Traditionalism limits The Shape of Water

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[photo: Ben Kanter]

Guillermo Del Toro’s The shape of water is a film meant to be loved. A captured sea creature is placed in a laboratory; facing destruction and caught between the coldly calculating politics of American and Soviet interests, it is saved by a young woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose empathy turns to romantic love. Having won a 2018 Golden Globe award for best director and nominated for 13 Oscars, The shape of water is lyrical, camp, sculptural and blood-splattered. Enchanting in its swirl of different influences, it is traditional in the contours of its politics.

This traditionalism is not unusual. However, Del Toro’s film has generated far more ambitious political claims. According to the New York Times, “The understated, intuitive sympathy among these outcasts gives this fable some political bite”. Del Toro fills in this “bite”, “The movie is about today. It’s about everything that we’re dealing with today — the toxic division of the ideology of us and them… race, religion, government sexual preference, gender [sic] — anything that creates this fake division between us and them, and there’s only us. There is only us.”

And it is great Del Toro wants to counter these divisions. Yet, the tropes used to do so, with their conscious recuperation of older images and narratives (in fact The shape of water has been attacked for plagiarising a 1969 play, an accusation Del Toro denies), stitch into this vision of cross-species love some far more traditional norms.  These aren’t incidental – the effluvia caught by a dramatic net cast across 1960s America. Rather, the film relies on their presence, as the subtextual racialized, sexual and gendered logics give The shape of water its dramatic power and intensity. And it is the unexceptional nature of these choices which make them worth attending to, at a contemporary moment where conveying the harms of xenophobia, division and inequality require something more than a film about girl/ sea monster love.

But, reviewers suggest, this film is about so much more. “The real monster in The Shape of Water is man and all his prejudices, fears, and insecurities. ”  A Detroit News review calls it  “a marvellous movie, an adult fairy tale swimming in truths about racism, homophobia and the fear of the unknown.” Yet, racism and homophobia are told, as they far too often are in Hollywood, through two secondary characters.  Equally telling, we suspect, from the start, that these structural social issues will remain outside the dramatic resolution of the narrative. While the white heroine’s arc moves towards happiness, the everyday racism one friend experiences and the unfulfilled affections of her gay neighbour will be left unresolved and hanging.

The problem of dramatic resolution does not just surround the main character, Elisa’s love affair; it also digs deeply into it. In an interview Del Toro remarked,“It’s sort of Beauty and the Beast in a way that shows you that Beauty doesn’t have to be the perfect princess, she doesn’t have to look like a perfume-commercial model … and the Beast doesn’t have to be transformed to be loved, and he doesn’t have to turn into a boring fucking prince and renounce the essence of who he is”.  Certainly, Elisa has fallen in love with a sea creature, but this creature is unequivocally and, Del Toro’s interview suggests unquestionably, a male one. Not only the sea creature’s gender, but also his sexual capacity become explicit when Elisa’s friend gestures to the question of penetration; and Elisa explains the creature has a pop-up (or is it a pop-down?) penis. As the New York Times reviewer comments, “You may marvel at just how far Mr. del Toro takes this interspecies romance — all the way, basically — and also at how natural, how un-creepy, how pure and right he makes it seem.” It is the penis which helps to normalise the “asset” – the name the creature receives from the national security research lab, and one of the film’s defining moments is when Elisa ‘genders’ the creature she has come to love; now a “he”, the creature’s para-humanity stands against the research lab’s cold, instrumental characterisation that it is only an ‘it’.

We could read the heterosexuality inscribed onto this woman/ sea creature love story as a pragmatic choice. Elisa’s desire for a sea creature is recuperated by the conventional gender ‘fit’; her story thus becomes one straight audiences can enjoy (rather than feel disturbed by); difference has been rendered safe. But I think something else more subtle is also at play that goes to the heart of how passion and pathos are cinematically coded. It is not simply the terms of mainstream audience identification, seemingly unsettled by a creature with no recognisable gender (or the wrong one). What also is demonstrated is the dramatic significance and weight hetero-normative desire is treated as able to carry. If the monster Elisa fell in love with had been a female one, the passion and horror of what was happening might seem too light and trifling in conditions where same-sex romance, particularly between women, struggles to escape being coded as local and parochial; too situated in its own particularity to carry the timeless requirements of a fairy tale.

And something similar happens in relation to race. It isn’t just coincidence, Hollywood bias or entertainment industry economics that lead Elisa to be portrayed as a white woman when she equally well could have been a woman of colour – in fact could have been the story of her co-worker, Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) if she hadn’t been too busy helping the main character survive. Something else, insidious, is going on, for it isn’t just Elisa who is silently racialized; so too is the sea creature, captured in South America, chained, bound and held in a swamp-like watery lair, and derided by the security guys as primitive and dangerous. While this film has been praised for its anti-racist sensibility, this drama of love across difference relies, I think, upon traditional racialized cinematic codes or at least poses questions about them. Why is difference represented through a “monster” and a white woman? What does whiteness say and do in this cinematic depiction; and if it is there to symbolise difference or contrast, what does this tell us about the subtextual (alongside the more explicit) racialized coding the sea creature carries?

At the end, this newly made ‘he’ picks up Elisa, shot and seemingly dead, and cradling her jumps into the canal. The film closes with her swimming into life, underwater, a slight mermaid-like figure on route to a new home. While much of the movie centres on Elisa’s love, sexual desire, and nurturing (a re-tweaked image of the new woman),  in the end, the sea creature (revived and remasculinised) brings the story to its conclusion. Unlike the sea creature who could not adapt to a dry home (or even to a bath), Elisa is inherently more plastic and malleable. Hers is the feminised morphology able to withstand change; the figure who is not wounded or disempowered by following her lover even as, to do so, she must adapt to the conditions of living under water. (The creature converts the neck scars, which have taken away her voice, into gills.)

Monsters’ radical character and promise come from the challenge they represent and pose to the constructed “natural” order. Yet, while this film has been praised, including as a “farytale for queers and other outsiders”, for me its shortfall lies in not offering a fairy tale that is transformed enough, despite moments when the outsiders win. Perhaps this is to ask too much. Maybe my discomfort fundamentally is that the slight gestures of this film, embedded in a well-banked narrative, get hailed as radical. Even in Hollywood I think we can expect a film with political bite to involve something more.

Water takes its shape from that which contains it; and while there are some wonderful visual moments here of water breaching its boundaries – cascading from the deliberately flooded bathroom that briefly encloses Elisa’s romance – ultimately, the shape of water is curtailed by the film’s reliance on traditional cinematic logics of normative human difference. Perhaps, however, in replaying these codes, the film at least makes them visible.



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