Mad Max’s ‘Furiosa’ and other car movies are starting to change who gets behind the wheel

- May 8, 2024

Anya Taylor-Joy in a scene from ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.’ (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Anya Taylor-Joy in a scene from ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.’ (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Helen Pinsent is a PhD Candidate in American Literature at Dalhousie University.

With the movies Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, Drive-Away Dolls and Will & Harper all premiering before June this year, 2024 seems like a great year to rethink who gets to be behind the wheel in our favourite car movies.

In the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road, fans were introduced to Imperator Furiosa, a woman whose driving skill, unconventional appearance and physical disability subverts many of the common expectations for a car movie hero. Though the movie is still named for the franchise’s past hero, Max Rockatansky, the film’s action puts Furiosa at the centre, ultimately portraying her as the victor and new leader of her post-apocalyptic society.

This summer’s prequel intensifies Fury Road’s focus, tracing Furiosa’s origins, emphasizing her emotional development and even putting her name first in the title.

Trailer for ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.’

To understand how Furiosa and other new films challenge car culture’s male-centric conventions, it’s useful to look closely at the conventions themselves — the ways car culture prioritizes men’s stories but also, within those stories, has favoured a certain kind of man in the hero role.

Cars and an idealized manhood

The specific features of this type of man have changed over time, but researchers of the contemporary car movie explain how the genre has used its heroes to embody an idealized manhood that reinforces the dominant values of society.

The term for this idealized masculine image is hegemonic masculinity. The hegemonic man, as a socially constructed stereotype of masculinity, embodies a dominant, if flawed, ideal of what makes a good man in modern life.

Popular car heroes

Researchers have suggested key features of this form of traditional masculinity demonstrated in many popular car movies — films that frequently land on popular “best of” car movie lists, whether on vehicle-focused platforms or culture and film sites.

He craves action. A man of few words, the traditional car movie hero would much rather talk with his fists. Or his wheels. Of course, this feature also implies that he is physically capable of doing so. In car movies, the car is often portrayed as an extension of the hero’s body; prowess behind the wheel reflects physical ability and fitness. Examples: The Transporter (2002), Rush (2013).

Traditionally, he’s been white. Mainstream Hollywood car movies have centred on white men. Examples: Le Mans (1971) starring Steve McQueen, the first king of the car film; The Italian Job (2003).

Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto of the Fast and Furious franchise is arguably the contemporary inheritor of McQueen’s auto king status as the 11th and final film launches next year. These films mark an ambivalent departure from traditions of white-centred representation.

On the one hand, the “multicultural ensemble castexpanded racialized representation of car heroes. This has been even while the films have depicted Diesel’s Toretto in an ethnically and racially ambiguous way, while seeking to appeal to Latinos in a franchise “known for an ethos of racelessness,” in the analysis of Mary Beltrán, a researcher in Latinx and mixed-race representation in media culture.

Culture journalist Joshua Rivera notes that the character of Toretto first appeared “to be coded as Italian American,” and that the franchise’s framing of Latinx life as a “monolith” is not “much better than token[ism].”

‘Fast & Furious 11’ trailer (2025).

He’s a protector. Though the traditional car hero resists talking about it, he feels deeply, especially about duty. This protective impulse matches the cowboy code of B westerns, but car movies, especially since 9/11, tend to specifically stress protecting the home and family. To be a driver hero has traditionally been to get the girl and to take care of her under the direst circumstances. Examples: Baby Driver (2017), Drive (2011).

‘Drive’ trailer (2011).

He resists authority. Driver heroes clearly have no problem breaking the law, but that’s because car movies consistently create worlds in which the law and morality are at odds. In car movies, the car is often used to establish the hero’s independent streak — his resistance to subordination. But such heroes still have a moral code linked to their positions as protectors. Examples: Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000).

He is besieged. The most consistent feature of the driver hero is his longsuffering. It stems from the idea that modernity’s advancements threaten to make a man soft, leaving him vulnerable. Forces on all sides threaten his cool, his status, even his life (a central question of many car movies is whether the hero would rather lose his life or his status). In such movies the car, whether as tool or as trophy, allows the hero to showcase his determination and dignity when facing adversity. Examples: Locke (2013), Ford v Ferrari (2019), Duel (1971).

‘Duel’ trailer (1971).

These qualities combined make up the image of masculinity that car movies traditionally reinforce.

Disrupting genre conventions

Furiosa promises a challenge to this image, not just by focusing on a woman, but by placing her struggle within a world that honours the ideals of toughness and independence.

Of course, Furiosa and this year’s other female and gender-diverse road movies aren’t the first to challenge mainstream image of the driver hero.

‘Thelma and Louise’ trailer.

But movies like Thelma & Louise (1991) or To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) haven’t received the wide praise from car movie fans that would really help them disrupt the genre’s conventions.

With its high-action content and the weight of the Mad Max saga behind it, Furiosa is poised to shake up some long-standing expectations.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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