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Mad Max is unexceptional, and that's for the best


Mad Max: Fury Road is one of this spring's cinematic surprises. Although the opening weekend was trumped by Pitch Perfect 2, the combination of glowing reviews and word of mouth momentum seem to be adding up to, if not a hit movie, at least a future cult classic.*

Anticipation was always high for this long-awaited sequel, following a trailer that made the film seem like a gleeful throwback to the nonsensical, ultraviolent fun of the cult hit Road Warrior. (We don't talk about Thunderdome). An action film for fans of the action film. If you like noisy explosions, what's not to love?

And then, upon release, all hell broke loose. From an unexpected quarter too - Men's Rights Activists began a noisy (and bizarrely self-defeating) series of protests because the film was deemed 'feminist propaganda'. Which, of course, only drove more people to see the movie - not only out of curiosity, but also to spite the MRAs. And, as a result, the film's received high ratings and support from unexpected quarters and galvanised a very enthusiastic fan base - Fury Road is currently the most talked-about film on Tumblr.

This sort of enthusiasm leads to, somewhat understandable, hyperbole, and now Miller's film is being hailed a work of rare genius - hailed by reviewers as "an astonishing work of art", "a rare alternative", "the best I've ever seen", "a stunning achievement", "perfect", or even "a miracle".

However, putting Fury Road on such a pedestal doesn't actually help the cause of feminist film-making. Just as the complaints had the reverse effect to what the MRAs intended, the excessive praise could backfire as well.

It all comes down to social norms. Behaviour change theory is the mantra of both marketing and policy-making, especially when it comes to shifting (or, for that matter, reinforcing) social norms. How do we define - and redefine - the status quo? To make '5 a day' acceptable and homophobia not? How do we encourage more people to adopt children, drive without texting or switch from crisps to low-fat popcorn?

It is all about defining what is 'normal' behaviour. Which sounds suspiciously like mind control, but, in actuality, is merely good strategy. In marketing, we do that with a combination of communications and promotions, everything from packaging to celebrity endorsement. (True advertising, ironically, has a rather limited role in behaviour change campaigns - but that's for a different day.) And in policy, there are even more levers to nudge, from visas to tax incentives.

So with all these tools and channels in play, how do you go about changing the social norm? There's a lot of research into this - and a lot of opinions to go with them - but one thing that most experts agree on: you don't embed a new behaviour by making it seem exceptional.

This is especially true when your existing social norm of 'what everyone does' (the descriptive norm) differs from, um, let's call it the 'moral' standard or 'what is acknowledged to be doing the right thing' (injunctive norms). The classic example here is littering - something everyone knows they aren't supposed to do (injunctive norm), but also believe that most people do (descriptive norm). Other examples: cheating on taxes, illegal downloads, drugs and, for that matter, making sexist films.

There have been some great studies into this. One example - a study into tax dodging in the 1990s showed that threatening people with higher audit rates actually backfired. Fraud went up, as previously well-behaved people suddenly felt like they were in the minority: higher audits = more people not paying their taxes, after all. Meanwhile, a test of the reverse strategy - communicating that the vast majority of people were their taxes on time and correctly - encouraged malingerers to pay up.

I mentioned littering as the classic, and that's because of Robert Cialdini's work in the 1970s. He learned, to summarise briefly and ineloquently, that one piece of litter leads to a whole flock of the stuff. If your communications acknowledged any litter, everyone would keep littering. Conclusion: the only way to bring the social norm in line with the accepted behaviour was to pretend it already was. Don't let people see the litter at all.

Which brings us back to Mad Max. When we celebrate Fury Road as a work of genius, as a rarity, what we're unintentionally doing is reinforcing the social norm - and one that isn't the 'correct' or desired behaviour. If Fury Road is a 'miracle', after all, that lets everyone else's failings off the hook. But when we talk about Fury Road for what it is - a fairly stupid, extremely noisy action movie that has an explosion every six seconds, a dude playing a flame-throwing guitar and a cast of men and women that play strong male and female characters that all have their own complex (if occasionally nonsensical) motivations - we're actually treating the correct behaviour like the new norm.

If Fury Road is a work of 'rare genius '- it is unique and unrepeatable, and film-makers have an excuse to default to their existing behaviour. But if Fury Road is simply an excellent example of a successful action movie, the rest of Hollywood will rush to catch up. Praise the movie, for it is truly a blast, but make it a role model, not an exception. 

[A version of this post first ran on the website for Kindred.]

*Pitch Perfect 2 - by a female director - one that just broke all the records for a directorial debut. Also an unabashedly feminist work that's about the relationships between women, mothers and daughters, women and their careers, etc. And it uses broad comedy to be appealing to the 'traditional male' cinema-going audience as well. (Hmm. Replace 'broad comedy' with 'explosions' and you've got Fury Road.) Alas, the MRAs didn't even bother with it.