Furiosa: Disability, Representation and Empowerment

Let’s be honest. Who would have thought that Mad Max: Fury Road would be such an empowering movie to so many marginalized groups? The latest entry in the franchise, coming 30 years after Beyond Thunderdome (1985), is rife with representation and inclusion of people generally ignored by Hollywood movies. This is in addition to being a masterfully-made action film that still holds an unbelievable 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 89% on Metacritic. I don’t think anyone could have predicted that this film, helmed by director of the originals George Miller, would perform this well critically.

But what I want to talk about is Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, and her prosthetic left arm. From the very first trailer we see Furiosa and her prosthesis, and it looks very cool. In the vein of all things Mad Max it looks like it was cobbled together out of machine parts in a dusty workshop. It is all iron and wire mesh and tubes and doesn’t look comfortable at all.

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Nerd moment: We can clearly see Furiosa move her mechanical fingers at certain points, which leaves me to wonder at the exact inner workings of her prosthesis. I wouldn’t describe anything in the Mad Max films as “electronic”, but a crude myoelectric setup isn’t impossible, or it could be an electric-powered device. I don’t see the cables normally associated with a body-powered device, nor does Furiosa seem to use her right arm to operate it. I imagine that more than anything her prosthesis runs on movie magic, but that’s okay. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief!

Now, I was prepared for the inevitable “moment” in this film that I’ve seen too often in movies and TV shows where an amputee character shows up. The moment when an able-bodied character gawks at their prosthetic or comments on it in some passively negative way, doubting the amputee’s ability. I figured that in this movie it would be Max who would say or do something and Furiosa would have to prove herself to him.

I was completely wrong. Not only do Furiosa’s soldiers, the War Boys, never say a word about it, they never even glance at it. Her arm isn’t commented on, the camera doesn’t linger on it, they never treat it as something strange. Believe me when I say that this is highly unusual, that a movie may never comment on a person’s artificial limb, but there will always be a cut to it or the camera will pan over it for several seconds, as if to say “look at this, isn’t it weird?”

The “moment” never comes in Fury Road. And when Max and Furiosa meet, well… things don’t go quite as I had imagined.

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This is possibly the most brilliant aspect of how the movie treats its disabled character. Furiosa seems as comfortable without her prosthesis as she does with it. In the scene where she meets Max, she almost kills him, and is only beaten because War Boy Nux helps Max subdue her. Without her prosthesis and without even a working gun, Furiosa takes on the the title character and fights him to a standstill. I was bouncing in my seat during this fight, as it’s something I never imagined I would see. At one point, Furiosa even smacks Max across the face with her stump, which I know from experience can be just as painful as a punch.

See, Furiosa’s comfort with herself mirrors my experience as an amputee. I feel just as home with or without my prosthetic leg, and seeing that onscreen felt fantastic. Furiosa removes her prosthesis several times during the movie, and each time it is shown to be normal, her confidence never wavers.

Furiosa’s prosthesis is never commented on by any character in any capacity. It is allowed to just be a part of her, and everyone seems to know that and accept it. I expected some backstory, some discussion of it, but that never happened. Please understand that the “tragic story of how the amputee lost their limb” always appears. Miller assumes that the audience will accept Furiosa’s prosthesis just as the other wasteland dwellers do, and it works. Charlize Theron plays an amputee perfectly by doing nothing differently from an able-bodied person.

Furiosa never has her prosthesis taken from her. She never has it break at a critical moment or hamper her in any way. While there is drama to be found there, it happens so often in other movies that it was refreshing to not see it happen here. Furiosa is just as capable as Max or anyone else in the film, and her amputation never gets in the way of that.

Her capability comes from being a badass, by the way. Her artificial arm doesn’t grant her superpowers like the Winter Soldier, it is just a replacement for her limb. A common trope in movies featuring prosthetic limbs is that they empower the amputee beyond a normal person in some way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t count it as amputee representation, because having a prosthesis doesn’t grant me any special powers. The cyborg badasses of fiction are a method by which able-bodied people map their desire to be even more able onto the bodies of amputees, just another power fantasy.

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The one time Furiosa ever uses her arm as an out-and-out weapon is perhaps one of the coolest moments in the movie, and certainly one of my favorites. This is another thing that fiction does all too often: showing an amputee (or worse an able-bodied person “borrowing” a prosthetic limb) using their prosthesis as a weapon. Again, nothing wrong with that. It is a valid tactic (believe me), but too often it’s a one-note moment, or a gimmick that defines the character. Fury Road earns that moment, and in doing so made me forget the trope for a moment.

The treatment of Furiosa and her prosthesis in this movie blew me away. By the end, I was so impressed that it brought a tear to my eyes. This movie sets a high bar for future films to pass when it comes to representation of the disabled. Not just representation: empowerment. I felt empowered by watching Furiosa in this movie. It is incredibly rare for me to see an amputee character in a movie who makes me feel good about myself.

I hope that in the future, movies take note of Mad Max: Fury Road when including disabled characters. More than anything else, this movie takes the image of a disabled person, an amputee, and makes it normal. Furiosa isn’t treated like a freak or a fragile prop because of her amputation. She is arguably the main character, the driving force of the movie, a badass fighter who also displays compassion, empathy, and rage. Furiosa is a complex character, one that I had no problems rooting for. In a world of gas-guzzling death-trucks, white-painted barbarian mutants and grizzled old women warriors on motorcycles, Furiosa and her prosthesis are just… normal.

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