by He Ziqi
Disability has been an increasingly popular discourse in the apocalyptic movie genre as screenwriters and directors introspect in response to the rising critiques regarding the prevalence of discriminative ideology of ableism, voiced by scholars studying disability in media. Ableism is a toxic culture as it marginalizes the disabled, undergirds an detrimental hierarchy that unfairly suppresses people with disability to make society an exclusive one. In an attempt to destigmatize disability, to weaken its association with “dependence, incapability, and the notion that something is wrong” (Coleman, 2020), many films utilize the trope of granting the disabled characters incredible power. Some cliché arcs seen in blockbusters include rebuilding them into invincible robots known as “Cyborgs” and rewarding them with superpower after going through pain and sufferings due to disability. Victor Stone in Justice League (2017) is an archetypical representation of a cyborg, who transformed from a gloomy paralyzed man after a serious car accident into a super-abled semi-human robot. One the same note, Doctor Strange (2016) portrays how superpower is rewarded to enable disability. In the discourse of disability, such tropes are widely accepted because the disabled not only have their ability restored but enhanced, to the extent that they can greatly benefit mankind. This always leads to the ethically ideal ending where the disabled are finally valued and respected, with the hope that audience can change their biased perception of disability. Yet there are underlying problems with such representations. Be it cyborgs or super-abled humans, the way disabled characters are empowered is clearly conforming to the conventionally perceived normalcy, that being able is tantamount to being normal. Furthermore, such setting unintentionally shapes the prejudicial perspective that pain and sufferings are for reasons while disability is never a choice. Confronting to the above, a new way of looking at disability is introduced by Robert McRuer —- the Crip Theory. “Crip” first appeared “in disability movements”, is an “adaption of the derogatory word ‘cripple’” (Oxford Reference, n.d.). It is deliberately created as a board and vague term with the intention to “include all individuals” who do not “ascribe to norms of physical and mental able-bodiedness” (Fletcher and Primack, 2017). In contrast to the negative connotation expressed by “cripple”, “crip” conveys a certain level of pride. The theory is an effort to encourage a more open and inclusive society where “cripples” are no longer deemed abnormal or worthless under a new established normativity. George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action movie Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is a brave and successful attempt to visualize the Crip Theory. Firstly, it conveys the ideology of anti-cyborgism through the depiction of the disabled protagonist Furiosa to prove that an abled body is never a prerequisite for smooth integration and value creation. Secondly, the movie also sets an overarching inclusive environment where the disability is finally not attention gathering. Therefore, I argue that the Crip Theory, instead of cyborgism or rewarding superpower, is a more relevant concept in the effort to thoroughly destigmatize disability in the long run, in a sense that it targets at the root cause of the discrimination by breaking people’s comfort zone in the understanding of normalcy in order to keep normalcy fluid and society inclusive. This article will analyze the Crip Theory along with Fury Road for better visualization.
The problematic cyborgism and the harmful reward
From what we establish above cyborgism is a surrender to the existing narrowly defined normalcy. Cyborgism in movies, taken to be the favoritism towards the process of integrating advanced technology with disabled humans in order to restore body functions and improve abilities, inevitably espouses the idea that abilities equate normalcy. Examining Victor Stone, he is rebuilt into a cyborg by his father and later gains many incredible abilities, including flying, enormous strength and an extremely intelligent brain. What the movie has done is to grant Victor different abilities, subconsciously ensuring him to be a member of the “abled” before the society can fully accept his existence. Here, the scope of empowering the disabled is limited to simply fulfilling what they lack from the surface – a direct “feeding” of abilities. Such empowerment of disability still operates within the spectrum of socially agreed normalcy which is later explained to be a meaningless and futile product of majoritarianism. Similarly for Doctor Strange, previously a renowned neurosurgeon, his life is depicted to be miserable after his injuries on both hands, rendering him disabled and no longer able to conduct operations. However, he finds his value again by subduing the evil and restoring world peace after learning the magic to manipulate time and dimensions from Karma-Taj. The ability to control time and space is presented as a reward to the injured surgeon as it is the sharp turning point in his life. Yet this encodes the erroneous message that the pains and sufferings he has gone through are worthy because they are the prelude of a better and more capable self. It is problematic because disability is an involuntary outcome so do the physically and mentally hurtful experiences come along with it. “Worthy” or not a disabled person has to live with the impairment and hence claiming that pains and sufferings are for reasons mirrors views stemming from the moral high ground. Therefore, while I do agree with the sentiments these settings promote, that the disabled should be given more attention in the society, the issues brought along are still causes of concern. What makes Furiosa special is that she is a prominent fighter, but surprisingly found to be handicapped as a very short close-up scene is given to her missing arm. Like many disabled individuals, Furiosa wears a prosthetic. However, though Citadel is technologically advanced, Furiosa’s prosthetic is extremely rudimentary —- it only consists of very basic mechanical parts and does not even have distinct fingers. There is no special effort given to try to “correct” or compensate her disability completely. Moreover, with or without the prosthetic, Furiosa can crush the enemy as many of the movie scenes portray. Such setting delivers a strong message that disability itself is not something a person has to “fix” in order to integrate and excel, in contrast to what cyborgism fundamentally complies. Instead, the movie suggests one should embrace the imperfection and find the best for himself. If Furiosa is an abled individual, her skills will not be seen as stunning as compared to when she has corporal defects because audience incorporates different standards for the two situations. This is laudable because one’s performance is never assessed just by the results, but a combination of social and personal factors.
The flip side of disability representation
The Crip Theory on the other hand aims to alter the rooted thoughts in the society. Anti-cyborgism manifested by Furiosa in Fury Road can be seen as a pillar of the bigger picture envisaged by the Crip Theory. Anti-cyborgism does not mean having another powerful creation to combat cyborgs. Rather, it is a protest against the perfection of bodies and enhancement of abilities just to comply with the mindset of majority. It implies that one’s performance should not be judged by rigid and onefold standards, like what theorists understand about the Crip Theory that “it embraces the multiple ways that minds produce and understand knowledge, crip failure and crip time” (Abes & Wallace, 2020). Crip failure and time both refer to the inability to perform ableist standards. Failing in the ableist sense does not sanction one worthless or useless. To study how the portrayal of Furiosa rhymes with anti-cyborgism, we need to understand the context of the movie. Set in the post-apocalyptic world, the movie depicts the vicissitudes of the kingdom, Citadel, established in the center of the desert wasteland under the absolute control of Immortan Joe. Joe “puppets” the survivors given his sole possession over scarce resources, leaving his people in the abyss of misery. Furiosa, the protagonist other than the survivor Max, is the “trustworthy” imperator of Joe’s army. The story revolves around how Furiosa and Max collaborate to free the citizens from dire sufferings after numerous jeopardizing fights with Joe’s force in the pursuit of the recovery of social equality and humanity. What makes Furiosa special is that she is a prominent fighter, but surprisingly found to be handicapped as a very short close-up scene is given to her missing arm. Like many disabled individuals, Furiosa wears a prosthetic. However, though Citadel is technologically advanced, Furiosa’s prosthetic is extremely rudimentary —- it only consists of very basic mechanical parts and does not even have distinct fingers. There is no special effort given to try to “correct” or compensate her disability completely. Moreover, with or without the prosthetic, Furiosa can crush the enemy as many of the movie scenes portray. Such setting delivers a strong message that disability itself is not something a person has to “fix” in order to integrate and excel, in contrast to what cyborgism fundamentally complies. Instead, the movie suggests one should embrace the imperfection and find the best for himself. If Furiosa is an abled individual, her skills will not be seen as stunning as compared to when she has corporal defects because audience incorporates different standards for the two situations. This is laudable because one’s performance is never assessed just by the results, but a combination of social and personal factors.
Hidden in the background story of Fury Road
The permeation of the Crip Theory in the movie can also attributed to its striking background setting. It “uses the void of civilization to imagine forms of social relations that do not stigmatize conditions of disability” (Fletcher, 2017). It is unprecedented in the way the society is structured in Citadel where disabled members not only form most of the population but also the ruling class. Immortan Joe, his sons and his War Boys all suffer different levels of physical or mental disability. The movie deliberately gives Joe and other disabled citizens disgusting and terrifying looks using different grotesque portrayals to accentuate the idea that no one in Citadel is judged by their deformed appearance or bizarre behaviors. In other words, disability is not defined as “abnormal” in the first place because it is the new norm. The movie provokes the reflection on the nature of dichotomy of “disabled” and “abled” that either side could not stand alone because it is always in a relevant sense. The fact that ableism can be easily challenged by having more disabled members in a well -functioning society shows the clear separation of both types of people is futile because it is only a matter of the numbers. Additionally, there is no exposition as for why so many characters are disabled while the story smoothly develops, implying that disability will never be the center of discussion even when it pervades as it is simply a harmless alternative state someone exists as. This resonates with the core function of the Crip Theory that it aims to “destabilize disability identity, presenting it as fluid” (Abes & Wallace, 2020). As what a supporter of McRuer suggests “we all have bodies and minds with shifting abilities” (Kafer, 2013), it is thus necessary to keep the definition of “crip” flexible, so everyone is unfettered as the idea of otherness is marginalized or even eliminated.
Seeing from the lens of the Crip Theory, underlying issues of the recurrent representations of disability in the consumer media can be exposed and questioned. Despite the short-term positive impacts created by the tropes in blockbusters as they increase the visibility of the disabled, we need the disruption of more forceful ideas targeted at the entrenched narrow understanding of ability and existence and the Crip Theory is one of them because it challenges our conventional thoughts about disability as simply people with defects. In lieu of fitting the disabled into the shelter of the abled bodies, we should construct a common space for everyone to erase the long existing stigma and weaken the tension arisen between the two groups. Technically, everyone will fall into the category of disability because of age if such a distinct classification of humans persists. Will you be happy by then? Therefore, I urge for more actions taken to blur the boarders between the abled and disabled as what the Crip Theory suggests, and we can simply start by introducing more “Furiosas” in the popular culture.
Abes, E.S., & Wallace, M.M. (2020). Using Crip Theory to Reimagine Student Development Theory as Disability Justice. Journal of College Student Development 61(5), 574-592
Fletcher, B., & Primack, A.J. (2017) Driving toward disability rhetorics: narrative, crip theory, and eco-ability in Mad Max: Fury Road, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 34:4, 344-357
Coleman, A. (2020). Apocalyptic disability: mass disability and fear in apocalyptic narratives.
Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Indiana University Press.
crip theory. (2010). Oxford Reference. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095648189