The buzz around “Wonder Woman” has been so exciting to me, but because I’ve been so busy this spring, I had to wait a month before I saw it in the theatre. For the most part, it lived up to the hype. Wonder Woman is an amazing character, the movie on a craft level is beautiful and compelling, and so much of what it’s doing is empowering and good.
The Wonder Woman movie falls down, though, when it comes to disability. Dr. Poison is a villain who could have been complex and intriguing, and a foil against Wonder Woman’s goodness. Elena Anaya’s acting is vulnerable and on-edge in a way that consistently suggests there is more to the character than we see. But instead of actually developing that character, the movie relies on her facial disfigurement as a shorthand for both her evil and her pitiability.
Better minds than me have already explained why this is a problem. If you want some explanation in that vein, I would recommend this Teen Vogue article (which also shouts out to several other movie villains).
But I decided that I wasn’t content just to call out the problem – I wanted to talk about how the problem could be fixed.
One option, of course, would be to make Dr. Poison non-disabled. (A quick check in the Wikipedia suggests that her comics incarnation is not disabled, and wears a mask for other reasons.) This is a totally valid option and would definitely make the movie less problematic. But it also feels to me like a lazy fix. Once a movie is out where the character is disabled, asking to make her non-disabled feels tantamount to saying that you can never have a disabled villain. (Or, worse, that you shouldn’t try to write disabled characters at all, lest something like this be read into them.) I don’t quite believe that; what I believe is more nuanced.
(Full disclosure: my novel draft contains a hero and a villain who are both #ownvoices disabled. I have some skin in this game.)
So, if someone gave me a magic pen that could magically make any edits to this movie that I wanted, here’s how I would fix the disability representation in Wonder Woman.
Needless to say, there are some MAJOR WONDER WOMAN SPOILERS below the cut.
1. Make some of the good guys visibly, physically disabled. Not just pitiable veterans returning from the front, which we do see in a scene or two, but the kind of heroes whose actions have a direct impact on the plot. When heroes and villains are disabled in similar ways, it becomes much harder to read the villain’s disability as inherently evil.
Luckily, there are a lot of WWI veterans in this cast, so making some of them disabled is child’s play. We already have Charlie the Scottish sniper, who is disabled by PTSD. I was really happy with how he was portrayed. But that’s a psychological disability, not a physical one.
Steve, when we first see him, is in a plane crash that he barely survives. It would be easy to have him be maimed as a result of the plane crash. The healing waters of Themyscira might be able to heal him to an extent, but not all the way, especially for an injury as large as, say, a missing limb.
This could also add an extra depth to Steve’s character arc. The higher-ups in London don’t want him going on his mission, not just because they are preparing for armistice, but also because as a disabled soldier he should be honourably discharged. He worries that, due to his injury, he is no longer “above average”. Diana furrows her brow at him and asks why that would make a difference.
A potential drawback of making Steve disabled is that he dies, sacrificing himself for the other characters, at the end. So if he is disabled, it’s important that he and Dr. Poison not be the only two disabled characters, lest we fall into a whole other set of problematic tropes. At least one more minor character needs to be a disabled hero who lives.
It would be nice to see disabled women in Themyscira, too. Not everyone on the island appears to be an Amazon warrior, or at least not one who’s actively training; or there could even be warriors who have a disfigurement and are still able to fight. Queen Hippolyta fought in a war long ago and hates the topic of war now; a disabling injury could easily be part of her backstory.
If you don’t like these specific choices, you can pick different characters – there are a literally endless number of ways to make characters disabled.
2. Give Dr. Poison a little more dialogue to flesh out her character. It doesn’t matter who she talks to. It could be General Ludendorff or other German soldiers. It could be Diana, Steve, or one of their allies. It could even be one of her test subjects. We don’t need to know her entire life story, but we do need to get a coherent idea of her worldview, why she is here, the things that she tells herself about the work she is doing.
The Wikipedia says that, according to the actress, Dr. Poison’s disfigurement is a result of testing her poisons deliberately on herself. This would have been a great thing to see discussed onscreen.
The point of this is twofold. First, disability issues aside, the character isn’t developed nearly as much as she deserves. Second, if we learn how she thinks, we can avoid the default of “I hate everybody because I am disabled.” (I’m assuming this isn’t her actual deal.)
3. Let Dr. Poison be competent in an actual fight scene. Really, super-powered people fighting each other is this genre’s bread and butter. Dr. Poison is a horribly dangerous person who is great at science and who kills thousands of people from afar, but if she’s in a superhero movie and is not in a fight scene, then she isn’t a credible threat to the heroes – something that all the other villains, however briefly, get to be.
She doesn’t look like she could trade punches with Diana or Steve. But she doesn’t need to. Let her use her poisons, and the terrain, to her advantage. She can wait for the heroes to be in an enclosed space and throw poison in after them. She can run around cracking her super-strength vials open under German soldiers’ noses so that they form a line of defense too powerful for Steve and company to deal with quickly. She can basically be the equivalent of a battlefield controller from an RPG, except with powers that are based on WWI-era chemical weapons. (If she inhales her own super-strength gas at some point, that would also be fine – although I’m guessing the fact that she made it “for” Ludendorff, and not for herself, is supposed to tell us something about her.)
4. Dr. Poison’s final scene, in which Ares invites Diana to kill her and the rest of humanity, can stay where it is. We can assume that she ran out of poison, or that Ares has her magically immobilized, or whatever. That’s fine. Ares does not, however, have to tear off Dr. Poison’s mask and expose her disfigured face as if it is meant to be shocking. Because that is 100% irrelevant to what this scene is actually about.
Why does Ares bring out Dr. Poison as an example of the evil of humanity? Because she’s an evil person who is responsible for the horrible deaths of thousands. This is an argument that holds up equally well regardless of what her face looks like.
Why does Diana refuse to kill Dr. Poison? There are probably a lot of reasons, but her face isn’t one. Maybe something from 2 convinced Diana that something about Dr. Poison is still good and redeemable. But it’s much more likely that Diana’s decision isn’t about Dr. Poison at all. It’s about Steve having just sacrificed himself and restored her belief that humans can act out of selfless love. It’s about him specifically, and about humanity in general. And it’s also probably to do with the fact that Diana is the godkiller. She’s here to fight Ares, not to kill a bunch of other, non-god people.
None of this has anything to Dr. Poison’s disability, and there’s no reason to dramatically expose hidden parts of her body in order to make any of these points.
Instead, Diana refuses to kill Dr. Poison, and Dr. Poison flees. She makes it as far as the edge of the battlefield before she’s brought down by some of the guys from Team Steve. They capture her alive, and promise to put her on trial for her war crimes.
Like any fix-it plan, this probably has holes that you can poke in it, or parts that other disabled authors would do differently. I also don’t want to overstate my problem with Wonder Woman. I really enjoyed the movie, and I’m thrilled at what it’s doing for women and girls. I just wish that disabled girls were able to watch the movie with the same joy as everyone else.