Raggedy Men

Masculinity in the <i>Mad Max</i> Films

by Ezekiel Crago (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 224 Pages
Series: Masculinity Studies, Volume 10


This book investigates anxieties over the role of white masculinity in American society after World War Two articulated in post-apocalyptic film. Using an interdisciplinary approach that employs methods of cultural studies, gender studies, and critical race theory, it argues that masculinity acts as a technology for being-in-the-world that can be used by subjects with bodies coded male or female, employing it as a vehicle for agency. The Mad Max films denaturalize white masculinity by revealing the ways in which it defines the roles of men in a violent hypermasculine masquerade that harms everyone. The films trace Max’s disenfranchisement as he embraces a fugitive masculinity, fleeing social relation and responsibility, finding human connection once more in Miller’s most recent addition to the franchise. This work is useful for anyone teaching masculinity studies as well as those whom wish to better understand the phenomenon of angry white manhood and why masculinity often assumes a life-or-death apocalyptic position in postmodern America.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Omega Men
  • Chapter Two The End of the Road
  • Chapter Three The Clothes that Make the Man
  • Chapter Four Apocalyptic Boyhood
  • Chapter Five Apocalyptic Women
  • Coda
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book would not have been possible without the constant support of Erika Anderson, my partner in life and love, as well as her generous mother, KSue Anderson. This study is derived from the research that I undertook for my Doctoral Dissertation at the University of California Riverside, and I owe a debt of gratitude to my mentors there, Sherryl Vint, Derek Burrill, and Carole-Anne Tyler, who read drafts and offered priceless advice. My thanks to the welcoming community of the Science Fiction Research Association and its annual conference, wherein many of the chapters of the book were presented and discussed. Josh Pearson offered insightful advice. Thank you to my mentor at San Francisco State University, Geoffrey Green, for his constant support and advice. I thank my undergraduate Professor, Rachel Crawford, for introducing me to gender studies in such a fascinating class. I will also be forever grateful to my high school Shakespeare teacher and mentor, Dana, who planted the seed in me that grew eventually into a PhD. Rest in Peace.

Part of Chapter One appeared previously as “The End of the World as He Knows It: Besieged White Male Authority and Angry White Masculinity in The Omega Man” in the journal Science Fiction Film and Television.

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“Real Men” and “Last Men”

Apocalyptic Masculinity and National Crisis

Society is not first of all a milieu for exchange where the essential would be to circulate or to cause to circulate, but rather a socius of inscription where the essential thing is to mark and to be marked. (Deleuze and Guattari 112)

The end of the world does not mean its destruction in a catastrophic sense. We are always at the end of the world, and we must find some comfort in our ability to reflect upon that banal fact. (Dumm 319)

Max is not the only man who is “mad” in the Mad Max films. A variety of others are also mad, in both senses of that word: driven out of their minds with rage. This book argues that this figuration is a primary reason for the films’ successes, internationally, but more importantly for this argument, in the United States. Tropes from the films have become part of the American vernacular. This book examines the appeal of the films by way of analyzing what they say about manhood. By investigating why these men are “mad,” we can better understand the films’ affective appeal to its target audience, young men at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s in the ways that it articulates this madness. Furthermore, the films offer a sophisticated critique of the masculinity they appear to celebrate, suggesting that ←1 | 2→they should be read as cautionary tales that propose a way out of a perpetual cycle of domination and flight.

Throughout its history, Americans have been obsessed with what defines a “real” man, and the nation has been imagined and judged in masculinist terms. In her documentation of masculine crisis in the 1990s, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Susan Faludi observes that

the United States came out of World War II with a sense of itself as a masculine nation, our ‘boys’ ready to assume the mantle of national authority and international leadership. The nation claimed an ascendancy over the world, men an ascendancy over the nation, and a male persona of a certain type ascendancy over men. (16)

As Michael Billig argues in Banal Nationalism, when a nation tries to unify under a shared identity, “one part—one aspect of the cultural and linguistic mosaic—will become the dominant, metonymic representation of the whole” (87). In this way, hegemonic masculinity becomes national identity, and U.S. nationalism imagines the rise of the country’s power as empowerment of a certain kind of manhood. This is not a new aspect of American nationalist discourse. Michael Kimmel, in Manhood in America, shows that the crises of manhood expressed in the 20th century can be traced back to the formation of the nation (2). Americans have always attempted to define an ideal manhood because the nation is defined in manly terms, and definitions of manhood have always been in flux, just as the imagined community called America has changed (Kimmel 5). He observes that masculine identity is always already in crisis, noting that it is driven less by the need to dominate and master, as masculinist rhetoric would have it, than the “fear of others dominating” the masculine subject and disrupting the façade of manhood, proving he is not a “real man” (Kimmel 6).

To be a man is to be constantly tested. The ascendant hegemonic model of manhood in the postwar years was imagined as a middles-class white man

controlling his environment, [and this] man is expected to prove himself not by being part of society but by being untouched by it, soaring above it. He is to travel unfettered, beyond society’s clutches, alone—making or breaking whatever or whoever crosses his path. He is to be in the driver’s seat, king of the road. (Faludi 10, italics mine)

In this book, I argue that this fantasy of autonomous agency as manhood unbound and ascendant, always in the driver’s seat, leads logically to a fugitive masculinity, a manhood on-the-run epitomized in the figure of the “road warrior,” a man who severs his affective ties with others, maintaining only the bond between he and his car, a model of manhood portrayed masterfully in George Miller’s series of apocalyptic road films, the Mad Max franchise. The analyses of the films in this ←2 | 3→study interprets the figure of Max as an articulation of what Robin Wood calls “hysterical masculinity” (xxxvi). This hysteria is cross-cultural. Although Australian in origin, these films have been influential to cultures across the globe, especially America.1

The ideal postwar manhood was a continuation of wartime masculinity in a new context as a reaction to domesticity and wage-work figured as emasculating and confining, taking away the agency from “real men.” As Leo Braudy remarks in his examination of militant manhood, From Chivalry to Terrorism,

Men at war are on the front line of a more exacting and more one-sided definition of what it means to be a man than ever faces men at peace. By its emphasis on the physical prowess of men enhanced by their machines, by its distillation of national identity into the abrupt contrast between winning and losing, war enforces an extreme version of male behavior as the ideal model for all such behavior. (xvi)

Men returning from war were supposed to be “winners.” The ideal postwar man was supposed to be master of his own destiny, and American democracy was supposed to supply him with the opportunities to rise along with the nation’s fortunes, but something always seemed to take this agency away. Thus, his hysterical anger in response is produced by a perception of “dispossession” (Kimmel Angry 9). He has been robbed of what hegemonic manhood promised him, the fantasy that he would be in control and win.

In America, the concept of freedom and personal agency, an idealized autonomy, has been structured by racialization and the use of unfree people to both enable and define this freedom.2 Definitions of race and nation cannot be disentangled since they evolved as concepts together, especially when imagining the figure of the “American Man” referenced by the title of Faludi’s book. In 2017, Iowa Congressman Steve King tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Such fear of miscegenation and contamination of “civilization” by “somebody else’s babies” structured much of the political debate in the mid-19th century. Abraham Lincoln was accused of being part African (O’Reilly 48). Benedict Anderson notes that racism denies the racialized subject a nationality and a history by reducing everything about them to biological destiny, and this is a biology registered in aesthetic terms defined chromatically (148).3 These definitions of nation and race, operating as mutually reinforcing ideas, are entwined in notions of modern identity, both personal and national. Much is currently being written about the “resurgence” of the rhetoric of white supremacy in recent press, but nationalism has been bound to racism since the idea of nations first became what Anderson calls “imagined communities.” Those who “belong” to the same nation as us are imagined as the “same” as us, and in America, with its history of ←3 | 4→slavery, this belonging is bound to skin color as well as language and culture. Thus, the nation is imagined not just in terms of manliness, but also whiteness.

Nationalism is a “common-sense” notion of identity described in great detail by Michael Billig, who defines it as a broad concept that encompasses “the ways established nation-states are routinely reproduced” in the imagination of the state’s citizens (16). This reproduction of national consciousness in the cultural imagination makes both the “boundedness” of the nation-state and its “monopolization of violence seem natural” to those who identify with the nation (Billig 20).4 This naturalizing discourse of national boundaries and the violence required to police them developed as a central mode of modernity via colonialism and its incessant mapping and definition of borders, the beginning of capitalist enclosure, and this book argues that hegemonic models of masculinity in America share in this notion of boundedness and entitlement to violence in maintenance of borders, naturalized by hegemonic masculinist rhetoric. Nationalist “rhetoric habitually assumes that there is an identity of identities” and that identity matters (Billig 92). All identity is political, acting as affective investment and determined by the hierarchies and borders of nationality, racialization, gendering, and other ways that the socius marks the social subject, demarcations that carry value judgments.

A crisis for hegemonic national identity, like that of white postwar masculinity, is thus often expressed as a crisis for the nation, and this anxiety is articulated in the 20th century’s most extensive and pervasive mass media, film. Such cultural articulations are documented in great detail by Steven Cohan in his work, Masked Men, an examination of the performances and crises of masculinity in 1950s Hollywood film production.5 This study performs a similar investigation, focusing on the development of a now pervasive genre of speculative films.6 These narratives imagine life after the “end of the world” as a crisis for the white men who serve as figures of hegemonic identity in transformation, and the solution to the crisis of manhood is often a return to an idealized past model of masculine identity.7 This “return” to past ideologies and practices is a way to ensure a future that stays the same as an idealized past. As Alys Eve Weinbaum asserts in Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought, the concern over producing a proper kind of national subject to populate the future, one imagined as a white man controlling his environment, involves a race/reproduction bind with an inherent purity condition and requires patriarchal control over the selection process of who lives and who dies as well as who gets to reproduce to ensure this imagined purity. Fathers, when it comes to nationalism, are supposed to know best. The postwar national identity crisis in America is thus universalized as a threat to society as such, coded as “civilization,” by positing a white patriarchal crisis in the terms of the end of the world, a problem solved by ←4 | 5→a return to previously hegemonic social structures that had been denaturalized by postwar discourses, revealed as enabled by sexism and racism.

This expression of anxiety was not only a “backlash” or reaction to social changes, like the “domesticating” of businessmen represented as the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” or the rise of feminist and anti-racist discourses that challenge the cultural centrality of white men, but also due to the proliferation of identities in an increasingly postmodern society, a multiplication of options that challenges hegemony and problematizes the essentialism of masculinity as such. This “loss of certainty and the blurring of a sense of place have caused what Giddens (1990) terms ‘ontological insecurity’ … for the person today is a ‘nomad of the mind,’ living with a sense of homelessness” (Billig 136). Thus, the “end of the world” signifies an end of certainty about what counts as a “real man” as well as a clear narrative for this man’s role in society, anxiety informed by masculinist rhetoric and the race/reproduction bind that structures nationalist identity.

This book focuses on cinematic narratives about the end of “civilization” because, although “films are polysemic, speaking or not speaking to different audiences in different ways” (Tasker 59), the following analyses attempt to trace the use of tropes that structure the narratives and suggest specific meanings that articulate the cultural and historical conjuncture of the time of their production. Popular texts must be viewed in the context of their historical audience (McCracken 10), but doing so also aids in elucidating our current historical conjuncture. Popular fiction attempts to cover over or explain contradictions in modern identity and life, “and its ability to articulate them in a way that the [audience] can relate to is central to its success. Popular fiction, we might say, mediates social conflict” (McCracken 6).8 The end of “civilization” articulated by these films is interpreted here as the displacement of white men as fathers of history, replaced by warriors unconcerned with reproducing society and more interested in “winning” the game of masculinity by aggressively participating in a violent masquerade. Science fiction films produced during the 1970s departed from previous speculations about our possible future, instead positing no future at all or a future that was already past (Sobchack 226). Additionally, the films investigated here all have a “plot [that] centers on the adventure of a lone hero fighting, along with a helper or two, against near-impossible odds and overwhelming forces.… [And] he will win his minor victory in a hopeless world” (Franklin 78). These films articulate an apocalyptic masculinity always threatened with extinction, but one that attempts to remain king of the road in spite of the hopelessness of this task.

←5 | 6→

Gender Discourses and Masculinist Rhetoric

Just because those in power are straight and white and male doesn’t mean that every straight white man feels powerful.… But just because straight white men don’t feel powerful doesn’t make it any less true that compared to other groups, they benefit from inequality and are, indeed, privileged. (Kimmel Angry xiii)

For all its pretention to being universal, what has been until now considered “human” in our Western philosophy concerns only a small fringe of people. (Wittig 46)

Gender is an ontological impossibility because it tries to accomplish the division of Being. But Being, as being, is not divided. (Wittig 81)

The imagining of masculinity in fantastic crisis foregrounds the spectacle of manhood as performance and critiques the artifice that sustains it. It denaturalizes hegemonic ideologies of masculine identity and its position in society. Additionally, as spaces for imagining the future, science fiction (hereafter SF) films are deeply invested in what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurity” through how they depict the future of humanity as a species and possible social arrangements. As a locus of technological concentration (SF films are often more concerned with technology than science), this genre foregrounds the role that technology plays in the reproduction of humanity and masculinity. As Vivian Sobchack argues, “SF has always taken as its distinctive generic task the cognitive mapping and poetic figuration of social relations as they are constituted and changed by new technological modes of ‘being-in-the-world’ ” (224–225). These films depict masculinity as one of these of technological modes, a tool for “being in the world” as a male in society. Stephen Heath describes ideological identification such as gender as “an imaginary relationship with the world … [and] this imaginary relation to ideology is itself real” and acts for an interpellated subject as practical reality (McCracken 31). Apocalyptic masculinity reveals this imaginary relationship with reality and how it creates its own crisis.

These films also reveal the ways in which technologies of masculinity, such as motor vehicles, produce specific forms of manhood and often, rather than being used by men, use men to reproduce this form of masculinity.9 The interdisciplinary approach of this study uses gender studies work that includes sociological and anthropological sources, such as Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America and the cross-cultural study, Manhood in the Making, by David D. Gilmore. Pierre Bourdieu, in The Logic of Practice, observes that a social agent needs to reconcile their value to society, because society “defines what he [sic] is entitled to” (138). Hegemonic masculinity enables specific social valuations and the entitlements that come with them, allowing for and often encouraging men to dominate others, a position in society to which they are “naturally” entitled. It creates what Bourdieu ←6 | 7→calls a “habitus” that includes naturalized thought-process and behaviors producing “common sense” and “reasonable” conduct (55). However, this does not necessarily empower men, but instead serves to bind them to a cycle of violence and the fear of being dominated. Andrew Feenberg usefully defines the difference between power and domination distinguished by Michel Foucault: “Power is a kind of life-force that opens perspectives on the real in Nietzschean fashion, while domination is institutional closure, premature totalization” of this power (73). Power is a flow and domination is a dam. Thus, hegemonic masculinity does more than distribute power to men in a patriarchal society, it institutionalizes and naturalizes domination, including the domination of men over other men, and it defines a set of “reasonable” behaviors that delimit a man’s agency. Writing on Foucault’s theories of power, Gilles Deleuze notes that culture produces such habitus so that social subjects will conform to its laws, and it does this by providing consciousness with continuity via narrative: “Culture endows consciousness with a new faculty which is apparently opposed to the faculty of forgetting: memory … [acting as a] function of the future” (246). However, cultural memory is also always already a forgetting of whatever the culture devalues, especially when a culture uses nationalist rhetoric. As part of this cultural memory and social habitus, gender “regulates” and “delimits” what counts as “human” through “exclusion”: “those who are excluded are not only marked as different but are also denied legitimacy because of it” (Wolmark 79). Like racialization, gender determines who matters and who does not.

Complicating the analysis of dead-end masculinity in this study, the films analyzed here deconstruct dominant technologies of masculinity, demonstrating the danger of dominance while also paradoxically arguing for its necessity as protection from itself, a double-bind similar to the use of nuclear armaments during the Cold War. As Kimmel asserts, patriarchal hierarchy is “a dual system of oppression” that affects both genders, so that being a man means being in constant threat of being dominated by a man more “fit” than you (Manhood 285).10 Gender is a performance that produces the discourses that regulate it, and “the gender of the subject then becomes constructed by the constant barrage of normative laws and behaviors that are said to define its gender” (Burrill 14). For American men, that equates to a performance of self-control and autonomy. Harry Brod argues that “individuality” and the autonomy that it implies is neither a “natural right, nor is it an accurate assessment of [subjects] and their world, but it rather is a mark of their privilege and the blindness to broader social contexts that privilege tends to produce” (174). This privileged autonomy is shown in these films to be enabled by masculine technologies that determine a dominant position in society.

Demonstrating the fantasy structure that subtends hegemonic masculinity, as a counter-hegemonic act, threatens the stability of the identity of any man who ←7 | 8→relies on such identification to make meaning out of social reality, thereby threatening his privileged individual agency. Agency requires “power relations, which are simultaneously local, unstable and diffuse, [and] do not emanate from a central point or unique locus of sovereignty, but at each moment move ‘from one point to another’ in a field of forces” (Deleuze 73).11 Agency is distributed and not personal, and masculine identity acts in this cultural field as a privilege that discriminates, an exclusion and containment instead of the autonomous liberty its rhetoric offers.

The Mad Max films function as articulations of masculine discourse that, like all discourse, defines “who can speak, who can be spoken to, and what can be ‘said’ as well as who and what must remain silenced” (Buchbinder 30). As David Buchbinder puts it in his book, Masculinities and Identities, the social designations of gender “carry not only general meaning (this is how a man behaves, this is how a woman behaves), but also power signification (this is how a man controls, this is how a woman controls) and valorizations (such behavior is good or bad)” (2, italics his). These behaviors and their valorization or demonization determine a man’s “fitness,” his social worth and how well he “fits” the ideal model of manhood, often through his mastery over space and others, but also the self. Kimmel notes that

self-making required self-control, and self-control required emotional control. So, for example, emotional outbursts of passion or jealousy, which had been associated with lack of manhood; it was women, not men, who were now said to feel these emotions most acutely. (Manhood 128)

Gender is discursive, and “discourse is a strategic and polemical game” (Foucault 3).12 This game is never settled, and a man must constantly prove that he is winning if he wants to play. Feenberg notes how theorists often refer to society as a game rather than machine, and that the value of this metaphor resides in how “games define the players’ range of action without determining any particular move,” which applies to any use or figuration of technology, but the game is also “biased … toward the dominant contestant” (83). Citing Michael Buroway, he asserts that “playing a game generates consent with respect to its rules” (Feenberg 83), and this study is concerned with men who either refuse to play the game as it stands or attempt to play by the rules only to find winning impossible and then change the rules.13


X, 224
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 224 pp.

Biographical notes

Ezekiel Crago (Author)

Ezekiel Crago earned a PhD in English at the University of California Riverside. He is currently a lecturer at Morgan Community College and University of Colorado Denver.


Title: Raggedy Men
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236 pages