The difference in how Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones deal with sexual assault

I loved Mad Max: Fury Road and believe it is a new action film classic, with director George Miller wrapping a smart mix of plot, world-building and character development into an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Equally as important, Fury Road is also one of the few big-budget action movies in which none of the women in the movie are treated as victims. In the long run I believe this will make the film an influential one in changing how Hollywood does business.

However, not everyone agrees with my take on the film. Among them is author George Kelly.

Obviously Kelly and I aren't going to agree and hey, that's all good. People can and should disagree on which stories they like. To me Fury Road has a simple yet subtly intricate plot wrapped up in its non-stop action. Yes, on one level Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa character and Tom Hardy's Mad Max simply go on one long road chase before turning around. But what appears simple at first has multiple ways to be read on other levels. I'll write on this in the coming days.

But during my discussion with Kelly one thing he said stuck with me. While I praised Mad Max: Fury Road for not presenting women as victims, he said the film did exactly that. According to Kelly while the abuse was off-screen it still triggered everything that came after, meaning the women in Fury Road were still victims. So the film is merely a retread of how Hollywood always deals with these issues.

I disagree with this interpretation. There is a vast difference in how Fury Road deals with issues of sexual assault and how other Hollywood action films and popular TV shows deal with the same issue.

And that difference comes down to the dividing line between plot and plot device.

By way of explanation, let's compare Fury Road with Game of Thrones, which is continually criticized for how it depicts issues of sexual assault and victimization. I believe this is a valid comparison because Game of Thrones is one of the iconic TV series of our time. Just as I hope Fury Road might influence Hollywood for the better, Game of Thrones is already influencing Hollywood for the worse, with tons of rip-offs of the HBO series continually appearing on TV and in film.

Here we go with the comparison.

Fury Road is an original examination of how the world too often treats women as mere property, and sexual property at that. You don't have to go far in our own world to find women and girls who are victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking and slavery — all of these crimes are well-documented and exist everywhere, both in the United States and in every country in the world.

By creating a post-apocalyptic world in which sexual slavery and exploitation are the norm, director George Miller has created a perfect vehicle to comment upon one of the key issues of our time. Just as science fiction is a commentary upon the present, so is Fury Road an action-fueled comment upon the sins of our world.

Yes, the women in the film have been victimized before the film starts. But the film doesn't revel or delight in this victimization, or even show it. Instead, the film begins with all of them taking control of their destinies and fighting to change their world. That is the plot of Fury Road and it is a powerful one.

Contrast this with Game of Thrones, where sexual assault is merely a recurring plot device. Note that a plot device is a subset of a plot and is used to motivate or move the larger plot forward. In addition, many plot devices are interchangeable with other plot devices. Like cogs in a machine, so too are plot devices to the plot.

In Game of Thrones, the larger plot doesn't focus on sexual slavery and the exploitation of women. Instead, the series' plot is what people do to both gain and keep power. And in the supposed service of this plot we have the continual use of sexual assault as a plot device.

But as I said, plot devices can easily be changed with other plot devices. I have yet to see a sexual assault in Game of Thrones which was essential to the plot. Instead, all of these assaults appear to be used in the same old stereotypical Hollywood manner, where sexual assault is supposed to motivate characters or shock already jaded viewers.

If you removed all the sexual assault scenes from Game of Thrones, you'd still have the same story and plot. For Games of Thrones, sexual assault is merely another cog in the Hollywood machine. That's why people are so outraged over how sexual assault is used in the HBO series.

Now contrast that to Fury Road, where you can't remove the issue without the plot falling apart. Add in the amazing way Fury Road handled the issue — in a manner Game of Thrones could only dream of doing — and I hope people can see the difference between a film making commentary on a serious issue which is central to its overall plot, and a TV series simply using sexual assault as an insulting way to shock viewers and motivate the characters. 

One of these two empowers its characters. The other one turns its characters into nothing more than victims.

I'm not the only one to notice this. As Saladin Ahmed recently stated:

I am disgusted by filmmakers who use sexual assault as merely a plot device. Doing so is a cheap and lazy way to create a story. Yes, there are times in storytelling when disturbing issues like rape and murder and so many other horrors must and should be dealt with. But that's not the case with how Game of Thrones uses the repeated sexual assaults of its characters.

Fury Road doesn't do that. Instead, George Miller created an intelligent and exciting examination of a current issue. And he did this by empowering his characters instead of turning them into victims.

That's the difference between how Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones deal with sexual assault. And it's a difference I hope Hollywood eventually learns from.