I OWN A T-SHIRT that displays the words, “The Future Is Accessible.” I often wear this shirt to the gym. As I am working out—in the name of health, wellness, and entertainment—I am advertising a world not yet here, a future that is to come. There is no uncertainty in the message on the shirt. It doesn’t, for example, say, “The Future Might Be Accessible.” What can be made of this certainty, especially at a time when the world seems hostile and inaccessible? Whose future is accessible? When governments are populated with White supremacists, and the world is being robbed of resources, to discuss an accessible future seems naive. I do get some looks of confusion when I wear the shirt, overall uncertainly as to what the shirt might mean. Resisting the “It Gets Better” type of neoliberalism and erasure of struggle, I wonder how a claim of accessibility in the future challenges a Mad Max–ian world of water shortage and proliferation of disablement.
In a column for PopMatters, Brent Walter Cline writes, “The preponderance of physical disabilities in Fury Road [is] a logical consequence of the world Miller builds: it is barren, cruel, and environmentally poisonous.”1 He continues, later in the column, “Disability is considered a banal reality in this world.”2 In making this argument, Cline is linking the material conditions of life, visualized through the bodies of individuals begging for water at the Citadel, with the embodied experiences of existing in Immortan Joe’s postapocalypse Australia. To live without adequate access to water amid warfare creates impairment. When impairment is not accommodated, disability is produced. Withholding water, as an example, increases blood pressure, elevates toxins in bladders and kidneys, creates ulcers, weakens cartilage, and prematurely ages the body. These experiences of bodily impairment are intimately connected to a world where access to natural and material resources is dependent on external assessments of productivity and wealth. In turn, these same assessments maintain inequalities, which produce and exacerbate additional impairment. Nirmala Erevelles writes of “becoming disabled” that we should view “disability not as anatomy gone awry, but instead as a historical materialist construct that supports both exploitative as well as productive notions of embodiment at the critical junctures of race, class, gender, and sexuality.”3 Mad Max: Fury Road highlights how when resources are monopolized, especially when assumptions of worth are embedded to determine access, disablement is produced.
While Mad Max: Fury Road is an imagined future, the same logics of assumptions of productivity as value are directed at disabled people as well. Quentin Kenihan, the actor who plays Corpus Colossus in Fury Road, was forced to spend a night in his wheelchair after his personal support staff failed to show up and help transfer him to his bed. Kenihan tweeted, “No support worker showed up to put me to bed tonight. I’m having to stay in my wheelchair all night. Failed by the agency. Give us #NDIS now.”4 The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a disability support program funded by the Australian Government. The program focuses on giving individuals control over their support budgets to coordinate services and live in inclusive community settings. Established in 2013 with a series of trial sites, the program was progressively implemented throughout the country starting in July 2016. Despite this nationally funded program, disabled people in a variety of locations, from South Korea to the United Kingdom, from the United States to Greece, are increasingly considered a drain on shrinking public budgets.5 In a time of austerity, calls of people faking disability are correlated with an increase in disability hate crimes.6
Disabled bodies are thus evaluated against assumptions of productivity in a violent neoliberal world where resources are not evenly distributed and bodies are considered expendable—a nonproductive body is burden not to be borne. Eunjung Kim writes, “When bodies are pronounced as ‘incurable,’ they are read as being in a condition of a ‘nonlife’—without a future and denied meaning in the present. At the same time, cure denies a place for disability and illness as different ways of existing in the present.”7 Focusing on the future—a time where cures are assumed to be plentiful—has the potential to use disability and illness as experiences demanding erasure or elimination. The logic of ableism implies that if science and technology can “rescue” or “save” disabled bodies, the forces that contribute to or create conditions for impairment and debility can be ignored. How can we think about complexity around disability and identity while also exposing the structural conditions that produce impairment? What do accessible futures look like, especially set up against a world where inequality and domination of people, beings, resources, and the land seem to be the norm?
In the opening scene of Fury Road, viewers briefly see a two-headed lizard emerge. The lizard travels down a rock onto the gravel and dusty barren ground before Max (Tom Hardy) steps on the lizard, killing it. Max then proceeds to eat it. This moment occurs about a minute into the film. Before this, the first dialogue comes from Max over a black screen: “My name is Max. My world is fire and blood.” Next, various clips from commentators help describe the material and political reality, including, “It’s the oil stupid,” “We are killing for gasoline,” “The world is actually running out of water,” “The Earth is sour,” “Our bones are poisoned.” Max continues, “As the world fell, each of us in our way was broken. It was hard to know who was more crazy; me or everyone else.” It is at this moment the lizard emerges and its life ends. The apocalyptic landscape appears where resources are disappearing and turning the space sour. It is significant that alongside Max, the other living being that first appears in the film is a two-headed lizard. While polycephaly is rare, it is not outside the scope of imagination that a lizard could emerge having two heads, yet, in this instance, the unique embodiment of the lizard becomes a sign of how widespread disablement and various styles of embodiment have become. The world has fallen. Max is reduced to a “single instinct: survive.” The film plays with using disability (and disfigurement) as a metaphor for discord while also foregrounding disabled embodiment as a way to know and navigate the world.8
As viewers encountering a postapocalyptic world, what types of imaginations and expectations are brought to the experiences of characters in the film? Individuals entering the theater already expect that with the certain material conditions represented, violence, inequality, and debility will also be on display. Slow death, according to Lauren Berlant, is “the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence.”9 Berlant argues that slow death is not the result of a dramatic “crisis” but rather “that slow death, or the structurally motivated attrition of persons notably because of their membership in certain populations, is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain of revelation where an upsetting scene of living that has been muffled in ordinary consciousness is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life after all, like ants revealed scurrying under a thoughtlessly lifted rock.”10 Two-headed lizards, scurrying ants, impaired bodies begging for water, and Blood Bags prompt a questioning of how this cinematic world has been facilitated, indeed, has become the logical conclusion, of a system of resource hoarding and domination. Disability, in an ableist imagination, becomes the “sign” of the world in ruin, yet these same disabled bodies are the ones that will somehow “save” the world, if the world can be saved. I’m interested in tracing how disabled bodies persist despite being constructed as excess, or even in need of elimination. As Rob Nixon asks, “How can we convert into image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the making, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of our image-world?”11 Indeed, what is not accessed by the visual violences of the Citadel? What processes are hidden (while others are exposed) in this film?
In an earlier version of this essay, Anna Mae commented, “Is disability the problem or solution here?” She wanted me to be clearer about whether disability is “both cause and symptom of the apocalyptic world of Mad Max.” To be sure, disability abounds in the world of Mad Max. While the previous three films contain disabled characters including the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior and Blaster in The Thunderdome, Fury Road is the culmination of the slow violences and deaths where disabled and impaired bodies become visible representations. In an ableist equation of value, these disabled characters, including Furiosa, can be assumed to be the problem that capitalism, totalitarianism, or death can fix. As Immortan Joe opens the water for the residents of the Citadel, bodies with amputations and various diverse ways of navigating the space emerge for their chance of a sip or two of the precious resource. Joe himself has a ventilator type contraption, while his sons, Corpus Colossus and Rictus Erectus, also have plastic cannulas, an out-of-place prop next to the metal backdrop. (As mentioned earlier, the actor who plays Corpus, Quentin Kenihan, does use supplemental oxygen.) Corpus does not leave the Citadel, further illustrating how the world is not accessible to those who use mobility devices. The War Boys have tumors growing inside them, and many people are covered with scars of various lengths. Furiosa is an amputee and, refreshingly, the film does not make her amputated self, or prosthesis, a symbol of her “brokenness” or some other ableist trope. Blood Bags, Mother’s Milk, bodies broken, and diverse ways of navigating the world become the film grammar of this version of postapocalyptic warfare and survival. However, I insist that despite the tendency to frame disabled people as “useless eaters” (to use a Eugenic phrase), disabled bodies at the Citadel and beyond exist and resist. I am reminded of Barb’s points in her chapter about Just Warriors and the Beautiful Souls being protected; Furiosa and the other disabled warriors are actively challenging who is assumed to belong. I’m also thinking of Micah Bazant and Sin Invalid’s image of disability justice here; a Black person and Palestinian person are holding hands, crossing both invented yet militarized borders and transgressing places where their bodies are assumed to belong.12 The Black person is a wheelchair user and is marked as a prisoner by their orange jump suit. The Palestinian is a double amputee missing both an arm and leg. From the prison cell to the Israeli State occupation, these two are fostering solidarity and resistance. The text on the image reads, “Disability Justice means resisting together from solitary cells to open-air prisons. To Exist is to Resist.” Disability justice here is a centering of disabled bodies of color, showing how systems of domination including White supremacy, settler colonialism, and ableism are linked and coconstitutive. Disability justice calls for Palestinian self-determination, an end to the State of Israel’s occupation, and abolition of prisons.13
Max remarks in the film, “Hope is a mistake. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” Here, insanity is not a trope but a complex biosocialmedical experience connected to the material reality of instability and violence. While the War Boys remark of their future selves, “I live. I die. I live again,” for Furiosa, the Wives, Max, and the others, imagining an alternative world where water flows free is an enterprise in hope and imagination. (I appreciate Barb’s discussion of Nux and how he tries to break free of hegemonic expectations.) There is hope in the film that water and heirloom seeds can rebuild and fix the world. What does the future hold? To claim an accessible future seems far-fetched. In the midst of a poisoned and barren landscape marked by water insecurity and widespread debility, I find the fable of rebuilding the world (“the Green Place”) to be an enterprise in wishful thinking that erases systemic destruction and oppression. I consider Jasbir Puar’s framing of the production of debility helpful to contextualize how lines between the able-bodied and disabled are blurred when domination, warfare, and the means of production are used to enact White supremacist violence. Puar writes,
In the midst of the Movement for Black Lives, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the struggle for socialized health care in the United States, the demand to end U.S. imperial power in the Middle East (Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen), what constitutes the able body is ever evolving, and its apparent referents are ever shrinking. What is an able body in this context?14
What is a non-disabled body, and is it the same as an able body? Layers of precarity and vulnerability to police brutality, reckless maiming and killing, deprivation, and destruction of resources that are daily living features of living for some populations must not be smoothed over by hailing these bodies as able-bodied if they do not have or claim to be a person(s) with a disability15
Fury Road offers a stark reminder of the cost of widespread violence and inequity. The precariat find themselves depending on the largess of Immortan Joe, which of course means limited access to water and food, leading to various experiences of bodily change. Quite literally, those at the Citadel who depend on water are in a constant state of debility.
The Mad Max films, and Fury Road specifically, can be read as commentary on the increasing insecurity of White heteropatriarchy in a neoliberal settler colonialist world. Max tries to regain stability through his family and his cars, both classic extensions of White masculinity. Yet both are not enough; his family is killed, and his cars break down. Max is negotiating his own fragility, while the natural world around him is becoming increasingly barren. Indeed, much of the “backlash” of Fury Road centered on the displacement of hegemonic masculinity, thus supposedly further “isolating” White male viewers. Max’s White masculine quest seems to be without a goal. He cannot return to his partner and child. He seems to be alone, even leaving his comrades at the end of Fury Road. The fragility of White masculinity is telling, as briefly pushing on the sutures seems to cause a rupture. When White heteropatriarchy is challenged, the forces of domination often double down on their rhetoric and actions of domination.
Yet, the materiality of broken, oppressed, and enslaved bodies highlights how assumptions of identity and sustainability can become undone. Slow death happens in Mad Max as a seemingly forgone conclusion. How do we mourn for the lives in the Citadel? What emotional registers are interrupted by Corpus Colossus and his actions? Is there a way to suspend assumptions of excess and overall debility?
Immortan Joe is heavily invested in assumptions of perfection and ability through his eugenic project of forced reproduction with the Wives. In a particularly communicative scene that shows Joe’s ableist logic and desire, one of the Wives, Angharad, falls off Furiosa’s War Rig and is killed by Joe’s vehicle. Despite an emergency C-section, her child does not survive the trauma and surgery. As the Organic Mechanic, the doctor in charge of medicine at the Citadel, declares that the fetus was both a male and without “defect,” Joe is particularly distraught. The supposed perfect able-bodied male heir is not allowed to be born in the world of debility and violence. Immortan Joe’s adult sons are defined by their relationship to impairment and disability. For Joe, the future is very much one where his hope for ability (and perfection) is set up against the barren world he maintains and helped form. Able-bodied desires seem out of place in the barren land, with the exception of the Wives. (I so appreciate Alexis’s and Anna Mae’s divergent readings of the Wives). Disability becomes a “sign” of the supposed hopelessness for the inhabitants of the world, and disabled embodiment and desires become something to be shunned or avoided.
Alison Kafer, in writing about a desire for crip futures, remarks:
To put it bluntly, I, we, need to imagine crip futures because disabled people are continually being written out of the future, rendered as the sign of the future no one wants. This erasure is not mere metaphor. Disabled people—particularly those with developmental and psychiatric impairments, those who are poor, gender-deviant, and/or people of color, those who need a typical forms of assistance to survive—have faced sterilization, segregation, and institutionalization; denial of equitable education, healthcare and social services; violence and abuse; and the withholding of the rights of citizenship. Too many of these practices continue, and each of them has greatly limited, and often literally shortened, the futures of disabled people. It is my loss, our loss not to take care of, and brace, and desire all of us. We must begin to anticipate presents and to imagine futures that include all of us. We must explore disability in time.16
Here I take Kafer’s assertion of desire—in the past, present, and future—as a materialist critical lens to consider Fury Road as a text of social criticism. What are we to make of the differing experiences of disablement? One reading of Fury Road is of a future where the divide between the disabled and nondisabled increasingly becomes one of resources and power. This reading constructs disablement as the logical result of generations of wealth inequity, systematic oppression, and environmental destruction. However, if this is the case, how do we understand the lived experiences of disabled people in this future, beyond simply linking their lives to these experiences of oppression and destruction? I am reminded again of how the Australian state failed actor Quentin Kenihan in his tweet about the necessity for the NDIS. Even if one becomes disabled as a result of warfare or destruction caused by global warming, there remains the necessity for day-to-day negotiation of wheelchair transfers, obtaining groceries, and meeting friends, lovers, and the like.
I want to consider how disability produced as the result of violence and inequality is utilized in discussions of futurity. As the water flows from the Citadel, I can’t help but wonder what happens next. Certainly, we are led to believe that Furiosa, the Wives, and the Vuvalini tend to the earth, perhaps even that the surviving War Boys become farmers, helping to feed the disabled masses. However, I want to resist this narrative of magical cure. Healing the earth and using heirloom fruit and vegetables don’t immediately cure impairment; rather, it is an incremental rebuilding, using carefully stored seeds and tilling the scorched and dry earth. However, the water spilling all over the ground at the end of the film does negate the carefulness.17 Actually rebuilding the land—and removing toxins from the soil, air, and water—will take much longer than a Hollywood fantasy ending. There is no Eden to return to, but rather, hopefully, a cleaner, less polluted future where disabled bodies and minds are central in the imagination, planning, formation, and construction. But even that future is marked by its relationship to the polluted, violent present.
One way to imagine what happens at the Citadel is to consider how present–day disabled feminists desire a future where their bodies are assumed to rightfully belong to and traverse a previously inaccessible space. In Seoul, Yongsan Garrison, a U.S. Army Base is to be returned to the city when the Army relocates outside Seoul in 2019, although it will probably take many years for the base to be vacated. The base is currently a heavily militarized and polluted location, where cleaning and healing of the land will take years and may never be complete. Kim writes of disabled women’s mapped imagination of this space that includes a feminist educational space, accessible organic farming, banks, entertainment venues, and other infrastructure. Kim writes, “Instead of illuminating the desire for a future separatist utopia, the map communicates the desire for transformed public space for people with disabilities to inhabit and to traverse without the pressure of being altered through cure or re/habilitation.”18 Of this effort, Kim avers,
this imaginative and playful appropriation of the space showcases the ambition of the disabled women’s movement not only to eliminate disability oppression but also to transform communal, environmental, and spatial arrangements of society . . . turning the simplistic demand for “healing” into a political and ethical discussion from the disabled women’s perspective by unfolding time and asserting the presence of disability . . . The possibility of life with disability without violence depends on such reimaginations of space and time that recognize and challenge the power relations that govern our bodies.19
Disabled activists are refusing to align their desires with that of the militarized neoliberal state under the banner of “inclusion.” Instead, their embodiment and desires assert the necessity of a discourse of disability beyond rehabilitation or cure. The future imaginations of the activists are intimately tied to their current experiences and embodiments and the histories of violence and destruction in the military base. Violence and pollution are not erased by the introduction of wheelchair-accessible playgrounds. Rather, disabled women recognize how a return to the prior state is not possible; instead, the world they inhabit is forever changed by histories and experiences of violence, pollution, and oppression.
Much like Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, in Mad Max, rebuilding and recreating is the work of generations. As the militarized space of the Citadel is returned to the masses, it is important to consider how disablement emerges as an epistemological lived experience of survival and playfulness. Near the end of the film, a double amputee is shown moving through the landscape as Max drives into the Citadel. As the bridge is lowered, and Immortan Joe’s body is thrown to the ground, Corpus acquiesces to the chants of the masses and lifts the returning group up. Water flows, and disabled bodies abound. The real work of rebuilding begins. But this work is slow and tedious, not at all like the action-packed chase scenes of those previously on screen. If indeed the future is accessible, the only way access occurs is when disabled bodyminds are seen as desirable makers and experts.
What about Furiosa? As I reread my essay, I note that I don’t meaningfully discuss Furiosa as a disabled character. She is quite beautiful, covered in grease paint with her bald head, as Alexis remarks. I’m intrigued by the quest for post-post beauty. It might seem that she would warrant more space in my essay as a crip warrior taking on the patriarchy, but to be honest, I chose to focus more on the other disabled characters, some barely on the screen, rather than tracing how Furiosa kicks ass and helps overthrow and kill Immortan Joe. However, as Barb mentions in the Conclusion, there is something powerful about that shot she takes. As a text of escapist fiction, I do find a certain delight in watching Furiosa cause destruction on screen and anger men’s rights activists. Still, I am much more drawn to the characters on the edges, whether they be “bad” or “good,” in this fight for control of the Citadel. Barb has skillfully articulated how I feel about Furiosa and her crip Just Warriorness.