To get to the theater where The Shape of Water is playing I have to take a subway to a mall. Once inside the mall, I have to find the theater. Unbeknownst me, once inside the movie theater, I will be shown a map of the theater where my movie is showing and asked to pick a seat. The rest I have prepared for meticulously, because I have a neurological disability that affects the spatial part of the brain leaving me unable to read maps or create any “mental maps” that would allow to me to intuit where I am, but I had never seen a map of the inside a movie theater before. I’m sure that I looked like any other movie patron, though, as I hemmed and hawed while trying to figure out which part of the map represented the front of the theater and which the back. Previous to reaching the theater, I was eager to try out the subway stop that had just reopened a couple of blocks from my house and I was disappointed and a bit ashamed when I couldn’t find it but I just walked a few more blocks to the one by the church- without a mental map to rely on, I look for large landmarks to mark familiar territory. The ever changing landscape of New York isn’t the most reliable touchstone but I moved here recently because a city constantly making and unmaking itself matches up with my internal landscape as well as my experience of landscape as constantly shifting no matter where I am.
I became especially interested in The Shape of Water when, during the Golden Globes, I saw a clip of the protagonist, a mute woman, saying in sign “He doesn’t know I’m incomplete.” She was speaking of her sea monster lover, who is trapped in a lab and tortured by a sadistic scientist. The mute woman, like me, is someone who you would not label as disabled if you passed her on the street. In the sea monster she saw an external expression of her own projected monstrosity. I was worried for her. I’d had my own share of misfit partners who I was drawn to because their careless dynamic matched my internal expression of chaos. I was also worried for the film, which I had heard many good things about and had made plans to see several times over the holiday season. When the plans fell apart, the “incomplete” woman stayed in my mind. I had to see what would happen to her. I don’t get many chances for representation in film and I was curious what this mirror-me had gotten herself into.
I was already pretty tired and frustrated by the time I faced the map of theater seats.
Once I picked my seat, near the side exit, I stood with the slip of paper hugging the wall until a man asks me if I needed help finding my seat. As a woman, this happens a lot. It happened even more when I was in my twenties and I expect that once I pass through middle age and start to look much older there will be another uptick in men coming to my aid. Culturally, it would be much harder to garner the assistance that I require from inside a male body. I am lucky in that in the movie theater light I look like a confused young woman. This of course can also be just as unlucky.
The producer of The Creature from The Black Lagoon, The Gill-man sea creatures’ film debut and the inspiration for The Shape of Water, William Alland, supposedly said of the creature he imagined “It would still frighten you, but because how human it was, not the other way around” but when I try to source this quote I find an Italian book about film monsters, Il Cinema Dei Mostri, which was previously cited in an academic book on race and biopolitics in Italy, and a 2006 novelization of the film. The origins of the quote are murky, befitting the legend of a sea monster recast as a film star. The humanity of the creature seems to be determined by its two legs and four arms and its ability to desire. King Kong shared these traits but he is a hairy mess whereas the sea creature is sleek and sexy, like a luxury sports car. Whereas the original Creature films followed the same “beast snatches a lady” trope as most rubber suit monster movies, The Shape of Water the creature’s desire is streamlined into love.
There’s a table in front of the seat, which is a real pain when it comes to getting in and coming out of it if you’re spatially inept. It turns out that the man had guided me to the wrong seat and when another woman came to claim I must have looked like a real bitch when I was hesitant to vacate it. I was frowning because I was looking ahead to where my elbows need to go in order to not knock down my next door neighbor’s beer. “It’s ok, I can just take the other seat.” She said. “Thank you,” I whispered, embarrassed.
The Shape of Water opens with a woman underwater, sleeping while floating above a couch. This is “The Princess without a voice” the voiceover tells us, evoking that other underwater princess without a voice, The Little Mermaid, who traded her voice for legs. Shape-shifting from mermaid to human transformed her desire for the prince from perverse pining to actionable. In both the film and the fairytale, a mute woman is a stand-in for forbidden desire. In contrast, less accommodating female sea creatures, sirens, lure men to them with their voices. There are no stories where a female sea creature who can speak is not malevolent.
Elisa lures the monster from its pool, in the center of a government laboratory that she and her best friend are tasked with cleaning, with snacks. Her best friend at work is black, her best friend at home is gay, her lover is a sea monster- with the sets reminiscent of doll houses painted saturated colors, early on this film starts to feel like Amelie for the oppressed. Even the evil government agent who intends to destroy the monster is himself alienated from home, unable to connect with his wife and children he downs painkillers to dull both psychical and emotional pain. There’s an entryway into the film for everyone except anyone in the audience hoping to connect with these character sketches. It’s mentioned that Elisa was found abandoned in a basket by the river, like Moses. Her vocal chords where cut in slashes on her neck resembling the sea monsters fins.
I worked hard to get to the theater, I was open and ready and willing for enchantment, and that the film that I saw was beautifully crafted more sharply rendered my disappointment. We all receive many cues from daily life and films and culture to support a narrative of who we are. Because my cognitive differences are encased inside my skull, I don’t inspire terror in passersby with my monstrosity, only confused looks and exasperated sighs when I fail at simple tasks like tying my shoes, telling analog time, or reading a map. It’s only when I fall out of the social agreement about what abilities make us normal that I’m recognized as living outside of the story of typicality. Because Elisa is mute, she also presents as someone with a foot in each world. The movie, though, won’t let her forget that her true place, her only shot at love and acceptance, is with the monsters. This film has taken hold in the culture on the 200th anniversary of the publication of another story about a creature who was formed as not fully human or monster, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Begging his creator for someone to pair with, Frankenstein cries out “I am alone and miserable. Only someone as ugly as I am could love me.”
Once Elisa and the monster consummate their affair, her friend at work asks her about the intimate mechanics of having sex with a sea monster. Elisa pantomimes an unsheathing to show that her man monster has a hidden penis. This awkward assurance to the audience of the monster’s ability and worth as a fish-man is an attempt to corral her desire into something recognizable and respectable. This is isn’t tentacle porn. There’s another, similar pledge made when the mute woman breaks into song in a fantasy number. The audience can be reassured that Elisa fantasizes about being normal. This is what kills me about how the film toys with a sense of shared oppression- between the monster and Elisa, between her and her band of misfts. Love is the antidote to being victimized by your oppression; it regulates atypical bodies and sanitizes taboo desire.
The story that only the downtrodden can empathize with the monster is propping up an artificial schism that manipulates the pain of difference into the story that tells us that we are recognizable as human and as something subhuman. “He doesn’t see that I’m incomplete,” Elisa says. Anyone who has loved a human, and perhaps a monster, knows that the paradox of love is that we fall for incompleteness because it is our unraveling that makes us.
We love over time, so much so that the completion of a lifespan is not the completion of love. Love itself is forever incomplete project, one that we take on as incomplete people. It doesn’t make us complete, it doesn’t make up for our shortcomings, it makes our lives richer and more complex in the every day by virtue of what makes us each unique, not in spite of it. That which makes us human cannot be sifted from what makes us monsters. Our plainness, our tiny intricate insecurities and quirks, as well as our larger battles, are what make us all magical and terrifying creatures worthy of love.