More Thoughts on Ableism in Poor Things and The Lobster

Grace Lapointe
5 min readMar 11, 2024
Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a pale, white woman with black hair and blue eyes, wearing a dress with puffy sleeves in Poor Things.
(Searchlight Pictures, 2023)

Content notice: spoilers for Poor Things; discussion of ableism, child abuse, sexism, and abuse of a corpse

This is a follow-up to my recent essay on ableism in Poor Things and The Lobster. This post may not make sense without reading my earlier post first. I couldn’t fit all my thoughts into one essay, as usual!

Poor Things was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. It just won four: production design, costume design, hair & makeup, and best actress (Emma Stone as Bella Baxter). I hoped Lily Gladstone would win instead.

Even if Poor Things is attempting satire, it is ableist anyway, because of actors mimicking disabilities and the director and writers using disability for comedic effect or shock value. I believe all works of art are subject to many, possibly contradictory, interpretations, beyond writers’ intentions. Poor Things may not satirize anything — even sexism in general. If it tries to satirize ableism, as I wrote earlier, I think it fails, and employs ableist premises and tropes to do so.

Tony McNamara adapted Poor Things. He also wrote Cruella (also starring Emma Stone). I disliked that movie too and mentioned its constant ableism here on my other blog in 2021.

Satire has a clear point and target — usually powerful people — or else it’s not effective satire. In contrast, the style of Lanthimos’ arthouse films is bizarre, absurdist, violent, and provocative. They’re nightmarish — and like nightmares, they’re all aesthetic, with no coherence or logic. It’s why parts of The Lobster satirize forced alloromanticism and heteronormativity, but the movie says nothing coherent about disability, despite using it as an extended, violent plot device. Another Lanthimos movie I’ve seen, The Favourite, does have a clear, satirical target: political manipulations and aspirations for power.

Oli Welsh recently wrote: “Lanthimos tends to avoid overt political statements and study his characters from a distance, as if they were under a microscope.” He cites the scene in which Bella first observes poverty, but the audience sees its effects on people only from a great distance.

The same article also explains why the film omitted Alasdair Gray’s socialist, Scottish nationalist political views when adapting his novel. “Lanthimos told Polygon that a retreat from the book’s political content was deliberate and aimed at making the movie more relatable and more focused on Bella’s journey as a woman. ‘I didn’t find that it could be as much part of the film we were making, which is following her story, that story about a woman — which is a much more universal thing,’ he said.”

Narrowing the scope of the movie to the protagonist makes sense. This individual focus doesn’t make it apolitical, however, especially when Bella is compared to a disabled person at the beginning. All identities are inherently political, especially in societies and stories rife with inequality. Bella’s growth is at the expense of other people, even children.

Both of these things cannot be true: the brothel cannot be simultaneously liberating and exploitative. This contradiction is especially obvious when a man pays Bella to demonstrate sex acts in front of his underage sons, a scene shortened for the UK release. I admit, I looked away during this scene, and I think children can never be in the same shot as any nude or sexual scenes. The inclusion of the scene itself is completely unnecessary, though.

My first post examined why the character of Bella fails as a metaphor for both disabled and non-disabled women. Some men infantilize women, especially disabled women, but Bella’s literal baby’s brain negates or confuses this potential point. She’s treated as a sexually uninhibited woman, even before she knows what sex is. I’m familiar with the sexist “born sexy yesterday” trope, but Bella doesn’t quite fit this trope, either. All of those women characters in sci-fi are presumably created with adult brains, unlike Bella. Some examples, like Leeloo in The Fifth Element, have god-like intelligence and powers.

Godwin’s character arc is another example of Poor Things’ attempts at feminism. Godwin says that Victoria wouldn’t want to be revived, but he still imposes his will on her dead body, albeit with another brain, by creating Bella. Desecration of a corpse is taboo or a crime in every culture. Disrespecting dead bodies (doing anything to them that the dead people didn’t consent to while alive) is considered unethical in real life and in fiction, like Poor Things.

Godwin was abused as a child when his father experimented on him. Patriarchy harms men, and some victims continue the cycle of abuse as adults, the film implies. Godwin claims to love Bella like a father and says her creation story “is a happy tale.” Yet he’s eager to let McCandles marry Bella, although they both know she has a baby’s brain. There are obvious elements of feminist satire here, but they fall apart throughout the film.

Some people might think I’m being unfair to the film. On the contrary, I’m trying to give it a huge benefit of the doubt by acknowledging the possible interpretation of satirizing ableism. I wrote that it’s possible “Poor Things is trying to challenge ideas of normative bodyminds,” but I think that’s unlikely or accidental. Even if it is trying to do that, mimicking disabled people’s appearances, movements, and speech can never achieve this.

Many people deflect criticism of fiction they enjoy by saying that depicting something is not necessarily endorsing it. I agree, but depicting violence is not automatically critiquing or satirizing it, either. There’s no need to assume either extreme must be true. They’re often just story elements — albeit with stereotypical implications that the artists haven’t thought through.

There’s nothing new or subversive about ableism. It’s the status quo. Imitating disabled people, using us as metaphors, or to set the tone in a horror movie, are all offensive and prevalent. As I wrote in my earlier post: this film “uses disability, sex work, and the threats of incest, child sexual abuse, and sexual mutilation as aesthetics, for shock value, or to symbolize the oppression of mostly non-disabled, white women in general.” If it’s not trying to satirize ableism, that makes it even more ableist, but I find it ableist either way.

Back when I was a fourth grader in the late 1990s, I read a “comedic, children’s” story in which a dog in a human body was explicitly compared to a disabled child. I don’t find every instance of body swapping ableist, but I think adults and children, or humans and animals, swapping bodies or brains in sci-fi is frequently ableist. The Lobster and Poor Things use these tropes.