What 'Poor Things' Tells Us About Neurodivergence

Contrary to critics' focus on gender, the film's central premise functions as a metaphor for neurodivergence in general and autism in particular.

A woman stands atop the parapet at the edge of a bridge. Her dark hair is pinned in curls at the back of her head, loose strands near her face caught in the wind. Her deep blue dress has a Victorian high collar; its flared skirt would trail on the ground behind her if her feet were on the ground. The camera pans up to the endless blue of the sky, and then back down as the woman jumps into the endless blue below her. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, her death becomes a birth. Neither her own rebirth nor the birth of the unborn child in her womb, or maybe both those things. A new person is scavenged from the existing materials. Her name is Bella Baxter. 

The basic premise of Poor Things is this: Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) found the corpse of a woman who had taken her own life, before rigor mortis had set in—dead but fresh, with a still-living fetus inside her. “It was obvious,” he tells his student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). “Take the infant’s brain out and put it in the full-grown woman, reanimate her, and watch.” The film is a riff on Frankenstein that shucks off two centuries of cultural baggage to recapture how messed up Frankenstein must have seemed when Mary Shelley first wrote it, long before Dr. Frankenstein’s creature was meeting Abbott and Costello (or Alvin and the Chipmunks). Part of what it discards in the process is any stability around who, if anyone, is the “monster” in a Frankenstein story.

Godwin—who Bella affectionately calls “God”—is himself both Frankenstein and the creature. As a child, he was subjected by his father to experiments that have left his face carved with deep, thick scars, his genitals non-functional, and a digestive system that requires being hooked up to machinery to produce gastric juices. “Dafoe plays every movement and gesture as labored,” Angelica Jade Bastién writes for Vulture. “He shuffles and sighs and sulks.” A student in his surgery class derisively calls him “the monster” because of his visible deformity. Yet God seems to regard his father not as an abusive sadist, but a man of science unwilling to put moral or emotional considerations above the pursuit of knowledge. He seems to admire this cool detachment and emulates it in his own work: “Our feelings must be put aside,” he tells Max. “Do you think my father could have branded me with hot irons on the genitals the way he did if he could not put science and progress first?” In Shelley’s original, Dr. Frankenstein shrunk with horror from his creation, next to which God’s problem is almost a photonegative: his paternal feelings towards Bella are an affliction he tries to overcome, though he never quite manages it. 

But the film’s point of view is wholly Bella’s: she, too, is both the creator and the creature, but entirely her own. She is her own mother and her own daughter, “born” into a crisply black-and-white, steampunk version of Victorian London and trapped in the confines of God’s mansion. When she meets Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo)—a lothario who warns her not to become a jealous lover demanding constancy before himself becoming exactly that—she embarks on a journey of discovery, adventuring across a funhouse-mirror Europe in which trams traverse Lisbon’s skies and city streets come in the colors of lemon drops, cherry blossoms, and sherbet. 

Emma Stone gives a glittering Catherine wheel of a performance as Bella, for which she unexpectedly took home her second Oscar in March. Her larger-than-life impact is composed of a thousand subtle details—in the way she holds her body, her face, how she speaks. She walks ever so slightly on the sides of her feet, which gives her a heavy, uneven gait, and all her emotions are writ large on her face, practically one at a time, as she lacks the instinct to school her features into neutrality. She shoves pastries into her mouth with a delightful gusto matched only by her enthusiasm for—well, most stuff she does, really, from sex to surgery to socialism. “Bella is more like a fire than a monster,” Zoe Williams writes in The Guardian. She’s “destructive, heedless, purifying, warming, incredibly fun to watch.” She eventually returns home when she finds out that God is dying—for a confrontation, a reconciliation, or something new sewn together from each one.

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Much ink has been spilled on whether Poor Things is feminist or not. Is the film a story of a woman defiantly rejecting patriarchal expectations, or one that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of patriarchy, leaving Bella, as Eileen Jones argues in Jacobin, “triumphant in a void”? Is Bella’s voracious sexuality boldly liberating or a straight man’s sexual fantasy disguised as empowerment? Imogen Tilden writes that Bella’s “mature body and child mind is the very template of male fantasy.” That the director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and screenwriter, Tony McNamara, are men is routinely cited as evidence. Some of this debate comes from a basic category error: the assumption that films not only have coherent ideologies but are political manifestos that exist to espouse those ideologies. It’s an approach that, as Wesley Morris wrote in the New York Times in 2018, “robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art.” 

Equally, much of the criticism comes from a sincere effort to engage with a film that is clearly trying to say things about the experience of being a woman, and, for some viewers, comes up short. Bastién writes, “Watching it for any sort of feminist revelation is akin to craving the salty chill of the ocean and the spray of a wave upon your face, and having to settle for resting your ear against a curling seashell, listening to only the echo of what you truly desire.” The result, for Bastién, is a film that feels like “a pretentious 14-year-old boy’s idea of female becoming, if that boy had a Criterion Channel subscription.”

Both sides of this argument rest on the assumption that Poor Things should be watched for “feminist revelation”: that it is thematically concerned with the nature of being a woman, making broad representational claims about womanhood in general. But this is missing the trees for the forest. 

In his book Neuro Tribes, Steven Silberman calls neurodiversity “the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.” The term itself was coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998 to describe a new way of thinking about autistic people in neurotypical society: she wrote that the “‘neurologically different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race,” challenging “even our most taken-for-granted assumptions” about how different people “see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and sort information.” Under the traditional medical model, the neurotypical way of processing the world is considered “normal” and, pretty often, as the ideal. Divergent kinds of neurological wiring are considered disordered and defective, and the presumption is that a just and compassionate society should try to correct or eliminate difference. 

The neurodiversity model turns this on its head. “Neurodiversity,” Harvey Blume wrote for The Atlantic in the same year Singer coined the term, “may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.” 

The concept of neurodiversity has become more popular in recent years, though in a more surface-level way than I’d like. Instead of upending the way we think about neurodivergence—conditions like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, and all else that falls outside the bounds of the neurotypical—it has been too often treated as a new politically-correct paint to slap onto the same old assumptions, adopting new language without shifting the underlying belief that neurodivergences are dysfunctions. I might scream if I hear someone say “person with neurodiversity” one more time. We seem to be living through an inflection point, one that could tip either way. We’ve had both a spike in adults seeking diagnoses of autism or ADHD after a lifetime of passing for “normal”—seeing those diagnoses as ways of better understanding themselves, rather than tragedies befallen on them—but without a corresponding expansion of services to support them. Famous and successful people have publicly discussed their neurodivergence—Anthony Hopkins is autistic! Greta Gerwig has ADHD!—in ways that have nothing to do with old narratives about inspirational overcoming. Yet simultaneously, a fear and hatred of autistic people remains a key animating impulse of the growing anti-vax movement. 

It’s all a bit fraught, the way things get when a rising movement for rights and recognition clashes with both existing hostility and a coalescing backlash. And so Poor Things has been received, for good or for ill, by critics reluctant or unable to examine it through the lens it demands: neurodiversity. Seen through that lens, Poor Things’s central premise functions as a metaphor for neurodivergence in general and autism in particular, with Bella’s adventures resonating with the all too rarely depicted experience of being an autistic woman. 

Autistic people often identify with aliens, androids, and outsiders. These are characters who observe human behavior at some remove—a distance that can be analytical or bruising. Spock from Star Trek. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Characters from non-Star Trek media, one presumes. While it’s possible to take this metaphor to dehumanizing ends—an ad by Cure Autism Now (since merged into Autism Speaks) once intoned “imagine that aliens were stealing one in every two hundred children” to frame autism as a frightening epidemic—it also captures something common in autistic experience. The title essay of Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthropologist on Mars comes from Temple Grandin’s description of how she feels interacting with neurotypical people. As portrayed by Emma Stone, Bella Baxter seems a deliberate entry in this tradition. Her unique condition may be science fiction, but because of it, her position in the world resonates with something deeply real. She navigates a social world with rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively, and when she learns those rules manually, they are negated by a thousand unarticulated exceptions. 

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I’m not saying, obviously, that autistic women have baby brains. God created Bella by transplanting a fetal brain into a dead woman’s body, and many reviews reflexively refer to her as a child, describing the film’s narrative as one that follows Bella from babyhood to maturity. But when Maya Phillips in the New York Times tries to map her coming of age along typical developmental milestones—childish innocence, adolescent sexuality, adult contemplation—the analogy seems strained. Bella has a unique neurodevelopmental path that doesn’t correspond with those expectations. This is confirmed when God attempts to recreate it: a second woman with a transplanted brain, Felicity (Margaret Qualley, who was so wonderful in Ethan Coen’s solo directorial debut Drive-Away Dolls) develops differently. 

Bella’s peculiar combination of strengths and weaknesses—of expertise and blind spots—don’t reflect those of an infant. They reflect those of an autistic person, whip-smart and devoid of so-called common sense. “You don’t know what bananas are, you’ve never heard of chess, and yet you know what ‘empirically’ means,” Duncan Wedderburn says, baffled. Bella spits food out if she dislikes the taste, unable to stand it for the sake of politeness. When she does try to do things for the sake of politeness, she gets the wires crossed, winking at a man across the room simply because he winked at her and whipping Wedderburn into a rage. She takes things too literally—when Wedderburn says she “disappeared,” she corrects him: “I did not. Nobody can just disappear.” Though her personal interactions seem superficially cold to others’ feelings, she is deeply empathetic: when her cruise stops off at Alexandria, a friend shows her babies dying in the heat, ostensibly to prove how horrible the world is. For a distraught Bella, it instead proves that she must make the world a better place. 

Bella’s development and growth over the course of the film isn’t a straightforward neurotypical coming of age. We see her speech develop from a limited vocabulary to a hyperliterate one, but she never loses her clipped, matter-of-fact, and oddly formal speaking style. Her motor skills improve, but her physical coordination remains gawky and angular. She learns so much, but even at her most worldly, she is naïve to people’s motivations, to hidden intentions: she wants to give her money away to the poor of the Alexandria slums, and when the cruise ship workers tell her they will pass the money along on her behalf, it never occurs to her not to believe them. 

As Louisa Smith, Gemma Digby, and Shane Clifton put it for The Conversation, we “see a woman using her behavior 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.” For Smith, Digby and Clifton, this is concerning: they see Poor Things as “play[ing] into deep and historical stereotypes about disabled people,” conjuring the spectre of 19th-century freak shows and human zoos. But for me, Bella isn’t an object in a freak show. She’s the sun around which the film revolves. She is subject, not object, and bends the world to account for her experience of it, like a magician bending a spoon. 

Lanthimos’s films often have a neurodiverse flavor to them. In The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his characters speak with a stilted, flat affect, common in autistic people. This contrasts with the absurdist events that happen to them in a way that you either find bone-chilling or, like me, hysterically funny. These films exist in worlds that look realistic—shot on location with mostly natural lighting—but are populated by characters for whom neurotypicality seems to be the exception, not the norm. 

Poor Things doesn’t take place in the surface-realist neurodivergent worlds of Lanthimos’s previous films. Instead, we see the world from a neurodivergent perspective: it is huge, bright, strange and confusing in ways that reflect Bella’s sensory perception. Huge amounts of the film are shot with a fisheye lens, distorting the edges of the frame in a way that makes the world feel too big, too much, overstuffed, impossible to process all at once. The score is discordant—becoming cacophonous in moments of distress, like when Bella discovers poverty—in a way that reflects autistic sensitivity to sound. And then there are the outfits. Bella’s dresses and jackets have gigantic, puffed out sleeves. Her blouses have ruffles on ruffles. Everything is bigger, bolder, than reality would dictate, but in a way that feels like an authentic literalization of autistic relationships to clothing. It’s a visual approximation of what it feels like to react so strongly to texture, material, weight, closeness. The tag digging in at the neckline of your T-shirt. Costume designer Holly Waddington describes Bella’s outfits when she leaves home as “discombobulated, like a child dressing from a parent’s wardrobe”—she “wears things like sheer petticoats as outerwear or a bodice and knickers with a jacket.” Like a child raiding their parent’s wardrobe, sure. But maybe, too, like someone trying to balance the complex sensory experience of dressing with the potentiality of self-expression. “Clothes as a way of socializing that stands in for other forms of engagement,” Joanna Walsh writes about her relationship to fashion as an autistic person. “Clothes worn to substitute for speech.” 

Autism in women has historically been under-estimated. Hans Asperger’s original study characterized autism as “an extreme variant of male intelligence,” and decades later, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen theorized autism in terms of an “extreme male brain.” Bella’s adventures give some of the reasons why: the men around her are generally not interested enough in her brain to notice if it’s wired differently. It takes Wedderburn a shockingly long time to notice there’s anything different about Bella at all, and when he does, he quickly attributes it to her being a heartless bitch from hell. 

For autism, as for many neurodivergences, the official diagnostic criteria have a lot more to do with the question “how would a little kid with this condition annoy adults around them?” instead of “how does someone with this condition experience the world differently?” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as DSM-5, doesn’t talk about stimming, sensory overload, or special interests, putting these radically different experiences all in a bucket labeled “restricted, repetitive behaviors.” When women and girls are, as Silberman writes in Neuro Tribes, socialized to “be compliant and self-effacing—to fade demurely into the background,” they often suppress behaviors that might bring their male peers to the attention of parents and teachers (and police). That suppression—masking, in autistic parlance—alienates autistic people in general and autistic women and girls in particular from their authentic selves, making it more difficult to understand their own emotional responses or build self-esteem. 

Debates about the alleged feminism of Poor Things discuss it as a film about a woman without shame: Bella’s fresh brain means she has not learned to feel ashamed of her body, her desires, her pleasure. Her skin has not been cut into by the gender roles coiling tighter and tighter around her. But Bella is not merely a vision of a woman who has not learned to be ashamed—she is a vision of an autistic woman who has not been taught to be ashamed of her autistic traits. And she’s wonderful: uncompromised, uncompromising. Joyful, watchful, kind: a whirling spitfire with her nose stuck in a book. In Poor Things, the audience sees through her eyes and gets to see the neurotypical world as the absurd one. 

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