Warning: This post and the article linked to both contain spoilers for “The Shape of Water.”
Shortly before the Oscar winners were announced, The Huffington Post published How ‘The Shape Of Water’ Makes People With Disabilities Feel Less Human by its reporter Elyse Wanshel. Although some comments are offered that defend the movie, the analysis is overwhelmingly negative:
- “the story also tells people with disabilities that finding a romantic partner is a rarity and that they should hold on to whoever chooses them — even if it’s a monster.”
- “It also reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are second-rate humans”
- “without being cured, we’re not going to be loved or worthwhile to another human being”
I can understand why certain aspects “The Shape of Water”, taken out of context and crudely summarised, might cause such disquiet, but it surprised me that the people quoted, who presumably watched the film from start to finish, found such negativity embedded within it. I would argue that, when you take the film as a whole, you get a number of very different messages.
Firstly, and most importantly, the film is clearly meant to be interpreted as myth. The creature, we are told, is worshipped “as a god” in the Amazon. And consider the thoroughly unpleasant Strickland: a name that can be seen as gesturing towards a stricken land, one not very far removed from Eliot’s vision of the Wasteland. After he creatures retaliates against its ill-usage, Strickland is partially maimed. Like the wounded king of Arthurian Legend, his inner darkness made manifest in his black and rotting fingers – and the resulting sickness destroys him. Also like the wounded king, he has guardianship of something holy (the Grail, in the legend; the creature, in the film). Unlike the King, he does not understand the value of what he holds, but instead hates it, abuses it and seeks to destroy it.
Secondly, although muteness is one of Elisa’s defining characteristics, she is shown as intelligent, brave, warm-hearted and competent. She has acquired skills that enable her to communicate effectively with those she loves; in fact, her use of sign language make is possible for her to establish meaningful communication with the creature when the conventionally able have fallen back on misery, pain and violence.
Elisa’s voicelessness represents a number of things – a disability, yes, but also as something that makes her “other”. Symbolically, her scars are the outward and visible sign of inner wounding: she is both literally and metaphorically scarred by the abuse of her childhood. Combined with her femininity, her lack of a voice also makes her appear submissive, powerless and easily dominated.
In contrast, the apparently powerful Strickland is attracted by her silence – he prefers his women that way – but this in itself suggests that he is emotionally disabled, unable to accept communication from others, even from his wife, especially during the act of love.
Unlike Strickland, the creature is open not only to communication but also to learning. It is strong enough to accept vulnerability and dependence on others. It can also learn: after the killing of one cat, it learns how to subdue its appetite and show these creatures affection. If it is a god at all, it is not an omnipotent and omniscient being: not God the Father at all, but perhaps God the Lover.
The Shape of Water actually offers support for what is called the ‘social model’ of disability: Elisa’s marginalisation, as with that of many other key characters (her gay boyfriend, her African-American co-worker) is not the inevitable result of her impairment but is imposed by a sick and ultimately self-destructive phallocentric, heteronormative culture which would give power only to those made in its own image and abuse or crush all those who challenge its dominance in any way – even by simply daring to be different.
As I see it, the “curing” of Elisa is not taking away her identity as a disabled woman. Her voice returns as she struggles to sing, to express her love. Her union with the creature may also represent the restoration and fulfilment of a previously neglected aspect of her life: she was, we are told, a foundling – and, most specifically, one found by water – suggesting that she may already have a strange affinity with that element. If the “healing” had resulted in Elisa “fitting in”, heading back to ‘normal’ life and continuing to work as downtrodden cleaner in an ugly security facility, then that would indeed have been an insult. However, in the final moments of the film, she dies to the ugly grey reality of Cold War America and is transformed: set free to move to a more beautiful and magical place. She breathes through her scars. What has been achieved through the embracing of otherness is not a healing but a transformation – or, even, an apotheosis