(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 3/3, Furiosa and Conclusion

imperator furiosa cyborgThis is the final section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Parts 1 and 2 should be read first.

Furiosa and Conclusion
I’ll now devote the final section of this paper to considering some of the ways in which MMFR uses the (cyborg) woman Furiosa to present an alternate, more optimistic image of simulation and human emotion. Though Miller’s film has numerous things in common with EM and UtS (including important thematic concerns), it also presents simulation in a less monstrous light, while pointing to genuine emotion as a means of rediscovering one’s humanity. Consequently, even though she is physically a cyborg (her body combines human flesh with metal machinery), Furiosa doesn’t work to erase the boundaries between human and inhuman as Ava and The Female do. Despite the differences between them, EM and UtS are both infused by Baudrillard’s pessimism in their own way. On the other hand, MMFR acknowledges such pessimism but also seems to combine a touch of the defiant hopefulness of Haraway with something that resembles more classic humanism instead (Haraway 57).

Where Ava is presented as an AI simulating woman and where The Female is presented as an alien simulating woman, Furiosa is presented as a human—albeit in a harsh, inhumane world. And yet, even though she is a “real,” flesh-and-bone woman in a way Ava and The Female are not, Furiosa is also far less overtly feminine. With her lean frame, shaved head, practical clothing, and dirt-streaked skin, Furiosa stands in direct contrast to the softer, more overtly sexualized women in EM and UtS. Where Ava and The Female both embody conventional, stereotypical femininity to the fullest as part of their simulation, Furiosa is not especially feminine in any visual sense, which is why some have called her a “degendered hero” (Wark). Put another way, though there is a hyperreality to MMFR’s overall aesthetic, it does not extend to Furiosa’s body in a way makes her a hyperreal simulation of woman like her counterparts in EM and UtS.

In addition to simultaneously being more (literally) human and less (visibly, traditionally) feminine than Ava and The Female, Furiosa is also more cyborgian in a strict, material sense. Furiosa’s missing left forearm and hand are replaced by a complex metal prosthetic that she wears via a harness that attaches at her shoulder and waist. Though artificial, the prosthetic is part of her and is crucial to her ability to do her job driving Immortan Joe’s War Rig. Moreover, Furiosa’s deep connection with the War Rig—she knows the machine intimately and designed its kill switches—could be read as further evidence of her cyborgian nature. As Immortan Joe’s Imperator, she interfaces and must be in-sync with the large machine—itself a combination of various vehicles—which can also be thought of as a sort of prosthetic. Importantly however, Furiosa’s cyborg nature doesn’t set her apart from those around her in any especially significant way. As McKenzie Wark notes, in MMFR “The good and the bad guys are crippled […] All are cyborg characters, mixtures of flesh and tech, dependent on systems and apparatus” (Wark). While I do not mean to suggest that the use of cyborgian recombination and of cyborg imagery in MMFR is insignificant, it is not a mark of difference either. While Furiosa is literally cyborgian in a way that Ava and The Female are not, she is also a cyborg in a world where the fusion of metal and flesh is commonplace; therefore, in reading her against the rest of MMFR, it is necessary to consider other aspects of her being. Reading Furiosa’s physical body is worthwhile, but her body alone does not define her to the same extent that Ava’s and The Female’s do.

That said, the fact that Furiosa sheds her prosthetic arm before MMFR’s end does provide important insight into Miller’s larger purposes for her character. Ava is fully prostheses to an extent that she would not exist at all without it. Similarly, while there is more to The Female than her prosthetic skin, she is destroyed as soon as the non-prosthetic portion of her form is revealed. Furiosa’s arm doesn’t lack “sophistication,” but it isn’t all-encompassing in the way Ava’s and The Female’s are (Prophylaxis 35). Moreover, it is not necessary for her survival either; in fact, it is by shedding it that she secures her victory over the ruthless, sexist dictator Immortan Joe. Reading Ava and The Female in conjunction with Baudrillard reveals that they are particularly threatening and monstrous, in part because their entire outward appearance can be figured as prosthetic. Furiosa however, is a much more straightforward hero—she never kills anyone the audience might have sympathy for—and does not rely on her prosthetic for existence or survival. While her metal arm makes her job easier, she can remove it; more importantly, she can also live without it. When Furiosa kills Immortan Joe in a chase sequence near the end of MMFR, her metal hand latches on to the mechanical mask that helps him breathe. Furiosa’s prosthetic then gets caught in the wheels of a vehicle and is torn from her body, taking Immortan Joe’s entire face along with it. This moment represents the dramatic climax of MMFR, and essentially secures victory for Furiosa and the film’s other protagonists. Moreover, from this moment on, Furiosa is not shown with a prosthetic again. When she and “wives” she helps rescue retake The Citadel in the film’s final scene, Furiosa’s amputated arm is in full view. Thus, MMFR’s most ecstatic, most hopeful moment calls attention to its protagonist’s ability to move past her own prosthetic, thereby rejecting any simulation it might be seen to represent. Though it does help her kill the film’s primary villain, it is not an integral part of her. Rather than become full cyborg or simulation, Furiosa chooses another path altogether. In contrast to Ava and The Female, Furiosa is human first, cyborg second, and hardly simulation at all.

Furiosa’s ability to relinquish her prosthetic and to survive without it makes Immortan Joe’s death possible, but so too does her ability to connect with other women while embracing her own past. Discussing what he sees as a dangerous situation in which society is becoming increasingly fragmented and isolated, Baudrillard writes, “we are already living in a bubble ourselves—already, like those characters in Bosch paintings, enclosed in a crystal sphere: a transparent envelope in which we have taken refuge and where we remain, bereft of everything, yet over-protected, doomed to artificial immunity, continual transfusions and, at the slightest contact with the outside, instant death” (Prophylaxis 35). While such a dark description of “contact” holds in EM—in which Ava kills Nathan as soon as she is free of her room—and in UtS—in which nearly every man The Female brings home is destroyed—it is only partially true in MMFR. At the beginning of Miller’s film, Furiosa can be read as largely cut-off from herself and others. She grows up as Immortan Joe’s captive and lives as his tool, a situation which likely caused her to deny much of her identity, including her gender. As Immortan Joe’s Imperator, Furiosa is constantly surrounded by men and boys and feasibly never interacts with women until she helps the wives escape. Furthermore, it is only after she unites with the wives, bonds with Max, and reconnects with the all-female Vuvalini that Furiosa kills Immortan and takes the Citadel (surrounded by other women). As long as Furiosa is isolated from other women and lacks personal connections, Immortan Joe can use her to do his bidding. However, once that changes, contact with her—for him, anyway—means “instant death” (Prophylaxis 35).

In MMFR, interpersonal connection and contact are not only possible for the film’s deadly female protagonist, they are empowering as well. Ava doesn’t form any genuine (i.e. non-deceptive) bonds with anyone else, and it remains somewhat unclear if she will be able to (or if she even wants to) outside of Nathan’s compound. On the other hand, The Female briefly attempts to connect with others, but fails almost entirely and loses her life. Furiosa however, bonds with numerous characters over the course of the film, thereby expanding the scope of her existence and her emotions well beyond that which is more simply reproduced. As I’ve already shown, the idea that a finite being can be manufactured and reproduced helps illuminate the simulative nature of Ava and The Female (Doane 112). However, unlike Ava—whose emotional capacity remains somewhat ambiguous—and The Female—who tries but fails to expand herself through both emotional (and physical experiences) Furiosa possesses an emotional capacity and depths of memory that cannot be reduced to mere material. And, through her emotions and memory, Miller establishes her as a being who transcends her physical form in a way the women in EM and UtS do not.

Unlike Ava and The Female, Furiosa has a past—and acknowledging that past helps her achieve a future. Rather than her prosthetic arm or her ability to throw reality into chaos through simulation, what sets Furiosa apart (other than the fact that she is the only female driver Immortan Joe seems to have) are her moments of grief, her intense feeling, and the way she sacrifices herself for others. Notably, these aspects of her being are expressed through her physical form, as Bilge Ebiri demonstrates in his piece, “‘This is Our Furiosa.’ Mad Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” In the piece, Ebiri focuses on “one of the film’s rare quiet scenes,” a moment in which Furiosa remembers the day she and her mother were initially taken from the Vulvalini (a tribe of all women). The scene comes at a point in the film before which Furiosa (and viewers of the film) have not yet “had a chance to slow down and reflect”; but as Ebiri notes, that the moment is “so adrift amid the madness” emphasizes it, providing “added depth” (Ebiri). MMFR moves at a much, much faster pace than EM and UtS making it all the more significant that Miller devotes the film’s few slower moments to memory, emotion, and interpersonal connection. As Furiosa opens up and recounts both her kidnapping and her mother’s death,

“[…] the Vuvalini reflexively perform a quiet, brief mourning gesture – holding a hand up, grabbing at the air, and bringing it to their chest. After seeing them, Furiosa herself slowly does the gesture as well […] As she grabs at the air, her haunted eyes watch her own hand, as if she were seeing it for the first time. Her face is that of someone remembering something that was once probably very much part of her—not just her mother, but this whole Vuvalini ritual, and the sense of belonging it implies. She’s re-learning, in other words, the person she used to be.” (Ebiri)

In this moment, Furiosa’s body is used to express grief and memory, and the “gesture” she performs among the Vuvalini serves as physical evidence of her inner, non-material experience. Furiosa’s body also expresses extreme feeling when she realizes that The Green Place she imagined no longer exists. In this moment, Furiosa walks off into the dessert alone, shedding her prosthetic arm as she goes. She then drops to her knees, and screams into the air with all her might. This display of genuine pain and emotion is unlike anything in EM or UtS, both of which occupy spaces of simulation in a way MMFR does not. Unlike MMFR’s other central protagonist, Max—who does not open up to others and remains fully locked within himself—Furiosa shares her past traumas and displays her emotions in front of others. Thus, also unlike Max—who returns to The Wasteland alone—she ends the film connected to and surrounded by others, ready to make a new start at The Citadel.

In EM, Ava is an AI who can appear human. Similarly, in UtS, The Female “is an alien who passes for human” (On the matter of blackness). But in MMFR, Furiosa is a shell of a person who then reclaims her humanity.  Moreover, while Ava and The Female both simulate humanity and spend much of their time reading emotion, only Furiosa actually feels emotion. In fact, it is largely her emotional capacity—which is inextricably linked with the depth of her memory—that distinguishes her from those around her. In a piece on MMFR, Wark highlights the ways in which Miller’s film rejects a Baudrillardian depiction of simulation. For, in Baudrillard “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra” (Precession 1). But as Wark writes, in MMFR, “The actual precedes the virtual, even when it seems it is the other way around […] Furiosa is driven by the virtual image of the green land. But it turns out there really was an actual one. In seeking after her childhood memory of it, she drove straight past the real one, which has turned into a poisoned swamp” (Wark, emphasis in original). In Miller’s conception of a post-apocalyptic future, simulation offers nothing but empty promises. And so, where Ava and The Female are simulations who are both subjected to violence and repeatedly enact violence on others, Furiosa eventually embraces emotion and humanity, even when it’s painful to do so. In a sense, the post-apocalyptic Wasteland of MMFR is a post-technological world—a place in which a manufactured simulation as advanced as Ava or an alien like The Female would both be unthinkable, but that doesn’t mean that Furiosa couldn’t have chosen to remain in the “virtual” realm of simulation—by remaining isolated from others, by continuing to repress her feelings and memory, and by remaining a useful tool for Immortan Joe.

The general topics I address above—as well the films at the center of my analysis—all warrant more consideration than a paper of this size can contain. Though my work here is in many ways incomplete, it is my hope that it still adds to critical understanding of EM, UtS, and MMFR; these intelligently crafted films all deserve further scholarship, in part, because all three dare to grapple with the dangerous, potentially overwhelming question of what it means to be human in an age of simulation, “ephemeral” identity, and alienation (Sobchack 229, 299). At the same time, these films offer different ways of envisioning both the cyborg and simulation in contemporary sci-fi cinema. Moreover, with the above, I don’t mean to claim that Ava, The Female, or Furiosa shouldn’t be thought of as cyborgs; rather, my purpose has been to show just some of what can be gained both by looking at the material of their bodies and by reading them as simulation.

Throughout “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard frequently calls attention to the threat of the simulation he describes. EM, UtS, and MMFR each express anxiety about living in a world of simulation. That said, where Garland and Glazer gesture toward a future (and a present) in which simulation overtakes the existence of the (cyborg) women at their centers, Miller (who sets his film in a future that looks more like an imagined past) offers a way out of simulation by allowing Furiosa to reconnect and remember how to feel. While none of the three films I discuss here denies the danger of simulation, each at times, takes the side of simulation as well. In their own way, Ava, The Female, and Furiosa are all victims of systems well beyond their control. Their respective forms and simulative modes of existence are all, in a sense, imposed on them; but what this means for those of us still pretending to occupy “the real” must wait for another day.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 2.

[A previous piece on Mad Max: Fury Road can be found here.]

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