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.


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.


September 16, 2014

The innocence and experience of Empire Records

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:09 pm by chavisory

The past few years have brought a series of movie and TV series anniversaries that…while I still can’t say I feel old, really put the relentlessness of time into perspective. The X-Files turning 21. The Princess Bride turning 25.

Empire Records turns 20 next year, making it older than I was when I first saw it. A generation of kids who weren’t even born when it came out are old enough to see it now.

This article (which is long, but worth reading all the way through) came up in my news feed recently about the story of its making and total commercial flop in 1995.

I first saw Empire Records when I was 15. I was at summer camp, one of the multiple summer academic programs where I spent my summers as a teenager. And literally all of my friends from the previous year had gotten too cool for me and stopped talking to me. It was the final night of camp, and the movie that had been voted on for everyone to stay up late and watch, was Empire Records.

I asked for it for, I think, my Valentine’s Day present the following year, and my mother bought it on VHS for me. I would name it without hesitation as one of my favorite movies for years, without ever being able to articulate why.

The article is an incredible nostalgia trip, and suffice it to say, the story of the making of the movie sounds almost as much fun as the movie. It’s comforting somehow to know that the cast of the movie were all truly friends, who loved making it as much as we’ve all loved it as we’ve grown up. Things surprised me (Coyote Shivers was Liv Tyler’s stepfather?! And A.J.’s checkered shirt was an “old-man” shirt? I thought it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen, though maybe that was just A.J. in it), and things didn’t (mischief and mayhem on the part of Ethan Embry), but a passage that really gave me pause finally gave me the scaffolding to explain how this became such an important movie to me:

Part of the feel of the film was also lost via Regency’s insistence that it remain PG-13, rather than have the R-rating of the original script; that’s why none of the characters could be shown actually smoking cigarettes or marijuana, why they couldn’t swear like actual teenagers, why Eddie couldn’t run his weed operation on the roof—why they couldn’t, in other words, fully behave like the teens they were meant to portray.

See, I actually have to epically disagree with Petersen and the filmmakers about this. I think it’s an immense strength of the movie that those sorts of depictions were dispensed with.

Because much as I love the movie, it’s not actually because I can particularly identify with any one character in it, as opposed to characteristics and combinations of traits and struggles of multiple characters (Corey’s academic prowess, with a hint of Warren’s resentment and insecurity and A.J.’s artistic ambitions)…and that even if I wasn’t there, the world they inhabited was a world I could inhabit.  (In some ways, unlike the world I actually did inhabit.)

And a huge part of that was the lack of completely rampant drug use and callous language. It’s not even that drug use or abuse wasn’t depicted in the world; it was—in Marc’s spending the day stoned on Eddie’s “special” brownies, and Corey’s admission of amphetamine abuse to keep up with schoolwork. It’s not, by a long stretch of the imagination, an anti-drug movie, but the world in which Empire Records exists isn’t one that revolves around getting fucked up. In some kind of wake of cynicism left behind by Generation X, there was this oppressive sense that real kids with real issues were all doing this stuff—and the movie as it turned out, apparently inadvertently, tacitly rejects that premise.

Because believe it or not, kids of my generation not doing drugs or acting out in those ways actually existed. Teenage culture without pervasive drug use actually existed, and the outlook that “oh this is what teenagers really do, though,” was a hugely alienating aspect of other movies about misfit teenagers for me (like Dazed and Confused, of which I remember not one single important thing).

I would hazard a guess that this aspect has actually contributed hugely to the movie’s long-term success, especially among, as the article notes, an audience slightly younger and more sheltered than that originally intended by the producers. The writing of Empire Records treats the problems and internal life of all of its characters with equal sincerity and seriousness, and that’s something that I really felt the lack of in a lot of media aimed more successfully at Generation X (even in things I did like and identify with in some regards, like Daria). It’s an unabashedly sincere and hopeful movie.

A movie like that, with a PG-13 rating, could be shown for movie night at summer camp, where a desperately lonely 15-year-old could fall in love with a story of hope that belonging somewhere exists. An R-rated movie with all the characters drinking/smoking/cursing for two solid hours, couldn’t.

It’s not an everyday occurrence that I aim heartfelt thanks to the MPAA for its contributions to a brilliant narrative decision, but today I do.

Because the themes of love and ambition, and enforced conformity vs. what it means to find a place where you really fit in the world, are pretty universal to teenagers, but contrary to a lot of mythmaking, pervasive drinking, smoking, and drug abuse actually weren’t. That wasn’t what teenagers all just did.

If Empire Records failed to coherently indict “The Man,” it did effectively undermine something snide and dismissive that had arisen in factions of teen culture, that very much conveyed that you had to be edgy or cynical or damaged enough for your problems or issues or dreams to matter.

Empire Records is exactly the movie it should have been.

empire records[Image description:  The characters Warren, Eddie, A.J., Corey, Jane, Joe, Lucas, Gina, Marc, and Deb sit on a building rooftop at night, under a lit neon sign reading “EMPIRE RECORDS, since 1959.”]

January 23, 2013

Danny Zuko, poetry fan

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:15 pm by chavisory

Speaking of characters who everyone gets wrong…

It’s always made me a little sad how few people appreciate that Danny Zuko is a great big poetry nerd.  Specifically, that he’s a huge fan of e.e. cummings…but that, for instance (as far as we know), his English teacher never seemed to notice this, or harness it into keeping him more engaged with his academics.

Don’t believe me?

she being Brand

-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having

thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.

K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her

up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and

again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing(my

lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity

avenue i touched the accelerator and give

her the juice,good


was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on

brakes Bothatonce and

brought allofher tremB
to a:dead.


–e.e. cummings