Approximately 15% of the world’s population has some kind of disability, but in pop culture people with disabilities are rarely seen: only 1% of characters have some kind of disability in American television shows.

It’s not a trend that more genre films have managed to shake. The Hunger Games, for example, is a franchise that actively sanitized its characters with visible disabilities — Peeta’s prosthetic leg is gone from the adaptation, as is Katniss’ deafness and subsequent hearing aid. The villainous Snow, however, retains his chronic illness, his unwellness still a signifier of his sickening politic views and morals.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) Warner Bros

Mel Gibson sporting Mad Max’s leg brace in The Road Warrior (1981)

That’s the way disability is normally retained in our dystopian futures — as a way to signify evil, a darkness about a character. And while Mad Max: Fury Road still falls into this trope, the entire franchise is one that has managed to include disabled characters as active participants in the world of the ravaged future. Disability in Mad Max is common — disabled characters populate the ravaged post-apocalyptic world, just as they do our modern world. In the original Mad Max, Max and his family visit their friend May, whose farmhand, Benno, has an intellectual disability. He’s clearly a valued person in May’s life and is never denigrated for his disability. In Road Warrior, Max must team up with the mute Feral Child, a skilled fighter and a member of the ad hoc family that forms in the film. Max also has a leg brace that requires maintenance at least once. The mechanic of the settlers he helps across the desert does not have use of his legs, and he sits in a swing attached to a crane to get around their encampment.

Disabled characters are also featured quite prominently in Beyond Thunderdome. Master Blaster is meant to be a strange and striking figure, a hulking man as the base of a small, powerful man. Master is the “brains” of the operation, played by Angelo Rossito (no stranger to embracing disability as the grotesque; he also appeared in Freaks). Blaster is the brawn, a hulking figure in a BDSM diver’s helmet who is renowned for his strength and fighting prowess. Their appearance fits the surreality of Bartertown, meant to unsettle.

But the characters do not only serve to be another oddity in an odd world. Aunty Entity makes a deal with Max to kill off Blaster, ensuring her authority over the town she helped create, and Max initially agrees. In the Thunderdome, however, he knocks off the mask and reveals the face of Blaster for the first time. He has stereotypical indicators of an intellectual disability, possibly Down syndrome, and Max refuses to go for the killing blow.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) - Master Blaster

Master (Angelo Rossitto) & Blaster (Paul Larsson) in Beyond Thunderdome

“This wasn’t part of the deal,” Max says. There’s a recognition there that killing a man with an intellectual disability is beyond the pale — Max isn’t willing to kill someone who may not understand the convoluted politics that led to his death, someone who is clearly being manipulated by those he trusts. Master even apologizes to Blaster for allowing this, saying, “He’s got the mind of a child.”

Certainly, it’s not the most nuanced view of intellectual disability, and the character is not given much agency, but he does command respect. George Miller’s apocalypse is not one that presumes people with disabilities are unable to be survivors.

It’s no surprise, then, that the post-apocalyptic world of Fury Road also accepts that people with disabilities will continue to exist, live, and possibly thrive even as the world ends around it.

Disability As Evil

Fury Road‘s apocalypse comes in the form of radiation, spoiling the soil and poisoning the population. It’s an equal opportunity threat: radiation and the harsh environment can sicken all classes of people: from the Citadel’s leader, Immortan Joe, to the tumor-laden War Boys, to The Wretched, the lowliest members of the Citadel’s population who are shown to have disfigured faces, tumors, and missing limbs.

It’s a double-edged sword of representation: in the lay population, disability is normalized. The War Boys live and fight knowing their lives will most likely end due to whatever cancer causes their tumors. But disability is also being used to highlight the grotesque. We are meant to be shocked and disgusted at Immortan Joe’s diseased skin, hidden under armor. His face is unknowable, only a savage mask that serves as a respirator. One of his sons is Corpus Colossus, played by Quentin Kenihan, an actor who is also a disability advocate. He has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disease), and is fairly well-known in Australia. His character is a callback to Master Blaster, and Kenihan actually mentions this in an interview, saying that the role is something he could have played even with his short stature.

“And my brother always said to me I was small enough to play Master Blaster in Thunderdome so who would have thought over 20 years later George would ring me up and offer me this amazing part?”

His role doesn’t get too much screentime — he is the brother who stays to watch the Citadel while his father and brother head out to hunt the escaped Wives. While Master Blaster, however, is given characterization and sympathy by the narrative, and ultimately redemption, Corpus Colossus is a clear villain. Making Immortan Joe’s family all visibly disabled is not meant as a subversion in Fury Road — instead, severe disability is used as shorthand to emphasize how twisted their rule has been and how they are irredeemable villains.

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 | Warner Bros

Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road, with his son Rictus Erectus behind him

The other leaders of nearby towns are also disabled in a way that is meant to be grotesque, hyperstylized to hammer home their evil to the viewer. The People Eater is a vision of excess — his suits have cut-outs that display his nipples, a chain linking them, and his nose is made of metal, suggesting a deviant sexual appetite complete with syphilis. He has at least one enormous foot, either swollen from lymphedema or tumorous growth. His appearance is meant to be as outrageous as that of The Bullet Farmer, who has bullets for teeth. There is no normalization of disability to be found in these characters, all larger than life and exaggerated.

Disability As Capability

If this was the extent of disability in Fury Road, it would have been a complete departure for the series (and any analysis by me would be far more critical). But while all the prominent villains are disabled, so are our two main protagonists. Furiosa uses a metal prosthetic as a hand, and Max is, well, mad. He has flashbacks, he sees people that aren’t there. He suffers from something like PTSD. (His leg brace also makes an appearance).

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 | Warner Bros

Mad Max and Furiosa

We don’t ever learn the detailed origins of these disabilities — Max’s past traumas shift with each passing film, and Furiosa’s past is murky. They recognize survivors in each other, and their disabilities exist outside of the coding from the Citadel leaders. Her lack of arm isn’t presented as either a strength or a weakness, and while Max’s hallucinations are a hindrance to his fighting, they also save his life in at least one instance. These disabilities are the least exaggerated; their appearances are not meant to horrify or engender pity. These characters are capable while still not being fully abled to the extent that no one ever comments on Max’s small bits of lost time, and neither does anyone ask Furiosa about her arm. These facts about them are taken in stride, parts of their whole selves.

Disability and Women

Immortan Joe desires nothing more than a non-disabled child to carry on his legacy, and perhaps that’s what spared Furiosa from being added to his collection of mothers. While the women of the Wretched seem as likely as the men to be visibly disfigured, the Wives chosen by Joe have no physical signs of trauma or birth defect, seemingly untouched by the poison of the world around them.

Furiosa protects these women, and brings them to what she hopes is the last unscarred part of the earth that they live in, the place she came from before being taken to the Citadel. When she realizes the Green Place is gone, she pulls off her prosthetic arm to mourn, her body as untouched by her role as Imperator as she hoped the Green Place would be.

The other group of women we meet are The Vuvalini, also untouched by the plague that ravages the earth — none of them have metal limbs, and their only affliction appears to be age. There are no tumorous growths or oxygen tanks among them. They mirror the Wives in the sense that the landscape has not poisoned them, not yet. This is not to say these women do not suffer, but they do not bear the physical scars of the wasted world, nor have overt mental illness that is tied with trauma.

It is symbolic, in a way, that as Furiosa slays Immortan Joe, she does it by also sacrificing her prosthetic arm. As she frees herself and others from an oppressive, sick regime, she also loses a visual connection to the harsh aesthetics of her military existence. It’s a physical representation of the past she wishes to atone from. Her lack of arm, what would be considered the disability, is not imbued with double-meanings, but her replacement of it is.

Disability as Setting

Mad Max: Fury Road 2015 | Warner Bros

Capable & Nux

While main protagonists and villains embody various ways to represent disability, visible deformity also forms the background of the population around them. Nux is just one of hundreds of War Boys living with a chronic disease — their desire for Valhalla is spurred on by the knowledge that their death will be abnormally soon. We also see one of the Wretched coming out of his encampment, missing both legs. The crowds of Wretched that push their way to water are shown as dirty but also diseased — facial deformities and tumors cover them as well. Disability is a way of living, and that is another way Fury Road tries to have it both ways. There is no recoil from the physically perfect Wives at the end when the Citadel civilians push their way forward, desperate to touch and be with their new saviors; the imperfect body is accepted all throughout the film. But the emphasis on sickness, as a way to show how Immortan Joe’s rule was literally poison to his people, again, makes disability shorthand for consequences of evil deeds. We are meant to pity their plight but also see how deformity is part of the aesthetic of corruption.

Fury Road is guilty of utilizing visible disability to both underscore the grotesqueness of its villains and to highlight the suffering living in a wasteland ruled by monsters would cause. But it also tempers those portrayals by having two explicitly disabled protagonists, their disabilities neutral, neither superpowered nor torturous. The end of the film shows the women literally uplifting disabled members of the Wretched with them as they ascend the Citadel, implying they too have a place in the new world order, just as they have always had a place in George Miller’s Mad Max films.