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Shape of Water questions our view of humanity

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Shape of Water came out December 22, 2017 and took the world in its grasp.  The movie is set in Cold War USA in a secret and secure laboratory.  Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a young mute woman, finds herself falling in love with a sea creature that the laboratory is studying.  Agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) does not see the merit in humanizing the captive creature and tortures it to find out anything that could help America beat the Russians.  In the end, with the help of many friends, Elisa helps the creature escape and brings him back to her apartment.  There, she has her first sexual experience with another being, much to the audience’s surprise.  Guillermo Del Toro, the director, has a habit of creating images that seem horrific and disturbing, and this scene has many people on edge. 

“It bothered me that the creature was treated as equal with humanity by the protagonist while he was really portrayed as animalistic,” said Peter Hoffpauir, a senior Film major.  “I feel like there should have been a middle ground between the villain’s point of view and the protagonist’s. The creature clearly wasn’t human, but still had feelings. The nature of his relationship with the women was really inappropriate.”

Despite how uncomfortable the humanization and sexualization of the sea creature makes the audience feel, the movie’s themes address two aspects of humanity: disability and cruelty.  Firstly, those with a disability are portrayed as being removed from the rest of society- freaks of nature who aren’t human.  Richard talks about Elisa as if she is nothing, as if she isn’t even in the room.  She can hear him, she just can’t talk.  He even belittles her by asking her about the scars on her neck, the implied result of some sort of torture she received as a baby before being dropped at an orphanage.  

This kind of treatment from society separates Elisa from those in power, and basically all of society, people like Richard, and is why she gains a connection with the sea creature.  When Elisa is explaining to her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) why she loves the creature and why she needs to save him from Richard, she signs: “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me. He does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me. Every time, every day. And now I can either save him or let him die.”

While freaks may be outliers in society, the underlying message of the movie reveals that they can love the same, if not better, than other humans, and are fully capable of acting the way humans want each other to act.  We are no different, no better than the creatures we portray as monsters; within our own race there are so many terrible people– murderers, child-molesters, animal poachers, rapists.  How can we say we are superior to anyone else? The same goes for the disabled, who are more often than not portrayed as outliers in society. How can we say we are worth more or are capable of more than anyone else?

The ending really seals the message in: in the last minutes of the film, Elisa gets shot by Richard while trying to save her lovable sea monster.  Everyone thinks she has died, and after monster-boy kills Richard by tearing him to shreds, he tries to heal her wounds with his superpowers and takes her into the water so that he can be with her one last time. She seems VERY dead, until after a few seconds under the water, the scars on her neck transform into gills, and she is revived.  

What separated her from “humanity” is ultimately what gives her life meaning.  It seems that life on earth is not suitable for those of us like Elisa.  We see this too in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labrynth, where the protagonist, a little girl named Ofelia living during the Civil War in Spain, gets shot by her soldier step-father and then goes into the Otherworld to meet her real father, the King.  Ofelia, too, is shunned by most people in her life, despite always trying to the right thing and always wanting to protect her mother, and in the end, her baby brother.  

This film shows the audience how society makes people with disabilities feel about themselves.  Our society is unyielding to those who are different from what we deem normal, and it really is just cruelty disguised as social construct.  Which brings me to my next point: is cruelty part of what makes us human?  That is, if Richard, a homo sapiens, is crueler than the sea monster, does that mean that cruelty what sets apart humans from the other creatures we call monsters?  

When asked what defines humanity, Kellie Vedros, a senior English major responded “I guess it means having the ability to love and be kind.  Like how the monster heals Elisa of her wounds at the end [of Shape of Water].”  

In this movie, it seems the monster is more humane than most of the humans.  Not only does this monster have two eyes, a heart, and emotions, it has the capability to learn language and mannerisms.  He embodies characteristics that humans admire in others and yearn for in themselves and in their companions.  He desires friends, understands sign language, hungers, and desires happiness. So why is he a monster?  

The heaven for those who are better than we average humans is somewhere beneath the earth, away from the cruelty that eventually kills them.  

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Shape of Water questions our view of humanity