Mad Max and McLuhan’s Mechanical Brides

George Miller released his fourth installment of his Mad Max Series this May, the first Mad Max film since 1985 (unless you believe that Happy Feet and Babe took place in the same universe, which I do).  I saw Mad Max: Fury Road on a whim, and I have no regrets.  It’s the best movie of the summer.[1]  But looking past the absolute eye candy that is Fury Road, Miller does a devastatingly good job at charting out the fall of society through all four of his Mad Max films.

mad max 1979Mad Max 1981  Mad max 1985 mad max 2015

In 1979’s Mad Max, society is only on the verge of falling apart.  Cities still exist.  People go to work and then come home.  They take vacations, and buy and sell things with a currency, and wear drab clothing throughout.  There’s even some sort of regulated police force, which Max belongs to.  However, it is clear things are not as orderly as we’ve come to believe they should be.  Buildings are derelict, courts are wholly ineffective, and the police seem to be at war with hordes of roaming biker gangs.  As the movie progresses it becomes more and more obvious that the police and the gang members really operate under the same principles, a fact we try and keep hidden in our non-apocalyptic world.  By the end of the film our anti-hero, Max, has realized that there’s no room for the order of the old world in this mad world.

In Road Warrior (1981), things have clearly fallen apart.  There’s a gyrocopter for crying out loud.  The powers have shifted away from the cities and onto roaming desert biker gangs and a colony of people that have control over a small oil refinery.  The bad guys are clad in frayed leather jackets, assless chaps, hockey masks, and the most punk haircuts that side of the pacific.  The good guys seemed to model their look after the latest fashions on Tatooine. Max, now a wondering nomad, gets tangled up with the refinery settlement after he returns one of their wounded hoping to exchange him for gas.  One thing leads to another and there’s an epic car chase through the desert.


Authority is starting to reassert itself again by Beyond Thunder Dome.  Tina Turner, in all her punk-disco glory, plays Aunty.  She rules over Bartertown, where rule is not established by legislation or legal rhetoric, but by working out difference through fighting in the thunder dome.  Alternatively, if you “bust a deal” then you must “face the wheel!”  It’s rule by American Gladiator and Wheel of Fortune.  It’s a cartoonish take on crime and punishment.


By the time we get to Fury Road, things have become very strange indeed.  People are mutated, they spray paint themselves, they believe in Valhalla.  Also, by this time white male authority has once again taken over.  Aunty was violent in her own right, but at least she was a woman of color.  Immortan Joe is a fat white guy and he rules as an absolute dictator and god, hoarding resources (including people) for himself.  His citadel is a far more frightening place to be than Tina Tuner’s Bartertown.  Bartertown was violent, but efficient and fair for most who lived there. Immortan Joe’s citadel is populated by grotesque bodies, and costuming barrowed from Hot Topic circa 2008, and it exists solely for his benefit.  The freaks, or at least a handful of freaks, have unfortunately become the new power.

immortan Joe

Miller presents us with a post-apocalyptic future that is a cartoonish burlesque of violence and survival.  But is it unrealistic?  No.  Not at all.  Right now, we live in a society that benefits rather non-descript, good looking white people.  They should wear khakis, work a boring 9 to 5, and then go home to their two and a half kids and a dog.  Once home, they should watch people equally as boring, though slightly better looking, on whatever inane sitcom is ruling the airwaves.  If you vary too far from this mold you better hope you can become famous, because otherwise you’re going to be poor and kept out of sight, working jobs that are not only boring but thankless. Our boring society is very stable, though equally as violent.  We just hide it better.  Violence has a very specific time and place right now.

But when this system collapses (in Mad Max from nuclear war) the original beneficiaries (boring white-drones) will not survive, at least not easily.  It’s the freaks whose lives already sucked that will be able to handle it; those with different beliefs, and bodies, and needs than the original order could provide.[2] The tag line for Fury Road states it well: “The future belongs to the mad.”  Maybe you prefer Aunty: “Do you know who I was [before all this]? Nobody. Except on the day after, I was still alive. This nobody had a chance to be somebody.” So when the “freaks” of this world take over after the apocalypse it only makes sense that their clothing will outlandish, their bodies strangely broken, their sense of justice different from ours.  This can only be truer in a world ruled by cars.  I’m not sure when the last time any of you spent time with mechanics, bikers, off-roaders and other such car people, but they are not the polite white people of two paragraphs ago. They’re oil-stained and sweaty.  They have long hair, and tattoos, and have forsaken the white picket fence for the open road.  They are fantastically freaky.

“But why cars” you might ask? Simple. Cars are a technology (especially cars from the 80s and before) that are much better suited to survive the EMP blast from a nuclear explosion than any other 20th and 21st century technologies.  Tube-based electronics (perhaps the rather large amps so prevalent in Fury Road) might survive, but cars are sturdy and easily repaired if you know what you’re doing.  They will definitely be around and working when everything else fails.

“But why does the post-apocalyptic society revolve around cars?” Much loved media scholar Marshall McLuhan can help us here.  He understands media-technologies as an extension of humanity’s central nervous system. Therefore cars, as medium, are an extensions the driver. They are “mechanical brides.” In his 1964 Understanding Media, he comes across almost scared of cars in a way that predicts Mad Max.  He understands that the car as a symbol of power derives not (just) from its cost but by the fact that a car is powerful.  He goes on to relate that “it is the power of the motorcar that levels all social differences, and makes the pedestrian a second-class citizen.”


Now, for my car-people readers, I hope you won’t mistake me in thinking I am calling you violent.  I’m only calling your machine violent, what you do with it is up to your will.[3]  McLuhan views the car as a very violent medium.  He juxtaposes the violence of comic books to that of cars: “In the 1930s, when millions of comic books were inundating the young with gore, nobody seemed to notice that emotionally the violence of millions of cars in our streets was incomparably more hysterical than anything that could ever be printed…Are people really expected to internalize – live with – all this power and explosive violence, without processing and siphoning it off into some form of fantasy for compensation and balance.”  Once the restraints of our current society are gone, it follows that all this violence can be enacted in all its comic book glory in real life.

Cars, besides being violent, can also help us understand why Immortan Joe can take over so much of the wasteland in a way that caricatures current systems of power.  Mad Max’s world is still divided into the haves and the have-nots, that system is just skewed into drivers and pedestrians.  Immortan Joe has likely been part of the elite driving class for the entirety of the post-apocalypse.  The preservation of cars also explains the preservation of large power systems.  Had the apocalypse also destroyed cars, people would have lived in relative isolation, living as their beautiful, freaky, unique selves needing to only hunt for food and rudimentary shelter.  They wouldn’t be able to get around to establish a wasteland slave empire, nor would they have any machine that would demand as much resources in the way a car based society will need to hoard gas. So, in a circle of violence, because Immortan Joe has cars he needs gas  .  Because he need’s gas he must establish something of an empire to control the production of gasoline.  This empire is only enabled by the fact that he has cars in the first place

In closing, none of this would happen if we would all just embrace walking and the electric car.  And that is why Happy Feet exists in this same universe.  Should’ve listened to the penguin.

happy feet

[1] See here for my review of the film:

[2] I’d like to think I would survive as some sort of Androgynous wizard, wandering the desert blessing and cursing people’s children as I see fit.

[3] Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.  Will Under love.

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