"You don't need that man in your life": Feminine Power in Sufjan Stevens' "Djohariah and Mad Max: Fury Road

And the man who left you for dead
He's the heart grabber back stabber double cheater wife beater
You don't need that man in your life
—Sung by Sufjan Stevens in his song "Djohariah"

It all starts in a car.

Sometimes, you just gotta get in the car and leave. But first you have to get that man out of the backseat. If only it were that easy. "I know you won't get very far with the backseat driver in the carpetbagger with the dagger heart grabber stuck in your car," so sings Sufjan Stevens to his troubled sister Djohariah in the song he wrote for her.

Who knew a 17 minute experimental rock song and a post-apocalyptic action movie would make perfect parallel manifestos to feminine power?

The first time we see Imperator Furiosa in the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road we have no idea what she is about to do or what she is capable of. But as soon as she gets a chance she attempts to escape the wickedly dystopian patriarchal rule of Immortan Joe who rules the desert citadel in which she finds herself a citizen. She has taken her own life and the lives of Joe's five wives—all of whom he expects to bear him children—into her own hands. Each of the tribes Furiosa and the five wives encounter in their attempted escape are ruled by men, and each of them are extreme oligarchies which feed off of their people's base instincts by exploiting their need for water, blood, food, and gas.

We know nothing of the motivations or plans leading up to Furiosa's attempted escape. All we know and all we can see is that she has had enough. Furiosa is feminine ingenuity, adroitness, and toughness. The five wives are the life-giving, life-making power of femininity—they literally hold the power within themselves that no man can possess: the ability to fashion, give birth to, and support human life. They are more fragile than Furiosa, but no less strong. Both sets of women are key to the survival of the human race, especially in a world where the men are on a destructive bent to parasitically feed off their people. The women (with the aid of the titular character Max) are looking for redemption and spend the first half of the film running away from the men in the hopes of forming a new civilization without them, and the second half of the film, upon realizing this is not possible, attempting to go back and take over the world from the men in order to rule it their own way. At the end of Fury Road the future is uncertain but at least we know the world will look differently from now on. Their babies will not be warlords at least.

The first time we meet Sufjan Steven's sister Djohariah she is in quite a state, such a state in fact, that Stevens gives her an eleven minute instrumental opening, filled with a raucous, chaotic, meandering guitar solo (perhaps the personification of the abusive man in her life, or perhaps the personification of her own tormented pysche?), a choir that monotonously, lamentaciously moans her name, and a horn section that calls her to action as the tempo picks up to an anxious march. Based off the music, we can only assume her life is in emotional and physical turmoil. Djohariah is not like Furiosa and the wives. She has not yet realized her potential and not yet planned her escape. She needs someone to tell her to do so, to open her eyes and see that life could be different. Sufjan steps into that role and in so doing gives his sister a personal manifesto to live by and a universal manifesto of the beauty and power of all women, even post-apocalyptic women like Furiosa and Joe's five wives.

Stevens calls his sister's abuser a "carpetbagger", a person who manipulatively lives off the resources of others. He has left her for dead, beaten her, cheated on her, and spent her money. Sufjan assures her, "You don't need that man in your life." Sufjan is giving her permission to leave, to start a new life. But he sees his sister sitting there in the dark of her living room, head hanging low, defeated, absorbing the shame of her neighbors' scorn. He sees a wreck of a woman but at the same time he sees another woman entirely:

Don't be ashamed—don't hide in your room
For the woman is, woman is the glorious victorious
The mother of the heart of the world...Djohariah Djohariah 

Sufjan starts to chant and cheer her name. In the the beginning of the song he sings her name to warn her away from danger and to lament the pain she's going through, to weep with and for her. But in the second half of the song he champions her. She is Djohariah, a "glorious victorious" mother, and in her is the heart of the world.

Go on! Little sister! Go on! Little sister!
For your world is yours, world is yours
All the wilderness of world is yours

Djohariah, Furiosa, and the five wives—they are the heart of the world and the wilderness of the world is theirs to take hold of. They must come to realize it and seize it. It is time to make a move and make a new world for themselves and, by relation, everyone else.

Sufjan offers a similar ode to women and Womanhood in his Christmas song "The Child With the Star On His Head" where sings a blessing over the woman who gives life to the child who gives life to the whole world, namely, Mary the Mother of God, and Jesus, the savior of the world:

And the child with the star on his head
All of the world rests on his shoulders
And the mother with the child on her breast
Blessed is she among women

This particular song, which also has another long and dissonant guitar solo and (depending on what version you listen to) its own wailing and moaning choir, is a meditation on the sins, burdens, and heaviness of our world. We live in a tired, troubled place where we are always getting caught up in ephemeral distractions. Only the Child with the star on his head can help us see the world differently and blessed is the mother that carried and fed that child.

There is life-giving power in the tissue and marrow of woman. Power to knit together flesh and power to produce life-sustaining milk. The gift of life is in her bones and this transfers over to her spirit. Mothers walk with their children until they are grown. Long after they are able to physically sustain the life of their children, they keep their children going by being an everpresent force of encouragement, support, and wisdom.

The story of Fury Road is not as simple as Furiosa and the wives not needing "those men" in their lives. They come to find out they need Max and Nux (who at first is one of Immortan Joe's warriors) in order to find their penultimate escape and ultimate victory. Flourishing human relationships are thus not parasitic, but mutual. We need each other and we give life to each other, even if some of us take on more specialized, unique roles, as in motherhood. And what about Djohariah? Does she need a man in her life too? Apparently she needs a Sufjan, a brother, speaking strength and encouragement and new vision to her wearied, hanging head. She might not need "that man", but not all men are forsworn. 

The woman will be most glorious and victorious when her victory is shared with all, when her life gives life to all. In the end, when Furiosa gains control of what was once Imortan Joe's citadel, the torrents of water are released and given to desperate masses. What Joe had reserved for the few, Furiosa gives to all. To toss off the men is not to reciprocate the oppression and the violence. Instead, it is to restore order and justice and shared provision. The "mother" who "is the heart of the world" is the one to see this and give it freely to the people.

"Djohariah" and Mad Max: Fury Road are strange companion pieces, tellings stories of similarly battered women who are given impetus to rise above and out of their circumstances, to abandon and deny the power of the men who damaged them, and to seek restoration and redemption in a future and uncertain new life. They are glorious and victorious. They are the heart of the world.

Other articles about Sufjan:
The Sufjan Stevens Narrative Spectrum: A Visual Guide
An Amazing List of Unreleased Sufjan Stevens Songs
Carrie & Lowell is a Minor Sufjan Stevens Album (and that's a good thing)
Unanswerable Questions 3b: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell
What the New Sufjan Album is Teaching Me

Reminder: I Still Hate Sufjan Stevens

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