They're called the Vuvalini. I kid you not.
Riding motorcycles over sand dunes, members of this desert tribe in George Miller's apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road approach Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) when she arrives in her badass war rig. Off comes the head gear. And that's when the feminist message of this summer's wild, wild, dusty ride through Miller's imagination in this revisiting of the Mad Max franchise is made very clear. They're white-haired granny warriors, self-sufficient and tough, the matriarchs of a lost world and the hope that it will thrive again. One of them carries a purse. In it is a collection of seeds, her prized possession of little, valuable pearls.
Don't you just love fementertainment?
There are a number of ways that the next generation of young women can examine and dismiss the (still) accepted norms of female behaviour (being nice and pretty; thin and good) and study the true nature of power and ambition. God knows there are lots of people writing about it. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, contributed her manifesto on female ambition with Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead a couple of years ago. Arianna Huffington has a thing or two to say about how to thrive. (That's the irritating thing about feminism – it can feel like you're back in school, being reprimanded for not doing something right.) And there are more and more exemplars, which is good. As female leaders emerge – Rachel Notley in Alberta, Kathleen Wynne in Ontario, Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Hillary Clinton in the United States – we are witnessing what female power looks like.
But nothing boosts example-setting more powerfully and memorably than fictional feminist action narratives. I mean, really – Vuvalini? It's hilarious, and by being so, further underscores the joy in having freedom to express what you want, how you want. Forget priggishness with body parts. Name them, own them, trumpet them! Soon may come another tribe in the desert – the Cliterati.
As a counterpoint – or perhaps as a complement – to all the prescriptive feminist doctrine out there, delivered by women in suits, the culture is awash with fementertainment. Heroines rock. There's Katniss from The Hunger Games franchise and Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons in HBO's Game of Thrones. In the fall comes Supergirl, CBS's much anticipated TV series about Superman's cousin.
And in Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron's Furiosa is magnificent and yes, furious, conveying more rage in her silent stare than any words – and she doesn't speak many – could do. One-armed, with a shaven head and black makeup smeared across her forehead and brow, she is of the people called Many Mothers and, without doubt, the star of the movie, more so than Max (Tom Hardy) who features in its title.
He wears a metal muzzle for more than half of the film.
In his dystopia, where water is hoarded, blood is poisoned, two-headed lizards scurry through the desert and people have to be told that those strange things sticking up from the sand are called trees, Miller is not just having fun with feminist themes. There are male narratives, too – violence, power, control, blood, an endless car chase and a rig for the War Boys that's an ode to nerdy, tribal adolescent masculinity, one that lampoons, but at the same time glorifies, the electric-guitar-playing, drumbeating guyness of guys. One character is called Prince Rictus Erectus.
Furiosa has decided to escape in a getaway truck with the five brides of the grotesque warlord, Immortan Joe, who lives in the capital, where he survives on breast milk, pumped from enslaved wet nurses. The idea of enslavement based on biological function – the ability to reproduce and lactate – is hard to miss. Eve Ensler, feminist playwright of The Vagina Monologues, consulted with Miller on the script, as she has done work with sex slaves in the Congo.
"They're looking for hope," Max says of the brides at one point. "What about you?" he asks Furiosa. "Redemption," she replies.
"She couldn't breed, and that was all that she was good for," Theron told Entertainment Weekly in her own imagining of her character's biography. "She couldn't deliver on that one thing, [so] she was discarded – and she didn't die."
Well, talk about a comment on the heated cultural discussion about motherhood. Are you of value as a woman if you don't have children? Do you fulfill your destiny? Furiosa is a palimpsest for our times.
One can't help wondering whether Miller called his epic Mad Max just to reaffirm the franchise when what he's really doing is introducing a memorable, powerful female character.
She offers a portrait of rage, one that confronts the cultural trope of the angry woman – the simplistic b-word that's slapped on anyone who wants to get her own way. In the process, she makes it something different, more layered and beautiful – noble even. That's what fictional characters can do. They are proxy for the psychological complexity and humanity that many dare not reveal in real life. Like Furiosa, Game of Thrones's Khaleesi shows a nuanced depiction of female power. She is compassionate, emancipating slaves, but she will mete out harsh punishment when required. She will play dumb – pretending not to know a foreign tongue – when it suits her endgame. She is a canny negotiator. And she can hold her own with lascivious, sexist brutes. Not only that, she redeems platinum-haired, cleavage-and-midriff-bearing women everywhere. Don't let the packaging fool you, she suggests.
Supergirl also takes on cultural preoccupations with feminine identity. In a recently released trailer for the upcoming series, Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) is frustrated that she's an under-appreciated assistant. When her sister's flight is in peril, she decides to try out her superpowers to save it. Her boss – played by a Botoxed Calista Flockhart – decides to call this new heroine Supergirl. "Shouldn't it be Superwoman?" asks the young woman. "What do you think is so bad about girl?" Flockhart's character replies. "I'm a girl, and your boss, and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So, if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent, isn't the real problem you?" Supergirl's boyfriend, to whom she reveals her true identity, ends up being the perfect house-husbandy supporter, helping her pick out her wardrobe.
Yes, it's light entertainment. It's a distraction. But that's how embedded cultural scripts begin. Consider all those Grimm's fairy tales of girls who need rescuing by princes in shining armour. Fementertainment is just an adjustment of plots.
Editor's note: Vuvalini was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.