The Wonder Woman Movie’s Treatment of Disability
This essay will contain spoilers related to the character of Doctor Maru. I will give a warning before the major plot spoilers which will come after eight paragraphs.
For the first 30 minutes, I sat in rapt awe watching a mainstream, big budget superhero movie with dozens of powerful, intelligent, beautiful women on a screen with no men. I’m a moderate superhero fan, but I’m definitely not an expert on Wonder Woman. These days, I watch most movies at home, for the comfort of my body and bank account. But, like the Ghostbusters reboot before it, I wanted to support Wonder Woman’s opening weekend take — to vote with my dollar in the hopes that Hollywood will get the message that people want to see women on screen.
I have been a woman for 36 years, but a woman with a disability for only 22 years. Perhaps you can humor me in trying to imagine what it might be like for me to be introduced to the first human woman in the Wonder Woman film: Doctor Maru (aka Doctor Poison).
We know Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s human name) is beautiful because other characters keep telling us she is. We are even treated to a classic movie makeover scene — the paper dolls of our childhood come to life. Living on a paradise island full of Amazon women, she finds the time to apply perfect eyeliner and (controversially) shave her armpits.
Doctor Maru is a scientist working for the Germans in World War I, with an interest in poisonous gas. When she first appears on stage, it is with her hair pulled back, wearing a drab costume, and a facial prosthetic covering half of her lip and the lower left quarter of her face. For those not familiar, it’s a bit reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera character’s famous look.
I’ll let the movie’s director describe the character, as she did in an interview with Screenrant:
“[Dr. Maru is] an interesting character because, you know, we don’t get super into her backstory, but we know her backstory, which is that she’s a woman who has had all kinds of damage in her life, and now she delights in bringing — and I’ve known people like this — delights in bringing that to other people’s lives… There is that way of being a damaged and dark person where you’re waiting for other people to face that wrath too.”
My particular disability is not immediately physically noticeable like Doctor Maru’s, but her character hit me like a sucker punch. I’d been tricked into thinking this was the empowering, inclusionary movie that some of my friends had been waiting for their entire lives. I went to social media to talk about this latest example of this disability trope. Because of my work in patient advocacy, lots of my social media friends have chronic illnesses and/or disabilities. I heard from four people (all in this category) — two seemed unconvinced, two agreed wholeheartedly.
One friend suggested that the facial prosthetic was an integral part of Maru’s character. But we have seen superhero movies go out of their way to change the appearance, and race, and gender of classic characters before — as when casting Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (to clarify: she is a very pale white woman, playing a character that appeared in the comics as a racist stereotype of an Asian man). I have faith that Dr. Maru could be an evil, scary character without a physical disability.
There is one point, at the end of the film, where Diana has to make a choice to kill Doctor Maru or spare her. As she cowers in a fierce wind, Maru’s prosthetic is ripped from her face, revealing her damaged flesh. We see Diana looking at Maru, considering the mixed bag that is humanity. Stripped of her prosthetic, Maru is posed to appear vulnerable, pitiable. Diana decides her duty is to protect humanity, and lets Maru live.
So there you have the single scene where Doctor Maru’s disability has any impact on the plot and it is to make her seem pathetic. The scene is a study in contrast: Diana stands tall, strong (she’s holding a very large hunk of metal), beautiful in her gleaming armor, with her eyeliner and her curled hair whipping in the wind. Maru, huddles on the ground in her drab costume (it could be a nun’s gown left over from the wardrobe department), part of her cheek torn away, leaving some teeth and flesh visible. The wounded part of her, of course, faces the camera.
For nearly 24 hours, I have been refreshing my feeds for reaction to the Doctor Maru character. I have been Googling for information about the character. I have found one disability advocate talking about this on Twitter. I am awaiting permission to quote her, but really hope she will write an article of her own.
I get two major feelings about the lack of reaction to Wonder Woman’s treatment of disability tropes. First, the overwhelming silence. It is awkward and it is heartbreaking. This is a perfect example of the importance of intersectional feminism. Second, the sense that, because Wonder Woman does an amazing job of existing as a mainstream movie that stars a woman, features dozens of other bad ass women, and is (*gasp*) financially successful. I would even still say that it was a good movie, tested against the current metric for movie quality. As Summer Plum and I discussed on Twitter, women with disabilities should be grateful for the general empowerment and keep our mouths shut, lest we ruin it for everyone else.
People are sharing cute photos of little girls dressed up in Wonder Woman costumes. “Representation matters!” these photos declare. Our hearts are warmed and we can rest easy that the world is getting better for little girls. But what about those little girls with prosthetic and other disabilities? Why does no one seem to understand that their representation matters, too?