We can probably all agree that the "men's right's" spat online over the feminist agenda of Mad Max is more laughable than threatening, in that female empowerment does not mean the emasculation of men. Notably, Return of Kings's retrogressive point that Theron's character had the 'audacity to "bark orders" at Max' and that 'Max would never allow that' is just beyond the pale. I don't know about you, but I think Return of Kings absolutely missed the mark on Max's character. Which brings me to the question I want to put out there for you guys:What is the modern day conception of masculinity?
By comparison lets just rehash the old-school stereotype. Men have power and authority over women because they are the more able sex
. There's lots of classic though laudable heroes that fit this stereotype.
For the sake of argument lets just stick to contemporaries of the Max Max trilogy. We got Rick Deckard's sorta rape-y romance with Rachael. There's also Indiana's leading the damsel around. Jake Gittes's slapping Evelyn Cross. In each of the three the stereotype serves the purpose of protecting.
However, there's fence sitters like James Bond who both protects and objectifies women. Then there's the purely objectifying beta males of Revenge of the Nerds or Jack Ryan, 16 Candles, that acquire man-ness from sexual (domination) triumph. The ick factor of later sorta gives the basis for the darker views on Bros nowadays, right?
(I'm sure there's way better examples, but hopefully that's sufficient context).
Okay, so back to the question. I think there's a few parts to it and also some general assumptions too. For me, I think 1) there is a difference between men and women, 2) that this is both biological and social, and 3) that the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity has cultural (and storytelling) merit. I don't think diverging from the classic stereotype 'blurs the genders' as Return of Kings says. I think that culturally we are more interested in more complex characters that diverge from stereotype
in general. And that more importantly, masculinity can be decoupled from the notion of dominance and hierarchy.
Further reading from a superficial google search:"Who's The Man? Hollywood Heroes Defined Masculinity For Millions" -- NPR"Defining A Modern Masculinity" -- Dr. NerdLove
So take for example the quintessential loner, nihilistic, tough guy, dark horse - i.e. Mad Max. I think he's the perfect example of the modern day uber-masculine archetype because he can be paired with a powerful and strong female lead and still come out the toughest guy
in the room. By contrast, the same can't be said about the classical male that Return of Kings thinks is the only kind of manly man.
I think it works because the lone wolf, the wandering ronin, the Western cowboy defies the conventions and rises above the issues that hamstring classical masculinity. Specifically:
Is he an alpha male? Nope. He's a punk that defies authority and is disgusted by his need to wield it. He's the last to speak up and only because he has to. So soon as he has utilized that power, he is ever eager to shed it.
Does he require respect or dominance? Nope. He doesn't give a damn what society thinks about him and is similarly immune from it's encouragement as he is it's discouragement.
(However, this loner is only exemplified as a masculine character when he is a hero; proving that despite all his omeganess that he is the most capable character in the story. When he is not a hero then he might be less masculine, which I'd tie back to Mad Max below).
Ultimately what makes a masculine character, after all? A character who defines his masculinity relative to those around him, or a character who is solid and self sufficient within himself?
Which might lead to a follow up question:Is then Theron's character masculine?
and in corollary, can Max be feminine.
I think this is the more interesting question and something I REALLY hope gets explored more. There's no doubt that Theron's character is the biggest and baddest female lead since Ripley, but she reads undoubtedly
as female despite her shaved head and ruthless dominance.Spoilers ahead.
I'm totally just reading things from very little here since the plot of the fourth movie was so thin. From what I can glean, I'd say that Max and Furiosa are foils of one another and that this allows them to be read as both masculine and feminine.
Furiosa is defined by her positive hope and her negative idealism. She is hopeful when leading the brides to the green place, but becomes unrealistic when leading them aimlessly into the desert. She is masculine when striving for realizable goals and then feminine when relying on senseless hope.
Max is defined by his positive heroism and his negative self-resiliency. For simplicity, allow me to say that heroism can be considered masculine. Max is most masculine when he is triumphing for the sake of others. Sure he kicks ass just because too, but his shining moments are when he sticks his neck out. Contrast for example his acquisition of the bigrig in Road Warrior versus his willingness to then drive it at the climax. On the other hand, his reticence to help stems not from his selfishness but from his fear of loss, which is definitely feminine. Taken together, the classic 'riding into the sunset' is the epitome of his character type. The character is both displaying his selflessness having done the deed without interest of reward (lets say the gal), as he is his emotional fear of... responsibility? love? family? -- All attributes that make men biologically men. Masculinity is about protecting family, and in that main aspect the character is most incapable.
On the other hand, Furiosa is not the nurturing woman in the end, but the champion of her new family. She ascends the patriarchy and so Max becomes a redundancy. You get the same in Westerns too with the empowered female then continuing on. Take for example 'Once Upon a Time in the West' or more contemporary 'Cold Mountain'.