Feminist Replay: MTV's The Maxx

The Maxx, in an alley staredown

Writers are supposed to shock people.  We say witty and unpredictable things that are supposed to rip the shroud off a decaying society and expose it for what it is.   Well, that's the idea anyway.

---Sarah, episode 5, the Maxx

 Yesterday, Daria was released on DVD, to great fanfare and cheers from fangirls (self included)  But for me, Daria was more than just one show - it represented a kind of golden era in MTV broadcasting.  Alongside other forgotten gems like Downtown, and the MTV Oddities series, the Daria era was part of a time where MTV thought their audience could handle dark and complex narratives.  So while I prepared for the upcoming Daria marathon, I also hunted down some of my other old favorites.

The Maxx* was one of the Oddities told in thirteen ten minute stories, loosely based on the comic book of the same name by Sam Kieth.  (It is currently available on the MTV website, but is crappily transmitted, as if they uploaded it to the web from VHS.)  Told in comic book style animation, the world wraps around The Maxx and Julie Winters, the self described "freelance social worker." The Maxx - at the beginning of the tale - is a homeless man who runs around the city in a purple suit, mask, and claws, who fades in and out of conciousness.  Often, when unconcious, he enters an alternate world called the Outback, where he is a hero and tasked to protect the Leopard/Jungle Queen.  Julie is a frustrated social worker, who is engaged in a sort of friendship with the Maxx.

The character of Julie is fascinating, and is always straddling the lines of how we define feminism.  From her first appearance in the show, Julie is constantly being judged for her appearance.  When talking to one potential client, the client points out that he's never met a social worker who dresses "like a hooker."


Julie Winters Torn Jeans

When she heads down to the police station, the officer on duty remarks that she wouldn't attract such creepy men if she dressed differently.  Julie stares him down, and he backs off.  However, despite her defiance in the face of clothes-policing and slut-shaming, Julie doesn't identify with feminism.  The series is awash with little details, and a quick perusal of Julie's apartment reveals a Camille Paglia poster.

 Paglia Poster in Julie's Apartment


(The attention to time is evident throughout the series.  There's even a Gaiman diss in there - Sarah mocks the kids into the Sandman series, saying "death is hard and cold...not some cute chick" as her friend Jimmy launches a tomato at a beautiful rendition of Gaiman's work.)

Feminism is front and center in the course of the narratives in the Maxx - normally used as a term of derision.  Julie has an open distain for feminists, and our "professional victim" stances against the world, railing often for people just to get over their issues and move on.  However, these fights and conversations are normally juxtaposed against Julie panicking because she refuses to deal with the actual consequences and fall out from her rape - the ultimate effect painting her as slandering feminism out of a misguided belief that she is protecting herself by taking full responsibility for any and everything that happens to her. Interestingly enough, the purple-clad Maxx is very familiar with feminism, occassionally pointing out sexism in the films they see or nuanced arguments by Susan Faludi.  

Over the course of the series, we are introduced to another female character, Sarah.  Sarah's mother is a staunch feminist and long time friend of Julie's, who sent Sarah to counselling after her father committed suicide.  Sarah's narrative has similar notes to Julie's -  in order to deal with her father's actions, she wraps herself in the armor of experience, believing that all experiences are equal, and that as a writer, she will need all the experience she can get.  She often walks around with her father's gun in her pocket, debating the merits of killing others before deciding to just relish the power.  

Sarah's observations about life are also frequently insightful.  After choosing not to kill herself after seeing the Maxx in action, she hangs out under an overpass wondering "I thought once I decided not to kill myself, things would be better.  But I still feel just as empty as ever."

The Maxx replies "Pain lasts, kid.  It's how you know you're alive.  Sometimes, I think this whole growing up business is pain management."

The Maxx is hard to analyze from a feminist standpoint.  There are a lot of factors working for and against the label.   The comic takes the characters on a long ride, which veers down a different path than the series ending for MTV.  Just focusing on the show, the picture is no less clear.  On one hand, the Maxx commits my personal cardinal sin - using rape as lazy characterization for female characters.  This device is all too often employed to give a woman a backstory.  She was raped, hence she becomes a social worker to fight crime.  She was raped, hence she doesn't trust men and can't find love. However, The Maxx also redeems itself by making the center of Julie's issues stem from something other than the rape - while it is the event that is often discussed on screen, later in the series it is clear that the traumatic event haunting Julie was something else.

Also, the juxtaposition of Julie's denials and her escape mechanisms with her hatred of feminism places the idea of a woman being a feminist as a normal state of being - and Julie's refusal to accept the label paints her as different.  This is an interesting reality to contemplate.  

Overall, the Maxx provides much to chew on, particularly about the darker side of human nature.  While the series isn't explicitly feminist, it is worth a view.


*Trigger warning: While not depicted on screen, rape is central to the narratives and plot in The Maxx.  


by Latoya Peterson
View profile »

I'm an editor at @Racialicious and the Deputy Editor for Digital Innovation for @ESPN 's #TheUndefeated

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

5 Comments Have Been Posted

Thanks so much for this!

I really enjoyed your post, Latoya. It is important to think of MTV's animated programming in the 90s within its larger context. I confess that<i> The Maxx</i> (and <a href="http://flowtv.org/?p=769" target="_blank"><i>Aeon Flux</i></a>, which has been available on DVD for several years and was made into a live-action movie) were largely over my head as a pre-teen viewer who was mesmerized by the show's aesthetic style. I didn't know what to do with Julie at the time. I'm definitely interested in revisiting <i>The Maxx</i>, though wish the show would get the digital transfer it deserves.  

the world can never be the same size again

Thanks for doing this review--it's interesting to look at <i>The Maxx</i> from a feminist standpoint in retrospect, as I first saw it after broadcast but before I really had read much feminist theory. (I wonder if that's where I got my opinion that both Paglia and the Second Wave were wrong?) I must get the DVD, as the only copy I have is VHS.

I'd like to note that the MTV series does somewhat dumb it down, as the comic book explores the traumas in Julie's life and the issues of Sarah's past in a slightly more nuanced fashion. It's definitely worth tracking down if you like graphic novels; trade paperbacks were released over the last few years, and volumes 1-3 deal with the narrative seen in the series.

Sam Kieth, by the by, has done several other comic series with female protagonists exploring women's issues--whether one would define them as feminist is up to the reader. While Kieth's work can be problematic, he's one of the few male creators in comics who draws women in varying and somewhat realistic shapes, so I have to give him points for that. I recommend <i>Zero Girl</i> in particular if <i>The Maxx</i> appeals, it's in the surreal not-quite-superhero(ine) somewhat-SF genre...though there are potential triggers therein.


Kieth is credited as one of the creators of Sandman (although he left the series before Death was introduced), so that shot might also have been a friendly one.

body image

I went nuts today trying to remember her character because I noticed that my body looks loke almost no character in pop culture and I thought of her. I remember her having an even more disdended belly than she does. Actually she just has a little layer of fat and is not all muscle bound. I think I first identified her through the eyes of a girl being inundated with skinny / britney spears in the early years type bodies. In my memories eye, this was a gorgeous girl with a paunchy belly. I don't remember anything about the plot, and I barely remembered the Maxx himself, but I might revisit this show now.

Add new comment