bikers kill Max’s wife and son. The fleeting appearances of other women such as “molls” on bicycles or victims of sexual assault on the road highlight the extent to which women are marginalized. The last woman to appear in the first film is May, an old woman who tries to help the Rockatansky family, but in her hands a car and a shotgun are ineffective.

In Mad Max 2 (1981), once the competent warrior dies in battle, the role of the few surviving female characters is reproductive. Curmudgeon informs Max that the survivors’ primary duty will be carried out in Queensland, where they will have to “disconnect”.

Despite Tina Turner’s starring presence in Beyond Thunderdome (1985) as an “aunt” rather than a mother figure, women continue to play secondary roles to Max and the vehicular action, with only hints of Savannah Nix , the leader of the lost children. , can signal a future in which women have more power and agency.

Women are in the spotlight

Furiosa has good reasons to remain silent. The latter film tells the story of how, as a young girl and woman, she is held captive first by Dementous and then by Immortan Joe.

Her silence is strategic: it gives her power and hides her gender when she reaches puberty. Furiosa understands that unless she is able to fight and drive, her function will be to have children. When she attracts sexual attention, she disguises herself as a boy and learns to drive and assemble a vehicle.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Furiosa
Furiosa understands that unless she is able to fight and drive, her function will be to have children.
Photos by Jasin Boland/Warner Bros.

These are the skills that will ensure his survival and eventual hero status. Better to be a price driver than one of Joe’s “price breeders.” We learn more about her character when we witness how she loses her arm than could be explained through dialogue.

What’s more interesting than Furiosa’s selective mutism in the two recent films is her starring presence and her status as a driver and warrior. Decades after the original films, women are finally getting significant screen time.

In the fourth film, Fury Road (2015), Max not only shares the role of protagonist and heroic driver with Furiosa (played here by Charlize Theron), but most of the central characters are women: the Five Wives, the Valkyrie and the many. The mothers (competent and wizened bikers) are members of the Vuvalini tribe of Green Square.

Aside from the first scene where the War Boys chase Max, almost every frame of Fury Road includes a woman as the central element of the action. This continues in Furiosa.

Further echoing established tropes in 1950s science fiction, in Furiosa and Fury Road, a healthy uterus is a precious commodity.

Just as cars are treated as spare parts throughout the series, and in films like The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), humans are labeled with tattoos listing their viable parts and are marketed as “blood bags”. Joe’s treasures in Fury Road are beautiful young women he selects as breeding stock. He keeps his five wives captive in a room resembling a giant safe.

By shifting the focus of the Mad Max films from men to women, we finally get a complex depiction of women in this environment and their reduction to their reproductive possibilities.

It’s not without its problems. At various points in Fury Road, the wives – dressed in bikinis and chastity belts as if they stepped straight off a Victoria’s Secret catwalk – repeat mantras to protest their objectification and lack of agency in this toxic patriarchy . Yet even as the film criticizes objectification, it profits from that same objectification. Miller draws our attention to the exploitation of women and the way they are treated as aesthetic reproducers while providing scantily clad models.

Despite this double standard, it’s exciting to see Browne and Taylor-Joy take center stage as warriors driving the platform and the narrative in Furiosa. That’s progress – considering that bikinis and car crashes sell movie tickets.