Should ‘Poor Things’ be recognised as a film about disability?

There has been much discussion about the film’s feminist potential (or betrayal). What’s not being talked about in mainstream reviews is disability. This seems strange when two of the film’s main characters are disabled.

Set in a fantasy version of Victorian London, unorthodox Dr Godwin Baxter (William Dafoe) finds the just-dead body of a heavily pregnant woman in the Thames River. In keeping with his menagerie of hybrid animals, Godwin removes the unborn baby’s brain and puts it into the skull of its mother, who becomes Bella Baxter (Emma Stone).

Stone has been praised for her ability to embody a small child who rapidly matures into a hypersexual person – one who has not had time to absorb the restrictive rules of gender or patriarchy.

But we also see a woman using her behaviour to express herself because she has complex communication barriers. We see a woman who is highly sensitive and responsive to the sensory world around her. A woman moving through and seeing the world differently – just like the fish-eye lens used in many scenes.

Even if Bella is not coded as disabled through her movements, speech and behaviour, her onscreen creator and guardian is. Godwin Baxter has facial differences and other impairments which require assistive technology.

So ignoring disability as a theme of the film seems determined and overt. The absurd humour for which the film is being lauded is often at Bella’s “primitive”, “monstrous” or “damaged” actions: words which aren’t usually used to describe children, but have been used to describe disabled people throughout history.

In reviews, Bella’s walk and speech are compared to characters like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, rather than a disabled woman. So why the resistance?

Disability studies scholar Rosemarie Gardland-Thomson writes “the history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display”.

In the 19th century, when Poor Things is set, shows featuring disabled people, indigenous people and others with bodily differences were extremely popular.

Doctors used these shows to find specimens – like Joseph Merrick (also known as the Elephant Man and later depicted on screen) who was used for entertainment before he was exhibited in lecture halls. In the mid-1800s, as medicine became a profession, observing the disabled body shifted from a public spectacle to a private medical gaze that labelled disability as “sick” and pathologised it.

Poor Things doesn’t just circle around these discourses of disability. Bella’s body is a medical experiment, kept locked away for the private viewing of male doctors who take notes about her every move in small pads. While there is something glorious, intimate and familiar about Bella’s discovery of her own sexual pleasure, she immediately recognises it as worth recording in the third person:

I’ve discovered something that I must share […] Bella discover happy when she want!

The film’s narrative arc ends with Bella herself training to be a doctor but one whose more visible disabilities have disappeared.

Even the film’s title is an expression often used to describe disabled people. The charity model of disability sees disabled people as needing pity and support from others. Financial poverty is briefly shown at a far-off port in the film and Bella initially becomes a sex worker in Paris for money – but her more pressing concern is sexual pleasure.

Disabled women’s sexuality is usually seen as something that needs to be controlled. It is frequently assumed disabled women are either hypersexual or de-gendered and sexually innocent.

In the real world disabled people experience much higher rates of abuse, including sexual assault, than others. Last year’s Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability found women with disability are nearly twice as likely as women without disability to have been assaulted. Almost a third of women with disability have experienced sexual assault by the age of 15. Bella’s hypersexual curiosity appears to give her some layer of protection – but that portrayal denies the lived experience of many.

Poor Things is a stunning film. But ignoring disability in the production ignores the ways in which the representation of disabled bodies play into deep and historical stereotypes about disabled people.