The movie, nominated for Best Picture, tells “disabled people [that they] should go and be with their kind,” one critic said.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for “The Shape of Water.”
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry was psyched when she heard about Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.”
As a speculative fiction author and editor who is legally blind and deaf, Sjunneson-Henry couldn’t wait to see a science fiction film featuring a protagonist with a disability.
“I was super excited to potentially see a movie about a disabled woman as a hero in a genre setting,” Sjunneson-Henry told HuffPost.
The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture — and many entertainment trade outlets predict it will win. It stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a cleaning woman who works at a top-secret government lab in the 1960s. Elisa, who is mute, lives a lonely life despite having two caring friends who are also outsiders — Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is gay, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is black.
But Elisa’s life drastically changes when she discovers that the research facility where she works is performing questionable experiments on an aquatic but human-like creature (Doug Jones).
Sjunneson-Henry thought “The Shape of Water” would be a heist movie, in which Elisa and her ragtag group of underdog friends band together, save the fish man and triumph over injustice.
“I wanted to walk away from that movie feeling like, ‘Yay! I got to see a disabled main character have lots of agency and [engage in] a lot of bad ass-ery,’” she said. “But that’s not what I got.”
What she got instead was a love story in which a character who is disabled falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon because he’s the only being she can relate to on a deeper, emotional level.
In a heated scene in which Elisa explains why rescuing the Amphibian Man (as the character is listed on IMDb) is so important to her, she says that the creature “does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I am, as I am.”
The sentiment is romantic, and is supposed to convey that the creature sees beyond Elisa’s physical abilities. Del Toro himself has expressed that this was his intention. But Sjunneson-Henry poignantly writes how this sentiment makes some people with disabilities “feel less human,” in her essay, “I Belong Where the People Are.”
On the one hand I have always known in my soul that [able-bodied] people see me as half of them, that they see me as less than whole. Which is why I hate that in media such as this, we can only be desired by those who don’t know any better.– Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, a speculative fiction author and editor who is disabled
“On the one hand I have always known in my soul that [able-bodied] people see me as half of them, that they see me as less than whole,” she wrote. “Which is why I hate that in media such as this, we can only be desired by those who don’t know any better.”
The problem with this love story may be due, in part, to the fact that there were very few people with disabilities involved in the creation of this film. When HuffPost reached out to Fox Searchlight to ask whether there were any disabled consultants involved in the film, a rep said two ASL coaches were involved during production. And though leading lady Hawkins has dyslexia, she has said publicly that she is “not disabled.”
There are also plenty of arguments that could support why this pairing is acceptable.
The movie hits viewers over the head with the message that the real monster in this fable isn’t Amphibian Man, but a human — Elisa’s boss Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a villain hellbent on vivisecting “the asset” (the monster) by any means.
Both Elisa and her webbed boo are isolated and voiceless, but bond intimately, on their own terms, through the sign language that Elisa teaches him.
Kristen Lopez, a film critic who is physically disabled, argues in a piece titled “How ‘Shape of Water’ Breaks Down Barriers About Sex and Disability” that placing an openly sexual disabled woman at the forefront of a mainstream Hollywood film is a pretty revolutionary move.
Lopez points out that women with disabilities are often characterized as unattractive and asexual. Yet, in the first few moments of the film, we see Elisa masturbating in her bathtub, which “removes the presumed barriers that separate people with disabilities from the able-bodied.”