Humans suck at being mammals. We have hardly any hair, we need a ton of help to give birth to live young, and we have an amazingly difficult time producing enough milk to feed them, compared to the rest of the class Mammalia. In fact, about the only thing we suck at more, as a species, is providing support for new mothers–at least, in the U.S. Most of us work full-time; hardly any of us get any paid leave after birth; those of us who do mostly have to cobble together vacation and/or sick time and/or disability insurance, which packs us back to work out of financial necessity within about two to six weeks.1 Over the past two decades, our culture has conveniently decided that the advents in breast pump technology allow us to define maternal worth exclusively through the amount of milk we can produce hooked up to a pastel-colored noisy device behind a closed office door, if we’re lucky, or in a utility closet, if we aren’t. It is enough to make a woman get a selection of guns and hit the road in a War Rig. And conservative commentators want to know why the U.S. birthrate is falling.
I saw Mad Max: Fury Road about six weeks after I had limped to the finish line of a year spent breastfeeding–not exclusively, despite the exhortations of the medical establishment and our culture at large, but at least a little each day. I had packed up my Medela breast pump and rejoiced in the knowledge that its flanges wouldn’t be rubbing me raw four times a day any more, that I was finally through feeling like a failure four times a day, and that I could now just feel like a failure more amorphously every now and again. As an additional bonus, I would now have slightly more free time, which I could use to occasionally watch a movie in a theater.
Because I have excellent taste, the first post-mammalian theatrical movie I watched was Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s paean to awesome cars, civilization-collapse desert action bonkerness, and all things divinely feminine. Predictably, it left me plastered to the back of my seat and wondering how nobody died making this movie. Less predictably, it left me cranky. I loved Furiosa and the Wives and the Vuvalina, but I was seriously annoyed by its depiction of barely-there Mothers, huge and motionless, hooked up to giant post-apocalyptic industrial dairy science leftovers and JESUS TITTYFUCKING CHRIST, DID ANYONE MAKING THIS MOVIE EVER CHECK TO SEE HOW MUCH MILK AN ACTUAL HUMAN WOMAN COULD PRODUCE; WHAT THE HELL.
And after the movie was over, I went to daycare and picked up my wiggly one-year-old and took her home, thinking about Doof Warriors and War Boys and giant ochre clouds of dust enveloping convoys of fabulously ridiculous internal combustion engine-driven contraptions, but also thinking about lithe Wives and badass Imperators and wise Vuvalini and how nobody in this movie, not even the poor Splendid Angharad, actually got to be both a mother and a character. I thought some more, angrily, about how those huge Venus-of-Willendorf Mothers just sat there, immobile, attached to huge weird machines that stood out in a movie of huge weird machines, and how ridiculous and wrong the whole thing felt to me.
I thought about milk, about the past year of my life being devoted at all times to figuring out how to make as much of it as possible, to avoid formula and keep my daughter alive solely with my boobs, because everyone told me that was what I needed to do. I thought about the oatmeal and milk thistle and all the fucking fenugreek, and I thought about Max bathing his face in the milk (which didn’t look at all like human breast milk; way too watery) and I thought about how my initial reaction had been intense revulsion at someone wasting that milk by splashing it on his face when it ought to have gone into a baby instead.
And then, as my own baby finished schlorping the tiny bit of milk that I could still make and fell asleep, I thought about how much of my life had been defined first as being a thing with breasts, in which my worth was predicated on how big they were or how they were shaped or how much I was willing to show them off or how little, depending on who was looking. I thought about all the efforts I’d made to move past thinking of myself that way, and how many books I’d read from various waves of feminism insisting that I existed as something more than someone else’s perception of me. I thought about how all of this had turned back around into redefining me as a thing with breasts, only now my worth was dependent on what they did, not how they looked, and how now, no matter how hard I tried, I could not improve what they did, no matter how much fucking fenugreek tea I drank. I thought about how someone small had been dependent on me to feed her and keep her alive, and how many people had told me that was the real point of being a thing with breasts. Most of those people had been women, and feminists, too.
After some consideration, it occurred to me that perhaps my problem was not with George Miller and his really excellent movie. I watched it again and again, every chance I got, and I began to realize that my dismay at the lack of mothers in this movie was part of the point. The world in Fury Road is broken and dead; nothing maternal or life-giving can come from Immortan Joe’s closed system of rape and slavery and abuse. Everything is detached and segregated from the natural order. This is a world that sees women as sex objects and then milk producers, not as both or as whole people. The whole people are young women and crones and warrior women, but not mothers, and this is an indictment of the society the movie portrays, not an oversight on the part of the people who made it.
And I thought about the characters’ obsession with mothers’ milk, and how it had become warped and perverted into something that it was never intended to be. I stopped thinking about the logical shortcomings of making all that milk and I started thinking about the imagery of wholesomeness, goodness, and life-affirmation being twisted into the pre-raid drink of choice for the War Boys. I thought about the visceral infantilization of calling strapping shirtless muscle-bound men “boys” and giving them breast milk to drink, and how their lives were truncated and cordoned off as well, how the milk made by the Mothers and drunk by the War Boys was the only connection between the two.
And I began to realize what a complicated metaphor the mothers’ milk really was, and how much thought had gone into something I initially dismissed as weird and half-baked. It was not just about supporting and maintaining life, but about the ways that life could go seriously wrong in the hands of men.2 It was about taking a natural resource and turning it into a status symbol, same as the water, and wow did that resonate. It was about taking the earliest source of life and making it fuel for death, about waste in a desert where everything is scarce, about stagnation and production, and about being cast aside when you are no longer good for one thing but instead only good for another, by an entirely arbitrary definition.
All of this resonated, obviously, as someone living in the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is modern American working motherhood. But it also got me thinking about the other, less lactational bonds in the movie, the ones that people form through choice and circumstance, between sisters and lovers and friends and occasionally people who initially beat the crap out of each other but still end up on the same side of righteousness. The only way anyone survives this movie (either in the narrative or in the making of it) is by helping other people and being helped by them in turn. The point is to try to make a better world, for ourselves and our families, however they’re composed.
And eventually, all she wanted to eat was mac and cheese, anyway.
- If you and your company qualify, FMLA guarantees you twelve weeks unpaid leave; don’t let anyone tell you that you’re only entitled to six weeks off after you have a baby.
- Not all men.