I saw Mad Max: Fury Road this week and among the pleasures of watching the film for me was the simple, casual way it treats Charlize Theron’s character, Furiosa’s amputated arm and prosthesis. It’s simply no big deal. No back story is deemed necessary to explain it, she doffs and dons the artificial arm as circumstances require, and she’s a far cry from being the bad guy. This is all to the positive, in my opinion. She happens not to have a hand; so what?
By way of minor qualification, I would say only that the film indulges in a couple of things that do attend the upper-extremity-amputee stereotype. The first is the casting of a non-amputee actor in the role, which is most commonly the case in mainstream cinema. (And indeed, I certainly recognize there’s no possible amputee replacement for a star as high-profile as Theron.) Fortunately we’re in the age of green-screen shooting and digital video graphics, which enables a more or less realistic depiction of the prosthesis, in terms of body proportion. Contrast that with any number of able-bodied actors in other films, who, to depict their character, were required to wear prosthetic devices over their hands, and which invariably results in the prosthetic arm looking disproportionately long and, usually, absurd.
The second, somewhat stereotypical element is the attribution of greater-than-normal strength to the prosthesis*, as if losing a hand and wearing what I took to be a mechanical, body-powered prosthesis (that is, it has to be suspended from and operated by the body) would result in enhanced, rather than diminished, strength and capacity. Hate to break it to you folks, but that ain’t on, although in context it’s admittedly a minor strike against prosthetic realism.
*The scene I’m thinking of is when Furiosa is hanging on to Max’s leg with her prosthetic arm as he dangles helplessly outside the speeding war-truck.
The most telling (and obvious) element to challenge the stereotype of the one-armed cinema monster is that Furiosa is a woman. Clearly, the storyteller’s gifting her with an amputation was not accidental. Her traumatic back story–obscure though it is–her ‘fury’, her stated need for redemption (presumably for her complicity in helping to shore up Immortan Joe’s slave-empire), her ability to overcome serious obstacles to achieve what she wants in her world-context; these are all encapsulated and symbolized by her amputation. In a sense, and as is usual for the use of body difference in such narratives, the amputation/ prosthesis signals some kind of moral deformity (hence the need for redemption) but in this instance, Furiosa turns to good rather than pursuing the more normal route toward villainy for the cinematically one-armed. I found this refreshing.
Mostly though, I liked that Furiosa’s one-armed body and prosthesis are treated the way I think amputation and prothesis-wearing should be treated; as part of the normal course of human affairs, not really worthy of comment or even much regard. As Aki Kaurismaki has one of his characters say, in an entirely different film: “Small potatoes.”