The Magic of Odd Bedfellows: How “The Shape of Water” Reflects on Interconnected Liberation


“The Shape of Water” offers a critical, revealing, and hopeful story. It depicts some positionalities and dynamics not often represented onscreen, and offers some liberatory influences for its viewers today. While we know all too well that film awards institutions are riddled with structural racism, as well as queerphobia, class-bias, and ableism, especially when these categories intersect, it’s refreshing to see “The Shape of Water” now showing in all theatres thanks to its many awards and nominations. [While awards shows are deeply problematic, they certainly have real effects on what films are made accessible and what resources folks in film get access to – so here’s hoping films like “Get Out” and “The Shape of Water” get celebrated and recognized for the incisive works of art they are.]

Donna Haraway is here speaking of the troubles of the planetary and social conditions we live in: exploitative and oppressive systems based on intertwined colonialism and profit, and their ties to race/ethnicity and gender categories, vast disparities in wealth and its attendant resources, human-induced climatological shifts that will change life as we know it, extinction of many different species of “critters” (as Haraway often admiringly calls diverse other-than-human organisms). For Haraway, to “stay with the trouble” is to believe that a multi-species “we” can overcome the environmental unravelling, and mass death and suffering perpetuated by current social systems, and thereby continue to exist on this planet. To survive and thrive, we’ll have to be in solidarity across many categories, in new combinations. This idea of alliances based on considered reflection on how different oppressions interconnect is seen in many theories/practices for liberation. Guillermo del Toro’s film “The Shape of Water” flows in with this concept as well, beautifully demonstrating a small scale version of the dynamic. 

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Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes.

“The Shape of Water” centers upon the life of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) in the U.S. in the early 1960s. Elisa is on the janitorial staff of a U.S. military science complex. She is a light-skinned woman in early middle age who is mute and uses sign language to speak. Her two close friends, Zelda and Giles, know sign language and translate her speech to those who don’t speak ASL when necessary. Giles (Richard Jenkins) is Elisa’s neighbor in apartments settled above an old movie theatre; he is a late-middle-aged white gay man, and an artist struggling to get commissions for ad paintings, and to find love. Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) is her coworker; she is an early-middle-aged black woman, and like Elisa, on the janitorial staff at the science complex, and is navigating an unsatisfying marriage at home. The story builds around a creature brought into the laboratory for study, a being that looks somewhat mermaid/man-like – like a human with fish or frog-like skin, webbed phalanges, and frog-like eyes. 

“‘The Shape of Water’ depicts some positionalities and dynamics not often represented onscreen, and offers some liberatory influences for its viewers today.”

Characters make different judgements about how to treat this ambiguous being. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who facilitated the creature’s capture from a river in an unspecified location in South America, treats it with disregard and brutality. Elisa conducts herself toward it in an affectionate and welcoming manner, which she articulates at one point to Giles as sparked by her shared experience of otherness with the creature, and because of ideas of lack normatively perceived in disability. The amphibious being does not share these concepts, and thus regards her, as she says, as “complete.” She sees her otherness in it, and it seems to see her otherness, if at all, as difference rather than inferiority. She secretly visits the tank and cage while on cleaning rounds, bringing the creature the foods she packs in her own lunches, playing music for it, and teaching it pieces of sign language. (Unnamed in the film, the being is called Amphibian Man in the film credits. Its gender is perhaps less parallel to humans’ than this suggests, since its not part of the same social systems that codify gender, but I will use he pronouns and this after-the-fact name throughout the rest of the article.)

Zelda and Giles come to grasp Elisa’s conception of the Amphibian Man, though it is not as urgent or readily apparent to them at first. A Soviet spy scientist, Bob/Dimitri Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg) is also caught up in the interactions with Amphibian Man; he has a stake in securing scientific findings for the Soviet Union, but is concerned with recognizing Amphibian Man’s sentience, unlike Richard, who comes to advocate for the vivisection of the specimen, sparking a rescue plot by the other characters. Elisa and Amphibian Man’s connection even grows into love and sexuality over the course of the story.

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Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. 

As in Del Toro’s other work, such as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water” powerfully builds realistic oppressor characters. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Francoist general pursuing the guerilla fighters and abusing his family and domestic workers, is a parallel to Richard Strickland in “Shape of Water.” Richard is violently self-focused, and interested in position and power above all else. He, like Vidal, engages in torture (of the Amphibian Man and Dr. Hoffstetler), exhibiting his complete disregard for any concept of ethics – of respect for another’s body. Also like Vidal, Richard has a sickly wound inflicted in the course of his own brutal violence – Vidal has his mouth cut open at the corner when he attempts to torture Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), one of the domestic workers of the household who is part of the leftist resistance. Richard acquires his wound when Amphibian Man is able to retaliate against his repeated beatings with a cattle prod and deprivations of water by Richard, lunging at him to rip off two of his fingers. Richard undergoes a procedure to reattach them, but they grow more and more infected throughout the film until he finally rips them off himself in a pill-infused rampage of violence.

“The film demonstrates the boundaries of just violence, and possible alliances and solidarities that can begin to overcome the violent oppressions of the military industrial complex and its ingrained white supremacist, heteronormative, ableist ways.”

Richard also exhibits racism, sexism, and ableism in the workplace, and misogynistic disrespect toward his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) as he covers her face during sex with his bleeding, infected hand while she tries to stop the sex as his hand begins bleeding. This incident weaves into one of his instances of harassment of Elisa: he propositions her sexually, fetishizing her absence of audible speech as she tries to clean. Richard sexually harasses both Zelda and Elisa when he comes into the bathroom they are cleaning and uses the urinal, telling them to stay as he does so, and telling them his philosophy that men should wash their hands before pissing, but not after, as a sign of self-respect. He also subjects Zelda to racially charged disrespect as he takes a particularly condescending, didactic tone toward her, and makes a comment about God being made more in his image than hers, in reference to their gender and race positionalities. (She, on the other hand, doesn’t subscribe to the idea that a god’s image would be knowable.) 

Late in the film he also breaks into Zelda’s house, threatening and cornering her to find the whereabouts of the escaped Amphibian Man. Meanwhile, Brewster (Martin Roach), Zelda’s husband, looks on, conditioned by white supremacy and patriarchy to not stand up to Richard as he abuses Zelda. Brewster even offers up Amphibian Man and Elisa’s whereabouts in fear. In this film, the line between types of violence is clear – the unjust violence of power-over and the just violence of protection against such abuses—which Giles enacts against Richard, and which Brewster could have enacted to shield Zelda, Amphibian Man, Elisa, and Giles.

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Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. 

Interestingly, the film also depicts the Cold War dynamic between the U.S. government and Soviet government in a slightly more complex way than one often sees. Everyday people are caught up in the military industrial complexes of each. Neither government has an ethical approach, or even an ethical goal. 

Against Richard and General Hoyt (whom Richard reports to and thus seeks to prove himself to), and the systems they represent, we see the alliances of variously othered characters. Elisa, Zelda, Giles, and Amphibian Man are all oppressed individually and categorically—but by forces continually revealed to be interlocking. Giles is at first ambivalent about the cause of civil rights for Black folks, as we see in his reaction to footage of police attacks on civil rights protesters: “Turn that off,” he says to Elisa, seemingly acknowledging the  violent repression black folks are pummeled with, but still standing unwilling to learn about it, process it, and then act in solidarity. Later on, the same man who expresses disgust at Giles’s gayness enforces segregation in the restaurant he works at, opening Giles’ eyes to the issue. This in part leads him to take initiative to help save Amphibian Man from the planned murder, helping Elisa to keep her loved one alive. 

Zelda doesn’t want to take the leap to facilitate Amphibian Man’s escape either, but she joins the cause as well, making the connections about what it means to write off the life of Amphibian Man. Dr. Hoffstetler is much more interested in ethical treatment and the sentience of the Amphibian Man than the U.S. military, but ultimately the Soviet government representatives Hoffstetler meets with are more concerned with undermining the U.S. than the ethical and scientific questions he raises. Disabled, Latinx, Black, queer, and scientific interests overlap in the project of the escape of other-than-human Amphibian Man from the military industrial complex. Patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, and speciesism are shown to be interwoven and affect the daily struggles of each of our differently positioned characters. 

There are many refreshing turns the film takes—there are set-ups for a disability “cure” story, and for an untamable monster kind of story, that it then actively subverts. It could have, however, more actively interwoven the racialized oppression element of its analysis. Even if Elisa is intended to be Latina, she is equally readable as white, which we already see with Giles’ character (plus Hoffstetler and Richard), and which slips by opportunities to look at layered, intersecting otherness at another level. Despite this missed opportunity to decenter whiteness, this film communicates a powerful story. Without feeling didactic or simplified, “The Shape of Water” demonstrates the boundaries of just violence, and possible alliances and solidarities that can begin to overcome the violent oppressions of the military industrial complex and its ingrained white supremacist, heteronormative, ableist ways. 

All Images Courtesy of © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved