After reading about it and resolving to see it for real, I am finally ready to blog about Mad Max: Fury Road, which I saw in the theater last Saturday. Instead of writing a long, comprehensive think piece about disability in the film, I want to highlight two disability-related points that moved me the most — a theme, and a moment.
Genetic Mutation and the Quest for Purity
The main villain, Immortan Joe, and his hordes of pale, spindly "War Boys" all appear to have genetic mutations, presumably the result of nuclear fallout and other unspecified environmental fouling. In a sense, they are all disabled. And apart from the typical quest for uber-patriarchial power, Joe and his clan’s motivating goal seems to be the herding and rough nurturing of “pure” bloodlines … that is, parentages that will produce “normal” children. In pursuit of this otherwise benign goal, they will resort to just about any atrocity, including the kidnapping, slavery, and forced breeding of women who appear to have “clean" DNA. In a sense, Joe and his gang are self-hating disabled people who will do anything to reach an imagined cure of perfect genetics. It’s a lot for disabled people to think about.
Discarding The Arm
As has been fully discussed elsewhere, our hero ... who is unquestionably Imperator Furiosa, (Charlize Theron) and not Mad Max ... is missing half of her left arm, and through most of the film she wears an elaborate and versatile Steampunk-looking prosthetic. There are dozens of ways that this is awesome, especially for amputees who might be watching, but really for anyone with a physical disability. However, my favorite moment about this by far comes at Furiosa’s point of utter despair, when she stalks off by herself across the sand, dropping her extra gear and clothes, shedding her prosthetic arm almost as an afterthought, then kneels and cries out in anguish and frustration.
I am not an amputee. I have never used a prosthetic. But I did wear braces on my legs when I was a child, and I wore a heavy back brace for a year when I was 10. Even when I didn’t exactly hate them, there was something therapeutic about taking them off just to be me and me alone. I interpret this scene as Furiosa stripping herself down to her essential self, without add-ons, shields, or decorations, and that includes showing her naked, uncovered, unhidden stump, or “nubbin” as one blogger called it. “Showing” it isn’t the right word, either. She’s entirely unselfconscious in that moment. She doesn’t care if anyone is looking at her, or her stump. Even though her mood is sad, even despondent, in a way it shows that at least she’s fully at home with herself.
Unlike her enemies, who want to negate and change who they are, Furiosa doesn’t care one way or another. Her prosthetic is entirely practical, too. It proves to be endlessly useful to her, but it's obvious she put no effort at all into making it look like a “normal” arm. Plus, she is comfortable enough in her own skin that in her moment of crisis, rather than adding more stuff, more padding to hide and protect herself, instead she strips things away … including her arm … to become more herself ... as if to say, "Here I am."
As usual, I doubt George Miller or Charlize Theron thought these things through explicitly. This isn’t really a movie about genetics, prosthetics, or the social politics of disability. I don’t think it’s even meant to show audiences how capable disabled people can be. But I am pretty sure it is and does all those things anyway, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.