September 6, 2018

Religious defiance and historical denial

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 3:51 pm by chavisory

religious meme[Image is a peaceful scene of stones forming a path across a waterway, flanked by bamboo and hanging lanterns. Text reads “A religious person will do what he is told…no matter what is right…whereas a spiritual person will do what is right…no matter what he is told…”]

Y’all know by now I basically live to rip facile nonsense like this to shreds, right?

This post is derived from a debate I had a little bit ago with a Facebook friend on the subject of this meme. I have, ad nauseam, pointed out the categorical falsehoods being committed by witticisms like this and the basic bigotries that they represent. It’s virtually a reflex. There are things I would so much rather be doing with my time, but I have a really hard time letting misrepresentations like this stand without comment.

Believe it or not, I am actually starting to feel like me doing that has, possibly, reached the limit of its utility.

But something else strikes me about this meme, which is its erasure of the role that religious communities have historically played in supporting and participating in civil disobedience, most memorably as far as American history goes in the Civil Rights Movement, but also in the abolitionist movement and in the Resistance to the Nazis in WWII in Europe. MLK, Jr. was a pastor. A Lutheran pastor in Germany led an assassination attempt on Hitler. A whole plethora of religiously-based organizations have been active in the fight for marriage equality, including pastors defying the rules of their own churches to perform marriages they could be defrocked for.

And, it being the case that we are currently reckoning with a situation in which Russian troll farms turn out to have massively infiltrated and manipulated internet leftist/social justice/activist networks with some devilishly clever misinformation campaigns…I do not take it for granted that that erasure is either coincidental or accidental.

When a basically source-less piece of internet jetsam seems to serve the purpose of alienating progressive communities from each other, even to the point of denying each other’s existence and of decades/centuries of calculated disobedience on the part of religious people…I would really question where it’s coming from, and who wants you to believe it and why.

Something we learned in biology classes, over and over again, was “form follows function.”

What’s the possible function of something like this? To reassure a certain number of people of their pre-existing convictions and prejudices, sure, but also to obscure the undeniable existence of religious disobedience to people who might not have knowledge of that history, for whatever reason.

A few months ago, there was, briefly, an occupation of an ICE facility here in Manhattan. And I wasn’t close to the planning or the groups leading the action, but I followed along on Twitter from the moment I heard of the occupation–about three days after it had apparently started–and went down to drop off snacks at one point and found a scant two dozen people there. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and the building was closed for the weekend so it wasn’t a time of high likelihood of clashes with ICE personnel, police, or vehicles. Attendance looked to be higher at other times, judging from social media, but never even remotely reached the proportions of the Portland occupation, though NYC is a far larger city with no lack of activist-minded populace who turned out en masse for the airport protests in the wake of the first attempted travel ban and revelations that separated immigrant kids were being flown into LGA in the dead of night.

And I was confused to find there seemed to have been virtually no involvement of local progressive religious groups, which was incredibly odd in light of the fact that immigration justice is among the signature issues of several of them.

Why wouldn’t they have reached out to local religious communities who prominently work on this issue for signal boosting and support? Did they simply not know that those groups are involved in that work? Or that they even exist? Are they operating too much in an ideological cul-de-sac in other regards so that the possibility was rejected or never came up at all?

I don’t know; I’m speculating somewhat. Regardless, I don’t think it’s a mistake the Resistance can afford to keep making. It is possibly more crucial now than it has ever been in some of our remembered lifetimes that we use all of the moral solidarity and strength in numbers that we have available.

Here’s another example: A Tumblr blog, now known to have been an IRA-linked propaganda blog, commented on a tweet about three female medical students from India, Japan, and Syria, who completed their training as doctors in Philadelphia in 1885, to the effect that because they were women of color, we know nothing about them.

But we do. To the extent that these ladies were the subjects of the doctoral dissertation of someone who I actually know. The knowledge of their lives and accomplishments was actually being hidden from us by a purported leftist activist blog.

And I think there’s a real danger, too, in assuming that anyone who is simply wrong on the internet, or with whom we disagree about strategy, is a Russian bot. I don’t assume that this particular meme was the product of a Russian troll farm rather than just a regular internet denizen rebranding their own self-satisfied ignorance as enlightenment. Quite possibly the author of this little piece of misinformation meant nothing but to take a swipe at what they perceive as the purposeless dutifulness of religious folk. But when the primary function of a piece of rhetoric seems to be fracturing or inhibiting the formation of coalitions of progressive communities…

To deny the very existence of acts of defiance by religious people and the presence of religious people in movements of civil disobedience…

To deny the provenance of some of the most effective tactics of civil disobedience ever known…

To deny younger idealistic people the knowledge of who many of those who took part in those actions were, where to find them, and how to talk to them…

To specifically deny the agency of religious communities of color in moral decision-making in resisting oppression…

Then I also no longer assume innocent wrongheadedness over its being designed to do so.

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July 2, 2018

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 9:01 pm by chavisory

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Nowhere to be.  Lurie Garden, Chicago.

June 21, 2018

Birthday request

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 2:03 am by chavisory

Hi all,

So I’ve never put up a tip jar or a Patreon because, while I spend a fair amount of time writing, I’ve never been able to get posts up with a regularity that would make me think “Hey, I should be getting paid for this.”

However, next week is my birthday, and if you’re able and would like to do something that would mean a lot to me, would you consider donating to this organization?  They work to train and network lawyers to provide pro bono legal representation to children in immigration proceedings, and are among the organizations mobilizing to help children separated from their families at the border.

The ACLU is also always a good choice. 🙂

Thank you!

June 9, 2018

Review of HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:57 pm by chavisory

This post should be considered to contain significant spoilers for book, movie, and play versions of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I reread Fahrenheit 451 last year in the fall, trying in some small way to refresh the sense of courage and urgency of living life in the world that I got from the book when it had first become one of my favorites when I was barely a teenager. It felt important to do as the prospects of very real and not only literary authoritarianism seemed to draw ever closer.

I wondered whether what made it feel so important in my memory held up. It did, and in some surprisingly chilling ways and not only the ones I thought I remembered. So obviously I greeted the announcement earlier this year of HBO’s forthcoming film production of Fahrenheit 451 with a mixture of delight and trepidation.

fahrenheit 451

I wasn’t disappointed by my reread, and I wasn’t disappointed by the newly released movie, though I will say at the outset that the movie departs in some significant ways from the plot of the novel. But on the whole I found it a worthy and important adaptation of the story for our present, and I hazard to say that I think Ray Bradbury would be pleased with it.

Clarisse is the character probably furthest from her characterization in the book, and I enjoyed her adaptation a lot, though it was not what I anticipated at all. She’s both more active in the story and more dangerous than in the book, more morally compromised but better adapted to the world she actually inhabits. She is not the somewhat naïve idealist of the book, but the movie preserves something essentially tender about her and the way that it draws Montag.

It also struck me later that the Clarisse we see in the movie is a character who could plausibly be the future of the Clarisse we know from the novel, after she and her family abruptly disappear from the story. Montag hears a rumor that she may’ve been struck by a car and killed, but we never truly know what happens to her. An earlier stage production has Montag finding her again among the book people, which is also where she winds up, older, in the movie, having long-since lost her parents as a teenager.

The ubiquitous household assistant Yuxie, reminiscent not only of our present-day electronic companions Siri and Alexa but also 2001: A Space Odyssey’s traitorous Hal, serves as an alarmingly timely minor nemesis as I watched the movie during a week in which we first learned of an Echo Dot secretly recording a private conversation without prompting and e-mailing it to a random third party from among its owner’s contacts. It brings to mind the characterizations of Totalitarianism by writers like Hannah Arendt and Timothy Snyder as “not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life.” It isn’t simply that an oppressive government is constantly surveilling all we do or say; it’s that there is no such thing as a private citizen anymore. Everyone is living out their lives on computer screens in full view of all of their neighbors, all the time, driven by the exhortation to “Stay Vivid,” and the offending screens aren’t simply wall to wall installations in every home, but are literally projected across the public square.

“Could he have the Omnis? Stay Vivid to find out,” a disembodied newscaster intones as Montag is pursued by the fire department. All of reality has become a reality show.

I actually laughed out loud at the irony of Beatty’s order “Keep looking for that Omnis!” The Natives are a society utterly reliant on the “Nine,” an amorphous and completely pervasive information stream like a hybrid between our present incarnation of the internet and the Cloud, and yet the authorities don’t conceive that the Omnis may not be a discrete, tangible object.

It’s almost as if the thing they fear the most is the only threat they can imagine. (In the film version of Guy Montag’s world, not only books but virtually all analog media is banned.)

Something the movie does a great deal of that I was glad for is that even where entire characters, tropes, or plot points are omitted or radically altered, a kind of sense memory of the source material is evoked. So while the crime scene horror of the Mechanical Hound is replaced by a device used as summary punishment that obliterates a victim’s fingerprints, Beatty at one point says to Montag, “You’re still the same dog I raised, barking at someone else’s command.” Clifford’s barn of books recalls an image that occurs only in Montag’s own fantasies late in the novel. The book-memorizing collective isn’t a band of railroad-traveling hobos as they are in the novel, but we get a lovely little scene of Clarisse teaching Montag to play the harmonica. The seashell in-ear radios aren’t a thing in the film (the invasive nature of technology in this world having advanced far beyond earbuds), but the climax turns on Montag’s theft of a tiny radio transponder that fulfills the story trajectory in a slightly different manner. It’s a pattern that suffuses the film with a sense of deep respect and affection for Bradbury’s original text, and made me feel like I was seeing an alternate refraction of the story rather than a betrayal of the spirit of the book.

Probably the omission that I regretted the most was that of Faber, although to an extent, the functions of his paranoia and desperate optimism are preserved in Clarisse in this version of the story.

I’m still struggling with how I feel about a scene, not present in the book, in which the book people test Montag’s commitment by demanding he kill a hooded captive who they say is a captured fellow fireman. He’s stopped the instant before he does it in a tableau inescapably resonant of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, but clearly recalls the moment only slightly later when he does actually kill a former colleague, although this time in actual self-preservation. Days later I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m not totally sure we’re supposed to be, rather than asking some difficult questions about how far we would be willing to go in pursuit of what we believe, versus when the lengths to which we’re willing to go become betrayal of that which we claim to defend, and under what circumstances those actions may be justified.

The original book-burners of this story, after all, as Beatty relates, were trying to protect safety and happiness for all. When they determined they had a right to impose their versions of those goals at any and all costs, including the emotional autonomy of fellow citizens, they became the psychic violence they claimed to abhor. The regime of censorship wasn’t ushered in by predictable bad guys, but by people with good intentions, claiming to act on behalf of the vulnerable.

I feel remiss not to delve more deeply into Michael B. Jordan’s acting, but the truth is that he disappears so completely into a relatable, melancholy execution of Guy Montag, who is not the natural-born social media hero he sometimes pretends to be even to himself, but an understated, haunted everyman often making clumsy decisions about whether he can remain complicit with what he’s finding out about the world, that I’m not quite sure what else to say. If you enjoyed him in Black Panther, this role is definitely a demonstration of his emotional versatility. He also served as an executive producer on the film and I’m excited to see what kind of material he might take on next.

May 23, 2018

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:42 am by chavisory

Hey everyone!  I’ve got a new post over at TPGA again this week, “Autistic Commonality and the Illusion of ‘Quirky.'”  Check it out!

May 18, 2018

Little egg

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 11:14 am by chavisory

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April 29, 2018

Against the wind

Posted in City life, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 4:00 pm by chavisory

brave little plant
A brave little shoot attempts springtime in Long Island City.

March 30, 2018

Things I never knew I desperately needed there to be a movie about until now

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 9:49 am by chavisory

This is just a short list of things that have been blowing my mind lately.  I cannot believe we never learned about some of this stuff in school…

1. The fascinating life of King Michael of Norway.

2. In a Twitter conversation about ASL and The Shape of Water, I learned there were secret/underground Deaf clubs in the 1960’s.

3. The heavily female workforce of the early days of Atari.  (Well, I can believe we never learned this in school.)

4. The completely bonkers story of the making of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.  (And this, I guess, though I did take a history of Rock and Roll class in college.)

5. Lost submarines considered to be “Still On Patrol.”

March 20, 2018

Up from under

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 2:06 pm by chavisory

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The Brooklyn Bridge, late winter, post-poetry reading and tacos with friends from out of town this weekend

March 11, 2018

The Shape of Love: Cupid and Psyche and other considerations of monstrosity in “The Shape of Water”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:35 pm by chavisory

The truth is that I wasn’t going to write about the Shape of Water at all. I wasn’t going to see the Shape of Water at all.

The truth is that I can still sometimes fall prey to the mental trap of feeling compelled to avoid engagement with a work, either out of fear that it cannot possibly live up to an artist’s beloved earlier work (which in terms of Guillermo del Toro’s work is Pan’s Labyrinth for me), to preemptively protect myself from disappointment or out of fear that it will be too good, too fraught, will touch me too closely in ways I don’t know how to handle or will set off a new obsession that I don’t have time for.

Also, frankly, movie tickets are $16.50 here.

But then something happened, which was that, similarly to when it became apparent that I needed to see Mad Max: Fury Road, despite it not really being my genre at all, just because it was making MRA’s so mad that I had to see what it was about, I was starting to see a particularly enraging bit of criticism crop up on social media, even well before the movie’s release:

That it was just awful that the protagonist of the Shape of Water would be a woman who was “literally silent.”

Because it was evidently unimaginable that women with communication disabilities…exist?  Or count as women?  Or should get stories. Let alone be heroines. I saw the movie with a friend from work and we practiced our ASL while we waited through the commercials.

Prepared to defend the film against further charges that portrayal of a non-speaking woman constituted irredeemable misogyny (it’s a topic well beyond the scope of this post, but mainstream feminism has something of a troubled history when it comes to its regard of disabled women), I was honestly unprepared for the heatedness of some of the condemnations that have subsequently emerged from the disability community itself for yet other reasons.

“I found that really unfortunate because it sort of reproduces the stereotype that non-verbal people can’t express themselves in a way that’s actually comfortable or natural for them. And then also it reproduces the stereotype that disability is like a cage,” says Aimee Louw in an article at CBC Radio.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry writes, “I wanted to feel included in the human world. Instead, the film reinforced the narrative that I belong below the surface, to be put on display when it suits the narrative.”

I just hadn’t felt that way at all.

It’s not common to see a non-speaking woman as a protagonist with control over her own life, with work, with friends, with sexual agency, in a blockbuster movie, or anywhere, really. It was nice. I loved that her power, her worth, her fulfillment as a character, weren’t made to be dependent on her “finding her voice,” as someone for whom speech did not come easily and never will and who has often felt, especially as a child, that people wanted my speech more than they really wanted almost anything else about me. I don’t really look to movies to be “empowering,” but I found it a resonant, meaningful experience, personally, as well as beautifully designed. It’s also one of very few films that very explicitly centers women’s strength and relationships that I didn’t find myself intensely alienated by.

People can, of course, have sincerely different interpretations of a work, but I was curious about the sheer intensity of the disconnect between the way I felt about it and the way that other viewers have.

One of the first things I wondered was whether there was simply a generational difference at play. Guillermo del Toro, after all, is closer to my father’s age than my own or most of my peers who are likely to see the movie. Whether it was possible that disabled and autistic people, or even just those who felt intensely different, who grew up in a different time, who might’ve been far less likely to be diagnosed or identified with a distinct label at all, might be more likely to identify with fairy tales or story book monsters than people who grew up with an available narrative of disability, even if it wasn’t a particularly good one, to work with or push back against.

Whereas many of us who didn’t have those explanations available at all, filled in the blanks in our minds in some interesting ways, including various iterations of not feeling completely human. (I distinctly remember identifying most with the dragon in a beautifully illustrated version of “Saint George and the Dragon” that was read to me as a small child.)

While I don’t ultimately think that age of viewership presents a consistent factor in interpretation or opinion of the film—I didn’t conduct a formal poll, but in asking and looking around a bit, I did encounter people both older and younger than me who loved it, and people with both more readily identifiable disabilities and those that are often called “invisible” who hated it—I did find something curious to me as I started thinking about the Shape of Water in relation to the work of other authors I know and love who write roughly in the genre of adapted fairy tale or who adopt the frameworks of fairy tales or fables.

Guillermo del Toro was born in 1964.

Neil Gaiman (author of so many things, but I think most relevantly for purposes of comparison here, The Ocean at the End of the Lane) was born in 1960.

Keith Donohue (author of The Stolen Child, Angels of Destruction, The Boy Who Drew Monsters, The Motion of Puppets) was born in 1959.

Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked; Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister; Mirror Mirror; and After Alice, among others) was born in 1954.

That is, tales like this seem to me to be being told particularly by men of a certain generation, frequently involving girls and women in central roles in somewhat magical circumstances, and including girls and women with disabilities at a non-trivial rate, possibly to navigate experiences involving vulnerability, social marginalization, perhaps issues of gender and sexuality, that could not be openly articulated or acknowledged in a certain time and place. So my first conjecture is that the Shape of Water resides well within a storytelling tradition of using fairy tale and fantasy to navigate experiences of outsider-hood, vulnerability, and difference.

(And yes, I am interested at the absence of women from that author list of mine. I don’t know whether women of that generation weren’t writing nearly as much in that genre, or whether they simply haven’t come to my attention. It certainly isn’t that there’s a general lack of female authors in my reading list in general, so I’m curious.)

And while it is not a mode of narrative that everyone has to, or does, like or identify with, I find myself failing to feel that it is categorically demeaning or objectifying of disabled people, rather than a fairly common expression of emotional experiences of many of what it is to feel oneself othered or devalued by dominant social strictures regarding who is acceptable. Who is fully human. What is normal.

“It was not considered normal,” del Toro has said regarding his childhood pre-occupation with monsters. “At one point I was taken to a psychologist, who gave me a bunch of clay and said make something. I made a skeleton. I don’t think I passed that test.”

Ultimately, these stories can help give us a vocabulary with which to hijack and undermine those strictures.

*

There are ways in which identification with the monstrous can be protective, defiant, or represent a stand for personal integrity. “FINE, then I’ll BE A MONSTER,” if I will always be a monster to you anyway, or a broken, failed attempt at what your conception of human is, it seems to me creators who align their heroes with the monstrous are saying. “Maybe I am what you say I am. And would that actually be so bad?”

As I had this some of this discussion on Twitter, I was also reminded of Huck Finn’s declaration in the musical adaption of his story, Big River. “ALRIGHT, I’ll GO TO HELL,” he screams as he decides to do what is actually the right and redeeming thing, though not in the view of his society. “I’ll take up wickedness again, which is my line, being brought up to it. And for starters, I’ll steal Jim out of slavery again. And if I can think of something worse, I’ll do that, too.”

If what society considers good is to return a man to slavery, and to attempt to forestall that event is wicked, then I will not be good, says Huck.

If it is human to countenance the torture and destruction of a sentient, complex being for human political convenience, then we are called on not to identify with that characterization of what it is to be human, or with what those who uphold those power structures tell us is human.

“If this is wrong, then I don’t want to be right,” these characters declare. If it’s wrong to be embodied differently, to communicate differently, to love differently. If it’s wrong to empathize beyond the bounds of who your society says is a person worthy of it. If it’s wrong to value the freedom and dignity of those unlike yourself.

If the way that characters like Strickland say is the only right way to be human…

Then you can take your “humanity” and shove it.

*

Though much has been said about Elisa’s monologue in ASL to Giles about her conviction that they must rescue the Amphibian Man, just as revealing of the film’s theme, I believe, is a line spoken by Strickland:

“You may think that thing looks human — stands on two legs — but we’re created in the Lord’s image. And you don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”

…which makes explicit the tension between god, monster, and human present in most stories derived from the myth of Cupid and Psyche, of which the Shape of Water is one (as well as “Beauty and the Beast” tales, and, I’d be willing to make a strong argument, Shrek.) That the plot of the Shape of Water is so resonant with the Cupid and Psyche tale is very informative of how both Elisa and the Amphibian Man are positioned in the story.

The Cupid and Psyche story has been important to me since I first read it, and I’m not even sure I could fully articulate why.

(The name of Giles’s ill-fated cat, Pandora, also points us gently in the direction of making associations with Greek mythology.)

In the myth, after the human princess Psyche is called more beautiful than Venus, Venus decrees Psyche be punished for the supposed crime of arrogantly imagining herself above her station by being induced to fall in love with “some low, mean, unworthy being.” (Cupid, of course, takes pity and wounds himself instead of Psyche, causing himself to fall in love with her.) To appease the gods, her parents prepare to sacrifice Psyche on a mountaintop, imagining her fated husband to be “a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”

The monster, however, turns out to be a god. Cupid, the god of Love himself.

Jealous, Psyche’s sisters insist that her unseen husband is in fact a terrible monster who intends, eventually, to devour her, and persuade her to betray his trust and view his true form by lamplight. In commanding the heroine’s loyalty to the realm of the “human,” these characters are also attempting to enforce their own value judgments about what constitutes personhood, as Gaston and the townspeople do in the animated version of Beauty and the Beast most of us are probably familiar with, as Beauty’s sisters impel her to do in other incarnations of the tale (while Belle in the Disney version was the only daughter of an eccentric tinkerer, in older versions of the story, she is the third daughter of a prosperous merchant), as Giles briefly does when he tries to discourage Elisa from her determination to save the Amphibian Man, declaring “he’s not even human.”

In resisting or rejecting those commands (which Psyche initially does not, to her own suffering), the heroine rejects the antagonist’s values and those of a repressive, unjust society.

In repeatedly calling her a “princess” in his own retelling, Giles identifies her with Psyche, Beauty, and other women of royalty and status who usually fulfill this role in the Cupid and Psyche tale. Del Toro, too, is making a statement by paralleling a frightful (even if god-like, and in his way, beneficent) amphibian creature with Love, and a scarred, disabled, lowly-regarded and awkward woman with Beauty.

Love is not only for the pretty, typically abled, socially valued, or heterosexual. Beauty is not only what the convention of the majority considers desirable.

As Psyche is given ambrosia to drink and becomes immortal herself at the conclusion of her trials, Elisa is transformed into the same kind of being as the Amphibian Man—a god. Whereas most of society’s preferred disability narrative is that we become more fully human in becoming less disabled (or at least trying to look like it), Elisa doesn’t do that. She becomes more wholly herself in becoming more, not less, of what conventional human society deems broken or undesirable about her.

*

I also didn’t find The Shape of Water particularly off-putting from a disability perspective for other reasons.

Primarily, the problem of the story isn’t Elisa’s disability, or the Amphibian Man’s monstrosity. Just like it isn’t Giles’s gayness or Zelda’s blackness, though we see the cruelty and injustice that both are subjected to for those characteristics. That these two characters are the people most closely allied with the romantic duo is not an accident or coincidence.

The problem is society’s relegation of people like them to less than wholly human status. The problem is the unchallenged ability of elements like Strickland within that society to exercise authoritarian, even deadly, control over the bodies, the freedom, the fates, of those whose being they deem inferior or abominable.

That, the movie says, is wrong. And that is a concept that powerful factions of our society still struggle with or reject entirely.

Another prominent criticism centers on Elisa’s dream sequence in which she sings, imagining herself the star of a movie musical, as unrealistic or portraying disability itself as a cage from which she can only wish to be free. I did cringe during this segment of the movie, not because I felt that way about it, but because I knew that it would elicit a great deal of the kind of condemnation which it did. Though I experienced it not that way at all, but rather as a variety of fantasy very familiar to my own experience, that things would be better if it were easier to say what I wanted. If I were graceful in a way that I’m not. Is it overused? Yes. Is it an experience that I’m remotely interested in making unspeakable? No. We have a right to full range of human emotional experiences, including wishful thinking and politically imperfect personal fantasies. I won’t denigrate the way that anyone else felt about this sequence.  It was difficult to watch.  But we also have a right to ambivalence.

But there’s an argument to be made that when Elisa dreams herself in the movie scene, what she’s really wishing for is not to be speaking, or non-disabled, but to experience herself in the same kinds of romantic situations that fill the movies she herself so loves. And again, the reason she cannot have that in the world she actually lives in is not the fault of her disability, but of the ways in which her society isolates and makes invisible people like her. (Where are other humans of her “own kind” in her world in this time and place? Well, a lot of them are institutionalized.)

“You don’t have to be marginalized in some way to be swept up in its beauty and romance,” Sarah Kurchak writes of the movie in her review. “But if you happen to have had a long-term unrequited relationship with the cinema, there’s a certain joyful rush that comes from having the object of your affections finally turn around and notice that you’ve been there all along.”  And in Elisa herself, that is what del Toro has given to many of us.

Not only in that Elisa Esposito, the character, is disabled. Sally Hawkins is weird-looking. She isn’t conventionally pretty. She isn’t what most people probably expect a leading lady to look like. (For the same reasons, I’ve enjoyed watching Eddie Redmayne’s career ascension to leading man. How often do we see men who look like him portrayed as romantic heroes?  Not that his movies have always been un-problematic, but I do think that’s important.) And as someone who never will meet mainstream expectations of feminine beauty, I appreciated it.

*

While I am by far not the first to observe this, I find myself compelled to agree that any consideration of del Toro’s storytelling is incomplete without attention to his Catholicism.

Del Toro himself says, “Catholicism is a big influence. For me, it cemented virtue and pain in a single emotion — that in order to achieve goodness you have to suffer. Of course, it is also a faith full of ghosts and gore and gargoyles… And the side effect was, I ended up thinking that monsters are sort of the patron saints of imperfection. I try to celebrate imperfection in my movies; the really scary characters are always the ones who insist everything has to be perfect.”

Christianity (at its best) and Christ himself concern themselves with the dignity and value of the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the powerless. Those, fittingly, who are the heroes of this film.

Of course the Church has often, and spectacularly, failed to uphold those very values. Throughout its history it has often been all too ready to protect the privileged and powerful at the expense of its avowed duties to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the weak. The portrayal of Strickland’s superficially picture-perfect family life—nuclear, hetero-normative, male-headed and religiously-sanctioned, yet also harboring deep pathologies and abuses of power—juxtaposed with the more genuine, equal, yet highly stigmatized and legally unprotected intimacies of both sexual love and friendship between the four main protagonists, is intended to draw attention to this very hypocrisy.

The difference between the Church’s promises, and some of its realities, is what’s on display in Strickland’s family unit.

And of course the parallel with Christ in the trope of resurrection of the wounded god is unavoidable; Amphibian Man and Elisa both die for the sins of a less understanding and compassionate world. The sin, that which separates us from divinity (from full humanity, from existing in the image of God), is cruelty towards that which we fear or seek to control. Not embodied difference, not disability, not imperfection. Not wish fulfillment fantasies or loving that which society considers strange or unacceptable.

 

Just another brief note on del Toro’s body of work in general: I haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth in a long time, but I did wind up re-watching the trailer this week, and it becomes apparent to me that the theme of “princess reborn from a secret magical land” (underground in Pan’s Labyrinth, underwater in The Shape of Water) occupies a larger place in the world of his filmography than I can probably address solely with regard to the Shape of Water.

I don’t think I know yet what it means in his personal mythology; I don’t know enough to know whether I like it or not. But it definitely is a larger trope in his work in which he has involved both a disabled and a non-disabled female protagonist, so I am very hesitant to try to discern any statement about his views of the proper place of disabled people in society from its occurrence in the Shape of Water.

Likewise, Elisa’s disability is not the problem solved by her death and resurrection. Elisa, like Ofelia, the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, dies in the act of attempting to protect another from authoritarian violence. She dies not because of what she is but because somebody kills her. Somebody who could not tolerate the challenge that her innate strength and her allegiance to her own conscience posed to his power and presumption of righteousness. Not because people like her simply don’t belong in the world. That’s the viewpoint of the film’s unambiguous villain.

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Far from leading me to feel unwanted in the world, I believe Del Toro has woven together elements from a tradition in fiction of women and girls as capable protagonists in fairy tale settings, myth, and a Christianity populated by the weird and wonderful to tell a story that openly repudiates the values of those who would say that certain kinds of people don’t belong in the world.

Ultimately, however, I do very much want to see a far broader range of types of roles and stories unquestionably open to disabled characters and performers alike. What I do not want to see is for us to renounce traditions of storytelling in which those of us who find ourselves alienated again and again by the stories that society tries to tell us about ourselves, who cannot use that language, have been able to find another one in the realms of the numinous. In which we can find a certain freedom in embracing and finding power in what society says is our brokenness or monstrousness. In saying “Maybe I am.”

“I think what we need,” comments Kit Mead, “is, shockingly enough, a range of disability stories and representation…. like…. ones that show the otherness we feel, and ones that don’t, and ones that are somewhere in between.”

I want us all to expand the repertoire of stories that we know how to tell about disabled and marginalized experience, not constrict our ability to tell ones like this. An emotional and metaphoric landscape with as rich a history and as luminous with possibility as fairy tale is not one I’m willing to give up.

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