The Shape of Water
“The Shape of Water probably had inclusive goals in mind, but execution is everything. ”
Title: The Shape of Water (2017)
Director: Guillermo del Toro 👨🏽🇲🇽
Writers: Story by Guillermo del Toro 👨🏽🇲🇽, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro 👨🏽🇲🇽 and Vanessa Taylor 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Stan 👨🏾🇺🇸
Longtime fans of Guillermo del Toro will love The Shape of Water. It employs del Toro’s signature, eerie visuals which build a captivating environment wherein various themes and lessons unravel. At the center of it all: the exploration of loneliness and how it affects relationships and self-esteem.
It’s this profound analysis of loneliness that succeeds the most. Del Toro magnifies the emotion and studies it through a non-human allegory, the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). In one effective scene, the amphibian is asked:
“Were you always alone? Did you ever have someone? Do you know what happened to you?”
Ultimately, however, I found the film’s simplistic representation of the 1960s to be a turn off. Del Toro over-sexualizes its female characters; hyper-masculinizes its straight men; and turns issues of race into a trite device that informs modern audiences about the era’s tensions without diving into the complexities of the struggle for civil rights. This sheer disinterest in more sophisticated storytelling prevents The Shape of Water from making a deeper impact.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
First, the Good: The Shape of Water portrays a positive female relationship between Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), both of whom work as janitors at a government facility. While neither character receives the kind of material modern women deserve, Sally Hawkins works with what she gets and gives a stellar performance.
In fact, one of the most touching and vulnerable scenes is only made possible by Hawkins’ prowess. In it, Elisa explains her relationship with the Amphibian Man to her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), saying:
“The way he looks at me. He doesn’t know what I lack... Or how I am incomplete. He just sees me for what I am. As I am. And he is happy to see me, every time. Every day.”
Yet this scene is undercut by its messaging that fundamentally undervalues its lead. Elisa is only able to find validation—“completion,” even—in the approval of a male character. This problematic conclusion only adds fuel to the other glaring issue of how sexualized female characters are in comparison to the male characters. For example, just three scenes into the film, audiences are greeted with Elisa’s full nudity and furious masturbation as part of her morning routine. And while that could be benign, or even empowering—particularly for a disabled character, most of whom have a history of being de-sexualized in media—the fact of having male characters remain partially clothed and lacking the lascivious panting and shouting women exhibit during these sex scenes is inequality at its simplest.
It’s not just Elisa, either. The other supporting characters of Zelda and Elaine—the villain’s wife, played by Lauren Lee Smith—also position themselves around men. Zelda consistently gripes about her lackluster husband and Elaine is a caricature of a randy housewife.
The depiction of regressive gender roles in The Shape of Water does a disservice to modern viewers, especially younger audiences who may take away the notion that loneliness is best remedied by finding a man to call your own.
The Shape of Water is set in the 1960s during a time of peak racial turmoil, purposefully contrasting the fantastical tale of romance and escapism. Racism reveals itself in passing moments which are realistically casual—shown, rather than told. When Elisa flips through the channel on a black-and-white TV, she sees horrific scenes of rioting and police brutality. In a scene where lower-income service workers gather to smoke, all are black. And in a crude comment by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who plays the villain, he coyly jokes to Zelda that the image of the Lord must surely look more like him, than her.
Overall, I applaud this movie for staying true to realistic elements of racism in the 60s without making it the focal point, as that ground has already been covered in trope-ish films such as The Help (2011) or The Butler (2013). However, The Shape of Water does take place in Baltimore, a city that was nearly 50% black in 1970. Knowing this, I expected way more representation both by numbers and by character complexity.
Deduction for Disability: -0.75
Before I dig into the injustice done to the deaf community and, at broader, the disabled community, I do want to give del Toro some credit for committing to a lead character who would carry the film’s story through nonverbal communication. This premise looks great on paper and a fantastic performance by a deaf actress could have transformed the tenor of this category altogether.
Unfortunately, not only does del Toro hire a hearing actress who has played disabled characters in the past, the decision to employ American Sign Language (ASL) as Elisa’s main form of communication rings false to those who understand it.
David Boles, founder of the ASL program at CUNY schools in New York explains that it makes “no contextual sense” for Elisa to be using this language with her hearing friends. Rather, she should be using Pidgin Sign Language (PSE), which mixes ALS with English grammar. This hybrid language grows naturally between deaf and hearing individuals who communicate regularly. Therefore, restricting Elisa to ASL and having Zelda and Giles expertly read her signs—even translating them aloud for others—is not only unrealistic, but a cheap knock-off of existing systems of communication.
Others look beyond the mimicry of deaf individuals and point out that the narrative of The Shape of Water itself is flawed. Writer and disability activist Elsa Sjunneson-Henry argues:
“At its core, The Shape of Water asks us to consider what a freak is. Is a monster a god? Is a disabled woman a freak? An outsider? Can she be loved or understood by her own kind, or are the monsters the only ones who can truly understand her?
Unfortunately, the answer to this movie was that no, she cannot be loved by her own kind, and yes, she is an outsider. A monster. A freak.”
I hate to naysay a film that probably had inclusive goals, but execution is everything. Future works need to portray the disabled community accurately instead of cherry-picking the aspects they feel like including. To expect these audiences to handwave this misappropriation, or to thank them for the visibility, is outrageous.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.25
Despite the lack of character development for many of the film’s individuals, there is a little hope for the LGBTQ community. This comes in the form of Elisa’s best friend and roommate, Giles. The past-his-prime, under-appreciated painter is alluded to being gay. Specifically, he always appears alone and in a telling scene, he shares a seemingly intimate conversation with a waiter at his local diner. But when Giles puts his hand over the other’s, the waiter snatches his hand back and angrily ejects Giles from the restaurant.
It’s a sour moment to watch and is similar to how racial inequality is portrayed in The Shape of Water. Namely, overt racism or homophobia is easily derided, yet the film draws the line at drawing any conclusions about the modern iterations of these same prejudices.
Luckily, Giles’ personhood remains intact. While his isolation and lack of achievements may be partially be due to his sexuality, his character never feels reduced to simple tokenism.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.75/5
Right off the bat, the character tropes and hyper-sexualization of the female form were red flags that made me want to write a scathing review. However, as the love story developed and the supporting characters saw more scenes, The Shape of Water morphed into a strange mix of complexities and stereotype.
Ultimately, this strange mix falls short and represents a sad glass that is just half full. After all, del Toro’s portrayal of Otherness does only half the job it’s supposed to, as he compromises integrity by hiring a “safe” actress and provides only surface-level commentary on complex issues.
In the future, I hope directors will use authenticity as their North Star, mustering up the courage to fill that glass of water to the brim.