Resonance and representation in The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water (2017) and its relationship to disability narratives is undeniably complicated and at times flawed.
I mean…I think there definite is room for criticism. It’s unavoidably a problematic story.
But then, some of us have had problematic lives.
— Emily Paige Ballou (@epballou) March 4, 2018
Some of us who identify with parts of the film and characters, have, as Emily points out on Twitter, problematic lives. My interpretation of problematic is operating outside accepted narratives (Emily may have a different definition; this is mine).
The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito, a nonspeaking woman living in 1962 Baltimore. While hearing, she uses American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. Her friends are Giles (a gay artist) and Zelda (her Black coworker and sign interpreter). She works as a cleaning woman for a high-security government laboratory. There, she bonds with the facility’s newest “Asset,” an amphibious, humanoid creature. They fall in love. Elisa, Giles, and Zelda then work against the laboratory to return the “Amphibian Man” to the water and save his life.
There have been critiques about linking disability to otherness. But what happens when you’re different all your life, even if not identified as disabled? Autistic writer and reviewer Sarah Kurchak pulls the following quote from the film’s director, Guillermo del Toro, in Vanity Fair: “monsters are evangelical creatures for me. When I was a kid, monsters made me feel that I could fit somewhere, even if it was… an imaginary place where the grotesque and the abnormal were celebrated and accepted.”
Further discussion of (in)humanity and monsters
There have been critiques about linking disability to monsters. So what happens when you’ve always felt at least slightly inhuman? Kurchak notes in the review at Consequence of Sound that: “When the world sometimes tells you that you’re a monster, and when you love movies but can’t see yourself in the heroes, you might start to find yourself identifying with the monsters. And then you might start to find yourself wanting better for them. So you create your own stories for them, and for yourself.”
Chavisory says on Tumblr: “Whereas a lot of us who didn’t have those narratives…our minds filled in the blanks in some pretty interesting ways. Including various iterations of not being completely human. Obviously it’s a problematic movie, but I readily and pretty unconflictedly identify with aspects of both Elisa and the Amphibian Man.”
So, what might happens is that you identify with Elisa. Or the Amphibian Man, or both. Elisa, despite it being hinted that her childhood neck injury is the cause of her not speaking, is likely autistic. Maybe the film resonates with you and the representation is meaningful. For me that happened in the casual stimming, the way she moved, and within the first fifteen minutes, the scene where she first meets the creature. I saw in her and on her face the realization that she’s found another society deems “other.” The wonder of immediately needing to touch and use her hands to complete the recognition.
Watching the film, I had the realization I’ve found another society deems “other.” I found representation in The Shape of Water. I have always been the Other. I have been the Other to the point of having a trauma history. And people are now saying it’s not representation at all because it is harmful in messaging. It is not without problems. It is still representation. And I have to wonder how many of these people have ever felt more than a touch inhuman. (If that’s you, then we can maybe talk about it differently).
Elisa found another outcast to see the possibilities in. Are you going to tell me that society should not start addressing how it treats those seen as monsters? Are you going to tell me that I have never felt inhuman from all the things the world has done and said to me, and that I do not deserve to have someone look past what has been painted on me as Other?
I do not think the film is perfect. I think it is still representation. But people are saying it is not representation at all. And when you say that, what I hear is that
those of us who struggle with feeling human in the face of the world, who sometimes identify with the Other and embrace it as a tool to survive, whose narratives and relationships to representation are messy and muddy the waters… should stop trying to find ourselves in representation or anywhere, our very existence and attempts at representation faulty.
We’ve been told that we’re faulty enough already, thanks.
. . .