Ableism and Sexism in Poor Things (part 3)

Grace Lapointe
4 min readMar 28, 2024


Content note: spoilers for the film Poor Things; descriptions of sex abuse, sexism, anti-sex worker language, and ableism in sci-fi

Thank you all for reading my first and second Medium blog post on sexism and ableism in Yorgos Lanthimos’ surreal 2023 film Poor Things. Bella Baxter’s existence is obviously impossible but nevertheless functions as a disability in the sci-fi setting of the film.

The film fetishizes the fact that Bella Baxter doesn’t understand sex, consent, or social mores. In one scene, she tells Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) that a strange man told her she must have extremely soft skin. Bella agreed and told the man to touch her inner thigh because it’s the softest. Duncan is angry because he’s sexually possessive of Bella. She doesn’t understand the man was making sexual advances, the inner thigh is an intimate body part not touched casually, and an erogenous zone. We’re supposed to think that Duncan is horrible and controlling here, but that Bella is sexually uninhibited. The narrative conflates Bella’s lack of understanding with her uninhibited attitude.

Max McCandles is somehow depicted as a good guy, in contrast to Duncan. He says things about Bella like, “I just hope she’s all right” and tells her, “I was afraid you wouldn’t understand” (about his sexual infatuation with her). He calls her the r-word, knows she has an infant’s brain, monitors her coordination, development, and food and water intake, and asks to marry her!

Max says feminist platitudes, like it’s her body, her choice re: her sex work. Bella started sex work after she gave all of Duncan’s money away without understanding the consequences. She had nowhere to live and didn’t understand the work Mme. Swiney expected her to do at the brothel when Swiney first hired her. Even an adult character would likely find these coercive, desperate circumstances in which to begin sex work, not a free choice that she became bored with.

I find it alarming that some viewers are trying to guess Bella’s exponential “developmental age” at certain parts of the film, hashing out her age of sexual maturity, instead of saying she’s a baby. It’s still relying on the “mental/developmental age” fallacy I mentioned earlier. She’s an infant or toddler because that’s physically how long her brain has existed.

If Bella is sexually empowered, then at what point exactly do her sexual experiences change from exploitation and assault to consensual sex? It’s great that she gradually becomes more confident by the end, but the consent issues and blurring lines are huge problems for the narrative. If she’s a baby (because she is!), then why are we watching this character in any sexual context?

I think the movie went out of its way to be ableist. Willem Defoe’s prosthetics look like John Hurt’s in The Elephant Man from 1980. Godwin also says Bella has poor coordination from a brain injury. Here, he could be describing the same symptoms as cerebral palsy, my disability I was born with. Stone’s performance is a textbook, exaggerated example of acting disabled to pander for (and win!) an Oscar.

According to everything I’ve read about Poor Things, Felicity (Margaret Qualley) is not from the book, but a new character created for Lanthimos’ movie. I wasn’t sure about this when I first wrote about Poor Things because I haven’t read the book. Felicity exists solely for audiences to laugh at because she develops more slowly than Bella. She’s seen covered in blood or playing with a bell while calling Bella “bell-wh*re.” Felicity gets hit in the face with a ball and cries. “Gross motor skills will develop slowly,” Godwin explains to Max. Again, disability is played for laughs, as David Davis said on Substack. Davis also points out the implicit contrast between Bella and Felicity, which makes the film’s humor even crueler and more ableist.

Arguably, Bella doesn’t fit every aspect of the “mental age” myth (which I described in my first essay) because she grows exponentially fast. In contrast, Felicity does stay in a baby-like state, never growing or learning past a certain point. Felicity embodies the mental age myth of intellectual and developmental disability even more closely than Bella does and never defies it, unlike Bella. The film pokes fun at Felicity getting hurt or moving and speaking differently. It’s as if the film says she deserves to be mocked or hurt because she’s considered less intelligent than Bella. When I try to analyze this film from opposite perspectives, I still find it ableist no matter what.

I find this movie ableist overall, but not every moment of it is ableist. Poor Things depicts it as wrong that Godwin’s colleagues call him a “monster” because of his scars and facial difference. Bella places her hand on his face and says empathetically, “God not ugly. God lovely.The film is still unambiguously ableist, though. Ableist makeup, writing, and performances (such as Godwin’s prosthetics and Bella and Felicity’s speech and movements) undermine this brief criticism of ableism.

A lot of autistic women love and relate to Bella Baxter and how she interacts with the world. Taylor Heaton’s video essay explains why she identifies with Bella as an autistic woman. On Reddit, you’ll find lots of posts by autistic people who love Poor Things, as well as many autistic people who hate the film. Fellow disabled people’s reasons for loving and relating to it are just as personal and important as my reasons for hating it. Disabled people are a diverse group, and we don’t (and shouldn’t) agree on everything — especially art.