14 years ago, I lined up my first movie from Netflix. It was The Phantom of the Opera (2004) one of my all-time favorite movies. As a kid who grew up on the outside of things, and with scars splayed all over my face, I have always easily identified with the Phantom.
So, with 20th Anniversary special Netflix’s 20th Anniversary here, I wanted to watch something in the same vein. A love story, but one that I could identify with (which is never going to be something like Roman Holiday).
I chose The Shape of Water.
The Shape of Water
A 2017 movie by one of my favorite directors, Guillermo del Toro. The Shape of Water is a love story about a mute cleaning lady and a humanoid aquatic creature from the Amazon. So, you know, right there it bagged all the unrealism I crave!
I wanted to see the movie because, besides being by Guillermo del Toro and besides being a love story, it really pissed off a lot of people in the disability community. I wanted to see why it pissed off so many people.
The movie is set in the ’60’s, between this awesome living space above a theatre (seriously, how cool would it be to live there?!) and a government experiment facility. Elisa is the mute main lady. Here is the trailer:
The Shape of Water: Trailer
This is clearly del Toro’s work, right? All the murky-dark weird artsy-ness that I love him for.
The story is about a mute cleaning lady, Elisa, whose two best friends are another cleaning lady (who is black, played by Octavia Spencer) and a man she is neighbors with (who is gay, played by Richard Jenkins). There you have it: the disabled, the black and the gay: the perfect trifecta of the outcast minorities without rights in the 1960’s!
The trio join forces to rescue the Amphibian Man from the experiment zone, because Elisa and Amphibian Man have somehow fallen in love. They accomplish their mission in a rad heist, then again when the “bad guy” catches up with them.
That’s all I’m going to tell you about the story – if you want more, see it for yourself! Let’s talk about the disability and other pieces now though. I think those are worth dissecting.
What Was Good About The Shape of Water
Some people were pissed off because Elisa felt like an outcast, less than a full-human. She falls in love with Amphibian Man because, she says, “does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I am, as I am.”
This was criticized as meaning that the movie was a sending a message to us (disabled), telling us that we are not whole.
I didn’t get that message, personally. I felt like Elisa was clearly saying she didn’t feel complete or whole, and that she loved him for how he made her feel. I understand that, I can relate to that. I know for myself that feeling complete or proud of my physical self and my disabilities takes an act of consciousness. My own personal “overcoming” is always in overcoming what our culture has told me about myself; not in overcoming my disabilities themselves.
Feelings of Being Incomplete
I think there are a lot of people without disabilities that feel incomplete, and the role of love for feeling that vacuum is pretty common. It’s all over the place in Western popular culture: you meet “the one” who somehow fills this void inside and makes one “complete.” People say, “my better half,” because without that One, they are incomplete.
Am I right?
That being the case, I think one of the reasons why The Shape of Water was so compelling to non-disabled people was precisely because it speaks to that sense of the incomplete. With so many people without disabilities identifying with that, they connect to that message almost viscerally.
… About the Monster…
I did not feel, as Kim Sauder suggests in her blog post that the movie connects us with monsters, or that The Shape of Water is suggesting that we should be hooking up with monsters.
I felt that the movie was painting a pretty clear picture that Strickland (the “bad guy”) was the real monster in this piece, and that through otherness, we can find affinity.
I agree with that completely. There is a strong thread of understanding that laces us all in marginalized, discriminated, oppressed communities. We’ve walked in similar shoes and we understand what it feels like to have stones thrown at you because of something you do not have control over (be it the way you walk, the color of your skin, physical difference, sexual orientation or whatever else).
I also really liked how sexual Elisa was. I thought that was pretty radical, to be honest: WOW, a sexual mute leading lady?! I’ve never seen such a thing! I’m so used to disability being portrayed at sexless and ugly; her beautiful body and the sexuality of her body was, I thought, a powerful statement.
What Was Bad
Elisa was played by a hearing, speaking woman who studied ASL for this role. Sigh. PUH-LEEEEEEZE. I’m so sick of non-disabled people taking on disabled roles! And don’t give me any of that malarkey about how the role would need to hear or whatever; this was a role that a d/Deaf person should have had; not a hearing, speaking person (it’s funny for me to write that actually, because the ASL sign for “hearing” looks like “speaking”).
NO: I’m done with it. No more excuses, yo.
Nyle DiMarco showed you all how a Deaf man can dance flawlessly on Dancing With the Stars; let more from our community show you how we can flawlessly imitate a hearing person while we express ourselves in OUR OWN LANGUAGE.
To be clear: sure, the actress who played Elisa (Sally Hawkins) did a great job. She is dyslexic but does not identify as a person with a disability. She worked hard to learn the ASL for this movie, and she learned her words well.
But it is not okay for these roles to be going to people outside of the communities that they represent. “Blackface” would be unthinkable now. Unfortunately, this hasn’t carried over to the disability spectrum and that needs to stop.
What Was Compelling About The Shape of Water
Themes of otherness, incomplete hearts being fulfilled by love, vulnerability and tenderness were what I think made this movie compelling to audiences. Guillermo Del Toro wielded his expert artistic flair through the film, creating captivating, stunning imagery, evocative sets and costumes. It was gorgeous, and gorgeous is compelling.
This movie did not make me go, “a-ha!”, it didn’t make me think of things in a new way. It was just an interesting story with superb visuals. That might be, in and of itself a reason for some people to watch it, and if so, I hope you love it.
other alternative love stories:
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.