The Ableism of Poor Things and The Lobster

Grace Lapointe
7 min readMar 7, 2024

Content notice: spoilers for Poor Things and The Lobster; discussion of ableism, sexual abuse, sexism, suicide, and self-harm

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a white woman with black hair and blue eyes, wears a Victorian gown and reads Love and Friendship.
(Searchlight Pictures, 2023)

Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2023 film, Poor Things, is adapted from Alasdair Gray’s 1992 novel of the same name. I haven’t read Gray’s novel, but I watched the film, which has been nominated for multiple Oscars, on Hulu. It’s marketed as sci-fi, horror, and comedy, and tries for feminist satire, but uses ableist tropes to do so. Like Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s classic novel from 1818, Poor Things is fiction about the subjective experience and growing awareness of a person who is dismissed as a “monster.” Despite the apparent influence of Frankenstein, I consider the premise of Poor Things inherently ableist. Of course, opinions are always subjective and varied, but overall, I do not consider Frankenstein ableist.

Poor Things is ableist because of its use of prosthetics to simulate facial differences and its explicit comparison of Bella Baxter, who has a baby’s brain and an adult’s body, to people with intellectual disabilities. Many other disabled people, including Erica Mones and Andrew Gurza, also criticized its ableism. Disabled author Carly Findlay criticized the film’s use of makeup and prosthetics to create the character Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe)’s facial differences. This is an old Hollywood trope that many people with facial and limb differences have criticized as harmful.

Godwin Baxter is the Dr. Frankenstein-esque figure in this story. His name plays on his status as Bella’s creator, although he later says she created herself. Bella even addresses him by the nickname “God.” In the beginning of the film, Bella (Emma Stone) hits dissonant notes on the piano with her hands and feet and cannot speak yet. Jerskin Fendrix’s equally dissonant soundtrack does an excellent job of creating a tense, unsettling mood through music.

I have cerebral palsy and write frequently that non-disabled people marginalize disabled people’s bodies and movements as creepy or uncanny. Yes, I’m acutely aware of this, and the film draws attention to it. But it also reinforces ableism by using Bella’s stiff movements to create a horror-movie atmosphere. Bella also doesn’t notice social cues, exaggerating a stereotype of autistic people.

Some viewers may think the disability comparisons are unwarranted, but the film explicitly makes them from the beginning. When Godwin’s colleague Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef) first sees Bella, he exclaims, “What a very pretty [r-word]!” Godwin explains that her “mental age” is lower than her “physical age.”

Godwin later privately explains to McCandles how he created Bella. He does not tell Bella herself until near the end of the film. Victoria Blessington was a pregnant woman who killed herself when her pregnancy was almost full-term. Godwin found her body and reasoned that a suicidal person would not want to be revived. His excuse for performing his experiments on her establishes the theme of men paternalistically taking away women’s agency. So, Godwin removed and discarded Victoria’s brain, replaced it with her baby’s brain, and reanimated her body with electricity.

Despite the obvious similarity here to Dr. Frankenstein’s methods, there are significant differences too, which make Poor Things much more ableist than Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s “monster,” called “the creature,” was created by combining several adult corpses’ organs. Unlike Bella, he has always had an adult’s brain.

Bella literally has a baby’s brain in an adult’s body. She literalizes and embodies a common, ableist myth about disabled people: that adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities are children or have child-like brains in adult bodies. Ivanova Smith, a self-advocate with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has used the slogan “we all grow up” for years to refute these ableist misconceptions.

The myth of “mental age” has been used to deny disabled people’s agency, including sexual agency and autonomy. Sexual predators, including child abusers, often make the reverse argument, which is equally false and dangerous: that an underage victim was “mature” for their age. In our world, it’s impossible for a person’s “mental age” to differ from their real, physical age. But in Bella Baxter’s sci-fi, steampunk world, this is her reality.

So, if there is a possible disability or feminist parallel here, it’s a misguided and faulty one. The fact that Bella has a baby’s brain and life experience makes the many scenes of her masturbating and having sex (including doing sex work) extremely uncomfortable. Bella later asks Godwin whether she is her own mother and daughter. This is true, in a way: Victoria’s daughter’s brain in Victoria’s body. The premise has overtones of incest and child sexual abuse, especially when Victoria’s husband, Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott) threatens to force Bella to have sex with him and to remove her clitoris surgically. Neither horrible outcome occurs.

Unsurprisingly, Alfie refuses to believe that this woman who looks identical to Victoria is not her. He would probably never believe that she has his daughter’s brain in his wife’s body. Alfie assumes that “Victoria” has another disability (amnesia, possibly from a brain injury). He thinks he owns Bella.

Dion Georgiou recently wrote that Poor Things’ “depiction of bodily hybridisation and modification also functions to at least partially challenge ableist and ageist ideas of what a body should look like, how it should move, whether or not it should be sexually active–even if this is somewhat undercut by the presence of conventionally attractive actors like Emma Stone, Ramy Youssef, and Jerrod Carmichael among the film’s cast.

“This, however, does bring us back to one potential point of criticism of the film. The deliberately stylised depictions of sex work, physical ailment, and mental illness are mobilised to make visible and destabilise harmful norms governing gender relations, beauty standards, and the public sphere. Yet at the same time, doing so risks treating those discarded and disciplined by these norms, such as sex workers and disabled people, as caricatures, canaries in the coalmine, tools for the liberation of all.”

I agree. I understand why some viewers may consider this film a nuanced or morbid satire of ableism. However, I think it fails and instead 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. It lacks intersectionality. This is noticeable whenever non-disabled actors imitate disability, especially when attempting a satirical comedy like this one.

If it’s attempting to satirize the myth of “mental age,” this is undermined by the fact that Bella literally has a baby’s brain and an adult’s body. The film also seems to depict her sex work as consensual and sexually liberated. She says she “got tired of” sex work, but she initially enjoyed it. Bella has existed for probably only a few months, so the fact that the film sexualizes her as an independent “adult” is problematic.

Bella’s disabilities also seem less noticeable by the end of the film. She now speaks in standard English, not her own unique syntax, which she used at the beginning of the film. Her movements are also less abrupt.

I disliked Poor Things. I hope it doesn’t win at the Academy Awards and that directors stop using these ableist tropes in their storytelling. I love most of Emma Stone’s performances, especially in Easy A and La La Land. I enjoy most of the cast in other work, such as Christopher Abbott in Catch-22.

similarities to The Lobster

Near the end of Poor Things, I initially assumed that Bella showed Alfie mercy by not killing him. However, instead, she inserted a goat’s brain into his body, which is played for laughs in the last scene. This reminded me of the premise of Lanthimos’ 2015 film The Lobster, which I also disliked and found ableist. I Tweeted about this on my Twitter (now deactivated) years ago.

In the dystopian sci-fi movie The Lobster, having a monogamous, romantic relationship is compulsory. If a partner dies or leaves, the remaining person has only 45 days to find a new partner at the Hotel — or they will be turned into an animal of their choice. The staff at the dystopian hotel asks the protagonist, David (Colin Farrell) whether he’s attracted to men or women. This is a binary choice, with no consideration of trans, non-binary, and intersex people. David may be bisexual, but he must pick only one answer.

People try to bond quickly and desperately over their “defining characteristics.” David says that his “defining characteristic” is his limp. He tries to bond with a woman identified only as “Short Sighted Woman” (Rachel Weisz). By the end of the film, David is about to blind himself deliberately to ensure they both share the same “defining characteristics” (and are thus a fated, romantic match).

As a disabled, aromantic woman, I understand how society boxes us in, forces us into identity categories and to make lifelong decisions quickly. I understand that The Lobster is trying to say something like this, and Poor Things is possibly trying to challenge ideas of normative bodyminds.

However, the way both films do this is reductive, with maximum shock value and no nuance. They cross a line into mocking and trying to satirize disabled people, instead of reflecting our diverse, complex experiences and perspectives. For example, there’s a huge difference between external factors (such as our families or societies) defining people by our disabilities and disabled individuals choosing to consider disability one important aspect of our own identities. The Lobster conflates these two perspectives for shock value, or at least shows no insight into the way we can internalize ableism. Both films steamroll over subjects about which disabled people have very personal, complicated feelings and ideas.