This post is about the movie, Wonder. There are a lot of spoilers in it!
Wonder is a movie about a kid with a facial difference. Evidently, his parents had the perfect storm of a genetic combination to create a kid who would have some pretty significantly different facial features. There might have also been health issues – that wasn’t clear to me.
I went through the windshield of a car when I was 4 years old. I grew up with a facial difference, with the scars lacing all over my face. “Scarface” and “Frankenstein’s wife” were names kids called me when I was little. Added to that, I’m a mom of a kid with a disability (Down syndrome). Since I knew this was a movie that I might be able to relate to on more than one personal levels, I was a little apprehensive about watching it.
In fact, I was so apprehensive that I didn’t want to ,shell out Big Theatre Bucks to take my kids to see it when it came out, or even buy it (as I considered for a brief second). Instead, I waited for it to come out on Netflix DVD , and I’m glad I did. This is why:
The kid is drenched in privilege
Everything about the main character, Auggie, is privileged. His family is rich, (like really comfortable in that secure way that only rich people are) in a big house in Brooklyn, New York. His parents are married and still in love. They are all nice looking. He’s white. His sister is long-suffering but silent and all of them revolve around Auggie’s needs.
Auggie is hella smart, just oozing intellect. He’s socially with it as well (and how did that even happen? They made it like he was a hermit in some hut for his entire life before he went to school).
These factors are huge in their twining with his disability. Huge!
The only issue the kid has AT ALL is his face: absolutely every other aspect of his life is pretty peachy. Most people don’t realize how important all of those other factors are and will instead attribute any success he has TO HIS FACE, which makes no sense. The kid does well because he’s smart, has a really supportive family that has extensive resources (financial and otherwise).
The message that sends to other kids with facial disfigurement is that they should be able to do great in school, just get through it, and they’ll get a posse of BFF’s, the respect of their peers and a freakin’ award for their great attitude at the end of the first year!
2. That Award…
That award is really problematic to me. It is just doubled dipped in a vat of Inspiration Porn – which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, is when we with disabilities are regarded by people without disabilities as inspirational solely on the basis of our disability.
Auggie – the kid in Wonder – is really smart. He would deserve an award for his smarts. But instead, he’s honored for his attitude. Which is code for his face, because what exactly was so award-winning about his attitude? Um… privileged new kid in school, makes friends, does well academically… has some ups and downs…. pretty normal, OH, EXCEPT FOR HIS DISFIGURED FACE! – so let’s give him an attitude award, to show we are really okay with his face!
3. And About His Face…
Auggie was played by a kid without facial disfigurement, a kid without a disability. I am so in-utterably sick of our roles going to non-disabled folk, I’m fed up with this appropriation.
It’s like disability is the final frontier for actors: if you can act your way through disability, wow, you must be great. This annoys me because:
a) disability is culture, not just a way of being, seeing, speaking, moving, feeling, hearing. This is actual cultural appropriation, it’s modern-day black-face.
b. there are levels and depths to the disability experience that NOONE who is able-bodied will be able to capture. You just can’t.
I thought the kid who played Auggie was whiny and annoying. His eyes were not particularly emotive. I’m going to lay money on a kid with an actual facial disfigurement doing a way better job – because that kid knows the actual pain that comes with multiple surgeries, with being a social outcast, knowing how it feels to be beaten up because you look different from how society tells us we should.
When I was watching Wonder, I kept feeling like I was watching a parody of Privilege playing Hardship and it rubbed me wrong.
The Only Thing I Liked About Wonder
Wonder was, overall, made for Inspiration Porn. It’s treacly and unbelievable – not much in it really added up and made sense or seemed probable. The only thing that I actually liked – the only thing that moved me – was Julia Roberts being Mom of Kid with a Disability (I know I’m supposed to say “Special Needs Mom” but I refuse to!). Where she’s really hoping and caring that he’s okay, that he’ll be all right, her anxiety over him.
As a mom of a kid with a disability, I get that. I really do. Lotsa feels there.
In Summary of the Movie
I disliked Wonder, I’m glad I didn’t buy it and I’m glad Netflix DVD allowed me to watch it – and send it right back (seriously: 20 years of being able to watch those DVD’s, chew them apart and return them: I love Netflix).
Wonder might have been better if it had showed complexities of real life. The movie “Mask” did that – with his mom’s tumultuous relationships, the motorcycle gang, etc. Wonder should have taken a page out of that set – it would have been a better movie had it been in a world that more people could relate to (like… public school, with an IEP, financially struggling parents who worry about his health coverage that’s about to get dumped by Trump).
As an adult who grew up with a facial disfigurement and as the mom of a kid with a disability, I really want more movies that don’t send out that “overcoming with a positive attitude” trope without regard to the privilege that is the genuine basis for the attitude (not the disability! it’s not the disability, guys!).
I want movies that echo my own experience of pain, struggle, loss, abuse, and empowerment. I want movies about disability intersections with characters who actually have a disability, and with themes that move far, far out of the tired tropes of Inspiration Porn.
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Meriah Nichols is a career counselor. Solo mom to 3 (one with Down syndrome, one gifted 2E). Deaf, with C-PTSD and TBI, she’s also a gardening nerd who loves cats, Star Trek, and takes her coffee hot and black.