Why feminists & non-feminists can both ignore the ‘Mad Max’ controversy

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(All photos: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Because this article is likely to lead to misunderstandings of the points I’m about to make, I’d like to begin by immediately clarifying a few things.

First, when the title here says you can ignore the emerging controversy over Mad Max: Fury Road, I’m not saying that the actual issues being addressed aren’t important nor do I wish to delegitimize anyone’s opinions. I care about these issues too, and I believe that they need to be discussed and thought upon. Representation matters—yes, I agree.

Next, although Mad Max: Fury Road is simply the latest example, what I’m commenting on here is actually a cultural trend that seems to be intensifying these days (e.g. the Hasbro-Black Widow toy controversy, the Joss Whedon’s supposed misogyny and racism controversy, etc.)

Finally, although you might be tempted to quickly figure out where along the spectrum of cultural politics I lie so that you can skip to the comments section without reading and commence with being outraged, I’m not going to scratch that itch. Part of the problem with public debates over the Internet is our feverish addiction to the need to quickly categorize people into preset labels so that we can more easily determine how we feel about them. At the first sign that someone seems to even remotely disagree with us on a single point about a single issue we jump the gun and brand them as an ideological opponent when sometimes that’s not even the case. Even within a shared ideology there are different schools of thought and different approaches. Allies can disagree on specific details. But having everyone and everything fit into simple, ready-made conceptual categories makes reality less complex and makes us feel more comfortable. However, this does us all a great disservice. And so for the sake of us this article you can consider me to be neither feminist nor anti-feminist, neither liberal nor conservative. Here, for a moment, I am nobody’s ally (or perhaps everyone’s enemy) because what I’m here to argue about is not a gender issue or a cultural politics issue. It’s a human issue.

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Having hopefully clarified that somewhat, I’d now like to direct our attention to Mad Max: Fury Road for which the advance screenings have been held and the first reviews have been streaming in. And somewhat predictably, based on the trailers and early buzz words, it’s already being used as ammunition by commentators from both sides of the gender wars. I haven’t seen the film so I’m not commenting on its merit either as a work of art or as an ideological vehicle. I’m simply going to report and comment on the emerging controversy online over the movie’s reported feminist themes.

Though it’s not always the case, this time it appears the first shot was fired by an opinion piece from the website Return of Kings entitled “Why You Should Not Go See ‘Mad Max: Feminist Road’.” Basically, the brunt of the writer’s point in this piece is as follows:

[…] Let us be clear. This 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. And this is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, further ruining women for men, and men for women.

Regardless of whatever merit I might feel a few of this writer’s opinions have, his extremist language and manner of delivery serves to accomplish little but to make others of his same ideological group grunt in agreement. Further, by mixing in an implied point that’s simply ridiculous (that women are not equal to men in logic) with a point that is valid (that generally speaking, average women aren’t equal to average men in terms of physical strength and we shouldn’t pretend they are just because movie heroines are masters of kung fu), the ridiculous point overshadows the valid point. No one on the opposing side will even notice the few valid points for the sheer inanity of the ridiculous ones. Further, even if the point that women in general are not the same as men in terms of physical strength is simply an ideologically neutral observation based in science, the tone of articles like the one above cause opponents to mentally project misogyny onto an idea itself even though the misogyny here lies with the writer and his tone, not his ideas themselves (not all of them, anyway).


As expected, the other side is beginning to post its rebuttals. The first big one was from the blog We Hunted the Mammoth in a post titled “Furious about Furiosa: Misogynists are losing it over Charlize Theron’s starring role in Mad Max: Fury Road.” I don’t find its tone quite as distasteful as the Return of Kings piece but it does perpetuate the danger of leading people to confuse certain ideas with the way those ideas are expressed by extremists. It does this by focusing on the bad points made by the Return of Kings piece and ignoring the couple of valid ones. It also focuses on the negative, confrontational tone of the RoK writer, thereby creating an impression that all of the ideas themselves are inherently sexist and horrible (some of them are, but not all of them, not necessarily).

Following on the heels of We Hunted the Mammoth is The Mary Sue with “Incredibly Peeved Men’s Rights Activists Call for Boycott of Mad Max, Are Unintentionally Hilarious.” Again, while not quite as inflammatory as some of its other pieces (e.g. “Disney Just Mocking Us At This Point; Replaces Black Widow with Captain America in Toy Based on Black Widow Scene”), it still displays a familiarly smug attitude:

If a movie’s depiction of women is upsetting to Men’s Rights Activists, then said movie is probably awesome. A+ performance, Charlize Theron. Dudes are literally terrified that you’ll act them all into becoming feminists.

Do The Mary Sue and Mammoth pieces contain good points? Yes. But regardless of that I don’t think that much more highly of their pieces either. They’re basically doing the same kind of emotion-baiting that seems to be saying, “Look here at these bad people we can feel good about mocking.” The Mary Sue and Mammoth articles also pick easy targets by quoting some awful passages from the comments section of the Return of Kings article. But comments sections, as we know, are often full of comments that are unreasonable and hateful that don’t necessarily reflect the article writer’s own views. And just as it isn’t helpful to lump all feminists into a single categorized group (they’re actually a diverse group with diverse opinions) it isn’t fair to paint an inaccurate portrait of a single, monolithic group of the stupid and evil men’s rights movement by lumping everyone who expresses a similar idea together. It also isn’t fair to portray an idea itself as being the same thing as the hateful behavior of someone who expresses that idea.

A person may very well be a liberal who is supportive of feminism overall and yet be concerned with some of the more militant strains that exist within the overarching feminist category. Or just because a person disagrees with the idea that women have it harder in every way and men have it easier in every way, or that the world would be better off if all cultures switched to a system of matriarchy, it doesn’t make him sexist or misogynist, necessarily. It’s almost as if as a culture we’re losing the ability to withhold judgment of differing ideas while thinking through the enormous complexities of a given issue. This isn’t a new problem in the history of media, but it is one that’s being exacerbated by the prevalence and ease of the Internet and social media which is good in some ways but not so good in others.

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Next, commentators in public debates like these posts from Return of Kings, We Hunted the Mammoth and The Mary Sue frequently  misrepresent each others’ key points. Both sides are guilty of this and it’s likely to make younger, impressionable readers who are forming their own identities and opinions confuse some of the actual ideas with the unpleasant, antagonistic manner in which the ideas are presented by extremists. It may shock you but despite the fact that I want nothing to do with Return of Kings and prefer to ignore their content, I happen to partly agree with a few ideas in the mentioned article even as I disagree with its approach and ultimate conclusion. The same goes for the Mammoth and Mary Sue articles. I agree with some of their ideas too but don’t want to be associated with their approach either. We mustn’t confuse ideas with the methods and personalities of those who present the ideas, and we mustn’t lump everyone with shared opinions into a single group or assume that anyone with a differing opinion is an enemy.

And so the basic point here has been that regardless of how much I happen to agree with any opinions of any writers on any side, I lose respect for them all when they use emotion-baiting and ridicule to attack each other in a way that serves to add more fuel to the already out-of-control fire that is the culture wars. It reinforces the low opinion that both sides have of the other as human beings. It’s a pointless, cyclical, self-perpetuating game in which the end result is simply more hate. Nobody changes their mind or learns a thing. Nobody grows. Everybody just gets to reinforce their superior self image and add to their list of reasons to resent those with differing ideas.

On a hopeful note, I believe that when opinionated content is presented well, most sincere and intelligent people can read a well-argued article by an ideological opponent and see at least partial validity in at least some of the opponent’s arguments. Differing worldviews are not always completely exclusive of each other. Black and white don’t cancel each other out but co-exist in the same space and create many shades of grey. For example, if I were to calmly say, without emotion, that regardless of my personal politics I happen to believe that some of the points (some, not all) made by members of the so-called men’s rights movement are valid, then I think that even some moderate feminists can at least partially see some validity in that. But if I were to infuse that statement with negative emotion and then deliver it antagonistically, people are likely to attack my points out of sheer spite even if they do see some logical validity to my points. My style of delivery will overshadow my own ideas and I won’t be likely to inspire any genuine reflection even among people who might be inclined to agree. I’m just going to push people’s emotional buttons in all the predictable ways, so predictable that it’s almost like math.

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Am I saying all this emotion-baiting and fighting must stop? Not necessarily, but it depends on what the purported goal of your movement is. If the goal is to make people think more (regardless of where you stand politically), to spread ideas and to even get people to widen their worldviews to allow room for divergent ones, then I do argue that the way cultural politics are typically argued nowadays over the Internet are not conducive to those things. And the only way that sites like Return of Kings or The Mary Sue will reconsider their baiting tactics is if people stop sharing their content so much or e-mail them and leave comments saying that they don’t appreciate this style of blogging even as they may agree with the site’s politics. After all, these sites use these tactics because they work in attracting clicks and shares. Speaking coldly, it makes business sense. Indeed, Return of Kings seems to have built its sizable audience on its antagonistic attitude so maybe there’s no hope to be found there but there’s hope for other blogs and media outlets across the political spectrum.

If, however, the goal is to simply regularly reaffirm one’s self-identity and to reinforce one’s negative perception of one’s perceived opponents, thereby continually decreasing the likelihood of any real political or ideological bridges being built, then I think the currently prevailing methods are quite effective and can be continued. After all, I’m not here to tell anyone how to think or  act, and I’m certainly not saying people don’t have a right to be angry. I’m only here to suggest that we should be more clear and honest about the goals we’re truly after and then, having clarified those goals, either adjust our methods to be more effective or continue with our current ways depending on what we actually want.

So if you’re going to attack me for this post, do attack me for the right reasons, please. Attack me because I want our public discussions and debates to evolve into something more conducive to actual thinking, reflection and growth, a way to share ideas and open minds to different perceptions (because rarely can any single group perceive the full, big picture on an issue and it takes people from different walks of life to create that big picture together). Or attack me because I think that the way we treat and portray each other as fellow human beings is more urgent at this point in our development than the preciousness of our political persuasions. However, do not attack me for the feminist/anti-feminist, liberal/conservative you might assume me to be because I haven’t provided enough basis here to make you assume I’m any of those things. Or you can go ahead and attack me for that but I think you’d only be supporting some of my points.

Regardless of your politics, if what you truly want is the world to actually be a better place even though people will always disagree, then you can ignore the smug name-calling and hate-mongering of online arguments over Mad Max: Fury Road, Avengers: Age of Ultron or anything else. It’s okay, you don’t have to feel obligated to join in these fights by virtue of your beliefs, whatever they may be. Sitting out an argument won’t make you a bad feminist or a bad male rights activist. It just makes you someone who chooses your battles and who cares about the way those battles are fought and whether they are being fought effectively or not. It makes you someone who chooses to engage a battle when you can see the prospects of it actually yielding some positive social benefits. And should you decide, after sitting this one out, that you simply must be in the fray every time trading vicious blows with the enemy, rest assured that the next opportunity will present itself soon enough. Star Wars: The Force Awakens  is coming soon, after all.

It should be interesting to see how the culture wars play out on that  battlefield.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.

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