This blog post contains major spoilers for the Wonder Woman movie!
This past Tuesday, I finally got to see Wonder Woman. My expectations going in were high; friends gushed about the film, and some hailed it as the best movie in the DC franchise. I should point out that, despite my critical nature, I have low standards when it comes to DC superhero movies because I love those characters so much; Batman vs. Superman was even listed as one of my favorite films in 2016.
In terms of pure entertainment, Wonder Woman did not disappoint. I was enthralled throughout and adored our first big-screen look at Themyscira and its powerful Amazons. Gal Gadot was lifted right from the comic pages and was especially convincing in battle scenes. One of my favorite moments was when Diana took control at No Man’s Land (a scene that almost didn’t happen), refusing to leave people behind and let them suffer as unfortunate casualties of war. She ignored Steve Trevor’s pleading to stay back and forged ahead with her bad-ass weaponry. That scene encapsulated everything that Wonder Woman’s culture is about, and the strength of her people’s history.
Despite my enjoyment of the film, this is an epic case of “your fave is problematic.” I noticed how much screen time Chris Pine gets, and how the script protects his masculinity when it comes to Diana’s choices. For example, even though Trevor’s sacrifice was a gender flip of the trope, his actions are what allowed Diana to save the day. I also saw how there were no women characters beyond Trevor’s secretary when we leave Themyscira. I recognized the racist stereotypes and how there were very few women of color on screen.
And then there was the ableism. The most obvious instance is the portrayal of Doctor Poison, played by Elena Anaya. Her character has a scarred face, and she wears a shell-like cover to hide it, much like in The Phantom of the Opera. The DC Comics blog describes her like this: “With her primitive facial prosthetic and raspy voice, both due to the horrific scarring one has to assume was a result of her work, she comes off as vulnerable and haunted. However, that vulnerability helps mask the real darkness she hides within.”
Disability here is “horrific,” further perpetuating the evil disabled-person trope. But DC isn’t the first to fall for this ableist construct; we see this over different media, where one’s disability is the cause for their villain behavior, or the disability is a manifestation of their evilness. Look at Mr. Glass from Unbreakable, Professor Xavier from X-Men (in certain instances), or Doctor Connors from The Amazing Spider-Man. And it’s not just physical disability or difference, as the depiction of mental illness in film and TV leans heavily on horror cliches. This negative depiction adds to the pervasive stigma of mental illness and disability; it ceases being only fictional when it casts real-life identities as wrong, immoral, terrifying, or “vulnerable and haunted.”
In Wonder Woman, Doctor Poison’s facial scarring elicits pity from the audience; at the end, Ares uses her physical disability as an example of the horrors of humanity. Essentially, he said, “look at this pitiable, damaged person, look what they’ve done to her – aren’t humans awful?” It was clear to me that Diana’s choice to spare the life of Doctor Poison was meant to be an act of mercy, a way to save a “helpless” person – as though the villain doesn’t have agency since her disability renders her as a plot point. My friend Carly Findlay wrote about it on her blog, too.
But it doesn’t end at Doctor Poison. My boyfriend brought up that all the villains were disabled – in ways that I didn’t notice right away, but they were there. Ares, in his human form, used a cane and had a limp. This disability may have been used to make us assume his innocence, to knock us off course if we suspected him as villainous – because, of course, disabled people are wonderful and angelic and not capable of anything (insert eye roll). And then Ludendorff, the soldier working with Doctor Poison, had a heart or strength-related disability (it’s not stated outright) that made him physically weak; Doctor Poison “fixes” this with her chemical creation, turning him into a superhuman. In this instance, the audience is meant to think that it’s normal to turn evil when life disables you – to me, it’s like Doctor Connors’ transformation in Spider-Man. The thought of living with a disability, for many, is scarier than death; this is something that society reminds me of every so often.
Having pointed out the ableist flaws of Wonder Woman, I want to point out one realistic portrayal of disability. Charlie, a team member helping Diana and Trevor, has a nightmare while they are camping – it’s revealed, through that nightmare, that he has PTSD. It could have been a fantastic scene to recognize the validity of mental illness, to show the audience how war affects individuals in multiple ways, and to prove that PTSD doesn’t mean you cannot contribute to a just cause. But in Wonder Woman, his disability is quickly passed over for plot progression. Diana asks about him to the others, they give her a vague answer, and that’s it. I hope we see more of Charlie’s story in a director’s cut.
In Wonder Woman, the portrayal of disability is negative. Once again, a movie marks disability as the Other, as a tragic result of humankind, or a valid reason for wrongdoings. At the same time, disabled characters are written as helpless, innocent, and in need of saving by people more physically or mentally able than us. It is all of these things that disabled people deal with every day, and it’s not something I was expecting in Wonder Woman; to be honest, I was expecting disability to be nonexistent, which I would have preferred over what we got. But I shouldn’t be surprised – Hollywood rarely gets it right. I hope one day, maybe in a sequel, we get a fierce disabled Amazonian.
If you like The Geeky Gimp content, please consider supporting my work through Patreon. For as little as $1 per month, you can help me produce content that promotes disability representation and accessibility in nerdy media.