Toxic Bodies and the Wetter, Better Future of “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Editor’s note: This review of Mad Max: Fury Road contains spoilers.
Hollywood likes to tell us stories about the end of the world. I like to watch them, despite how frighteningly possible the end-of-the-world has begun to feel. Fury Road, the most recent installment in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max franchise, opens to the sounds of women lamenting what greed, unchecked use of natural resources, and war have wreaked upon them: “The earth is sour,” they cry. “Our bones are poisoned.” Before the vivid nuclear Wasteland appears, we hear Max growl from the dark: “As the world fell, each of us in our way was broken.” This is not unfamiliar. We too in live in a contaminated world, wielding polluted bodies. Poisons seep from our plastics, spew from our cars, leak from our landfills, and lie in wait within our rivers, our rising oceans, our children, our breasts, our blood.
Most of Hollywood’s Eco-catastrophe films work to soothe these anxieties. No matter how ruinous the situation, the plot tidies up the world on screen and leaves us with hope for a better future. We’re reassured that the world ended only to begin again with a fresh start. This future, however, is rarely for everyone. The survivors who will inherit the promise of a rehabilitated world are healthy, able-bodied, straight, and (more often than not) white. Because queer, nonwhite, and disabled people are still too often seen as social “pollutants,” there is little room for them in a purified world. The logic goes something like this: if the environmental home we inhabit can be made clean, then it should be repopulated with clean bodies (i.e. young, able-bodied, and healthy) who will make new, clean families (i.e. straight and white). Hollywood’s end-of-the-world plots tend to practice this kind of multi-scalar housekeeping, sweeping away all the toxic others. Usually, these film endings come in the form of a “pure” child that represents the hope of the recuperated future. The broken world is—or will be—made whole.
Like desire, toxicity moves between bodies in ways we cannot predict.
Mad Max: Fury Road offers no such assurances. The future it imagines is neither clean nor whole. It is much better. And much wetter. As Fury Road’s characters struggle to survive, they exchange fluids extracted from orifices, nipples, and wounds, and they navigate the risks of being so opened to one another. If we allow ourselves to dwell here, we’ll find our way into unexpected pleasures. Like desire, toxicity moves between bodies in ways we cannot predict. It thrills, even as it threatens. It binds us to the stranger and the pollutant in a risky dance we just might enjoy.
This is not to value the toxic for the sake of toxicity, or to suggest apathy in the face of continued environmental devastation and the very real health crises that disproportionately affect those too often regarded as social “pollutants.” In fact, openness to intoxication works alongside environmental justice. Both critique how American culture has responded to its increasing awareness of permeable bodies and pervasive toxins by renewing the fantasy that the privileged can escape into purity: the clean hetero-nuclear home that protects the white/straight/middle class bodies that inhabit it.
Fury Road challenges us to see how the liquids that gush, spurt, and pass between the characters open them to the risk of pleasure, and asks us to imagine how (and with whom) we might build more just worlds.
Water in the Wasteland
In Miller’s Wasteland, clean water sources—like “clean” people—are scarce commodities. The tyrannical Immortan Joe has built a Citadel over the last pure spring. He controls the Wretched—the ill, disabled, impoverished, and “toxic” masses who are kept outside the Citadel’s gates—through their thirst, periodically releasing wasteful torrents to sustain them. He jealously guards the water to harnesses its regenerative powers. Although his own body and those of his sons are already suffering from environmental disease, already “polluted,” the pure spring water offers him the hope for a different future.
While the Wretched thirst in the scorched desert outside, inside, Joe grows lush gardens near and within the womb-like vault where he keeps the enslaved women he calls his wives. Water, vegetation, wife: all (re)productive, all “clean,” all safely tucked inside the Citadel. When Furiosa leaves with the wives, she steals not only his property, but his future—a restored and purified bloodline that few “pure” women he took as “wives” were going to birth him. And so he calls for war.
As the escaping wives race toward the Green Place (an oasis tended by a tribe of ecofeminist separatists) we see that they too imagine themselves as vessels for a rehabilitated world. When a dusty, half-dead Max comes upon the wives washing themselves like river nymphs in the desert and demands a drink, the pregnant wife Angharad brings him the hose. The nozzle and her very round belly fill the frame. Throughout the film, Angharad’s fecundity is directly aligned with both her maternal rage at the greed and violence that “killed the world” as well as her desire for its opposite: a safe enclosure where the world will be made right. A baby, a Green Place, a slate wiped clean. While there is a certain kind of feminist ethics at stake, here, the similarities to Joe and his Citadel can’t be overlooked. In both, the exclusionary fantasy of safety reigns; water and all it stands for are available only to those invited inside.
In the Wasteland, clean water will not lead toward a renewed, Edenic future, and the world will not be made whole.
Those audience members hoping for a housekeeping plot turn don’t get it. Angharad and her unborn child die, and so too does the women’s hope for a restored Eden. Angharad breathes her last as the party passes a dark, eerie swamp that was once the Vuvalini’s Green Place. Between the water gone “sour” and the barren salt flats they enter next, the women renegotiate not only their plans but also their fantasies of a safe and bounded home. In the final plot twist, the film insists that the “hope” driving Furiosa and the Vuvalini to travel hundreds of hot, thirsty miles across deserts of salt is misplaced: there is no new Green Place, no clean future awaiting them.
In the longest speech of film, Max warns Furiosa that “hope is a mistake; if you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.” He’s quite right. If hope is the hope to find unbroken homes, it cannot be sustained. This is the world they’ve got, now. There is no where else to go. In the Wasteland, clean water will not lead toward a renewed, Edenic future, and the world will not be made whole. As Max, Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini decide to retrace their steps and fight their way back into the Citadel, there is room for an ethics of toxicity to enter in.
This is precisely what happens. After Angharad’s death, the film gives the women no more water until the “toxic” others outside the Citadel gift it to them. In a neat reversal of the opening water-release sequence, the final scene showers Furiosa, the wives, and the Vuvalini as they stand with members of the Wretched, wound to wound, spilling over one another. Fury Road makes the returning women earn their access by not only killing Immortan Joe (which they do) but by risking intimate relations with “toxic” others—both the socially “polluted” human bodies and the environmental toxins swirling inside them. The safety of Joe’s and the Vuvalini’s “pure” enclosures have been broken and flooded by the pleasures of connection.
Mothers’ Milk in Mad Max: Fury Road
Like water, milk brings us to the fertile terrain of women’s bodies. We first meet the Milked Mothers in a parody of the dairy industry’s “Got Milk?” advertisements. Immortan Joe poses, holding up a bright white glass of the stuff. Behind him sits a herd of enslaved women—their breasts tethered to industrial pumping machines, their arms cradling ragdolls. Arranged in neat lines flanking a dank hallway, the woman/cow comparison is difficult to miss. Their animalization is wrapped in their racial marking, as well. Their physical features and their voluptuousness visually link them to the “natural” hyper-fertility historically attributed to indigenous women, and their enslavement links them conceptually to wet-nurse “mammies”.
The wives’ superiority is defined against these animalized and racialized women. Like Joe, they consume the Mothers’ Milk without any sense of solidarity for their sisters in biological exploitation. The very possibility of their own “purity”—their ticket into the Green Place—relies on the fact that they are not only not the toxic other but also that they have not been invaded by it. The milk they’ve consumed must be pure, but the bodies who produced it must not be.
There is nowhere to escape the strange agencies of the “others” in the milk that slip past the boundaries of home and skin.
This initially seems strange, given that breast milk is literally made to pass between bodies and to carry with it antibodies, nutrients, and anything else that is at home in the mother. Yet this is not unlike the symbolic gymnastics we perform daily in the “real world,” where the reality of the milked body disappears. We know even upper middle-class white women who eat organic diets feed their infants trace amounts of paint thinners, fungicides, dry-cleaning fluids, and a number of everyday toxins when breastfeeding; there is nowhere to escape the strange agencies of the “others” in the milk that slip past the boundaries of home and skin. But (like Joe, like the wives) we’d rather that not be the case. The characters’ obsession with milk’s cleanliness—its holiness— reveals little else than the “terrorism of safety” they (and we) cling to.1
The milk of mothers living in this nuclear Wasteland must be “tainted” with a slew of chemical and radioactive agents. So when Max emerges from the dust of a battle and uses the Rig’s supply of Mother’s Milk to wash blood from his face, we aren’t witnessing his “baptism” in the matriarchy. This moment isn’t about Max finding solidarity with the wives or washing away the stain of the masculine wars that “killed the world.” Instead, this is moment in which we see him enter into a toxic intimacy with a number of human and nonhuman strangers—the “herd” of milked mothers and all those lively swarms swimming inside them. As we watch Max and the wives drink the Mother’s Milk, milk is wrested free from the symbolic stranglehold that demands it symbolize purity and a future that belongs only to the children of a “good,” “clean,” hetero-nuclear home. These adults take it in as both a poison and a pleasure—a queer and intoxicating touching. It is an invitation to find new pleasures and new affections that are unconcerned with the question of where each body—the human and the nonhuman, the clean and the dirty—stops and starts.
We should not be surprised, then, that the final outpouring of water comes from the “Milked Mothers” themselves. As they celebrate their liberation, we also see how these women have liberated Max, Furiosa, the Vuvalini, and the “wives” from the illusions of safety. They’ve tossed off the ragdolls, unplugged their breasts from the machines, and, with the exuberance of intoxication, have let the extravagant cataracts flow.
Rather than sweeping things clean for a brand new world, Mad Max: Fury Road ends in a wet and beautiful mess. The music swells as Max walks wound-to-wound into the teeming throng of the Wretched. Furiosa, the surviving members of the Vuvalini, the “wives,” and a crowd of the Wretched stand together on the elevator that once belonged only to Immortan Joe. The film goes dark as they rise into the Citadel, where the Milked Mothers already await them. Not tidied up, but flooded. Not safe, but intimately bound. Here, the audience just might find a way to build a future. To laugh, leak, and live ethically—even pleasurably—with all those broken strangers still left behind.
Featured image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Addie Hopes is a Literary Studies Ph.D. student in the English Department at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her current research focuses narratives of toxicity, extinction, and multispecies communities in contemporary American fiction. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Orange Review and Word Riot. Contact.
Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 61-63. ↩