Thursday, May 28, 2015

Disability In “Mad Max: Fury Road"

Woman with close-cropped hair with both hands in the air, her left arm a mechanical-looking prosthetic
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

Man with a deformed, skeletal face, pale white, with bushy blonde hair, mouth and nose covered by a breathing device decorated with large teeth
Face of a male young person with pale white face, dark-rimmed eyes, and bald.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

Woman with close-cropped hair sitting on top of a prone man, swinging a half-arm stump as if to hit him, a gun held in her other hand
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.

Same woman as in other photos, here from a distance, kneeling in the desert sand, looking up at the sky
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.

Plus, you know … there’s ‘splosions!


Throwback Thursday

Illustration of the time machine from the film "Time Machine"
Two years ago in Disability Thinking: What’s The Deal With Kevin?

Kevin from The Office, that is.

Two years later, I think differently about cognitive impairment. I’ve also become a lot more attuned to how TV writers like to use ambiguously cognitively disabled characters, which allow them to poke grade-school-level fun at certain stereotypical tics, looks, and voices, while mostly escaping criticism for outright making fun of disabled people. I still believe the open questions about Kevin reflect similar uncertainty people sometimes have in real life, but I also think it gave the writer’s license to laugh at Kevin, supposedly guilt-free.