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Power and Disability in 'Mad Max: Fury Road'

Brent Walter Cline

More needs to be said about Furiosa as not only a powerful female character, but a powerful, disabled female character.

Since Mad Max: Fury Road’s release, director and writer George Miller has been nearly universally acclaimed for the depiction of Furiosa as a revelation of feminine power and integrity. The entire film showcases, as Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker, “a testament to female resilience” through not only Furiosa, but the escapee wives and Vuvalini biker gang. Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, was a script consultant in order to help create, according to an interview with Time, a “feminist action movie”.

Without any desire to remove attention from the film’s vision of female empowerment—a bankrupt phrase that is nevertheless the best term for these women who are fighters, saviors, and mothers —more needs to be said about Furiosa as not only a powerful female character, but a powerful disabled female character.

The preponderance of physical disabilities in Fury Road are a logical consequence of the world Miller builds: it is barren, cruel, and environmentally poisonous. It is perhaps also an emotional consequence of Miller’s experience as a physician working with trauma victims before he wrote the original Mad Max. In Fury Road, the disabilities do more than simply paint some aesthetic canvas of woe or stoke the audience’s feelings of pity and horror. There are no sentimental depictions of disability in the film.

Disability is considered a banal reality in this world. Only the audience is horrified by The People Eater’s swollen legs and wonders how Furiosa lost her arm, but we do not weep for either one of them. The lost limbs, deformed faces, scarred bodies, and impaired lungs of Miller’s world do, however, play an important role in the film, no less than gender does. Immortan Joe and Furiosa are rivals for power due in no small part to the sexual dominance the former seeks, but also in how each of them seeks power through their impairments.

In writing about disability, it’s necessary to bear in mind a semantic difference between the disabled and the impaired. Impairment is a physical reality: a lost arm, non-functioning eyes. A disability is an impairment made disadvantageous due to an environment. Therefore, what’s even more populous than disability in the world of Fury Road are impairments. The powerful, such as Immortan Joe and Furiosa are able to use prostheses to make their impairments minimally disabling. Before the audience is introduced to Furiosa’s and Immortan Joe’s faces, they see their impairments, and then the strapping on of the prostheses that allow them access to their respective strength: Furiosa’s arm for the War Rig, and Immortan Joe’s chest plate for protection and breathing apparatus for tyrannical bloviating.

In fact, because so many characters have physical impairments in Fury Road, it's helpful to categorize between those who have a prosthesis that allows them access to power and those who do not. Immortan Joe’s two living sons are both physically impaired, but the enormous Rictus Erectus has his breathing tanks, and the paralyzingly tiny Corpus Colossus has his chair and telescope. What separates those who surround Immortan Joe with those who beg for water at the base of the Citadel is not their good health—the environment has poisoned nearly all—it is their ability to overcome their poor health through artificial means. In the physically and morally grotesque world of Fury Road, these means can come even through harvesting a person, as Nux turns Max himself into a blood bag, so much so that Nux literally knows of nothing else to call Max throughout the film.

The desire for the prosthesis is the desire to maintain power, and through power, autonomy. Immortan Joe is the epitome of this desire for the prosthesis. It's entirely plausible that the War Boys do not even realize that Immortan Joe is physically diminished; the horse’s teeth on his face mask could very well be seen as his own, as no one outside of the doctor, the Organic Mechanic, is particularly versed in “normal” human physiology. Immortan Joe is without his prosthesis only in private, among select, loyal War Boys. To those who worship him, he shows no sign of being diminished. No War Boy considers that if Immortan Joe is a god, he is a crippled, dying one. Immortan Joe is no more impaired than countless others in the movie. His power, however, rests in suggesting that his impairment is not real and that his prosthetic device is an organic part of him, if not proof of his superhuman abilities.

Unlike Immortan Joe, Furiosa is constantly seen by others without her prosthesis. When the War Rig must be cleaned after the sandstorm, Furiosa is without her metal appendage. When she falls to the ground and screams after realizing The Green Place is a salty wasteland, she is without her metal appendage. This absence, however, in no way signals to the wives or to Max that she is useless. Max finds this out well enough when she nearly kills him without the use of her prosthetic arm.

It does mean, however, that she is not autonomous. It's only with her metal arm that she can drive what is perhaps her ultimate appendage, the War Rig. With her metal arm she can, theoretically, drive the War Rig and the women to safety. Without the appendage, she and the others are stranded. Her difference from Immortan Joe is that she allows—or perhaps, is forced to allow—that the autonomy a prosthetic device promises is incomplete. Ultimately, Furiosa recognizes her need and shares power with another. And this leads us to Max.

Max is the pinnacle of the autonomous male in Fury Road. He has his own damage he must deal with—in the form of haunting memories—but these never prevent him from attaining power. If anything, they grant him power, as witnessed when he mimics a physical gesture of a memory that subsequently prevents an arrow from killing him. He is overwhelmingly powerful as perfectly represented by the fact that he is a universal blood donor. At least through the first half of the film, he needs no person, nor prosthesis.

Max’s narrative, however, is the movement from autonomy to interdependence. His initial interaction with Furiosa and the wives is to abandon them, knowing full well what awaits them. The action is as cruel as it is stupid, as Max has no ability to drive the War Rig without the kill switch code. As was shown in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome (1984), Max ultimately cannot survive if he chooses to remain an autonomous male.

Furiosa follows the same movement from autonomy to interdependence. She needs the help of the wives at various points during the escape, and the Vuvalini support her physically as much as emotionally, as seen when Furiosa repeats the gesture of memoriam that the Vuvalini give her mother. The greatest symbol for her movement is perhaps her handing over the War Rig to Max. It is done early and out of absolute necessity, but it is nevertheless an admission of need, something Max will only be able to show himself, later, and something Immortan Joe and his War Boys can never allow for.

Immortan Joe then, in all his cruelty and megalomania, exemplifies the steadfast denial that autonomy is impossible, and no prosthesis, literal or metaphorical, can supply it. His entire figure casts a pose of independence, one that is as imaginary as the War Boys’s belief in Valhalla. He is, of course, a dictator who rules alone and by whim. He understands his wives to be his property. His sons, living and potential, belong to him alone. When Rictus Erectus shouts in memoriam of his dead brother that the fetus was perfect, it is precisely this modifier "perfect" that makes the loss of life a tragedy for Immortan Joe. A physically uncompromised boy is his seemingly impossible dream.

That Furiosa should be the one to kill Immortan Joe is appropriate, given Miller’s desire for a “feminist action movie”. It's also appropriate, however, given what the film tells us about disability. The very manner of Immortan Joe’s death is telling. Furiosa hooks her metal arm to his breathing mask, and then rids herself voluntarily of her prosthesis, tearing away not only Immortan Joe’s mask but his face, as well. For him, these things cannot be separated. Furiosa will reveal her impairment, but Immortan Joe can never, and its removal is both the metaphorical and literal end of his reign. The enormous tire of his vehicle destroys both him and his prosthesis. Furiosa remains the leader of her pack. Her near-mortal wound is unrelated to her missing arm. She does not survive through the pretense of autonomy but through the sacrifice of Max, who this time is voluntarily made into a blood bag.

When Furiosa and company return to the Citadel, a legless man emerging from a hole is the first to witness them. Corpus Colossus, seeing his father’s dead body torn apart in a frenzy by the bottom dwellers, can literally take no action against what is happening. The royal platform is lowered so that Furiosa can ascend to the top of the Citadel. She brings with her the only remaining Vuvalini, as well as the surviving wives. The women, previously milked while caressing pathetic dolls, now release water for the people. It is a feminist triumph.

What should not be ignored is that it is also a triumph of the integrity of the impaired individual who need not create illusions of autonomy and wholeness in order to find power. Among the masses who climb aboard the platform is an overtly disfigured man smiling in celebration. In the final shot of Furiosa’s entire body, we see her stand proudly and defiantly, not only as woman but as a disabled woman, shorn of her prosthesis but still powerful and fair. Furiosa’s femininity does not create her power any more than Max’s masculinity does. But the reality of her femininity need not exclude her from ruling, nor the impairment be masked in order for her to gain power.

As for Max, it is true, he returns to his autonomy. He is, after all, mad.

Brent Walter Cline is an associate professor of English at Spring Arbor University, Michigan. Contact him at [email protected]

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