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An Autistic Interpretation of Bella Baxter

By Devon Webb

I’ve seen many examples of questionable media literacy within the modern age, but perceiving the discourse around Poor Things in particular made me need to write a think-piece. It’s always disheartening to see the complex themes of a piece of art reduced to the same superficial prejudices it sets out to challenge, and I feel compelled to offer a contrary perspective – specifically through the lens of an outspoken, sexually explorative, and often ‘socially inappropriate’ autistic woman.


The primary critique of Poor Things, besides the disdain for the sex scenes (which would require a whole other essay on the resurgence of puritanical culture and the frankly horrifying equation of sex and pornography), is that Bella is a ‘child’ taken advantage of by men, including the one who brought her into the world. But to take such an intentionally surreal film so literally is to suspend all opportunity for nuanced analysis of the themes it explores through its unconventional narrative.


When we first meet Bella Baxter, yes – she is a child in a woman’s body, a Frankensteinian fusion of femininity and innocence. Godwin Baxter, referred to by Bella as ‘God’ (which I would suggest is no coincidental nickname) is presented as playing a fatherly role, but in the context of this narrative perhaps he is more accurately described as a ‘Creator’. I would also suggest that God as a character is never endorsed beyond Bella’s personal affections, presented instead as a grotesque and largely impersonal character. But it’s never the film’s intention to provide any kind of in-depth moral analysis of his actions, instead using them as a vehicle for the themes it explores through Bella, as well as a metaphor for the ethically questionable objectivity of a certain other Creator.


To suggest that Bella remains in this toddler-esque phase for the entirety of the film, however, is to fail at the suspension of disbelief that it requires of its audience. The absurdism of her animation transcends realism, thus making literal interpretation and consequent judgments superfluous, and is instead a phantasmagorical approach to posing the questions – what if there was a woman who was never taught the rules? How would the world react to the unapologetic authenticity and emotional integrity most of us lose somewhere between parenting, the school system, and the conventions of wider society?


It's these thematic elements that so deeply resonated with me as an autistic woman. Bella Baxter is a hugely autistic-coded character: she has meltdowns, she says what she thinks without regard for the social norms she finds so bewildering and non-sensical, she takes things literally, she explores the world through her hyper-perceptive senses, she stims, and she’s deeply emotional and empathetic to an often debilitating degree.


It’s in this light, rather than one of literal childishness, that I perceived Bella. And frankly, the infantilisation of her character perpetuated by the idea that she lacks autonomy is an issue within itself. This insinuation is something that autistic and other disabled people experience on a regular basis, and the film directly challenges it. It is the audience, not the filmmakers, detracting from Bella’s personhood and ability to make her own decisions. The latter is something that the film specifically explores through Bella’s adventures, or misadventures, with the character of Wedderburn. He is Bella’s introduction to the world, and while God is conscious of the dangers he, and a judgemental society in general, might pose to Bella, his practical and impersonal nature knows the importance of allowing Bella independence and freedom over her own life – something essential for the evolution of each conscious being.


Through this second act, we see Bella coming of age in a matter of days, through exploration, socialisation, education, and yes – sexuality. However, while Bella may be shaped by all these things, she does not conform to them. She represents an autistic experience: when presented with cynicism, she responds with sincerity. When presented with false-polite society, she responds with blunt honesty. When presented with systemic oppression, she responds with a fervour for social justice.


I would argue that there is ableism within the film, but it comes across – to me, at least – as so intentionally jarring that it calls attention to itself for the purpose of addressing that exact theme. For example, ‘what a very pretty retard!’ is an inherently problematic phrase that is simultaneously effective in summing up what audiences might take issue with – the objectification and sexualisation of someone lacking both mental and bodily autonomy – before subverting that concept through the development of Bella’s character and the independent joy she experiences in contrast to the pathetic nature of the needy men around her. This same reading could also be applied to the film’s title – is it not the Duncan Wedderburns, General Blessingtons and Madame Swineys of the world, so dependent on the archaic order of the patriarchal world, who are ultimately the ‘Poor Things’, rather than the unsocialised and supposedly vulnerable Bella?


People are constantly passing judgements on Bella throughout the film, whether that be for her ‘unseemly’ emotion or ignorant idealism, but she distinctly doesn’t care what the people around her think, and she doesn’t care what her real-life audience thinks either. The surreal context of the movie is merely the vessel through which we see a girl becoming a woman, and the socio-political transmutation of her youthful naivety into proactive, life-affirming optimism – a ‘dumb, beautiful happiness’ that I would argue we need more of in a world overrun by intellectual cynicism.


Poor Things is about discovering yourself through your own interaction with the world, and building an identity independent of your external perception, which might label you as ignorant, unusual, or even problematic – when really you’re just living your own life, in your own way, instead of catering to the sensitivities of others. Ironic, then – though not unexpected – that some audience members have reduced Bella to a surface-level aberration from their own pre-conceived notion of what is socially acceptable. That they would minimise her to her involvement and relation to the men around her. That they would be shocked and disturbed by her enjoyment of her own body, muddying her morality through the tainted lens of purity culture and traditional, rigid relationship structures.


Autistic people, and particularly autistic women, are all too familiar with the concept of being minimised or vilified by others for diverging from socially-dictated guidelines, which never made much sense to them in the first place. We know what it’s like to be misunderstood, and to have our narrative appropriated by those who feel disdain towards it. But we also know what it’s like to find freedom in authenticity, especially after trying to perform the role of someone we’re not, and it’s this liberation that incites fear in the status quo – something Bella Baxter did with unapologetic gusto.


So it’s my hope that audiences can appreciate this nuance, and perceive the sincerity of a ‘flawed, experimenting person’ as something to be celebrated rather than further confined to the prison of a patriarchal, black-and-white, and far too literal worldview – especially when cinema suspends us from reality, and artistry is where metaphors abound.


About the author:

Devon Webb is a Gen Z writer & editor based in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her award-winning work has been published extensively worldwide & revolves around themes of femininity, vulnerability, anti-capitalism & neurodivergence. She is an in-house writer for Erato Magazine, an editor for Prismatica Press, & a founding member of The Circus (@circuslit), a collective prioritising radical inclusivity within the indie lit scene. She can be found on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok & Bluesky at @devonwebbnz.


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