Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Pain of Special Needs in Mad Max: Fury Road (Some Spoilers)

For this discussion I'm going to use "special needs" to refer to people with an array of physical and mental problems. There is no term I'm wholly comfortable with that collects things so ranging. "Disability" doesn't even cover it for me, and is sometimes more uncomfortable. But know that preference of terminology changes from person to person. This is always easier talking person-to-person, where you can tailor to what makes individuals comfortable.

You probably don't know Nathan Jones. He was a professional wrestler who quit because, at 6'11" (2.1 meters), travel became incredibly painful. He didn't fit in an airplane seat or on any motel mattress, and good luck driving a rental car from town to town with legs that long. He quit WWE in 2003 and went into film. To date, I don't think I've seen him in a film that acknowledged his size could be a problem in life. He tends to play villains, because it's easier for average people to see giants as powerful and dangerous.

He plays Rictus Erectus in Max Mad: Fury Road. He lumbers through the movie with very few lines. When he speaks, it sounds like the character has a learning disorder. That's typical of giant villains.

Since he has no individual agency, always acting in obeisance to his murderous father (Immortan Joe), his only further characterization is a breathing apparatus strapped to his back and plugged to his nose. He chases heroes, overpowering any he gets his hands on because Dad told him to. Late in the movie, a hero finally manages to stab Jones's breathing machine. Jones crumples, possibly suffocating, and my whole theater laughed.

I mean, the whole theater laughed except me. But my lungs are probably what'll kill me, so I'm biased.

Immortan Joe, the movie's arch-villain, also has a lung disorder. He's introduced as a man covered in scars and tumors, struggling for air until his respirator is attached. His fearsome mask is actually a decorated breathing mask. The scene clearly communicates that this man is ugly, sick, and evil. To many audiences, it reads that he's evil because he's ugly and sick. Like father, like son.

There are no other characters in Mad Max: Fury Road who expressly have breathing problems. Rictus Erectus is the only character who has an explicit intellectual disability. When we meet The People Eater, Immortan Joe's field lieutenant, he is our first and only obese character*, whose ankles are so badly deformed that he probably cannot stand  (we never see him stand up in the movie). Immortan Joe's other son is Corpus Colossus, the film's only dwarf, whose legs are so deformed that he is always seated (the actor Quentin Kenihan suffers from Osteogenesis imperfecta). Immortan Joe has given Corpus Colossus the role of running the watchtower from his chair, which would be cool if their entire operation weren't despicable. These are the villains that our heroes must rescue attractive women from.

Before seeing the movie last night, I didn't read a single person criticizing any of this. Plenty of critics praised Fury Road's Feminism, and it does many important things with women, in both representation and plotting. Many words have been written about it (one fine piece here), and many more will and should be - that side of the movie is great. To its ideology, all of the misshapen villains I've described form the greater shape of the Patriarchy. They control women's lives and treat them as things. Their sickness and infirmity is possibly intended to display how awful they are inside. This, too, is typical of villains.

My body's been trying to kill me since I was twelve years old, so I'm quite used to this message. But presumably audiences didn't care, or subconsciously agreed with the messaging. It helped make Captain Hook and Ursula more dislikable, so why not Joe?

Other viewers probably saw Furiosa as a pass on the issue. Furiosa is a former commander in Immortan Joe's army, out to free a few sex slaves (oddly, just the attractive ones) in service of "redemption." Furiosa is an amputee, with a prosthetic left arm, though the movie insists she's more than this. She is a badass. She's the best shot with a gun among the heroes, and only she takes over the wheel from Max. Never does anyone ask how she lost her arm; no one even points it out. It is a quiet execution of a lovely thing, which was written about in a beautiful Tumblr piece here.

Some people say you don't deserve praise for just doing what you should do. Usually, this is crap. When the culture is awful to you, it's good to encourage people who recognize and try to do better. So:

Yo, Charlize Theron, George Miller, and everybody else who had a part in creating this part of the film: thanks! Furiosa rocks.

But I'd like to talk about more than her.

For instance: Nux. Nux is my favorite character, and my greatest disappointment, and requires a big, juicy Spoiler warning. Though he's in amazing physical shape, he has a pair of tumors that will eventually kill him. He's a goon for Immortan Joe until an accident that gives him a crisis of faith. In a moment of despair, he's shown kindness by one of the escaped sex slaves, named "Capable," and joins her side. Nux is endearing, the only action-hero who's actually happy in the movie. He just wants to belong with people. There's a lot to remind you of Peter Jackson's Gollum.

Nux is also the only hero who deliberately kills himself. He doesn't get to live; he gets to crash a truck, thus killing Rictus Erectus and blocking the road so the heroes can escape. Rather than finding a new family to belong with for what natural life he has left, he finds a new group to die for.

It was rotten since he and Capable were the characters I most wanted to see another movie about. It was doubly rotten that he died taking out Rictus, the giant who may not have even understood the conflict he was in. In a Pixar movie, characters like Nux and Rictus might be granted understanding and growth. Fury Road is a movie about explosions, though, so the two of them burn while the pretty people drive off to triumph.

End of Spoilers, and some other things.

If you focus on Furiosa as the co-lead character, I can see not minding that all the people in command are special needs monsters. The movie has a positive representation of one person with a visible disability, so why let all those others bother you? Even if her team is mostly very able-bodied and attractive, fighting off the schemes of vile special needs people, she's evidence that the film doesn't believe in that stereotype, right? Right...?

"Special needs" people are hard to group together; there are going to be very intelligent people it could represent that don't identify with it, or dislike the phrase altogether. It's a group that includes people for very different traits: my neuromuscular syndrome is very different from my friend's schizophrenia, and neither of us have it like our friend who lost her legs in Afghanistan. There are communities that are supportive, but it's stiff saying you're representing all of us through an amputee character. It's stiffer saying you're doing it through Furiosa, and not through everyone else whose conditions may be closer to ours, and who are all so vile we're supposed to cheer when they're killed.

For Fury Road in particular, there's an uncomfortable dynamic of having all these "freak" villains pursuing underwear models. The rescued sex slaves are called "his favorites," meaning Immortan Joe has others, and it's easy to assume that Furiosa left all the unattractive sex slaves behind. We never find out why it's these women in particular who are most worth saving among everyone who may be trapped in Joe's rape scheme. Rather, we simply know that the beautiful people must be rescued from the ugly and infirm.

This is intensely common messaging in film and television. It harkens to The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which featured a similar band of deformed killers as the villains. The 2006 remake did little to alter the monstrousness of deformed people. They would all fit right in with Joe's gang here. Yet Fury Road is more bothersome because so many friends told me how Feminist and thoughtful it was. They got my hopes up.

Fury Road doesn't say Immortan Joe is evil because he's infirm (neither does The Hills Have Eyes say that of the deformed marauders). Joe is evil because he imprisons, he rapes, and he withholds water from people in a drought. He forces women to bear his children - and the movie might think this is more awful because his children are typically malformed in some way. There's a quiet moment where it's suggested that Joe lost an infant son who was "perfect in every way," and the cinematography expresses to us that this is what he craves.

I have to tell myself that it's coincidental, in striving to show that Joe is a rapist monster, that the movie is saying Joe is monstrous for wanting a healthy child. I have to tell myself that, rather than implicitly believe it of the film, because society sure doesn't mind saying how useless I am, how I'm unworthy of healthcare, and when my pain is so bad that I stagger, that so many New Yorkers don't mind shoving me into the street to get by faster. For years I was convinced I was unworthy of any person I found attractive. She deserved someone better, stronger, healthier. It was nobler for me to die alone.

The messaging is so deep that, even typing this to bring attention to it, I feel like I'm transgressing. Like I shouldn't post this. Someone else's feelings are more important.

Immortan Joe and I don't have much in common, except his breathing sounds like mine has on so many nights, and he moves with a pain that looks familiar. That's a tricky thing about representation. You can send off messages you never intended.

So I insist to myself that anything problematic about Fury Road is unintentional. The infirmities are a personality trait pallet that Fury Road just traffics in, and this is okay. I mean, you can convince yourself it is. The pallet is something audiences are already trained to accept, just like the misogynist garbage that Fury Road subverts. In fact, George Miller may have chosen to traffic in the "ugliness of evil" to help mainstream audiences accept the progressive treatment of women in his film. As it is, you still get journalists who think the movie is odd for having too many women in it.

When they're making commercial movies that confront this kind of prejudice, you can't just dismiss it as problematic and unworthy of viewing. Rather, this is probably what happens when well-intended filmmakers try to push forward. Fury Road is encouraging.

For that - for Furiosa, for the theme of "We Are Not Things" - I'm grateful. There is artistic DNA for more inclusive blockbuster films in here. One hopes that, in all the planned sequels for Fury Road, the writers and casting directors begin to course correct other elements of their game.

The movie's fun, and even as I saw the second horrible villain with breathing problems that resembled my own and those of my friends, I wanted to forgive it. And I did, mostly, frequently, and let the movie be the dumb fun it was with the progress it had. What bugs me most a day after my viewing is that no one I know of seemed to care about any of this.

Ironically I've got to wrap this up so I can go to a doctor's appointment. Thank you for reading and considering. Before I go, there are three links I want to share:

-Braden Richards is a father in Ohio who needs a double lung transplant to survive. The procedure costs more than $25,000 that his family does not have. Currently, generous donors have helped to a little over $12,000. If you have any spare money, even the cost of a movie ticket, please consider donating to help his children keep him in their lives.

-While I have no relationship with them, Twelfth Planet Press is publishing an anthology called Defying Doomsday, about disabled survivors in the post-apocalypse. It's an awesome idea. Submissions are still open for stories between 3000 and 7000 words. Their Pozible was funded, but you can still donate. If it seems like something you want to contribute to or read, please click the above links.

-I've mentioned a few times that one of my favorite videogames of the past generation is State of Decay, an open-world zombie game where you find survivors to build your party and base. Your quest-giver is Lily Ritter, a radio dispatcher with Lupus. She can't go into the field herself, but she can gather intel on where there are supplies or other people in need of aid. The game is great on a lot of levels, but it felt worth mentioning here.
Correction: * @spidey_j points out The People Eater is not the only obese character. In one of the early scenes were see several obese women in Immortan Joe's tower having their breasts pumped for milk. They get another moment in the epilogue. It's ironic that I forgot about them in this paragraph, when I was specifically thinking of them when later writing about who Furiosa chose to save. Melissa McEwan wrote a piece on why their presence was meaningful to her here.


  1. I havn't seen the Mad Max Fury Road film yet, but your notes are important - it's especially the attitudes that are so common that they don't even get noticed that are showing how a culture thinks about groups of people. Reading your post also made me remember another film critic with a related theme, about the new Avengers film and the disabled woman in the story:

    meanwhile, i still get used to the idea that i am officially disabled since half a year.

    all the best for you!

    1. The best to you as well, Dorothee! I haven't seen this #DeliciouslyDisabled hashtag, but it looks promising. And while I haven't seen Age of Ultron, I do like what Marvel's Agent Carter has done with Sousa's leg injury.

  2. The reason, what I gathered, from a youtbue review I watched, about those women being Joe's favorites was because they had no tumors or deformities, and therefore, could produce a child w/o deformities. That's why that scene w/ the baby was in there and the one guy was proudly declaring his baby brother would have been perfect. Because of whatever destroyed the world, everyone was, basically, messed up in someway. The wives were also called breeders, so Joe only saw them as a way to produce children who he hoped would be free of deformities. Not a bad thing, but it does lead me to wonder. If he succeeded, would he have eventually started a genocide to kill anyone he deemed impure.

    I'm sure having all the bad guys be deformed in someway wasn't meant as a potshot to real people with various issues (if so I have an adorable nephew with a cleft lip and they can kiss my butt.) It's more Hollywood's warped ideas on beauty and goodness. Like you have the geeky character who once they achieve everything they also have a makeover and become beautiful. They can't just be happy w/ how they looked before.

    I don't know. Hoped I articulated myself well enough to what I wanted to say.

    1. I didn't read it as everybody was screwed up in some way. The huddled masses waiting for water at the beginning of the movie just look like they need a shower, and the women being milked also were just larger than average, not unusual to my eye (though surely "ugly" by a nonsense Hollywood standard). And Max is incredibly healthy, capable of losing oodles of blood and taking multiple beatings without much loss of performance. Mostly, it seemed like the bad guys had physical deformities. But I do agree that "the favorites" were probably chosen by Joe for their likelihood of conceiving healthy children.

    2. Yeah, those people definitely needed showers, but still, they could have deformities hidden by clothing or under the layers of dirt. For Max, you could argue his problem is PTSD or some form of mental illness given his hallucinations.

      Either way, I'm not opposed to any of your points. If we don't say these things, then nothing changes and the bad guys remain the ugly ones and good guys equal perfect.

  3. Thank you for articulating my thoughts about the simultaneous reflection/reinforcement of society attitudes about gender, beauty, physical and mental perfection and character. It sounds as if small steps were made in this movie (which I will probably not see because of difficulties with violence). Small steps which will hopefully begin a journey.

    1. If you're not down for a violent movie, absolutely don't see Fury Road. It is a big, loud blockbuster, and I'm glad that it pushes some things forward. I feel like quieter, smaller films are more receptive to these kinds of changes, though I'm struggling to remember the last movie to come out with positive disability presentation. What's the last good one you saw?

    2. I can't think of any with a positive, meaningful take on disability. Pity parties yes. And, as a very personal bug bear, talking about courage and disability gets my ire. When there are no choices courage seems to be the wrong word. Resilience? Determination?

    3. Yeah, pity parties and reducing characters to their disabilities are of little use to me as well. The world could use more Barbara Gordons (if fewer Killing Jokes).

  4. Hmmm, he looks like he could scare this 4'11" woman. Yup, definitely. I actually liked all the other Mad Max movies so I am looking forward to seeing this one too.

  5. You do make a lot of good points here, and on the whole I agree with you. It's a debate that's been going on for a long time over in the horror community, since the monsters have to be, well, monstrous. Just check out any of the articles about Tod Browning's 'Freaks'. Villains and monsters are traditionally made monstrous through becoming representative of the Other, which often involves some kind of deviation from a bodily 'norm'. However...

    "We never find out why it's these women in particular who are most worth saving among everyone who may be trapped in Joe's rape scheme. "

    I disagree. In a nuclear-ravaged wasteland, I think you would want to reproduce with the closest you can find to 'perfection' to produce children with fewer obvious problems in order to ensure their survival, and that's why the brides' quarters are empty when he goes looking for them because the only brides he has are ones that look like supermodels. It's possible that the children he would have with them would be "perfect in every way" and what truly makes it awful is that they'd be forced into continuing his empire - I read the film that his monstrosity comes from the forcible removal of their freedom.

    I can see your point about the infirmities characters have and how that shouldn't mean people with disabilities = monsters, but I really hope George Miller simply chose those character designs as a visual representation of how poor the land is. After all, the opening scene shows a two-headed lizard in the desert, and there is very little wildlife elsewhere in the film, not to mention the fact that the mythical "green place" has become a lifeless swamp. I think Max is the only male who isn't physically represented in a negative way because he isn't considered to be part of society. That said, you could argue Max himself has his own disability through his unstable mental health, and he's referred to as 'Mad' Max when he's clearly suffering from PTSD.

    Still, they got Furiosa right, so here's to hoping we'll have more films with strong characters whose infirmities aren't an issue. (Daredevil certainly doesn't let it stop him!)

    1. It's partially because I spent so much in my teenage years consuming Horror, but special needs in Horror has not bothered me as much historically as in other genres. Sometimes there is accidental subversive positive representation, such as the case of Jason Voorhees, who most fans wind up rooting, and who was himself a deformed child bullied and allowed to drown by his peers and the councilors. That's certainly part of why the franchise is so dear to my heart. A messy business, for certain, with many kinds of messages.

      Insofar as your disagreement - we're not actually disagreeing. You've explained why you think Joe would prioritize these women above others, where I've questioned why Furiosa would want to save them above anyone else. I had a similar reading to yours about why Joe prized his "favorites."

  6. I agree that the character design on the villains falls back on an old evil corrupts physically, making monsters out of men trope that has yet to die, but in a post apocalyptic waste land everyone should have some physical issues, and the sons only tie into the story because he's failing to have a healthy child and so on... the wives are cherry picked healthy oddities, same with Max to a lesser extent for his blood to be used by the war boys that are all riddled with bone cancer (most likely leukemia). Max also clearly has mental issues, PTSD, and so is not an example of untouched health. The... lets call them villagers, upon close up are shown to have tumors or physical defects, but a lot of that is just going to come down to cost, it is considerably cheaper to make a few hundred extras dirty than do full makeup on them.

    As for the laughter at Rictus' death, I've seen the film twice and neither time did the audience laughed at it, though I could imagine that being painful to sit through.

    A great many of your points just come down to the story of the film working (Joe's desire for a healthy child and history of unhealthy children in the past) and practical filmmaking.

    The only real problem character I see, in that there is no reasonable explanation for their physical traits being depicted as they are, is the Gas Town boss and his exaggerated gout representation of historical greed, sloth and excess. That isn't to say I see no issue in most of the 'bad guys' being special needs and the 'good guys' not, I just don't think Fury Road is a particularly great example.

  7. While I agree with the majority of this, there are a couple of inaccuracies:

    The reason the ‘wives’ are rescued by Furiosa is because they ‘begged her’ to leave. Furiosa didn’t decide who to rescue and who to leave behind - the ‘wives’ came to her, not the other way around. It is likely that Immortan Joe’s other victims were so indoctrinated that they would not want to leave. In fact, we see one of the ‘wives’ try to return to Joe later. It’s obvious that Joe had coerced many people into his cultish ways, previously including Nux.

    Also, after seeing the film twice, the only reference to ‘favourites’ was when Max shot Angharad’s leg, and it’s quipped that of all the legs he had to shoot, it was attached to Joe’s favourite. I felt this meant his favourite of the ‘wives’, as Angharad was carrying a child. If I am wrong on that, do correct me.

    THAT SAID, I acknowledge all of this is without the context of the writers making those decisions plot-wise. They could have been rewritten to be more inclusive. I think you make some excellent points, and upon my second watching, I did notice a lot more about the character’s disabilities.

  8. I haven't seen this movie yet, but I'm glad to have read your post beforehand. It's easy to gloss over these types of insensitive type-cast characters by dismissing them as cookie-cutters, but you make some great points about why Hollywood needs to get real. Portraying physically disabled folks as the evil ones just reinforces the fear and prejudice so many have. I do find the breathing apparatus interesting as it is kind of a steampunk element, of which there seem to be many in this movie. I would have seen it more as that than how you saw it, which is another reason I am glad to have read this. Sometimes I'm not that deep. It makes me think of Darth Vader, so classically evil, and he, too, had that breathing thing. Interesting.

  9. You know, human monsters, the real ones, tend to be disarming, charming, and attractive, at least in terms of serial killers. I wonder if the human compulsion of making villains ugly is a denial of what we're shown over and over. The people who kill others aren't hideous, they don't stand out, and therefore there's no way to look at someone and know right away if they're bad. Movies simplify that. Maybe? I'm glad you posted about this. It wasn't something I'd considered. Now I need to think more about it.

  10. I find your article quite refreshing. I've read plenty of good reviews of Mad Max, and to be honest I loved the film so much I've chosen it to be one of the movies I analyse in my university thesis.
    You pointed out correctly that it is a common stereotype of portaying villains as disabled. But it also can be done to add a certain kind of atmosphere to a movie, or a scene.
    While it is true that all the villains in the film are disabled, but you can see that almost everyone in the crowd in the beginning and in the end are too. So I think the basic idea was to show the consequences of the wars the narrative was talking about in the begining of the movie. It says:" Our bones are poisoned. We have become half lives." also: "As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken." So Mad Max mostly wanted to show these consequences. Yeah, it's true that the villains had more visible and ugly disabilities. It is usually used as a metaphor: the more ugly and "crippled" you are, the more evil you are. But I don't think that it was ment to be reprezented like that in this case, as you wrote it too. Although I agree that they should have been more careful with that.
    About the wives: I think Furiosa saved as many of them as she could. When Joe enters their prison, we cannot see any other women there, who is not saved. Maybe Furiosa simply couldn't have access to others, or time to rescue them too.

  11. (this is more than a little late but i just found this now) You make some really good points.. i actually had to stop watching the movie & chose not to finish because the ableism made me so uncomfortable


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