Tag Archives: Feminism

Mad Max and the Monomyth

Last month I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (and posted a review here).

It got me to thinking about narrative structure. Even as I was watching it I could see the moments of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, The Hero’s Journey, in the plot.

Miller has spoken before about how Mad Max’s success was international because it had the ability to tap into a wide variety of existing cultural mythologies. Through this he discovered Joseph Campbell’s theories of the monomyth and these were significant in his development from that point on as a story-teller, and significant in the development of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

In Australia, Max was the bushranger, the anti-authoritarian, standing up for the under-dogs.

In the US Max was the familiar cowboy frontiersman, Master-Blaster and his enemies were the ‘Injins’ in the same savage way of so many 1950s Hollywood Westerns.

In Japan, Max was a Ronin, a fallen samurai without a home, fighting for the honourable cause in a dishonourable world.

In this way Max was different things to different people, but at his core he was a familiar figure. A wayward loner. Lost. Wandering. Like Odysseus cast adrift on cruel seas, the victim of capricious fates.

So I applied the structure of the monomyth to Mad Max: Fury Road. It is a good fit.

Spoilers in the image below

(Click the image to enlarge)

Max's journey (Fury Road)

This shows us how a writer can do new things with familiar structures. Miller has used universal themes, characters and plot structure, but created something which is being hailed as a new and groundbreaking moment in action film-making, and a refreshingly fresh take on many of the tropes and expectations in the familiar post-apocalypse milieu.

Indeed, as Leah Schnelbach wrote for Tor.com, Mad Max: Fury Road subverts many of these heroic tropes and conventions.

So let’s unpack Miller’s use of convention and subversion a little (be warned, if you proceed, I do so at some length, and with every spoiler I can summon to mind):

The Opening

Max is alone, a wanderer in the desert. The film opens with his voice-over narrative. He tells us of his world: “Fire and Blood”. He is connected to his past (by the Interceptor and his Jacket, and by his memories, his PTSD, his ‘madness’). Quickly he is caught, captured, robbed of his identity and reduced to a ‘blood bag’. Immortan Joe (and his war-boys) treat Max as an object, as a resource. This is to become a major theme.
As with the previous films Mad Max films, Max is anonymous to those he helps, and to those he opposes.

(source: http://www.etonline.com/movies/148795_tom_hardy_in_gritty_new_mad_max_fury_road_poster/)

(source: etonline.com/movies/148795_tom_hardy_in_gritty_new_mad_max_fury_road_poster/)

The call to adventure

In Campbell’s monomyth structure the hero is called to adventure. Often the hero resists this call, intitally, only to be convinced, or later decide, to accept the call. Here, Max is not so much called to adventure, as dragged to it. Having been taken by Immortan Joe he has been reduced to a body, even further in fact, to a mere bodily fluid. Like The Wives we are yet to meet, and like the Milk Mothers we glimpse, Max has been made an object. He is valued not for his self, but for the bodily fluid he provides. The Wives are reduced to wombs. The Milk Mothers are reduced to their breast-milk. Max is reduced to a ‘blood bag’. This is a central theme of the film, and Kameron Hurley writes well about how Joe controls the means of production in a post-apocolypse where resources are scarce.
It is not then Max who is called, but Nux and the other war boys. Nux is desperate to go on the hunt for the rogue Furiosa, desperate to prove himself, to launch himself into the promised afterlife of one who has died spectacularly in Joe’s service. He is as much reduced as the wives, the mothers, and Max. He is not a person, but an object, a weapon of war.
They are called to adventure by Furiosa’s decision. It is her agency which creates the chase which will dominate the first half of the narrative.
Max is chained, shackled, linked by blood (“Fire and Blood”) to the war-boy. In this way, strapped to the front of Nux’s car, Max’s role in the adventure begins against his will.

(source: YouTube)

(source: YouTube)

Supernatural Aid

As the pursuit of Furiosa and the war-rig progresses it seems that the arrayed forces of Immortan Joe’s armada will inevitably triumph. There are too many, and even on the war-rig itself Furiosa has no allies but The Wives. The dust storm toward which she steers her rig is the supernatural aid, something massive and beyond the control of any character. It forms a physical barrier to Joe’s continued pursuit, and actively destroys the last of the pursuing war-boys… the last but for Nux.
Within the moment of this supernatural aid Max wins his (still limited) freedom, overcoming one war-boy and stopping Nux’;s suicidal attempt at vainglorious sacrifice.

When the dust settles Max is no longer linked by blood to Nux, though he is still linked by the chain. His use of the unloaded shotgun is a wonderful call-back to Mad Max 2. As coincidence or good fortune would have it, the supernatural aid leaves Max (and Nux) closest to the stalled war-rig and the opportunity it represents.

Much has been made of the scene where Max comes upon The Wives in the desert, dressed in diaphanous rags, playing under the water, but here Miller subverts the soft-porn set-up of the scene (or “the start of a Playboy shoot” as Anthony Lane suggests in the New Yorker). We see no frolicking. Unlike Lane, or David Edelstein in Vulture, I don’t think that we (or Max) are invited to view The Wives sexually. Miller is aware of that genre expectation, but The Wives are not a harem to be ogled, they are survivors of rape and slavery. Max’s interest is less prurient and more instinctual. Max has, as he said in his opening voice-over, been reduced to a single instinct: to survive. The water, and the war-rig are the means of this survival. His attitude to the women (Furiosa) especially, is one of guarded respect for the threat that they represent to his survival. He is not interested either in freeing them (they have, after all, freed themselves, both from their prisons and in discarding their chastity belts, from sexual servitude) nor saving them. When he leaves in the war-rig he is (rather unheroically) consigning them to a return to Immortan Joe. But the war-rig, by extension Furiosa, won’t allow it, and reluctantly they are all – even Nux – joined in flight.

The Threshold

Nux is still a war-boy, and still an antagonist (though a minor one). He is ejected from the war-rig before it can pass through the threshold of the known world and into the unknown. In pushing him from the rig The Wives make it clear that he symbolises a sort of toxic masculinity which they see as the cause for the preceding apocalypse. The unthinking violence, the following of orders, the delusion desire for self-destruction, the loyalty to Joe… all of these parts of Nux make him unwelcome on the war-rig, and so when he passes through the Threshold between worlds it must be as a war-boy, as part of Joe’s crew.
The mistrust between Max and Furiosa continues, and Max refuses to give her his name. She names him Fool in response, but he is no longer ‘Blood-bag’, he is more than that already, more than a mere body, or a mere bodily-fluid.

Despite this mistrust Furiosa teaches Max the kill-switch combo, and so makes him a partner in her adventure. She drives them through the Threshold between worlds, but immediately beyond that threshold it is he who remains in the war-rig while she is not, and it is he who drives them from the threshold into the unknown while the Threshold Guardians (the bikers) turn against them and Joe finds his own way through the threshold to attack.

Mad-Max-Arches

The Unknown World

Here Max plays a role in the escape from Joe, but it is a significant subversion that he drives while Furiosa is the shooter, and that The Splendid Angharad shields both Max and Furiosa from Joe’s attacks. It is her pregnancy – the womb which is for Joe her only value – which protects them. Max is a means of their escape, but it is the women themselves who win that escape.

Nux becomes helper:
Having passed through the threshold as a member of Joe’s war band, Nux begins his transformation. He is anointed with chrome lips by Joe and sent onto the war-rig, only to immediately and embarrassingly fail. Joe’s dismissal of him is classic Australian understatement, and a crushing event for Nux which breaks down his war-boy self and leaves him vacant, for The Wives (and particularly Capable) to rebuild. As he sheds the war-paint and identity of one of Joe’s soldiers, it is through their forgiveness and acceptance that he is transformed. This is also a subversion, on the transformative nature of forgiveness, both for those who forgive and for the forgiven. This ties in thematically with Max’s inability to forgive himself, and the madness and visions that plague him as a result. This is not the action-hero paradigm of a retaliation for wrongs done. This is not bloody revenge at all costs.
As a result of his transformation Nux becomes the third driver of the war-rig, and at the scene with the tree (tree-thing) he becomes not just a helper in the physical sense, but through his ideas and his use of the chain which had once bound he and his blood-bag Max together as a crucial link in winching the war-rig to safety.

Challenges and Temptations:

The Wives’ commitment to their own freedom is challenged by the loss of The Splendid Angharad and the life growing within her. It is her own words which are then repeated, almost a mantra of motive, that they will no longer be objects. Cheedoh the Fragile in particular is tempted to return and hope for Joe’s forgiveness.

The bog becomes a physical challenge. Furiosa physically pushes at the war-rig, willing it on to higher and drier ground. The Wives and Max work with her to free the wheels from the mud, and to lay booby-traps for the armada following them.

When Max leaves the group, perhaps tempted to abandon them as he had intended to when he was first freed of his chains, Furiosa worries that he will not return. When he does it is a significant moment of bonding the group together. He is equipped now, and shares the weapons he has won. He is covered in blood, but it is not his. He bathes his face in Mother’s Milk. In his opening narration Max told us that his world was fire and blood – here the milk washes that blood away. Max’s world has been fundamentally changed.

It is in this section that we are shown a (rare) quiet moment, with Max and Furiosa together and alone – as alone as they can be on/in the crowded rig. Max – who had told us he had been reduced to a single instinct: survival – listens to Furiosa’s goal. For her, survival is not enough. She was surviving, has survived, under Immortan Joe. Her decision to depart from that life is her quest for something greater than survival. Redemption. It’s a quest Max will come to share.

The Abyss

The discovery of the Vuvalini is a false triumph. They are few, and they are – with one exception – old. They are no longer the many mothers Furiosa had hoped to find. The ‘green place’ she remembered, had promised, had become the very poisoned swamp they had passed. Her hope for her future dies, and she collapses, alone again, in the sand.
Here, things are at the lowest point. Redemption seems impossible. Max allows Furiosa to have her moment of grief, without overwhelming it with his own.

Max accepts Furiosa’s choice to leave, and elects not to follow. They are – momentarily – broken, but looking out across the salt plains Max realises that Furiosa’s goal has become his own, and he can help her achieve it. Neither can succeed alone, but together there is a chance.

He offers her the choice to return, but at no point does he order, or expect, or even persuade her. Furiosa reverts to survival and decides to cross the salt plains (the dead place of the monomyth) with no real plan any more but to keep going. The hand-shake on the salt plains is the beginning of the redemptive transformation and a return to the known world, changed and gifted.

Max and Furiosa are full-partners now, allies. Tansy Rayner Roberts writes well about Max not as feminist, but as ally, and nowhere is this better represented than while they are in the abyss.He lays out a plan, but it’s clear that she could as easily choose to keep riding across the salt and Max would go his own way, as they had been about to do.

It’s also in the abyss that they receive the gift of the goddess: the seeds. Liz Bourke posted a conversation which touched on the significance of the seeds. They are, thematically and in terms of narrative structure, the point of the return to the Citadel. Where The Splendid Angharad represented most directly – through her pregnancy – life being taken away from The Citadel, the seeds are the return of life. The unborn life was lost. The seeds are an unborn life recovered, saved, tended, nurtured, carried by the Vuvalini for precisely this opportunity, in the hope that fertile ground can be found. The Citadel is fertile ground, but corrupted by the influence of Joe. Freed of his influence, it will represent redemption.

Transformation and Atonement

It would seem that the return to the Citadel is an exact mirror of the flight from the Citadel, in that both have the war-rig at their centre and in both cases Immortan Joe and his allies are the pursuers. This is not exactly correct. Where the flight from The Citadel was a car chase, the return is a car race.
In the first instance the war-rig was the goal. If it could be stopped, or broken, the chase was finished. In the return however, The Citadel is the goal. Joe and the war-rig are not pursuer and pursued, but rival combatants. This is the first transformation.

There are also several transformations of character, but perhaps none more so than in the case of Nux. The one-time war-boy has lost  his war-paint and has come to look more and more human, less the alabaster embodiment of death. Where he was sneaking around on the war-rig as a saboteur, he is now a mechanic, keeping the rig moving where he had once sought to bring it to its halt.
His atonement for his previous acts comes as the war-rig approaches the world navel, the threshold that will return them to the known world. The canyon has been cleared and repaired since their last passing and it is clear that success relies on the war-rig passing through first, and Joe’s armada being stopped on the other side, in the unknown.
It is Nux who makes this possible. He ironically achieves the fiery self-sacrifice he had been craving as a war-boy, but it is transformed from the destructive act he intended in the dust storm of the movies opening. Now his act is his own, a decision he is making, not for personal glory, but for the good of others fro whom he cares. He has changed to much to return to the world where he had been a war-boy, but he atones in a matter befitting a war-boy changed.

Cheedoh the Fragile atones for her earlier temptation by taking on the role, again, of the wife wishing to return, but this time she transforms that role into a betrayal of Joe. This allows Furiosa to climb aboard and confront Immortan Joe face to face. She takes a moment to ensure that he sees her, that he remembers her, as surely she remembers the many years in which she was his property – years which her mother could not survive – before killing him. Joe’s death was necessary for The Wives, The Citadel, and Furiosa herself to be truly free of his influence, and with that death achieved he returns to the known world dead, defeated, overthrown.  Furiosa has atoned for the long years in which she was a cog in Immortan Joe’s wheels of power.

Max’s atonement is in accepting his role as ‘bloodbag’. Like Nux he embraces a role which had been imposed on him by Immortan Joe, but he twists and subverts the role to a transformed purpose. Nux subverts Joe’s preaching of a glorious death, shiny and chrome, and makes the act life-affirming. Likewise, Max takes Joe’s attempts to reduce him to a mere fluid, and transforms the act into one which is life-saving. He stabs Furiosa, but without violence, as an aid to her. He gives her his blood, and – perhaps as significantly – he gives her his name. He atones for what he once was, for the concept of masculine hero as a destroyer, and becomes heroic as a  life-giver.

The Return

It is Max who reveals the body of Immortan Joe, but Furiosa who steps forward to make that revelation real,and Furiosa who is raised up, with The Wives and the survivors and the all-important seeds.
Life has been returned to The Citadel, and life uncorrupted by Joe.
The Milk Mothers are free of their shackles and step forward to release the waters for the people. They are no longer the means of production themselves, but they have assumed control of the fluid that will bring life to the parched earth and its parched people.

Max, having achieved his redemption, and aided Furiosa in hers, returns to the state in which we found him in the film’s opening: a lone wanderer in the wasteland, belonging nowhere.
Max Crowd

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Mad Max: Fury Road.

Quick, spoiler-free, spiel:

You need to see this film, and you need to see it on a big screen. It is a work of art. It is a spectacle of action. You will have heard, I assume, that this film is visually stunning. It is. The aesthetic of the world is as relentless as the action within. You need only watch the trailers, or see the posters, as the one above, to know what this film offers visually.
The plot is simple, but in the sense of being clear and direct within a limited framework. This is a good thing. The stakes are clear from early on, and the majority of the film concerns itself with the relentless action of the chase at its heart. Our (anti-)heroes have a clear goal, our villains are direct in their efforts to disrupt this.
It is balls-to-the-wall insane, and gloriously so.
If you have not yet seen the film, do not read on, there are spoilers everywhere below the jump. Go see it, then come back. Have fun. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Spoilers below:

The first sense you get of this film being something special is in the sheer scale of it. Miller is willing, often, to dwarf the convoy-chase which is at the heart of the narrative with shots of such vast emptiness that the vehicles, let alone the people within, are mere specks.
But the film is one of competing scales. So much of it is over-the-top, dialed to 11, grandiose and epic. Yet within this, Miller positions his characters in cramped and crowded spaces: the tunnels of Immortan Joe’s citadel, the can of the war-rig, the hidden passages within. The War-rig is at once too big to stop, and too small to hold its cargo: Furiosa, Max, the wives, Nux, and later the Vuvalini. Miller zooms in on the small-scale for moments of character too. Max’s tragically premature thumbs-up, Furiosa’s concerned gaze, Nux’s transitional moment with one of the wives (I think Capable). When Furiosa realises that her dream of a return to the green place is impossible, she is alone in the sand, as is Max when he realises that he cannot yet make his own way while Furiosa remains unredeemed.

In the beginning, though, there is little by way of establishing character or setting. Max is introduced with a monologue, alone, and is for reasons unknown and unimportant briefly pursued and captured.
Furiosa makes her entrance entering the war-rig to which her fate will be bound for the majority of the film. She turns off her allotted course abruptly, and we – like her war boys – are made to guess at her motives.
Quickly enough the chase is on, and nothing else really matters.
The vehicles are each a work of brutalist art, each amalgams of other vehicles, welded and bolted together, the demented dreams of mad mechanics. The fashions, likewise, stylised. The faces and bodies of the characters mis-sharpen, scarred, diseased, dirty. Furiosa’s amputation is much less disturbing than the misshapen bodies that follow her, these distended, swollen, broken, tumourous, inhumans.
The vehicular mayhem is impressive for the visceral reality Miller brings to the screen. The minimalist use of CGI gives real physicality to the action. The chase proceeds with the weight of careening steel and the roaring pace of fuel-injected V8s (often dual V8s, joined at the gearbox just as the lizard of the opening was a who headed beast with a single body). Cars and trucks go cartwheeling, crashing, crunching, colliding. Bodies leap, tumble, fall, are thrown to an unforgiving earth. Flames and explosions and always at full throttle.
There is power in the brutal physics which cartoonish CGI can never match, no matter the verisimilitude of its unreality.
It is undeniably a violent film, and yet Miller does not revel in gore, indeed he pans away from it several times, keeps it off screen. Max sees The Splendid Angharad go beneath Joe’s wheels, but we do not. The premature caesarean is not shown. Max returns from a distant explosion bathed in blood not his own, but we don’t see how he came to be wearing it. Immortan Joe’s torn face is briefly glimpsed, but mostly hidden. The film has an R rating in America (18+) but MA here in Australia (15+) and in the UK.
The film has been called a feminist action movie. In some ways this is reductive, in others it is explicitly so. It was hard not to think of the Bechdel test as Furiosa returns to the Vuvalini. While the two men (described merely as dependable/reliable – I can’t recall the exact quote on one viewing) wait in the war-rig, the screen is filled with women, 12 of them, multi-generational, discussing their world and their place in it, their history and their future.
But Bechdel is a limited metric to meet. Even more than leaping this low bar, in Fury Road it is the women who have agency, more so than the war boys such as Nux, certainly more so than the ‘blood-bag’ Max from the first part of the chase. Max’s destiny is shaped by his imprisonment, and by the decisions of others, especially Nux. In turn, Nux is manipulated by Joe’s deceit, his path chosen for him.
Not so Furiosa, nor the wives. They have re-shaped their destiny, have broken free of their imprisonments, and by their own power. No supernatural fortune. No rescuer come to their aid. It is revealed that The Splendid Angharad  had been agitating for escape and speaking against the objectification of herself and the other wives. The wives were not stolen or abducted by Furiosa, but that they begged her to take them with her.
Acquiescing was Furiosa’s decision, as was the moment she turned from the road between the Citadel and Gastown. She knew the risks and made the decision. She acted, and it was her act that initiated the chase and in cascading cause and effect drew Max and Nux into her story.
Later, when Max establishes his plan for return and redemption (which was always Furiosa’s goal, not his own, as the final shots of the film demonstrate), it is Furiosa’s agreement, on advice from the other women, which transforms the plan from thought to action.
More powerful even than the women’s screen presence and agency, is the respect they are afforded, both by Max, and by Miller.
The film also features a cast of scantily-clad supermodels, and at one point Megan Gale naked, yet Miller does not encourage the viewer to see them through a sexual lens. Even white-clad and wet in the desert, the wives are not objects of Max’s desire, and though Joe wants their return it is not framed in terms of his sexual desire for them. Undoubtedly he has impregnated them, or at least one of them, against their will. In this he is rapist, and they are survivors of rape, but the film clearly frames this as a battle for their reproductive powers, rather than revenge or retaliation. They do not wish to destroy Joe, only to escape him. They forgive his war-boy Nux, keeping him from being killed, despite Nux’s earlier attempts to return them to their prison. The wives are revolting against their objectification, against a life in which they are nothing more wombs. This is explicit in the graffiti they leave in the prison where Joe had kept them.
Likewise, Miller does not subject any of his female characters to rape, or threats of rape. They are not denigrated as bitches or whores or subjected to sexist degradation. It is not an assumed part of the world that rape is tolerated, or that it even occurs outside of the forced breeding by Immortan Joe. Even this is not presented as a sexual act, but as an act of control, literally an attempt to control resources, in the same way that he controls water. Women can reproduce, and that is their value to Joe, just as the women producing mothers’ milk (seen early in the film as a resource for Joe, at the end of the film it is these mothers who release the water for the people, freeing themselves and the water from Joe’s control).
It makes Joe undeniably the villain, but for the same reasons that his hoarding water and food while others starve make him villainous. It is a crime not only against the women, but against the whole community (as indeed rape is).
Miller has his women fighting in the front line, and in each case they hold their own. They fight without fear or favour. The Vuvalini, the wives, and especially Furiosa. Here is a character who could be so easily disempowered by the narrative, both as woman and as amputee, and especially when Max arrives. But Miller doesn’t have Max take her leadership from her. He becomes at times a tool at her disposal, eventually, at most, her trusted equal.
This is the respect Max shows. When he first approaches the women, he respects the threat they represent. He doesn’t allow Furiosa to come near him with the bolt-cutters, making one of the wives bring them instead. Even down the barrel of a shotgun (unloaded, in a beautiful nod to mad Max 2), and even without her bionic hand attached, Max marks her as a threat. And he is right to. Despite his precautions, she attacks. She does not hesitate to pull the trigger. The fight scene that follows was amazing in its choreography, and in how it managed the various pugilists. The interplay between Max and Furiosa, and between Nux and the wives and the combinations between, was magnificent.
Later, with one shot left and having missed twice already, Max knows that Furiosa should take the shot. She does, and she makes it where he could not. She was the superior marksman (pun intended). Max accepted this without comment or complaint. He did not see this as an insult or a challenge to his masculinity (unlike some of the MRA complaining in his behalf). He respected Furiosa’s skills. Just as they took turns driving or repairing the war-rig.
In short, I loved this film.

I loved it for the cars and the crashes, for the explosions, for the insane stunts and the sheer brutal reality of them.

I loved it for its epic sandstorm and fire tornadoes that could lift a car.

I loved the madness if it all, the doof warrior harnessed and blasting guitar riffs across the already blasted landscape.

I loved that it was a Mad Max film, like the final chase in Mad Max 2 (Road Warrior) dialed up and up until there was no scale for it to fit.
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I loved that in one split second, in Max’s flashbacks, we saw Toecutter’s bulging eyes again, just as we did near the end if the first Mad Max in 1979. (and because Immortan Joe and The Toecutter were both Hugh Keays-Byrne)I loved that Furiosa stood at the end, eye swollen closed (in another wonderful nod to Mad Max 2: Road Warrior).

I loved the mad war-boys screaming ‘Witness!’ and plunging to suicidal glory.
I loved Charlize Theron kicking arse, and Megan Gale too – briefly.
I loved the biker gang of septuagenarian women who hoarded seeds but weren’t above killing for the right cause.
I loved the brutal hand-to-hand.
What didn’t I love?
Not much.
Hardy was kind of in and out. His accent was sometimes pseudo-Australian, other times not even nearly. At one point he delivered a line (I’m not sure which, in the cab of the war-rig about 3/4 through the film) where he seemed to be doing his Bane voice.
Furiosa made a miraculous recovery from a stab wound and a collapsed lung. Another stab cured her. And a blood transfusion. I guess her and Max were the same blood type? Or something?
(Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Max is established as a universal blood donor in the opening sequence by the tattoos Joe’s War-boys put on him. I must have missed that detail. Even my minor quibbles are invalid.)
I’m quibbling. No one cared about that. We forgive our films those details for the sake of an heroic closing image.

Equality, Diversity and Appropriation

Recently (actually about a month ago) Joss Whedon spoke at an Equality Now function. In some circles this was lauded (Jezebel called it perfect), others were less certain (such as The Mary Sue), and many were downright critical. I don’t want to down-play the importance of the feminist discussion, and we should all recognise just how problematic is the depiction of women in genre fiction and genre fandom. (If you don’t, try scrolling through the images here, many of which are drawn from Whedon’s own work).

I am a Whedon fan, but not a full Whedonite. I loved Buffy and Angel. I loved Firefly. Dollhouse, not so much. Serenity was ok. Cabin in the Woods was clever but problematic in many ways, not the least of which was that in its knowing parody of sexist horror tropes it conformed to all of the sexist horror (as explained brilliantly by Kirstyn McDermott). But I digress. With no disrespect to the importance of the feminist discussion,  an article by Clem Bastow got me thinking about Orientalism, another aspect of equality that genre fiction needs to confront.

Rebecca Brown’s essay on Orientalism in Firefly/Serenity gives a great outline for what Whedon has done in drawing on Oriental aesthetics and culture, but what he has not done is drawn into stark focus by Mike Le. A future culture in which Western and Oriental language, fashion and philosophy is blended, but no one exists who is of Asian appearance? Le rightly asks if such a gendered world could have been made – a world of male and female cultural equality – without female characters. I suspect not. I am certain, not.

I was reminded of Richard Morgan’s future/noir novels in which Takeshi Kovacs is protagonist. The character is explicitly located as being culturally Japanese/Slavic (and fiercely pedantic of the pronunciation of his name: Koh-vach). For all sorts of reasons related to the technologies available in Takeshi’s world the physical appearance of the character is less relevant than you might assume, but this is the internet’s #1 image of him:

And here he is on a book cover:

That’s some obvious white-washing, and even if we give Kovacs a re-sleeving pass, there’s plenty more examples of Asian characters being white-washed, or erased, or presented in yellow-face. I could go all the way back to Mr. Yunioshi, or David Carradine in ‘Kung Fu’but unlike black-face, this is not some embarrassing relic of the past. Tom Cruise as the ‘Last Samurai’, Keanu as the main one of ’47 Ronin’, 2010’s all-caucasian ‘Last Airbender’, 2012’s ‘Cloud Atlas’, even ‘Pacific Rim’ cast Clifton Collins Jnr as Tendo Choi.

On his blog over the past months Alan Baxter had guest posts from people discussing their early inspirations in genre fiction. The post by Thoraiya Dyer on the Feist/Wurts ‘Empire trilogy’ struck a cord with me because I too read and greatly enjoyed those books. For me they were one of the first examples – perhaps the first example outside of folk stories and mythoilogies – of Fantasy from a Non-Anglo perspective. Much as with ‘Dune’, which I also read as a teen, I was fascinated by the different culture, the different way of life, that was presented.

Mara of the Acoma is a young woman, powerless by the regular measures of the genre. She is no warrior, no adept of magic, has no divinely assured destiny. She is unprepared fro the challenges she faces but survives and overcomes them by the force of her agency and wits. Here she is on the cover:

That's her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair

That’s her there, the white-chick dressed in white with blonde hair


Never mind that Mara is obviously described as dark-haired. Never mind that the buildings of her world are more rice-paper screens than towering spires of marble. Never mind that she really has no use for a sword. And yes, the civilising white saviour comes in later to show her how much better things could be if only her culture were whiter and more European, but until that point the books did an excellent job of introducing me, and apparently Thoraiya, and I’m sure many other readers, to new cultural influences on Fantasy. I sure do hate the character of Kevin, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Paul Atreides is the privileged white male, but he  only comes into his power when he leaves that world. Re-reading ‘Dune’ recently I was struck by how my younger self had missed the obvious parable: when a technologically superior force invades a desert to extract from it the natural resources required to maintain their technologies,  the native inhabitants look to a religious leader to mount a rebellion against their oppressors. Again – Paul is the white saviour, giving the Fremen a leader that couldn’t have come from within, but still, this was the 70s.

Forward to today and I am reading Mazarkis Williams’ first novel, clearly set in an Orientalist culture. I am not far into the novel, so I won’t comment further, but it is still difficult to see this culture as anything but the Other. Perhaps that is for me as a reader to overcome.

My own writing draws on the culture I see in the streets and workplaces where I live, in my friends and the friends of my family, in the public spaces I frequent, but my novel, especially in its earliest drafts, was set in the pseudo-Euro tropes of lazy Fantasy. As a young writer one tends to reproduce what one has read. As Neil Gaiman says, “Most of us only find our own voices after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.”

I think the question that fascinates me here is when writers can draw upon cultures of the Other to add to their world (as I believe Morgan did with the Kovacs novels), and when does it become white privilege mining other cultures and appropriating elements that then become stereotypes?

I don’t have the answer, but much as with good art – I feel that I know it when I see it.