The Shape of Water and Disability Representation
Look, I get it. Well-rounded minority characters are hard for Hollywood, especially when it comes time to present them in a light that puts them on equal footing with the average beauty queens and all-American boys (read: able-bodied, straight, white heroes) who populate American cinema. Minority representation in Hollywood has been, until what feels like very recently, reserved largely for the villains, or the token sympathy-garnering character, or (in more egregious examples) the target of ridicule at the hands of other characters or of the narrative itself.
So, where are the people deemed by society categorically Other left? Before I come off as overly sensitive, let’s consider how the relationship between the consumer public and popular media allows for these kinds of derogatory depictions to do real harm. It’s the nature of modern pop culture, after all, to seep its way into people’s lives in very tangible ways. Films, like novels and other forms of storytelling, are often judged by how relatable or identifiable-with their protagonists are, so it’s no surprise that film merchandise constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry that enables viewers to physically acquire or become their favorite props and characters. Cosplay, fan fiction, and fan art, for more devoted fans, increase the saturation of media into the lives of consumers still more.
Among casual consumers, moral panic at the assumed influence of violent video games on adolescents still recurs, if less frequently than in the past. Why, then, is it a strange or difficult idea that, when an overweight kid struggling with body image issues can encounter others with bodies like his on screen almost exclusively as the target of humiliation and ridicule (cf. The Goonies, wherein Chunk—his name is Chunk!—locates the villainous Fratellis’ hideout by scenting their ice cream), it should impact his own self-worth?
The girl who needs assistive devices to walk likewise sees herself reflected usually in a sidekick to a physically more able person, or in the role of villain or object of sympathy. Where her able-bodied counterparts see themselves reflected in heroes “independent, complete, invulnerable, and competent,” she finds herself primarily in characters who are alternately either shunned or coddled.
If we want change, if we want to break the boxes people with disabilities find themselves in, the easiest way to start is to teach our children there is no difference between them and anyone else. Children are perhaps the most impressionable as well as the most open-minded. Contrary to popular belief, you can teach a child anything and they will make an effort to understand and practice it. This includes acceptance of all the people around them.
This openness is best aided by popular media when people of all shapes, sizes, physical abilities, and lifestyles are allowed a framework of power and equality to see themselves in. Credit where credit is due, if we look in the right places, it feels as though we are experiencing a time unlike any other in terms of representation right now. But there is still a long, long way to go. For example, in the most recent study I could find, 95% of disabled characters in some of TV’s most popular programs are not portrayed by actual disabled people. And don’t get me started on whitewashing (looking at you, Ghost in the Shell) and characters limited only to traits within a stereotype. Having a minority character show up in a story means almost nothing if they are not presented as fully dimensional human beings. Stereotypes service no one, and neither does one-dimensionality.
We are living in an age of progress on this front, though, slow as it may be. Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water is but one example, but it is an important one. Here we are given a disabled woman who is the hero of her own story, and a heroine in the daily lives of her friends. Not only is she a hero, however, but a strong, independent, woman with desires not commonly associated with the disabled community. For some reason. That is, she is strong, independent, and not at all shy about her sexual desires. Imagine! The first time a fully dimensional character who happens to be mute is given such traits as sexuality and defiance in the face of oppressive power, and it wins an Oscar. The Oscar.
This is remarkable not only because it is strange (go ahead, ask around; who do you know who thinks the movie deserved it?), but because Eliza, our main character, is outspoken and fierce at the same time she is emotionally vulnerable, open to genuine sympathy while in no way soliciting it from the audience. She is not meant to put you off or to elicit pity. She is unabashedly there, struggling in her own fight sometimes, but always overcoming.
Eliza’s burden of course, is her knowledge of her Otherness, but it is entirely secondary to her character. You root for her not because she overcomes her disability and its associated negative thoughts (this is no Forrest Gump with suddenly no need for braces just because he’s being chased by bullies), but because she uses all the things people in power think make her less, including the fact of her disability and her existence as a woman on the janitorial staff at a government facility, to beat them! To outsmart them! To say “fuck you” to their faces while she carries out her plan to save the creature behind their backs (really, it’s a great scene, and even without subtitles you know what she’s saying).
Though she is biologically forced into silence, having suffered some kind of accident that severed her vocal cords and left very visible scars along both sides of her throat, Eliza is by far the most outspoken character of the lot. And, even though we are only provided with subtitles for her one time, when she is asking for help to execute her plan to save what is referred to in the government facility where she works as “The Asset”, we understand her for the entire film. She expresses a wide range of emotions and is dependent on no one, even when it comes to her sexual gratification. Yes, in what may be the most notorious scene in the entire film, she initiates sex with the humanoid creature she rescues, because they find each other beautiful and she has fallen in love with him. Waaaaay before that, though, in the beginning of the film when we are getting acquainted with Eliza’s daily routine, we see her (in multiple scenes, indicating it happens pretty frequently) masturbating in the tub.
It is a shame that I should get so excited about a disabled woman masturbating in a bathtub, but until we can stop portraying disabled characters as impotent or asexual beings (unless, that is, they really are asexual for the sake of representation on that spectrum), I will shout from the rooftops that an Oscar-winning movie was made by one of the most creative, strangest filmmakers I have encountered, and centers on a mute woman who uses her forced silence as a form of power without letting it consume her entire identity. I have an entirely different disability to contend with in my life and I’m feeling empowered by the thought. It isn’t a perfect film (no film is), and there are arguments to be made about the fact that she falls in love with the only humanoid-but-not-altogether-human in the movie, but this is Guillermo del Toro, who actively acknowledges this as a fairy tale. And, like I said, we still have a long way to go before reaching total equality. For now, I am more than happy to celebrate the fiercely independent woman that is Eliza Esposito.