Curator’s Note: This week we’re looking at meta focusing on the recent release, Mad Max: Fury Road.
There are no significant spoilers here. Fear not.
I’ve been thinking about Mad Max: Fury Road quite a bit, and in doing so came to the sudden realization that the film seems to purposefully evoke a scene from Homer’s Odyssey before systematically breaking all of the expectations that very scene is supposed to evoke.
Bear with me.
The Homeric antecedent I’m thinking of is Odysseus’ encounter with Nausicaa in Odyssey 6.
Odysseus has just washed up on the island of the Phaeacians. He’s got no crew, no possessions, no clothes, and he’s sleeping under a bush when he’s awakened by the sound of princess Nausicaa and her attendants:
When they came to the river, lovely with streams, and never-failing pools, with enough clear water bubbling up and brimming over to wash the dirtiest clothes… They lifted armfuls of clothes from the wagon, carried them down to the clear black water, and trod them thoroughly in the pools, vying with one another. When they had washed the load and rinsed away the dirt, they spread the garments in lines on the beach, where the breaking waves wash the shingle cleanest. After bathing and rubbing themselves with oil, they ate their meal on the riverbank, and waited for the clothes to dry in the sun.
When they had enjoyed the food, Nausicaa and her maids threw off their headgear and played with a ball, white-armed Nausicaa leading the accompanying song. As Artemis with her bow wanders the high mountain ridges… while the Nymphs, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus, join in the sport, and Leto her mother is glad because Artemis is a head taller than they are, and easily known, though all are lovely, so this unwed girl shone out among the maids. (Trans. Kline)
To paraphrase, the young, marriageable Nausicaa and her attractive companions are cavorting naked (or near to it) near the water, when Odysseus – naked himself and covered in salt scum and grime – wakes up and confronts the attendants, striding forward “like a mountain lion sure of its strength… but streaked with brine, he terrified them so, that they fled in fear, at random, over the sand spits. Only [Nausicaa] stood her ground, since Athene inspired her, and drove the fear from her body.”
After they exchange politenesses, Odysseus bathes, Athena makes him look super hot (”she made him seem taller and stronger, and made the locks of his hair spring up thickly like hyacinth petals”) and Nausicaa (now realizing how handsome and manly Odysseus is) drops a number of hints about being single and how hard it is to find a good husband, then arranges to bring the hunky stranger back to her father’s palace.
In sum, we have sexualized, bathing women, all of whom flee in terror when confronted by a potentially scary, threatening male – all except the princess who, after a brief interaction in which the man cleans up and shows himself cultured and attractive, befriends the man, shows herself as a willing sexual mate, and eventually brings the man to the person who’s really in charge (the ruling male).
It’s a fairly standard scene, all told. The women are introduced as objects of erotic possibility, but with little purpose other than potential romance and serving to connect our main male character (Odysseus) to another powerful man.
Which is where Mad Max comes in.
Early in the film, Max is trapped in a storm and wrecks (much like Odysseus) in the middle of nowhere. He has no supplies, he is chained to dead weight, and shortly after regaining consciousness, hears the sound of water. He scrounges a gun and approaches the noise to find a gathering of scantily clad young women bathing in water from a truck.
This should sound familiar.
As an audience – even one unaware of the Homeric precedent – we are cued for a number of expectations:
All of these expectations are subverted.
Mad Max does emerge from the dust, like Odysseus, looking threatening. He waves a shotgun and the women initially scatter.
As Max beckons for water, we wait for the moment when his character will soften. We wait for the moment when Imperator Furiosa (Nausicaa) will speak with him, offer him water to clean up, cut off his mask and chain, and see him for the nice, helpful man he really is.
But the moment never comes. This Odysseus doesn’t wash off his grime, and Mad Max doesn’t lose his mask. He doesn’t put his gun away, and so remains a menacing threat. Yet the women, who according to every other action movie should have spent the rest of the scene cowering in relative silence, stand up to Mad Max. They comply with his orders with a cold defiance, almost daring him to shoot.
There is no risque sexual tension here, no flirtation between Furiosa and Max that might lead her to bring him to whatever male clan leader he needs to find. Instead, Furiosa charges Max by surprise and savagely beats him until, in the midst of their tussle, another threat emerges and Max coerces the women back into the truck at gunpoint.
We’ve been trained to expect Odysseus’ transformation, trained to expect that the women will help the hero get where he needs to go. Except Mad Max remains monstrous, and the women are not simply vehicles to move Max between plot points.
They are the plot.
By engaging this Homeric antecedent, Mad Max initially plays to our expectations about plot and character, before purposefully undercutting each one, and in so doing calls out our own inherent biases and hamstrings the conventions of the genre.
“Mad Max and Homer’s Odyssey,” ©earlhamclassics, originally posted on 19 May 2015