We Need to Talk About Furiosa.

My weekend blogs are usually a collective of thoughts on the comics I’ve read since my last rundown, but this week I want to focus on one, and one alone. We need to talk about Furiosa.

If you follow my blog, or have read any of my past posts, you will know I was among the many who highly sung the praises of Mad Max: Fury Road (which I argued should really be titled Furiosa’s Road), primarily for its fantastic Hollywood-shattering portrayal of women: fully developed characters in an action-packed movie so scarce on dialogue – never weak or purely plot devices. You can read my full appreciation of George Miller’s return here: https://faceittiger.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/mad-max-furiosas-road/. Surely, then, my excitement that the release a Furiosa spin off comic, to coincide with Vertigo’s new Mad Max franchise series, is understandable – and one voice in a chorus of many.

Oh boy.

Be careful what you wish for.

I’d like to begin by stating that, whilst obviously trying to remain in canon with Fury Road, it does not. This is not smoothly linked in, and it’s certainly not the prequel we deserve.

The beauty and brilliance of Fury Road is that we understood the background these women were escaping from without having to actually see it. The implication was enough, and the clipping of the belts added that extra nod just to make sure everyone was keeping up. And the women, each driven to gain their freedom, were so diverse: a shared goal from unique perspectives, each bringing something different to the team. It’s surprising, then, that Furiosa #1 has completely ignored these fantastic characteristics. Most shocking of all, although disappointingly unsurprising in the comics industry, is that almost every plot point is driven by rape. And not just the implication: graphic, brutal, disgusting, unnecessary rape. The powerful subtlety of Fury Road has been completely besmirched by Furiosa #1. Let’s take a closer look at just how wrong it went.

MAD_MAX_FR_FURIOSA_1_5500d3e1bc2963.56286572

The Wives

When we first meet the wives, we learn that Immortan Joe has gifted them with education: books, music, history lessons. Indeed, we’re told that giving these women a teacher was his “one fatal error”, because we all know how dangerous a group of educated women can be. Anyone else’s alarm bells ringing? And we’re only on page two…

The issue of education is brought up repeatedly throughout the 40-page book, and really makes each of the wives look like ignorant little flowers that desperately need protection. Rather than pulling from the implications in the movie that each of these women were interesting and led their own lives before being captured by Immortan Joe, they rely on Joe’s kindness of giving them a teacher. It doesn’t matter that Toast knew how to load a gun, and what ammunition to pair with each weapon when the other girls didn’t; or The Dag knew a thing or two about seeds (there’s one condescending page in the comic where they’re learning about peaches, their pits, and ‘oh, wow, seeds help things grow’). These women didn’t learn things through experience and share their knowledge with each other while held captive; they’re not interesting individuals: they’re lambs wrapped in blankets. The extent of focus on education is unnecessary, and could easily have been replaced by the women swapping stories from their life before. As Ana Mardoll stated in her fantastic post on Shakesville, “to me (and I’m guessing other women in theatres), it was no ‘mystery’ as to why the women knew things; they knew things because they were people.”

But it’s okay, you know. Immortan Joe really is a good guy, because he gives them such nice things. Books, music, knowledge, water. Surely being held captive, beaten, raped, held for a man’s pleasure is much better than freedom. Pfft. Who needs free will, amirite?!

I’m not joking when I say this is genuinely the attitude the majority of characters have in this comic. Furiosa tells the women just how good they have it; Joe asks “WHERE’S MY GRATITUDE?!”; and teacher, Miss Giddy, tells them to just “Stay calm within your core. In that place, he cannot reach you.” Great, because suppressing trauma is definitely the healthy and normal thing to do. I can have a bath, so please, continue to treat me as property!

The wives are treated as idiots by both the creative team and the other characters. They’ve just to put up and shut up, because it’s a lot better than anything else. They certainly aren’t capable of surviving outside by themselves, as Furiosa venomously reminds them. Miss Giddy also confides in Furiosa, telling her that the girls need a leader since they’re incapable of surviving alone. They’re reduced to nothing more than whimpering damsels, reading about peach pits.

To make it worse, the majority of their interaction with each other is when they’re being bitchy or emotional – but not, as Mardoll explains, genuinely emotional and deep, but “girly emotional”. They’re catty and cruel. Capable lashes out at Furiosa for not protecting them from Joe, and then apologises because she’s jealous. That’s right – she’s not mad because Joe’s raping them and keeping them against their will – that would be ridiculous! She’s got the red-headed temperament and is green with envy; “The moment you walked through the door… I was filled with envy. You looked so strong. Proud and Independent. A warrior magnificent.”

Am I the only one banging my head off the wall here?! The wives have been stripped of every single trope that made them so fantastic and interesting in Fury Road, and have been turned into dribbling children who need to be wrapped in cotton wool, and whose lives really aren’t that bad because they have baths and books. And to make things worse, their motivation for change isn’t the rape, or forced child bearing, or being held against their will – IT’S BECAUSE FURIOSA HAS TAUGHT THEM AND THEY SHOULD TRY TO BE LIKE HER.

The writers have well and truly created women who can barely tie their own shoes without guidance, never mind fight for their own freedom. They can’t think for themselves, apparently can’t survive themselves, can’t educate themselves. Urgh, I can’t even…

Furiosa

Oh my goodness, guys. We’re about to learn the back story of one of the most kick-ass women in cinema history. I bet it’s good! Okay, here we go, time to find out what happened to her to make her into the badass monster she is today. Ready?

Oh.

She was raped.

Great…

The creators have seriously missed an amazing opportunity. This could have been the chance to explore just what makes a female heroine, who is adored by male and female audiences, so intriguing, so mysterious, so awe inspiring. But no. I wish I’d been at the creative round-table:

‘So, guys, what motivates women? Where did Furiosa come from? How did she become a war-rig driver? And what about robo-arm?! The possibilities!’

“She used to be one of Joe’s wives, she was raped, and why not hint that she’s probably barren – so a rejected wife?”

‘GENIUS! We know how well that kind of approach worked out for Whedon!’

I held my head in my hands for a good ten minutes after reading Furiosa’s backstory reveal. I can’t get past the poor plotting. It’s like being presented with the Golden Ticket to Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but cashing it in to buy a life supply of advent calendar chocolate. But even then, surely Furiosa should have been more determined to help the wives rather than encourage their compliance? The narrative is weak, the writing lazy, and the opportunity wasted.

Their Bodies

One of my biggest problems with Furiosa #1 was the way in which pregnancy and women’s bodies were treated. On page three, we’re treated to a very graphic vaginal exam, in which the panel is framed by female legs. I’m sure this seemed like a fantastic creative idea, but as a woman who is now being forced to look through the eyes of an abused woman in a hugely intimate scenario with three slobbering guys in my vision, it’s unbelievably insensitive, and kind of insulting. Way to make a woman into a literal framing device, team. *slow claps*

We learn that these exams are so Joe knows when peak ovulation times are, which suggests his raping of these women is to repopulate with his teeny army of warlords. Haha, what suckers we are! They pulled us in with that trick, didn’t they?! It seems that the women are required to regularly ‘perform’ for Joe, and Toast’s disgusted sigh of, “where he puts it, there’ll be no babies” tells us that it’s as much for pleasure as it is for repopulation.

The list goes on and on with where the creative team totally missed the mark here. The girls are angry that Joe decides it’s finally time to rape Cheedo – the girl who is so young, she’s not ovulating yet – because she’s the only one not “infected by your poison”. Way to exploit the guilt felt by victims of sexual abuse, guys. There’s an attempt at abortion with a coat hanger which is overly graphic. Abortion is compared to war – I don’t think I need to expand on the idiocy and insensitivity of that. The writers can’t seem to grasp that, sometimes, women don’t want babies. Again, Mardoll brilliantly summarises the situation; “The movie narrative felt inclusive to me of differences between the wives: whether they wanted to abort or adopt out of their current pregnancy and have children, they 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.” And she’s right – in Fury Road, the women wanted total freedom: of their bodies, of their minds, of their choices – and they’d do anything to get it. In the comic, they are 100% objects. Their bodies, their minds, and their children and choices belong to Joe.

The Creative Team

The narrative structure of Furiosa #1 is almost an ironic paradox. When we come in to the story on page one, we’re met by a male storyteller, recounting the events of their tale to a captive audience, acting as an uncanny mirror of the comics’ entirely male creative team expressing the experiences of a female centred comic to their readers. I’m not saying men can’t write women – there are so many examples to shut that kind of argument down immediately. However, it’s important to remember that Miller was so desperate to get his sense of how women would respond in certain situations right in Fury Road, he enlisted the help of Eve Ensler (author of The Vagina Monologues) – and it certainly worked in everyone’s favour. So why not do the same for the comic?

In investigating unique female voices further, it’s necessary to draw upon genuine female experience. By ignoring the female voice, the creators of Furiosa #1 have resorted to the lazy writing tropes that have haunted women in comics – and blockbuster media – for decades, and that’s what completely destroys this comic. For example, as I stated already, rape is used repeatedly as the motivation for the plot to move forward, as well as providing “character development” (if you can call it that). Shall we count the excuses? 1. Furiosa is enlisted as protector of the women after Rictus attempted to rape Anghard; 2. Furiosa doesn’t stop Joe from raping the girls on page 10, because he’s the boss, and he’s giving them a nice life, right?!; 3. Furiosa’s a badass because she was raped herself; 4. Furiosa holds the girls back once more from Joe during the Cheedo incident; 5. Furiosa finally decides to help the girls, after seeing them repeatedly raped and abused. That is FIVE excuses in FORTY pages – technically, thirty-eight pages. That’s more than once every ten pages!

The handling of characterisation is so poor, it’s embarrassing. Gone are the women from the screen, replaced by whimpering idiots who need to be led. And even when they do begin their escape, it’s not as the team we saw in the movie, but as bubble wrapped ornaments, bullied by a condescending Furiosa. Theron’s depiction of Furiosa was determined and hard, but never cold nor hurtful to the girls. She was maternal rather than monstrous: a militant mother on a mission, and hugely likeable. It took me a long time to snap out of wanting to shave my head and drive around the desert. But here, she’s just as guilty as treating the wives as inferior idiots as Joe and the comics’ creative team are.

URGH!

Reviews and Responses

If the content of the comic didn’t make you angry enough, the response by the creative team and DC/Vertigo has been just as sickening.

When contacted by Rebecca Vipond Brink, asking for a comment on the Furiosa #1 issue (in all senses of the word), DC responded with “Thanks for reaching out, we appreciate it! We have no comment to provide and are declining the request.” In other words, “we couldn’t care less.” Great – thanks for caring so much about change, fan response, and female representation in comics, DC!

To make matters worse, when called out on Twitter, Furiosa #1’s co-creator Mark Sexton responded with:

“Best answer is that the use of institutionalised rape by Immortan Joe is not only central to the story but without it, the story could be viewed merely as a bunch of young girls whining about being kept in relative luxury by an older man who’s concerned with their safety. Not really much room for dramatic tension there…!”

Erm… Am I missing something here? It’s okay to keep people captive as long as you’re not raping them? Well, alright then. I’m sorry, Immortan Joe – you are a stand-up guy! Please, continue to lock up women to your hearts content!

Sexton has totally missed the point here. We all knew rape was a part of the back story. We’re not idiots – give your audience some credit. But it does not have to be the root cause of everything. It does not have to be the sole reason these women are fighting for freedom. It does not need to be the reason Furiosa is a mysterious soldier. It does not need to be shown so obviously, and played upon FIVE TIMES. It does not need to be the reason for appointing Furiosa protector of the wives, and it certainly doesn’t need to be the motivation for her finally helping the women.

In Furiosa #1, these women have lost themselves, reduced to little more than wombs and a robotic arm. I am so disappointed in the rich pool of opportunity which has clearly been ignored, only for comics to return to the static state of using women as little more than plot devices – but that’s where the problem lies: it’s a comic about these women – using them as plot devices in their own story doesn’t work. It makes it dull and even more infuriating that thought hasn’t gone in to establishing strong backstories in which these characters can be defined as different, interesting individuals.

I, for one, will be boycotting the book from here on out, and am disappointed that Vertigo agreed to print it in the first place. I would urge those of you with any interest in a Furiosa comic, and in learning more about her backstory, to stick to the fan-fic online and keep the fond memories of the powerful, developed women of Fury Road fully intact.

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Filed under My Week in Comics, Opinion, Wonder Women

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