Mad Max: Fury Road drips with the human fluids of mother’s milk and soldier’s blood. The film’s steampunk aesthetic depicts a futuristic biotech dystopia that looks disturbingly like present-day agri-industrial cow-milking. Metallic shields suction the plump breasts of plump women. Elaborate nests of hosing link these women’s nipples to what sounds like a steam-operated vat filling with milk. These high-octane breast pumps match the turbo-charged chase scenes. The war rig and those mammary glands pump fast and furious. It’s a distressing vision of obstetric technology from which it’s hard to peel our eyes. The pump’s suction shields look just as hard to peel off of a breast. The visual intricacies of the technology are as eye-catching as their aims are horrific.
For a film that’s one long (and thrilling) car chase, there’s a remarkable attention to medical abuses that attend this war-rigged world. Blood, especially of the universal O variety, is a precious commodity, and Max is captured early on as a mobile blood bag. The cancer-ridden, war-wounded War Boy, Nux hooks himself to Max with a makeshift IV, dragging him mercilessly into battle. Nux’s contraption captures quite keenly that feeling of mechanized thing-ness one sometimes experiences in the throes of hospital needles and wires. Max is given no human consideration here; he is Nux’s “blood bag,” a self-regenerating (to a point) assistive medical technology. Here, a medical slave (an exhausted, beat-up Max) becomes the therapy for a fellow patient.
Max’s enslavement as blood-nurse to the War Boy resolves itself in his escape from the war chariot and subsequent hook-up with Furiosa. Not a hook-up of the romantic kind, but rather a medical hook-up of his vein to hers. Where he was involuntary nurse to Nux, with Furiosa he becomes a nurse proper. Indeed, this is the most erotic encounter of the movie. Max penetrates the all-but-unconscious female warrior with his knife (the usual phallic imagery is hard at play here) and she releases a revitalizing, orgasmic breath of renewed (if weakened) life.
Once he’s got her breathing again, Max administers his own blood intravenously, using the same IV hook that he retrieved from Nux during his stint as a blood bag. That giant fishhook looks a lot like a Civil War-era surgical tool, connecting the film with a tradition of medical steampunk that harnesses nineteenth-century scientific technology as twenty-first century aesthetic. The war chariots are sutured together with found parts, their drivers wear Victorian-esque automotive goggles, and the mechanized breast pump looks like a 19th-century steam-powered science experiment. The steampunk medic tests the boundary between biological human and bio-technological machine. Early on in the film Max the blood bag is trapped with a cage over his face that is reminiscent of nineteenth-century slave masks and torture devices; Immortan Joe has his own face hooked to a toothy-looking breathing machine. Indeed, the question of Max’s humanity emerges at the chiasmatic crux of his relation to medical technology (the knife, the needle) and his role as blood bag/nurse. In contrast with Immortan Joe’s dealthy biopolitical relation with bio-technology, Max presents a brief glimpse of a possible positive alternative.
In ministering to Furiosa, Max transforms from war-slave to male nurse. His masculinity matters here because he participates in, and to an extent disrupts, the heteronormative conventions of a Hollywood romance plot. Max and Furiosa never consummate what appears to be a nascent love interest. But they do exchange a fluid—blood—that intimately binds them together. This same exchange of blood appears to somehow bind Nux and Max together in a greater cause by the end of film. If the film is, as Furiosa suggests early on, about the search for redemption, then perhaps it should be located in the creative potential imagined in these homo- and hetero-nursing relations. Only when Max mixes his blood with Furiosa’s is he finally able to name himself as a person: “My name is Max. Max.” No longer a medical object or a “fool,” as Furiosa delightfully dubbed him. Max assumes his singular identity in the social context of medical care. Only by nursing another does he locate himself; risking and sharing his blood revitalizes his soul. The film thus projects a cure culture that centers social bonding on medical care. Yet this medically generated sociality (in a seemingly female-centered flick) falls a bit flat in the face of Max’s lone-wolf style. His exit into the crowd at the film’s conclusion reasserts the American myth of masculine self-reliance at exactly the wrong moment. Furiosa is poised to take control of the Citadel and Max cannot play partner, assistant, nurse, or citizen to her new leadership.
In this post-apocalyptic battle zone, we can locate a cure culture that situates nursing, healing, and medical technology at the heart of the question of what it means to be human. Max expresses his humanity and Furiosa discovers her redemption, at least for a moment, at this conjuncture. The need for nursing is of course predicated on a patient’s vulnerability, biological and psychological, but the erotic undertones of Max’s phallic puncture and blood-transfusion load the scene with the traditionally patriarchal sexual politics of a powerful male and passive female that threaten to undermine Furiosa’s terrific prowess as a fighter. It’s not clear what new world—hellish or bearable—will emerge when she returns to the Citadel as a victorious rebel, but Max nurses her so that she can lead the next generation. It’s also not clear why Miller’s film locates revolution so resolutely in a change of leadership rather than a grassroots movement.
Nonetheless, even if the film remains too attached to Max as a saving hero, rather than imagining a viable model of a revitalized body politic, George Miller reinvents the cultural possibilities of nursing in an age of catastrophe. This is no Children of Men (2006) where births and babies are the future, however precarious, for a rapidly declining population. Only the bad guys in this film fetishize babies and mother’s milk. Maternal nursing is tainted here with the politics of corrupt governance. Instead of mothers nursing infants, we get images of tending to the sick and dying as the possibility for a renewed and humane culture. Max as nurse represents the value of preserving extant life. Immortan Joe, the villainous Citadel despot, represents the obsession with producing and controlling life at any expense. His quest to make babies renders women and men in this film disposable. The enslaved Citadel mothers nurse unseen babies and the corrupted hope for new life via horrible mechanized pumps. Max nurses the lives that have been broken in this world.
Mad Max thus participates in an overlooked and underdeveloped genre of nursing in the time of catastrophe. Max’s precursor in this genre is Walt Whitman, Civil War nurse and modern poet of the post-apocalyptic nurse-figure. His 1865 collection Drum Taps features “The Wound-Dresser,” a semi-autobiographical poem that recollects some of the poet’s experiences as a Civil War nurse.
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground
Blood bears the value of humanity here, commoditized as “priceless” by a sympathetic male nurse tending to “the crush’d head,” “the stump of the arm, the amputated hand” (it’s hard not to be reminded of Furiosa’s prosthesis here), and “the neck of the cavalry man with the bullet through and through.” For Whitman, the patient’s spilled blood is priceless. In Fury Road the nurse’s blood itself proves an invaluable tonic. Medical technologies, whether steampunk or no, connect humans biologically and psychically in both Whitman’s poem and Miller’s film, displacing sex and parenting as the fundamental units of human intimacy. We often revere Whitman for his celebration of sex, and we often enjoy a good Hollywood flick for its romantic and sexual escapades. We love the fantasy of sexual intimacy as redemption. Fury Road presents a different sort of redemption, one that is predicated on a cure culture of medical intimacy. Whitman refused to relegate redemptive sex to a pre-apocalyptic or prelapsarian world. The Civil War was a national apocalypse of sorts, and Whitman’s wound-dresser, aged and post-bellum, concludes the poem with a dream “sweet and sad,” erotic and tragic:
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad, (Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested, Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
Amidst the human wreckage of the Civil War, amidst “bandages, water and sponge,” amidst the “refuse pail[s] /Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again,” the wound-dresser remembers the loving embrace and kisses of ailing soldiers. Spilled blood streams through the poem (as it indeed streams from body to body in the makeshift medical tubing of Mad Max’s blood bag technology), but it’s the kisses—the light exchange of erotic saliva—that the wound-dresser remembers most. In Fury Road Max emerges from this untapped genre of cure culture art as a wound dresser in an age of catastrophe, a nurse in an age of global crisis. Whitman concludes his poem with the erotic encounter of male nurse and male soldier, but brackets the sexual intimacy in parentheses. Mad Max goes one step further, refusing even a kiss between Furiosa and Max. The chance for redemption here isn’t in love or sex or children. It’s in a medical cure culture rooted in sociality, care, and intimacy, and only secondarily in materiality, machinery, and technology.
By Rachel A. Blumenthal & Eric Hengstebeck
“The Steampunk Doctor: Practicing Medicine in a Mechanical Age” by Cecil Cristofari and Matthieu J. Guitton
“The Subtle Triumph of Furiosa’s Prosthetic Arm” by Kyle Hill