Monday, June 01, 2015

Feminist Mad Max is real, y'all

At the website Return of Kings, econ blogger Aaron Clarey reviles Mad Max: Fury Road as a trojan horse for feminist ideas:
This [movie] is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic.
Clarey is talking about the fact that a number of the female characters in the movie - including Charlize Theron's female lead - are tough warrior types who spend a lot of time shooting and otherwise killing big tough male baddies. He thinks that's unrealistic - in the real world, he seems to be saying, war is a man's job.

But actually, I can think of at least one good real-life analogue of the badass women of Mad Max (and of much of modern pop culture). It's the war in Syria and Iraq. The Kurdish militias who have been beating the crap out of ISIS in the north of Syria have substantial numbers of women in their ranks. Here, via War Nerd, are pictures of a couple of the women killed in combat with ISIS:


Normally, women are kept in noncombatant roles in Kurdish militias. But the pressure of the ISIS assault forced women to join the fight directly, and they have apparently been quite effective in battles like the one in Kobane. In fact, a woman is the commander of the Kurdish militias in Syria:
Meet Nassrin Abdallah. With her diminutive height and broad smile, it doesn't seem like she should strike fear into the hearts of hardened Islamic State jihadists. But this 36-year-old Syrian Kurd woman has been at the tip of the spear of the Kurdish forces that last month liberated the symbolic city of Kobane from IS militants... 
As the head of the armed wing of the Kurdish PYD, "commander" Nassrin has led both men and women into battle against Islamic State fighters who have overrun large areas of Iraq and Syria... 
According to Nassrin, around 40 percent of the Kurdish fighters battling over the town on the Syrian-Turkish border were women.. 
Some, like her, are hardened warriors but also joining their ranks were mothers who sent their children over the border to the safety of Turkey, then rushed off to join their sisters in arms...Fighting alongside Nassrin are other powerful female commanders who have achieved legendary status on the battlefield. 
Women like Narine Afrin, who played a key role in the defence of Kobane. Or Arin Mirkan, who blew herself up on October 5, killing dozens of IS fighters encircling the town, according to Kurdish sources. 
In total, there are 4,000 women fighting in the armed wing of the PYD [militia], say Kurdish officials, who refuse for strategic reasons to disclose the total number of people who have taken up arms. 
Over and beyond the military aspect of the victory over IS in Kobane, it has been seen as a triumph for women, who are repressed in areas under IS control, obliged to wear the veil and, in the case of the Yazidi minority, forced into slavery.
In fact, this pretty closely parallels the plot of Mad Max: Fury Road! Nassrin Abdallah is the real-life Imperator Furiosa, while ISIS is the real-life version of Immortan Joe and the Warboys.

And it's important to note that the women of the Kurdish militias haven't just been fighting, they've been winning. ISIS massively outnumbered and outgunned the Kurdish militias in a number of battles in northern Syria, but were soundly defeated.

So if men's natural physical advantages are not decisive (at least in the age of guns and explosives), why have most armies throughout history been mostly or exclusively male?

One reason is that men can't bear children. Over time, a warlike society's success depends on the number of soldiers it can throw at the enemy. If a male soldier gets killed, the loss of his sperm will not adversely impact the overall fertility of the tribe. But if a female soldier gets killed, the fertility of the tribe will go down, reducing the number of future soldiers. You really need to think of things in terms of expected discounted total soldiers. The math of protracted warfare favors sending men to die on the front lines, and keeping women in the rear to pump out new soldiers. (Yes, it sucks to live in a warlike society.)

Another reason is preference. Men, on average, are far more violent and aggressive than women. This means that more men will want to go to war, or at least hate it less.

So Aaron Clarey is wrong. Mad Max: Fury Road is not a piece of unrealistic feminist propaganda (though the Tumblr site Feminist Max Max is funny). What it actually is is a movie about - to use a Clarey phrase - "one man with principles, standing against many with none."


  1. I can't speak for anyone else, but I took the "girls are icky" sign of my treehouse about one year after my voice began to crack.

  2. Paraphrasing: "God made big men and God made little women. (Insert weapons manufacturer here) made them equal"

  3. 100:1 kill ratios are totally realistic.... unless the protagonist is female. Also, since we care about realism, all hand to hand fight scenes should pretty much look like MMA.

  4. Anonymous3:46 PM

    Where do you keep fining this balding beta -- oh sorry sorry, omega, you pedant -- males to have an imaginary debate against? And what next, perusing stormfront or zerohedge for some semi-human to be the contra to the argument 'Jews arent running a world wide conspiracy to deprive white guys of asian women' ?
    If you are play the game of blog war at least pick an opponent who has something interesting to say, not just "Wah, modern society makes me feel completely asexual and I am invisible to the women I imagined I have the right to sleep with Waah and why is my hair falling out as fast as my breasts are coming in waaah"

  5. Martin4:33 PM

    There was also considerable effort to interpret this movie not as feminist but egalitarian, e.g. by Freddie de Boer. Apart from the implicit message here that 'feminist' is supposed to mean something like 'women-dominated', I disagree even with that premise: I thought it was an obvious feature of the film that what gets overthrown is absolutely a male-dominated dystopian society. And the driving force - the ones that actually seek change rather than just get by by any means necessary, looking on while the world is getting destroyed - are women: that Max and Nux see the light is solely a consequence of their stumbling into this group of women (and in both cases as outcasts!). That the battle efforts are equal does not change this. And I think this makes the comparison with the metonymic Kobane situation even more astute: women fighting for the future against a testosteron-driven monstrosity (as Gary Brecher keeps pointing out) - and showing men who are not sure who is actually crazy "as the word fell" (they themselves... Or everyone else?) the way, thereby saving us all together. I think the movie conveys a strong feminist message even without the Kobane comparison in this regard, but it drives the message home.

    1. Eh, I'd say that's kind of unfair to Max and Nux. Nux was a child soldier raised in a cult whose only hope for salvation was serving his lord and commander without question, while Max just stumbled into Furiosa's escape plan knowing virtually nothing about who they were. I think Max and Furiosa would have behaved rather similarly had they been in the other's shoes. Remember that Furiosa followed the script long enough to reach a position of real respect and prestige within the system before she finally went rogue. A few months or years before the events of the movie you could have said she was simply getting by by whatever means necessary as well.

    2. Martin7:39 AM

      Eh, what do you mean"unfair"? Nux is the same age as Joe's harem - did they have a libertine education? But being "fair" is besides the point, anyway: it's rather that I think that the film itself is crystal clear. Max is utterly confused as to what is going on in that world (beyond saving his own life, and only his own life - note that this theme gets corroborated several times before he finally sees the light); Nux follows a completely illusory and eventually nihilistic path; Imortan Joe and his clique form a oppressive, enslaving and obviously male-dominated regime. When we get to the action, the only ones doing anything in terms of bringing about change are women. This is not to say that any of them is holy, least of all Furiosa. It is also not to say that Max and Nux do not end up being important to how everything turns out, and even maintaing the moral. It's about who generates the original impulse, the ones who clearly see at some point that something has to change and that they themselves have to do it - and I think the film is really clear that a) it's women, and b) that the two men that are rescued from their life-denying fates are converted to the good side after having failed in ther respective worlds, rather than getting there themselves. Whether this is fair I do not care: it's a strong message containing a certain brand of feminism (but clearly that), in which men are very welcome, but where there is not much hope that they will see any reason to change anything on their own. I dispute that the message is "egalitarian": it is only so if you reduce the film to its action sequences (and not even then IMO).

  6. Technology has narrowed the gap or almost eliminated it in some roles, but as for the infantry soldier, the gap is still there and it is still significant. Eggs and sperm don't have nearly as much to do with it, and haven't for at least hundreds of years, as weight and strength do. Sure there are exceptions, but on average the male is still the better infantry soldier.

    1. You forget that for much of history, the bulk of an army could be underfed peasants and street urchins. When that's the case, sex just don't matter, biology is against you with a penis or not.

      Plus, women have always fought. Archaeologists now think shieldmaidens may have made up as much as 50% of Norse armies and raiding parties.

    2. Just flat out wrong, but regardless, what part of "hundreds of years" didn't you understand?

  7. "Women should be permitted to volunteer for non-combat service,… they should not be accepted, voluntarily or through the draft, as combat soldiers…. We know of no comparable ways of training women and girls, and we have no real way of knowing whether the kinds of training that teach men both courage and restraint would be adaptable to women or effective in a crisis. But the evidence of history and comparative studies of other species suggest that women as a fighting body might be far less amenable to the rules that prevent warfare from becoming a massacre and, with the use of modern weapons, that protect the survival of all humanity. This is what I meant by saying that women in combat might be too fierce." Margaret Mead