"Imperator Furiosa." Now that is how you name a movie character.
Imperator Furiosa is the protagonist of the new Mad Max movie, played with a fierce vulnerability (and a shaved head) by Charlize Theron. A few phrases came to mind while watching the movie, the first being "stunning spectacle." Men bolted to steel poles wobbling dozens of feet in the air, which are in turn bolted to cars that seem to have come straight out of, well, a Mad Max movie. Then a huge truck rumbles by, featuring a guitarist whose guitar spits fire out of its headstock. If such a scene does not describe "stunning spectacle," then I don't know what does.
The other phrase that came to mind while watching the movie was "unbridled feminism." This seems to have come as a surprise to some viewers, but they must not be true fans of the original movies. After all, there was the crossbow-wielding Warrior Woman of The Road Warrior, and then the crossbow-wielding Aunty Entity of Beyond Thunderdome. Anyone who saw Tina Turner strut her stuff as the fearsome and quixotic Aunty Entity would have never been surprised by a character like Imperator Furiosa.
But it is not just Imperator Furiosa who carries the feminist banner in Fury Road, but also the motorcycle gang composed of elderly women. A geriatric women's motorcycle gang would seem an implausible idea, but one does not watch a Mad Max movie for its “plausibility." I also think there is a kind of bizarre logic to this concept, given that old women are always the ones who have seen and survived the most in life. My own grandmothers survived the Japanese occupation of Korea, World War II, and the Korean War. Joining an apocalyptic motorcycle gang would have been a piece of cake. Even the sex slaves escaping captivity in the film have their own strength, albeit one more nascent and uncertain than their peers. Watching them flee their warlord captors, I could not help but think that the story of being forced into sexual slavery seems to be just as much of a modern narrative as an apocalyptic one.
The third thought that came to mind while watching Fury Road was “I would never let my three daughters watch this movie.” It’s not just because they are too young (they are far too young), and it’s not because I am not a fan of female empowerment (I am a fan). It’s because of the violence. In the film, the empowerment of women is communicated largely through violence: that women are capable of holding their own with the men when it comes to crashing cars, wielding sawed-off shotguns, and maiming/killing people. Their equality as human beings is demonstrated primarily by their ability to commit acts of gratuitous violence.
And Mad Max is hardly the only example. I recently watched Taylor Swift’s new music video for “Bad Blood” (purely for research purposes, truly). Like Fury Road, you find images of empowered women, exuding cool confidence as they karate chop masked assassins and hoist rocket-propelled grenade launchers to their shoulders with their model skinny arms. Another anthem to feminism, employing images that glorify war and aggression.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand this concept. For too long, women have been relegated to the role of damsel in distress, whose worth and significance in a story is found only relative to the main male character. And in that context, role reversal seems to be a step towards equality. If only men like “Ahnold” could be the gore-spattered, gun-toting hero that mows down dozens of enemies, let’s have a women play that role instead. That’s progress. Right?
While tempting, this concept is based on an assumption that we often do not critically examine: that it is a good and noble thing to mow down dozens of enemies. Because if it is not an admirable thing for anyone to do these things, whether man or woman, then role reversal is hardly a step towards empowerment or equality, any more than it would be empowering for a woman to be portrayed as a homicidal cannibal. In that case, it would take a strange sort of person to exclaim, “Finally! A film about a woman who kills and eats people, it’s about time!”
And this is the problem I have with the feminism on display in the popular media: it usually empowers women through qualities that hold questionable value to those who follow Christ. Yes, portraying women as merciless killers might be novel and help in loosening entrenched stereotypes. But we have to ask ourselves whether these portrayals are truly redemptive and empowering. Is men’s propensity for violence really something to be envied and imitated? After all, men have freely trafficked in aggression since the dawn of humankind, and we all see how well that’s turned out. Gratuitous violence has hardly “empowered” men, any more than it “empowered” Cain. Rather, it has laid waste to men and the world as a whole, and it will do the same for women, no matter how noble our intentions.
Strangely enough, this is something that I have wrestled with in my own personal life. For decades, Asian men have been typecast in film as exotic and emasculated color characters. From Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, Asian men have served no purpose except to accentuate the grace, charm, and beauty of the film’s main characters, who were always white.
And so as a younger person, I relished the rise of more virile (and violent) Asian men in film: Chow Yun-Fat as the cop in Hard Boiled, wielding an automatic pistol in each hand, and Brandon Lee as an avenging angel in The Crow, out to kill everyone who played a role in murdering his fiancée and him. These actors showed that Asian men were not foolish jesters, but leading men who could punch, shoot, and kill just as well as “Mad Max” Mel Gibson, if not better.
But the older I became, the more I questioned exactly how empowering such portrayals were. Yes, it was certainly different for an Asian man to be portrayed as a killer rather than a fool, but was it truly better, more empowering? Does a person establish himself as a human being worthy of respect by their ability to kill, with flair? In the end, I decided that as frustrating as it was for Asian men to be portrayed as emasculated fools, I should not view their portrayal as stylish and proficient killers as a sign of unmitigated progress. It was more of a lateral shift, swapping an unflattering portrayal for an un-Christlike one instead.
Knowing the subtle but crushing prejudice and inequality that my daughters will likely face, I desperately want them to feel empowered and confident as women, to know how beautiful and strong they really are. But I don’t think movies like Fury Road or videos like “Bad Blood” are going to accomplish that. While they seek to empower women, they do so largely through the means of this world: violence and power, wealth and sex. And as beguiling and even righteous as this form of empowerment appears to us, we must recognize these for what they are: lies of the Enemy. It is the lie that the Enemy whispered into our ear in the Garden, and the same one that he told Jesus while he wandered the wilderness. And he whispers it in the ear of many marginalized people to this day, that our equality will be found only when we can finally do the terrible things that others have long been permitted to do.
But our calling as believers has never been to be imitators of other people, even if their role has long been denied to us. We are called instead to be imitators of Christ, who trained disciples and not stormtroopers, and called those disciples to lay down their swords and take up the cross instead. Our model is Jesus, whose name is high above all other names. So no, I don’t want my daughters to be like Imperator Furiosa. I want them to be like Jesus, whose strength is demonstrated through love and humility. Because as cool as the name “Imperator Furiosa” is, it’s got nothing on the name “Jesus of Nazareth.”