Previously posted at Shakesville and The Mary Sue.
We need to talk about the Mad Max: Fury Road Furiosa (#1) comic and how awful it is. Huge content notes on this post, like, in big block capitals and neon letters because this issue is triggery and terrible, and really aptly illustrates just how awful MMFR could have been if it were made without intentionally setting aside lazy (and terrible) narratives about women and rape in order to be better than that. Also, I would honestly recommend going into this post with the mindset that this comic is some kind of terrible non-canon spinoff, because I don't want to ruin MMFR for anyone. And I want to hat-tip Lindsay Ellis for bringing it to my attention.
Here is the comic (and link here and here):
In case you can't see the accredited artists on the left, it says:
On the inside cover, we get full names and job titles:
George Miller [Story]
Nico Lathouris [Script]
Mark Sexton [Script, Art]
Tristan Jones [Art]
Szymon Kudranski [Art]
Michael Spicer [Color]
And here we stop to reflect on the fact that a movie which has generated so much feminist hype is now being credited for its backstory to what appears to be an entirely-male story and art team. Okay then. I'm just going to take us through a page-by-page analysis rather than try to organize my thoughts by topic, partly because there are so many topics here that I don't know where to start. And I'll note that Kindle comics don't have page numbers, so these are my own page numbers that might be off from the print version.
Page 1 sets the conceit for the narrative: an older person who appears to be a man sits in the water-room of the wives' old chambers, narrating their history to an assembled group of children. The crowd-shot, like most crowd-shots, seem to have a lot of male faces in there! (And lining the walls, which I cropped.) I doubt that the male authors of this comic intended this framing device to symbolize their male avatar addressing a comic-book audience that they expect to be disproportionately male, but haha it sure is ironic in retrospect.
And this is partly what I mean about "lazy narratives": I've seen this story before. We all have, I'm willing to guess. The "what you're about to see is being narrated by an old dude to the new generation" thing has been done to death. But it's particularly rankling in a movie that was about women defining their lives. Why isn't one of the wives here? Or one of their daughters? Why is this Generic Old Sagely Dude #238,157 and why does it feel like it's been lifted wholesale from a pre-fab'd story framing device?
Page 2 tells us how the wives were educated and had access to books and music and history lessons: Immortan Joe gave those things to them.
See, and here I spent the movie assuming that the women were educated about stuff because they'd lived rich and interesting lives before being captured by Joe. Toast knew how to load guns, whereas one of the other women (Dag? I can't recall) had an old saying about the bullets being "death seeds" ("plant one and a man dies"). This made the women different people: Toast obviously had some experience with guns that the others didn't, Dag or whichever one it was had soaked up homey old sayings from her mother, and so on. It also preserved the fact that women pass information to each other.
Here in the comic, women pass information to each other, but only because a man authorized the "history woman" to teach his wives. And this is so laughably infuriating to me already, this idea that women only whisper secrets and warnings and hopes and dreams and histories to each other because a man told them to. Even the idea that a man knows when information-exchange is taking place between women. This is the root, I think, of why so many works don't pass Bechdel: because the male authors don't imagine that women talk to each other, and even when they do stretch their imaginations to encompass female conversations, authors assume that they, as men, know what those conversations are about.
Deeper than that, this whole framing device seems to exist to explain the apparent "mystery" of why the wives had knowledge about things outside their prison cell. Mystery solved! They were given a "history woman" by Joe, thus reducing all their knowledge to coming indirectly from their captor. Except that, to me (and I'm guessing other women in theaters), there was no "mystery" as to why the women knew things; they knew things because they were people.
Page 3 describes this "history woman" as "Miss Giddy" and notes that "knowledge has a way of igniting dissent... and inciting revolution". So, haha, okay, the wives didn't escape because they were people who said "hey, being raped and held captive is rotten eggs, let's change that", they had to have seeds of rebellion planted by the giver-of-knowledge who was, herself, given by their captor. I am not a fan of that narrative at all.
Page 3 is also great because it has a image of a medic giving one of the wives a vaginal exam. His face is pressed between her knees while his hand grips her leg, and then the panel itself is framed by the woman's legs so that we, the reader, can see the medic looking up at us and, behind him, Joe and Rictus. The whole art on this page... I don't even really want to post it, because it's graphic and violent and triggery to me, and I really don't feel like the subject matter was handled with sensitivity. When you are using a woman's legs to frame your comic panel, I'm not sold on you treating her as an object any less than the men in the room who are assaulting her.
Page 4 explains why Page 3 was "necessary": the vaginal exam is to check when the wives are ovulating. Why is this something Joe would check for? Is he only raping them during the ovulation window? (The book flirts with answering this "yes" without committing to it.) Does that mean he really is interested firstly in reproduction with his captives? (More on that later.) The real reason seems to be so that Rictus can try to rape Angharad and now Joe needs a reason to give the wives another gift: their protector, Furiosa. (Isn't it great how literally all the wives' agency has now been reduced to Joe giving them everything ever? More on that later.)
Page 8 has Furiosa show up, and hey, remember how the movie had women working together (like people do) without being catty or hating each other? Well, we're going to fall back on lazy narratives about women, because the women who have apparently grown up in the apocalypse and have presumably seen a shaven head or two before now gawk at Furiosa. "Is it a woman?" one of them asks, because apparently a tough woman is now so rare in the apocalypse that it is just that surprising to see one. After hearing that she's there to protect them, one of the wives marvels "but who's going to protect us from her?" What.
Page 9 shows the women bathing and preparing for a visit from Joe while Furiosa muses over the preparations. And this is just terrific: "He liked them bathed. Hair brushed and tousled. Cheeks pinched into a blush. Lips darkened with soot. Skin whitened with talc. Perhaps... he wished to be reminded of his war boys." This will come up again later in the book, and I would have thought that the one villain who would be free of the trope that villains are gay (or effeminate, or Oedipal, or whatever code-whistle du jour) would be a villain who keeps a harem of wives. But, no, Joe is either a depraved bisexual or gay because he's a villain and that's how you know.
Page 10 has a rape scene while Furiosa watches and makes an unhappy face.
Page 11 has the wives cleaning up the morning after. Toast mentions that "where he puts it" on her isn't procreative sex, and I believe (based on other cues and context) that we're meant to read this as anal rape, so that's obviously fantastic. I don't know how to unpack everything so far: Joe seems to only visit the wives when they are ovulating, and he prefers his war boys, but he anally rapes the black woman he keeps captive (so why does he need to confine his visits to ovulation?).
There are so many layers of terrible in that, and none of it needed to be here. Not to mention, a lot of it just plain feels reused from other Miller vehicles; the medic later says that Joe is going to "rawdog" the women, which makes no sense in context! Are there enough rubbers in the apocalypse to retain that term? Really?? Anyway, Capable starts yelling at Furiosa and asking her if she enjoyed the show last night and why she won't protect them (Page 12).
All of this is awful, and it's just such a world-building mess. If the women have been free before now and have rich histories and experiences enough to talk a big game about freedom and standing up to tyranny, then why did they even need the "history woman" to plan seeds of rebellion for them? Why couldn't she have just been a woman assigned to take care of them, and their friend, and information exchanged organically within the group without it being a flowdown from Immortan Joe?
And if they haven't been exposed to the concept of freedom (and later the book will try to claim that they've never had to live on the outside, which... just... no?), then why are they scolding Furiosa for being no more free than they are? The whole thing comes across as massively catty and unreasonable and "emotional". Not actual emotional, like human beings are, but "girl emotional" where they just lash out unreasonably at the wrong people in order to create conflict. These are, in short, not the women I saw in the movie who dealt with Max in a calm and collected fashion.
Page 13 gives us another triggery medical exam and the announcement that Angharad is pregnant.
Page 14 has the wives berating Furiosa some more. (Did I mention that they call her "just like them [the men], except you've got no balls"? Thank you, male authors, that sounds totally like the women I know sound. That is definitely how we insult, yes. //sarcasm)
Page 15 shows Angharad spiralling into a silent depression while Furiosa watches with meaningful eyes.
Page 16 has the "history woman", Miss Giddy, tell Furiosa that she's concerned for the women and that they will perish without a leader. Calling all Exceptional Women, can we get an Exceptional Woman on line 1, please?
Page 17 has Furiosa realizing the extent of Angharad's depression, and rushing to the scene of Page 18 which is holy shit a graphic panel of Angharad trying to give herself an abortion by herself and there is blood everywhere and I'm not going to show the image because it's awful. Furiosa leaps forward and grabs the coat hanger wire and possibly backhands Angharad (the art style makes it hard to tell) and the other wives rush in hearing the noise.
Which leads us to Page 19 in which Furiosa backhands all the wives and then explains to them that they have the best life ever and should be totes grateful and here is where I am just throwing my kindle at the wall hard enough to leave a mark because who wrote this shit and why was this allowed to be published.
Page 21 reveals what we'd all been secretly hoping: that Furiosa had a rape backstory, yay! Awesome! (Not awesome!)
Page 22 introduces the "my baby is not going to be a warlord" concept and can I just say that when I saw those words painted in the movie, I read them a little differently than these authors have here. Angharad is using the words here to say this specific baby will not be a warlord, whereas I had read that in a more broad sense that the babies we have, should we chose to have them, will not be warlords. Whether or not abortion is a choice made by one or more of the wives once they are free, I didn't expect that they would all necessarily choose to keep and raise Joe's children. (Indeed, Dag expresses ambivalence over the whole thing in a way that resonated with me.) There is this tendency of some male authors to forget that a woman can want children but not this particular child at the same time. Or, indeed, that a woman can not want to have warlord-children and not want to have children at all!
The movie narrative felt inclusive to me of differences between the wives: whether they wanted to keep Joe's baby, or wanted to abort/adopt out of their current pregnancy and have children later with someone else, or wanted no children at all, they all were united in not wanting to bear warlords. Now the comic has twisted that to be a statement about a specific child, making the women's flight for freedom just as much about "protecting" that child from warlord-training as it was about making reproductive choices on their own.
Page 23 has Capable apologizing to Furiosa, and explaining that all her cattiness was based in envy. Ugh.
Page 24 has the wives talking about the green place (though Furiosa doesn't reveal her history and acts like she doubts a green place exists). Page 25 asks about her arm ("bad things happened"), and reveals that she was taken and that her mother died. Page 26 has Dag entertaining the wives by pretending to be Joe, then the medic shows up to take the women to Joe for the evening; he notes that Furiosa is getting protective and forgetting her place. Page 27 has Joe being catered to by the wives while they sing and play music.
Page 28 has Joe telling Cheedo to come "sit on daddy's lap", and I guess now is the time to bring up that several mentions have been made to her being young and not ovulating yet, and that Joe hasn't started raping her yet. Now he declares his intentions to do so.
Dag yells at him and tries to protect Cheedo, and of all the reasons she could have brought up for wanting to protect her friend, she yells, "She's the only thing here not infected by your poison!" which. Sigh. I'm not going to say that a rape victim couldn't internalize rape narratives, because it happens all the time, but this feels like a very horrible male-centric view of this situation: Dag and the other women are "infected" by having been pierced by Joe's penis, but Cheedo is pure because she is a virgin. This is really a disgusting narrative to perpetuate in a book about sexual victimization because rape survivors (like myself) get to read this and hear that penetration makes us infected by poison. That other rape survivors feel that way, not just society, and we probably should feel that way too.
And... the thing is, these authors aren't writing history. They're writing fiction. Is it realistic that Dag might have internalized that she is "dirty" for being raped? Sure, that happens all the time. Is it necessary that she use this particular reason to save her friend? No! She could have saved Cheedo for literally any other reason. The fact that Dag focuses on "virgin" as Cheedo's most important trait makes me uncomfortably suspect that the authors focused on "virgin" as Cheedo's most important trait. And while depiction is not necessarily endorsement, this is never pushed back on again; no one ever revisits this idea that, no, you really aren't poisoned for having been raped. Dag doesn't receive acceptance, and so neither do we in the audience.
Page 29 has Joe viciously raping Dag in revenge, while Furiosa stops the wives from intervening. Despite the fact that since Angharad is visibly pregnant and his favorite, she might well have been able to intervene effectively. Page 29 also has Joe detailing a list of everything he's given his ungrateful wives in case we've forgotten since the last five minutes that they owe their education to him. Page 30 has Furiosa tell the women about the green place while they make rapturous faces and say "take us there" without any sense of planning or cooperation going into this. Just an Exceptional Woman and her cargo.
I'm going to here note as a bit of a breather that by far the most lines in this comic go to Angharad and Dag, who are the two blond women of the group. Toast, who is a biracial black woman, seems to have only one speaking part that I can find: the scene where she says Joe doesn't have procreative sex with her. Cheedo, who is Maori and Chinese, is a virgin who exists in order to be extra-super-victimized and then protected by a blond woman (who is then raped in retaliation). Capable, the redhead of the group, is envious and emotional and shouty. So our blond women are people and heroes and center stage, and our women of color are highlighted as extra rape-victimy while having far fewer lines of dialogue.
Page 31 has Joe show up with chastity belts as punishment for Dag speaking against him last night. It doesn't flow narratively and seems to be the authors feeling that they needed to jam that detail in as a plot point on a flowchart instead of as just another symptom of their abuse. It's great (and by great I mean awful) that all these little details are coming together to be the wives' fault rather than just something Joe did to them because he's a horrible patriarch-monster obsessed with controlling womens' reproduction. In Page 32 he fires Furiosa, apparently because the chastity belts mean that the women don't need to be protected from men any more. I guess the idea that Rictus might bring bolt cutters with him is just too outlandish for Joe to consider.
Page 33 has the wives talking and oh, I was wrong, Toast does get to talk here. Cheedo says the chastity belts are "my fault. stupid, stupid, stupid," and Toast agrees with her. Stellar. Dag says that she hates the baby inside her and that it's an "ugly baby" and Angharad scolds her. "Don't say that. It's going to be beautiful." Ugh. Can male authors seriously not encompass that a pregnant woman might not want to be pregnant? Do they think pregnancy hormones are mind-control Borg nanites?
Page 34 has Angharad insisting that "Furiosa showed us to be strong... as women! We are not things!" So, oh wonderful, the wives didn't realize they weren't things to be owned until they met a badass Exceptional Woman and aspired to be the same as her. Silly me, here thinking all this time that the movie was about how there is no one Right/Best way to be a woman and that we are all valuable for our diversity. Nope, apparently we're all just trekking down a sliding scale from Victim to Heroine.
Page 35 has Furiosa showing up in the middle of the night and this is just stellar writing:
Furiosa: Get dressed. We're leaving... now.
Wives: Are we going to the green place?
Furiosa: No questions. [...talks about going to the green place...] One question remains--do you want this?
This is, for the record, how men talk to me as a woman. Order me around, order me to be silent, and then ask for my consent kind of late after the fact and designating a time in which I am magnanimously allowed to speak. This is not how people talk to each other when they feel mutual respect. This is not how people talk to each other when they are cooperating and planning an escape plan together. This is how a dog herds sheep or a person loads cargo. And thus evaporates any sense from the movie that these women were equals working together in order to escape as a group. Furiosa is an Exceptional Woman saving the others, the end.
Page 36 has them leave Miss Giddy behind because she's too old for the journey. Cheedo says that she doesn't want to go, that she wants to stay here with Miss Giddy, and I hate this so much. The movie had Cheedo wrestling with understandable fears under terrible duress, but now that fear that a horrible death might be worse than a terrible life has been expanded to her not wanting to leave in the first place. And this juxtaposes in awful ways with her being the one virgin among the wives; there is an implication here that she hasn't been raped enough to want to escape.
Page 38 clarifies that Giddy wrote the "our babies will not be warlords" on the walls and floors because apparently this book hadn't ruined the movie enough for me that I just was not allowed to go on imagining the wives writing out their rebellion in their own hand.
And there you go! "How to Ruin an Amazing Movie in 40 Pages Or Less!"
Okay, so let's unpack this just a little further, and I'm sorry that this is getting long.
First of all, this comic is ridiculously rapey, especially given that the movie attained a lot of feminist acclaim precisely because it wasn't rapey. It was a movie about sexual victimization without showing any rape on-screen. I've already seen dudes defending the comic with pretend-surprise and things like "gosh, you mean the rapey guy was raping those women all this time! I'm shocked!" But the thing is, we didn't need to see rape in order to know that rape was going on. That was true for the movie; it is true for any backstory comics.
Indeed, by showing the rape and sexual assault over and over again in this book, that will likely overwhelm the wives' valid complaints about freedom and reproductive freedom. It doesn't--or shouldn't--matter whether Joe is treating them "well" or whether he's hurting them. They aren't free, they deserve to be free, the end. The added rape sequences only serve to provide a validity prism for the audience: yes, the apocalypse out there is rotten, but it really was sufficiently terrible enough in Joe's captivity to justify wanting to leave.
The fact that the authors felt that the wives needed to justify wanting to be free, and the fact that Joe and Furiosa spout the same dialogue about the wives being unaware of how tough life is outside, how ungrateful they are for all he's given them, how much better off they are with him--all lines that abusers regularly employ against us, their victims--is disturbing to me as a reader. The time spent "justifying" wanting to escape into the apocalyptic wastes paradoxically undermines itself. I, a survivor of rape and abuse, never found it odd that the wives would rather risk starvation in the desert than continue on in that situation, but the awareness that I am now apparently supposed to think it was odd just reminds me that "I don't want to be abused" is considered a selfish luxury in our society, rather than a human right worth dying for.
Apparently my freedom is something I should sell for water and shade, and I should only give that up if the abuse is bad enough. In the movie, the chastity belts read to me as one more symptom of the wives' captivity; in the book, the chastity belts become a symbol of why they had to leave. The dynamic of freedom is completely changed, and not for the better. And the juxtaposition of the virginal wife not wanting to escape, presumably because she hasn't been raped yet, reinforces that bizarre message that freedom is (and should be) negotiable for water. That message is so incredibly alien to the movie I thought I watched.
My second problem with the comic is that the women aren't working together as a group of diverse equals. This was something else in the movie that made sense to me; the way the women worked together fit perfectly well with my own life and history and friendships. Yet again, the authors behind this comic seemed to find that cooperation strange, almost suspicious, and have apparently decided that these women needed a history of being catty and seeing each other suffer and deciding to work together in order for that cooperation to be valid. Because that's the natural progression of female relationships, right?
The wives could have (and this would have seemed vastly more realistic to me) been actually interested in Furiosa when she first was assigned them. "You're a warrior? You drive a war rig? What is that like? How is it better than this? How is it worse than this?" Then we would have seen actual backstory and gotten to actually known these characters. Instead of being sold a tepid rape story that we've all seen before, instead of going through the reused progression of cattiness and fighting, instead we could have had a glimpse at their lives through the framing that they wanted to give us. Not as a fly on the wall hovering through rape scenes as we adjust our validity prisms, but as a respectful listener hearing the stories that these women wanted to tell each other, and us.
But the narrative doesn't treat them with that respect, and so they don't treat each other with respect either. Furiosa's gender is doubted and questioned, as is her place as a warrior, all to set her up as an Exceptional Woman. The women ask her to take them away (probably in part because that is movie-canon and the authors were stuck with it!) but in manner that has almost no agency: Furiosa spins a tale for them of the green place and their adoring faces beam up at her in rapturous wonder. This isn't the tale of Capable and Knowing (haha, see what I did there?) women making plans together and executing an amazing prison break; this is the tale of Furiosa stomping up the stairs and saying 'come with me if you want to live'.
Even the knowledge of the women is stripped from them in this story; they didn't learn and grow and become three-dimensional characters because that's what women do and have been doing since time began. No, they learned things because "daddy" let them. They met Furiosa because "daddy" assigned her as their protector. All the amazing things that the women do in the movie now flow from the graciousness of Imperator Joe, and the "ironic" moral seems to be that if he had been just a little bit worse of a patriarch, then he would have won.
The backstory of the wives was always going to be a story about rape, just as their story in the movie was about rape. But this was a chance to show a narrative that discussed rape on women's terms, in women's voices, rather than just splaying their legs all over the page as if a woman truly is the object that her rapist would reduce her to. This could have been a story about them using their knowledge and taking their freedom, rather than being passively given their knowledge and ushered, silenced and unquestioning, to freedom. This could have been a story about agency, respect, curiosity, friendship, love, rebellion, and vibrant humanity.
Instead we got a washed over plot about rape and captivity and in-fighting, until an Exceptional Woman rises to be The Leader. Nothing original, nothing we haven't seen before, and nothing that evokes the amazing spirit of the movie I loved.