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How to Be a Woman in the Apocalypse (According to Male-Dominated Movies)

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Charlize Theron's Furiosa in 'Mad Max: Fury Road' (Warner Bros.)

Post-apocalyptic movies have been a pop culture staple since Charlton Heston first found a disembodied Lady Liberty on the shoreline, and screamed “God damn you all to hell!” at the end of Planet of the Apes (1967). It’s a famous scene, but one that people have a tendency to recall incorrectly — Heston’s George Taylor isn’t, in fact, alone on that beach. What we so often forget is that standing behind him — silent, expressionless, unmoving — is Nova, a beautiful, bikini-clad woman, who contributes literally nothing to the movie’s big climax despite being right there.

Nova is symbolic of a larger problem that befalls female characters across movie genres but is particularly maddening within the context of this kind of dramatic action. Sure, Nova is mute, but why doesn’t she have any physical reaction at all when her companion is pounding his fists into the sand and wailing at the sky? Did the director, like the rest of us, forget she was there? And when it comes to cinema, when it’s the end of the world, do women get to do anything other than stand around and look pretty?

We looked at 10 post-apocalyptic movies to find out... (Warning: This article contains an absurd amount of spoilers.)

I Am Legend (2007)


After a cancer-curing vaccine wipes out humanity, the only person left in Manhattan — apart from roaming gangs of super-fast vampire-zombies, of course — is Robert Neville (Will Smith). That is until a female survivor named Anna shows up. If Anna is to be your apocalyptic role model, then the key to survival is to be as unintentionally infuriating as possible. Feel free to invade other people’s freezers and eat the bacon they’ve been saving for months on end. Be sure to take no precautions on your way home in order to lead a city full of monsters to what was previously a safe haven. And — if you really want to prompt other survivors to tear their own hair out — deny any and all knowledge of Bob Marley. Using these deeply aggravating techniques, Anna ultimately outlives Robert, and gets his vaccine to a settlement of survivors. Everyone will hate you, but you'll be alive.

This Is The End (2013)

Hilarious nonsense aside, women get a grand total of about 10 minutes of screen time out of a possible hour and 40 minutes here. Even Rihanna and Mindy Kaling get thrown down a sinkhole to hell within the first 20 minutes. The only guide women have for potential survival is an ax-wielding Emma Watson, who, fearing for her personal safety in a house full of dudes, takes it upon herself to steal all of the guys’ supplies and boldly make a run for it. (“Hermione just stole all of our shit,” grumbles Danny McBride.) At the climax of This is the End, Watson’s fate remains unknown, but there is a lesson to be learned here: Sometimes hellfire and demons outside in the world are safer than six dude-bros inside a house.

World War Z (2013)

Zombies have taken over the world and it’s the job of Jerry Lane (Brad Pitt) to stop it, alongside a whole mess of other dudes. Our token women this time are an Israeli soldier named Segen, who sees an admirable amount of action but loses an arm in the process, and Jerry’s wife, who spends almost the entire movie on a UN ship with their two children, staring at ceilings and waiting by the phone. Pick one according to preference. And no, there is nothing more sensible in between.

Mad Max (1979)

In post-world-war Australia, after almost total depletion of the Earth’s oil supply, and with the planet ravaged by drought, financial ruin and chaos, the best option for you as a woman is either (a) being old, wearing an apron and owning a shotgun, or (b) being a singer. Even the roughest of the motorcycle gangs are placated by the sound of Robina Chaffey singing, which is nice because, for the majority of other women in this movie, the chances of being sexually abused or killed are reasonably high. After all, the entire crux of the plot rests on a man being motivated to seek revenge after the murder of his wife and son. (Don’t you just love it when the abuse of women is used mostly as a plot point for men?)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Okay, so let’s be clear: No one is having a good time in Mad Max: Fury Road (except for maybe flaming-guitarist-on-a-bungee-chord guy), but, like the 1979 original, the abuse of women is still the thing that drives most of the plot. Despite that, Fury Road carries one of the most important post-apocalyptic lessons of all: Women who stick together and support each other have a much better chance of survival on their own terms. Plus, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa — undoubtedly one of the most badass female characters in recent memory — also acts as a practical, but aesthetically pleasing role model when it comes to What To Wear When The World Ends. Grease up that shaved head, ladies. Grease it all up.

The Road (2009)

In the dying Earth of The Road, there are almost no women left. Of those that do show up, we get a wizened old cannibal granny in a house of men; a couple of naked, half-dead women in a basement full of starving humans; a nice mom lady who’s on screen for about three seconds; a crying woman with an accidentally murdered husband; and a very depressed — and then very dead — wife. With those kinds of options, and seeing how far beyond miserable life is for everyone in The Road, let’s just say there are no good options here at all. Unless you want to eat people, which we would strongly advise against. Obviously.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Congratulations, ladies! The apocalypse has barely begun in The Day After Tomorrow, and you still hardly exist! The government is made up of men, the climatologists are men, and the students are men, except for Jake Gyllenhaal’s love interest, played by Emmy Rossum. Gyllenhaal’s mom shows up as a pediatrician, and there is a female meteorologist (praise be!), but the female-to-male ratio is pretty dire, and the ultimate lesson is pretty clear: If you want to survive a climate disaster, be a man’s mother or girlfriend.

Zombieland (2009)

Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) and Wichita (Emma Stone) are savvy thieves and tricksters who have survived the zombie apocalypse because of their smarts, ability to con others and proficiency with weapons. They are initially entirely uninterested in joining forces with the men they meet — a refreshing twist for young, female characters — and only start making stupid decisions (starting up a noisy, brightly lit amusement park, anyone?), once they join forces with Columbus and Tallahassee. The lesson? Stay on your own and stay on the ball.

28 Days Later (2002)

The first lesson for women in 28 Days Later comes early: Maybe don’t let that really angry monkey out of its cage, no matter how sorry you feel for it. (It will kill you and then start the apocalypse.) The second is an extraordinarily depressing one: Even when you are a renegade badass that rescues the male hero (Cillian Murphy) and even when you have no qualms about brutally killing people when the situation calls for it, sexual slavery is always looming on the horizon, if you are a woman. Selena and her teenage companion, Hannah, ultimately escape the evil soldiers trying to subjugate them, but damn. This one’s a real bummer.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)


The protagonist of 10 Cloverfield Lane, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) offers a damn near perfect guidebook on how to realistically survive the apocalypse. (Thank you, JJ Abrams!) She knows when to be patient and when to fight, her mind is always working overtime, and she’s crafty enough to make her own hazmat suit and gas mask. Thanks to these factors, as well as taking the time to heal from a physical injury, Michelle ultimately outwits the shady doomsday survivalist who ran her off the road and held her in his bunker. On top of all of that, Michelle shows us that, even when you do finally find out that Earth has been invaded by humanity-destroying aliens, it’s best not to freak out! Just quietly get into the nearest car and bravely head out to find other survivors. You got this!

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