If you have not yet seen Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, I would not only strongly recommend it, I would urge you (if possible) to watch it in the cinemas. The film’s spectacular performance by leading actress Sally Hawkins who plays Elisa Esposito, and incredible cinematography makes this film truly a piece of art that needs to be experienced in a theatre. Aside from glowing reviews from various critics (which includes myself), the film has received recognition for its excellence by winning various awards including Academy Award for Best Picture and Academy Award for Best Director.
That being said, although I loved the sheer beauty that presented itself in the film, I do have to argue that I strongly disagree with the premise of the film that aims to show it embraces the ‘other’. In an interview with del Toro, he speaks candidly about The Shape of Water being the most personal movie he has ever made as it attempts to argue, “Can we embrace the other?” However, I will examine how The Shape of Water fails to not only embrace the ‘other’, but instead further perpetuates a destructive narrative that often plagues Hollywood – the fetishizing and exoticizing of the ‘other’ by using them as props to tell a narrative.
Before moving towards analyzing the films use of ‘other’, I have to first point out del Toro’s interesting usage of the 60s in the United States of America as a setting to this melancholy love story. I thought it was particularly clever to use the 60s as a backdrop because it was the height of ‘otherness’. At the time, the definition of white America was being threatened within the nation, and externally, the nation’s identity as a country was under threat by the Soviets. Therefore, by choosing the 60s, del Toro was able to seamlessly add the tension in his film as the civil rights movement, America’s Race to Space against the Russians, and most explicitly, the Cold War, were already building tensions that present themselves throughout that time. It added to the grit and darkness that played a role of telling a love story that is plagued by danger. In order to visually conceptualize this, del Toro uses dark lighting in the movie, dark costumes, and not to mention, the explicit use of torture of the Amphibian Man, wonderfully played by Doug Jones, to capture the elements of horror and terror.
However, my particular issue with del Toro’s use of the 60s was instead of challenging the use of ‘otherness’ that strongly existed in media, language, policies, and sentiment, to name a few, it instead fell into the trap of using it as a prop to tell a love story about ‘othering’. Instead of challenging the white American narrative, the film instead presents its narrative through the white American lens. Some might argue the villain of the narrative, the government agent Strickland, was the white American persona at the time and was a character that audiences could be horrified with and detest openly. To which I would agree with completely.
Therefore, how is it possible that Elisa Esposito, a poor, mute, Latina woman, represents whiteness? To this I will argue, white American lens is no longer simply the characterization of specific identities that make up the lens. The white American lens has colonized us as a whole that by default we tend to write stories from that perspective. This lens revolves around placing the white body (and Elisa is a white Latina) as the point of view we understand and making her surroundings foreign to us. Throughout the film, we are fused with the lens of Elisa and we are experiencing her journey of exploring the Amphibian Man with her. In my opinion, the reasons why The Shape of Water is able to incorporate clear usage of ‘othering’ is precisely because the Amphibian Man is literally an ‘other’ to humans. In fact, by the end of the film, Strickland even admits, “[He] is a God.”
A classic example of The Shape of Water’s usage of ‘othering’, is through its running theme of providing a voice to the voiceless. Elisa Esposito, who has been mute since the day she was “found by the river” with only the scars on her neck as a key to the mystery of her muteness. With only a select few characters around her that understand sign language, Elisa is often voiceless in the company of others. She requires a translator with her to present her thoughts and feelings to those who are unable to sign. As the film progresses, Elisa becomes not only bolder in her actions, (the scene that comes to mind is where she signs, “Fuck you” to Strickland), but also with herself. It truly is an empowering journey audiences are privy too.
However, this is not the case for the Amphibian Man. I would argue he is the only character throughout the entire film that is truly mute and voiceless. He is never given his own autonomy. He is first captured and tortured by scientist and government agencies to be sliced open and examine because of his foreignness. Then later, with Elisa, he is used as a tool to be cinematographically prodded open and examined because he is presented as visually appealing. Thus, in this classic story of ‘othering’- the Amphibian Man’s voice is literally smothered by the narrative that is placed around him, and he as a character no longer has his own autonomy but instead simply looms into the backdrop of this visually stunning film. As the Amphibian Man, he is not there to be heard, only viewed.
Based on what I viewed, I thought it was impossible for me to agree that this film was about embracing the ‘other’ and giving a voice to the voiceless. That being said, this film did bring about some serious thought. It made me ask myself, why does it seem truly impossible for Hollywood to tell a story that does not revolve around ‘othering’ the marginalized body? Is there even a way to tell a love story about two different people, or in this case, two different species and can give voices to both characters?
I truly believe when one has the desire to tell a story of a marginalized group/ person, the answer always lies with listening. So often, the intent is to create something by using a marginalized person’s experience as a prop. Never is it done with the perspective in mind that the marginalized person is more than just their identities. They are a whole narrative on their own. I believe taking the perspective of listening, will elevate issues from just being something to add depth to one’s narrative, and move it to building stories conscious of actual people in mind.