Mad Max: Fury Road is a triumph. The film is a masterpiece of action cinema, commendable not only for its commitment to being basically a 120-minute car chase, but also for its portrayal of characters in a genre riddled with stereotypes. Max himself is a secondary character in the film bearing his name. Imperator Furiosa, playing a female character rarely seen in blockbuster action films, steals the show. Furiosa turned the wheels of Fury Road towards a narrative that would be typically overshadowed by greased-up biceps and machismo. In that respect, Furiosa is perhaps the most impressive character in an action film in decades.
But what impressed me the most about Fury Road and its Furiosa, amid the high-octane wreckage and the questions of gender politics, was something I didn’t notice until after the credits ran. Something I didn’t have the perspective to even focus on.
Laura Vaughn is a fetal amputee, born missing her left arm below the elbow. She writes that despite this, “I’ve never felt ‘handicapped.’ I’m disabled, yes – there’s shit I just can’t do, but an invalid I am not.” She describes it as a “figure out how to do it and just get it done” attitude. Her reaction to Fury Road was different.
In a viral Tumblr post that now has nearly 41,000 notes at the time of this writing, Vaughn tells the story what Fury Road meant to her. It was a subtle triumph, and a moving one. Alone in a theater, she sobbed her eyes out. “Watching Fury Road, I felt like I was watching my own struggle brought to life,” she writes.
When I contacted Vaughn over email and asked if she still identified with Furiosa’s character, her feelings had not subsided.
“Oh, hell yes.”
Prosthetic limbs have come a long way from the first discovered, a 3,000-year old leather and wood toe crafted for some Egyptian in need. For example, earlier this year a man named Leslie Baugh was able to control two shoulder-mounted prostheses with his mind — electrical signals flowing from his brain were translated into movement at his shoulders. Somewhere in between these two extremes lies Furiosa’s metal and mesh prosthetic.
“The mechanical arm itself looks so much like some of the arms I used as a kid (in its basic functionality at least),” Vaughn tells me. “It operates using a series of pulleys and pistons and, despite also just being really cool looking, it is ultimately a tool.”
“Her body is never a plot point.
It is simply allowed to be.”
Not only did Furiosa’s arm look right and operate correctly when it was on, most importantly to Vaughn, it also came off. Prosthetic limbs are often heavy and hot – in reality, Vaughn tells me, no one wears them all the time. But amputees in film are almost never without their prostheses. The conclusion is that they need them to function properly. Not Furiosa. And certainly not Vaughn.
“When Furiosa punches Max in the face with her stump during the ‘water hose’ scene? I squealed with glee,” she explained to me. “It shows that she is a capable fighter with or without it.”
Vaughn believes that seeing Furiosa fight just as hard without her prosthesis was a deliberate choice by director George Miller. It showed that, though disabled, her disability never defined her. She was never pitied for it or questioned.
“Her body is never a plot point. It is simply allowed to be.”
Of course, Charlize Theron is not actually missing a limb. During the filming of Fury Road, Theron would wear the prop arm like an arm-length glove. A fitted green sleeve covered the exterior of this glove, and Theron’s arm was removed during post-production. To Vaughn, this could have been a sticking point – why not have a disabled actress play someone who is disabled? “It could only have been better if the part had been played by an actual amputee…but I ain’t even mad,” Vaughn says.
“Both she and Grant clearly researched and practiced how to move like a person with a missing hand would, and they did such a great job.”
“…It is so important to me that
her disability does not
define her as a character.”
Vaughn is understandably hesitant to speak on behalf of a whole group of people who may be concerned with Furiosa’s arm, but she isn’t a stranger to camera work. She was a prominently featured “walker” on the AMC series The Walking Dead, and she fit the role the show was looking for.
“It’s just an unfortunate reality that there just aren’t any big name actors with the exact features needed to play a role like this. Could they have cast someone unknown? Sure,” Vaughn tells me, “But we have to recognize that when it comes to making a big budget Hollywood movie like this, pretty much everything is riding on getting people to come out and pay money to see it. And people are going to pay to see Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy. They’re not going to pay to see me. That’s just how it is.”
Vaughn’s hope is that seeing a disabled main character in a blockbuster movie will change that.
Before Furiosa, those with disabilities like Laura didn’t have many heroes to hold up in Hollywood. Either those with prosthetic limbs were villains, like the woman with the leg blades in Kingsmen: The Secret Service, or the limbs are downright ridiculous. Cherry Darling in the film Planet Terror has a machine gun for a leg, something that Vaughn could get behind, she says, but it crosses a line. “Where they lose me is that she just holds her leg up in the air and fires off shots without pulling the trigger.”
Furiosa changed that. Her arm wasn’t silly addition or spectacle — it was simply functional. “I feel like it’s becoming my mantra, Vaughn says, “but it is so important to me that her disability does not define her as a character.”
Since Laura’s message went viral, others have reached out. Many people, whether they were missing a limb like Furiosa, operated a wheelchair, or had a friend or family member who was, have contacted her to share their feelings. “…They just want to connect,” Laura tells me, “to have that acknowledgement that they’re not weird – that they’re not alone. That someone else gets it.”
That’s the subtle triumph of Furiosa’s arm: an accurate and admirable portrayal of disability handled so well that it’s likely most audiences never even noticed she was missing a limb until the prosthesis came off. And even then, missing a limb was just a fact of Furiosa, not a flaw.
“Almost every person who has reached out to me with this kind of story has said that they cried watching this movie — because it just means so much,” Laura told me, “in a way that, I don’t think able-bodied people can really fully understand.”
To that end, Vaughn has since created the blog FictionAbility, a Tumblr dedicated to talking about positive representations of disability in fictional media. On it she and her followers discuss Daredevil, writing amputee characters “right,” and of course Furiosa.
“I just get Furiosa,” Vaughn tells me, “and I feel like she gets me.”
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGES: Warner Bros.