“Poor Things” Is The Dangerous, Feminist Frankenstein We Don’t Need

Meet Bella Baxter, the girl beating Barbie for all the awards this year.

By Jillian Schroeder5 min read
poor things emma stone searchlight pictures fair use
Searchlight Pictures/Poor Things/2023

Greta Gerwig’s pinkified comedy may have had an impressive time at the box office this summer, but it’s not Barbie’s world anymore. There’s a new girl on screen who wants to show women how to find themselves – and this time, it’s going to involve a lot more gratuitous sex scenes.

Poor Things is the story of Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman infused with the brain of a toddler by an operation. In the sheltered environment of her home with her creator, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), she learns how to walk, speak, and read under the close eye of medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef). But when Bella meets roguish lawyer Duncan (Mark Ruffalo), she runs away with him to explore the world, and maybe find out who she really is in the process.

Adapted from the 1992 novel by Alisdair Gray, Poor Things is directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, who has collaborated with Stone before on The Favourite. The film’s team isn’t shy about their deconstructive approach towards femininity. “I got to unlearn a lot of things,” Stone said recently about her experience making the film when she won the Critics Choice Award for Best Actress. “Unlearn parts of shame and societal stuff that gets put on us.” Let’s break down the appeal of Poor Things – and why its increasing success is cause for concern.

*Spoilers ahead.*

The Appeal of Poor Things

It’s not hard to determine the overt agenda that underlies the story of Poor Things, but it’s important to note the reason why the film is proving successful. Best known for his absurdist style in films like Dogtooth and more recently The Favourite, Lanthimos wraps his agenda in a visual puzzle of color that is dazzling. The film begins in black and white, with Lanthimos’s trademark sharp camera angles putting us off our balance as Bella so frequently is early in the film. As Bella goes out on her own to discover herself, the film then breaks into a riot of bright colors, imitating Dorothy’s famous entrance to Oz in The Wizard of Oz. Together, these give the audience the same feelings that Bella encounters in her growth to maturation.

The major attraction of this film is the same reason why it’s winning so many awards: Emma Stone’s dedicated performance as Bella Baxter. That’s not exactly a surprise – Stone is a great actress. What is striking is what Lanthimos has described as Stone's intentional crafting of Bella's physicality throughout the film. Bella leaps on Godwin, sits cross legged on chairs, falls repeatedly, and slowly learns to walk gracefully by the end of the film. Stone’s commitment to the physicality of the comedy, combined with her own impeccable comedic delivery of her lines, resurrects older styles of comedy that haven’t been seen regularly since screwball comedies were made.

Poor Things Wants To Be a Modern Frankenstein, but It Misses the Point of Shelley’s Novel

What if Frankenstein’s monster were a beautiful woman instead of a malformed man? Since the film’s release, Poor Things has been touted as the “Feminist Frankenstein,” which answers this question and twists the 1818 novel on its head. A feminist take on Frankenstein may seem like the next place to take the story – after all, Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, the daughter of proto-feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Many of the same elements from the original novel remain in Poor Things: a crazy scientist trying to play God (that’s even what Bella calls him) and a creature artificially created trying to find a way to fit into the world. By making the Frankenstein’s monster figure a woman, the film can examine how women learn to exist in society, right? 

Wrong. The idea of Bella Baxter – a beautiful woman created by a mad scientist – is the very antithesis of the novel it is supposedly inspired by. In Frankenstein, a promising young medical student, Victor Frankenstein, becomes mad with a desire to overcome death with his knowledge of science, driven by his grief over his mother’s death. Instead of making something beautiful, he finds that the proportions he has selected have created something “horrid” and “shriveled.” Only once it is too late does Victor realize that he has created a monster, and his refusal to take responsibility for his creation leads to a series of tragedies that strike his whole family. The novel is a clear condemnation of mankind’s belief that they can control all things through science.

Poor Things doesn’t think human beings messing with life is a problem. Ultimately, Dr. Godwin’s action is seen as a triumph – an act that allowed an unhappy woman to have a second chance at life, but this time on her own terms. “It is a happy tale,” says Dr. Godwin to Max as he relates the story of how he saved Bella’s life. Science is the hero here, a tool to give women a chance to live their own lives apart from men’s expectations of them. Poor Things is not a new take on an old idea. It’s a perversion of Shelley’s original message.

Poor Things actually has much more in common with the French treatise Emile or On Education, in which a young man is born in a state of perfection, but over the course of his education, he is “denatured” and must find ways to reconcile his natural goodness with society’s expectations. Bella’s education through the film (what director Lanthimos calls her “evolution”) follows the same path as Emile’s – she learns first by experience of the world, then by entering into a trade, and finally by developing her “sentiments” of empathy and understanding. 

The implications of Bella’s creation and education are clear: We can and should control everything with science, and following our natural inclinations is our moral imperative. Maybe, the film asks, if we lived this way, then women’s voices would actually be heard – unless of course that voice belongs to the cautionary Mary Shelley.

In the Name of Female Independence, Poor Things Uplifts Prostitution and Pedophilia

Bella possesses a full-grown, beautiful woman’s body, and from the moment that student Max McCandles meets her, he’s smitten by her beauty. He reluctantly admits this fact to Godwin early on, protesting that it would be wrong for him to have feelings for the much younger Bella. But Godwin instead blesses the idea of a union and urges them to become engaged. 

The timeline of Bella’s inner-self is murky, so we don’t know exactly how old she really is (her development is “accelerated,” Dr. Godwin says), but this feels creepy because it is. Is it fine for Max – a grown man – to be attracted to a child? Turns out, all the men who meet her are attracted to her, but we’re meant to think that Max really loves her because he’s willing to wait until she’s not a child anymore.

Poor Things may try to make this a gray area, but it’s not. Bella is a child, no matter how old she looks. Attraction to her is pedophilia, and Poor Things seems to think this is absolutely acceptable. The fact that Max wants to wait until Bella is an acceptable age by a long engagement doesn’t hide the fact that these feelings are pedophilic. Surely, it’s not surprising to find someone promoting pedophilia in the broader culture, but that doesn’t mean we should be any less disturbed by it.

Searchlight Pictures/Poor Things/2023
Searchlight Pictures/Poor Things/2023

The film does want Bella and Max to have a happy ending, so it then asks how Bella is going to grow into his equal? The film’s answer to that is sex – lots of it, with people Bella does not intend to commit to. When she first runs away with Duncan, she tells Max that she still plans to marry him, only after she has sowed her wild oats with the sex-crazed lawyer. It’s supposed to be an important stage of Bella’s evolution – really, it just meets all the criteria for stupid sex. Nor is Bella’s decision ever treated like a mistake. Poor Things thinks that it’s important for Bella’s evolution to adulthood for her to have this time of sexual self-discovery.

But it doesn’t stop there. Later in the film when Bella and Duncan have lost all their money, Bella decides to prostitute herself to make some cash. But Bella’s time as a prostitute isn’t considered a setback. Bella’s time as a prostitute is treated as an invaluable part of her maturation, the tool of liberation by which she frees herself from Duncan and the expectations all men have placed on her. “A woman plotting her course to freedom,” cackles the Madame who runs the brothel when Bella takes up the sex trade. It’s the same lie that liberal feminists have been making about prostitution for decades. Sex work is degrading to women, and promoting it only serves to enslave women, not liberate them.

Poor Things claims to have the moral high ground because it’s (supposedly) about supporting women and their journey to happiness and maturation. Yet we’ve known for a long time that sexual liberation doesn’t work for women or for men. The process Poor Things depicts really just validates the sexual mistreatment of women – and even worse, of young girls.

Closing Thoughts

Poor Things claims to be rethinking women’s stories, but it’s really just subjecting them to the same agenda that has been fed to women for decades. By glorifying science and sexual liberation, Poor Things promotes things that do more to hurt women than bring them fulfillment. Bella Baxter is meant to be a Feminist Frankenstein – a beautiful symbol of female independence – but in reality, she represents something far more monstrous than the monster Mary Shelley created.

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