The Shape of Water is a Toxic Romantic Fantasy: The Issues With this Disability Romance Narrative

 

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Image Description: A still from The Shape of Water. Sally Hawkin as Elisa, a dark haired woman shown in profile has her hands on the glass of a large tank. On the other side a humanoid but scaly creature with webbed hands gazes back at her.

 

This post contains spoilers

 

I know I’m late in presenting an opinion on Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water but considering that the Oscar nominations were just released and Del Toro’s film has garnered a number of nominations including Best Actress for Sally Hawkins, I may be late but I’m certainly not too late.

The Shape of Water is basically a dark and flipped to take on a combination of Disney’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid. Instead of a sea creature wanting to walk among humans, a human wants to be with a sea creature. Elisa, played by Hawkins is a woman who has no voice. She didn’t sell it to a sea witch but rather experienced an undefined violent injury to her vocal cords as an infant.

Unlike her Disney counterpart Ariel, Elisa doesn’t want to be separated from humanity around her but is instead ostracized because of her disability. In fact, at the end of the film, she seems prepared to give up her monstrous lover in order to stay with people. It is only because she is mortally wounded and no longer given a choice that she ends up in the water with her beloved creature.

Her character—like all of the characters in the film—is one-dimensional. She is a mishmash of disability stereotypes. She is a social outsider who is largely perceived to be “other”. She clearly longs for more inclusion but is unable to get it. She experiences only simplistic emotions that seem more appropriate to a toddler than they do to a grown woman who has not one but two gratuitous masturbation scenes (so you can throw in a creepy sexualization of innocence as well).

The lack of emotional range for the character is really down to the performance given by Sally Hawkins. I have seen many people applaud the silence of her performance but silence isn’t a performance, it is a narrative choice. A performance would be everything that the character does outside of that silence. Which in this case is predominantly very simplistic facial expressions and a very little amount of sign language. What that amounts to is that Elisa’s character has less to do with her character or the performance given by Hawkins than it does with the storytelling around it.

Everything about the narrative shows how alone Elisa is. She lives alone in a poorly furnished apartment. Her neighbour and only nonwork-related friend largely ignores her if it doesn’t suit him. She is an orphan who experienced violence. She is so ignored at work that she can take her lunch breaks with her employer’s top-secret project and have it remain largely unnoticed even by her closest coworker.

Her only driving motivation is to be wanted. To be Included. She ultimately gets one and not the other which is what makes this film a nightmare.

Del Toro masterfully sets up a narrative where Elisa’s ostracization and treatment are clearly the fault of people around her. The film directly acknowledges that her oppression is socially constructed and then it lets the world get away with it.

Even at the end Elisa never intends to run away with her lover. She saves him from vivisection and lets him camp out in her bathroom but the relationship has an expiration date. The day he can be safely released back into the water.

Even as they stand on the edge of the canal and the creature asks her to go with him, she refuses. She still wants the human world. She still thinks her place is there. She again loses her right to choose though, after her boss, the film’s villain shoots her. She is either dying or dead when she is lifted and carried into the water by her lover. The lover, she intended to let go. He either heals or resurrects her in the final moments of the film enabling her to breathe underwater so that they can spend their lives together. Away from the world that rejected them both. This is supposed to be romantic.

Even if you ignore the rejection of Elisa’s agency when she said that she intended to stay on land. The film acknowledges that the barriers she experienced were socially constructed and then concluded with “It’s better to just leave”. Leave and live what is implied to be a solitary existence where she has only her lover for company.

It is interesting how closely this conclusion mirrors my own youthful fantasies about romantic relationships (except that I kept my imaginary lovers human). I often felt like any relationship I might find would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and that we would inevitably end up living a secluded life together because of the discrimination that I faced. Except in the real world, that kind of relationship is a recipe for abuse and I’m glad I grew out of it.

The Shape of Water could so easily be a different kind of horror film about the dangers of social denial of the sexuality of disabled people and how that makes them easy targets for abusers. Instead, it does exactly that story but ignores the inherent dangers of becoming infatuated with the first man who pays you any attention because the world has spent decades telling you that you are undesirable. It takes what should be a cautionary tale and turns it into a bittersweet romance. In so doing it absolves the bigoted world that rejected Elisa and ends on the message that if the world doesn’t work for you, even if it’s clearly the result of discrimination that the best option is to leave.

At least in both versions of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid was clearly trying to move from one society to another. Elisa gives that up for a completely uncertain future. As Elsa Sjunneson-Henry points out in the title of her own review of the film “I want to be where the people are”.

Disabled people don’t need more pseudo-romantic movies that romanticize our otherness, that connect us so clearly to monsters. That say if society doesn’t accept you that you might as well embrace the monster that they see in you and join literal monsters in a life away from humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

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Let’s Contextualize the Suspension of that University of Guelph Prof who Bullied a Disabled Student

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Image Description: A monochrome image of a graduation cap

Yesterday, a story came out about a University of Guelph professor who had openly mocked a disabled student during lecture. This resulted in the targeted student leaving the room along with his aide. Many of his classmates followed suit. The professor in question has been placed on leave and the incident is being applauded as a victory for justice.

While the actions of the professor were abhorrent and he deserves to have been suspended, there is a lot of context that this story is leaving out in favour of celebrating the nondisabled students who walked out in solidarity with their classmate.

I wrote a twitter thread on this yesterday but based on some of the responses I got from it, I think that a full blog post is necessary.

This is only a news story because of the solidarity of nondisabled students. I wish nondisabled people understood how much power they have to improve or limit the lives of disabled people.

The story itself treats the abused student as a prop. They are not named and are never interviewed. The entire narrative is framed around the recollections of nondisabled people.

The sentiments expressed are generally positive and supportive but the issue is also clearly framed as a one off. One bad professor. The students imply they will stand against any other injustice. But will you?

More importantly, do you? The thing that makes the Guelph story unique isn’t that it happened. The more shocking thing is that it happened in public. Disabled students experience discrimination from professors regularly. I am willing to bet that professors refuse to accommodate disabled students daily. It just happens behind closed doors and they tend to use less inflammatory language.

Some professors write op-eds and publish academic articles advocating exactly that. Where were the mass walkouts in solidarity then?

Solidarity in the Guelph incident is positive but it’s important to put it in context. The stakes for protesting students were low. The professor was a sub. Students were risking walking out on a single lecture not the entire course for the semester. They were not challenging the actual course director who has control over their grades.

Would they have walked out if it had been the course director?

Would they have been willing to potentially sacrifice an entire credit?

As responses to my twitter thread have shown me, the professor in question is not popular. I’ve received several responses from his former pupils that are all along the lines of,

“Oh, I had him as a prof and he’s a massive douche”

That reinforces the idea that people who see this story interpret it as an isolated incident perpetrated by someone widely considered detestable. There is no consideration of whether his behaviour fits into a system of discrimination against disabled people in academia.

It is more comfortable to see his behaviour as wholly aberrant instead of understanding that the only thing surprising about it is that he did it so publicly. There are many more faculty members slowly tearing down disabled students in the safety of their offices.

Where is the protest over that?

The Guelph incident is tragic not just for the abuse that one student suffered but because the way it has been framed in the media allows people to believe such incidents are rare and that they are inevitably met with swift and effective push back when they do.

 

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Katimavik Completely Changed My Life for the Better but I have Misgivings about it Coming Back

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Image Description: A photo of nineteen year old me crouching in a refrigerator that has had all the shelves removed. I had short bleach blond hair and am wearing a white hoodie featuring characters from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts comic.

 

When I was 18, I was diagnosed as being autistic. I finally had an explanation for all the social misunderstanding and interpersonal faux pas I’d experienced. I now knew that every time I was punished for some mysterious crime with the all too frequent admonishment ‘It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” were not my fault. All those hours spent relegated to my bedroom wracking my brain to try and figure out why I was even in trouble suddenly made sense. Diagnosis for me was freeing. It was, however, still a diagnosis which said that I was medically predisposed to be terrible at navigating social situations, particularly in new environments with people I didn’t know.

So, obviously three months later I got on a plane to BC with the full knowledge and intention of moving into a house with eleven strangers.

I did this through a government-funded program called Katimavik which took Canadian or permanent resident youths (between 17-21) from all over Canada and divided them into groups of 11 and over the course of nine months placed them in three communities throughout Canada with a different project leader in each location. The intention was for us to do full-time volunteer work, establish strong links to volunteerism and engage with the varied culture of Canada by immersing ourselves in the communities in which we lived.

It was without question one of the most important experiences of my life. I can say without doubt that I would not be the person I am today without having done it or having known my housemates.

Nearly 12 years later though, I am conflicted about my experiences in Katimavik because I almost didn’t qualify to participate and because I know many more disabled people were denied access to that opportunity.

I have sat quietly with my discomfort over the fact that I was privileged enough to be considered “not disabled enough” to not be deemed ineligible. I was able to do this largely because not long after I left the program, the Conservative government defunded it. First rolling back funding so that it was a ghost of what it had once been and then ultimately shutting it down altogether.

The Conservative government is no more though and the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau (who was a staunch supporter of Katimavik in his pre-politics days) has reinstated the funding.

Katimavik was originally conceived of in the 1970s. It’s 2018 and I fear the discrimination that was built into the original program with remain in its rebirth.

This is significant not only for the injustice of denying disabled youths the chance at this kind of formative experience but because of the opportunities it leads to.

Prior to Katimavik, I was completely unemployable. I spent the first year after high school futily looking for a job to pay for university. I didn’t find one. I mostly spent the year playing housekeeper for my grandmother. She did pay me but was also clearly more interested in having company. So I did very little work as she constantly derailed my attempts to clean with conversation. I maybe worked 1 hour in every 5 spent at her house. I was only paid for what I worked. I made almost no money.

After Katimavik, with a resume that had been boosted by the volunteer work that I had put in at an elementary school, an employment centre, and a publicly run internet café (many people in the area didn’t have access to computers much less the internet) I found work (of the retail variety) relatively easily.

Katimavik gave me the skills and work history necessary to do that. My physically disabled, undiagnosed autistic self was otherwise just utterly unemployable. This is a reality for far too many disabled people.

One of the great perks of Katimavik is that if you get in, you are guaranteed work throughout the program. It’s just unfortunate that the program aggressively screens out disabled people. I almost didn’t make it in.

They successfully hid behind the fact that the houses were inaccessible as were many of the work placements. An argument that I suspect was helped by the fact that so much of the infrastructure for the program was conceived of and implemented well before the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added to the constitution.

Will that argument still get made in 2018? When they have the chance to start from scratch?

Part of qualifying for Katimavik hinged on passing a medical inspection. You had to get a doctor to fill out a long and detailed form that was then reviewed by the program itself.

It had questions like:

Do you (the doctor) have any reason to believe this person would have difficulty participating in physical activity?

Does the patient have any disabling conditions? Please describe limitations.

Anyone who used a wheelchair was immediately screened out. My cerebral palsy threw them and they assumed that my doctor must be lying or misrepresenting my physical capabilities. So I had to answer clarifying questions like:

Can you walk? (apparently, by not expressly saying that I could, they assumed that I couldn’t)

Can you run?

Can you swim? (I can, but it seems irrelevant because the nondisabled participants weren’t asked to confirm this and at least one of my nondisabled housemates couldn’t)

These types of questions do two things. They show that people will always assume inability from disabled people if the ability isn’t clearly stated even if other questions directly asking about physical limitations are also answered in ways that indicate ability. It also forced me to confirm that “I wasn’t that kind of disabled”.

As it was, my autism diagnosis came after I had jumped through those hoops so had again had to prove that I could participate. This time by acquiring a letter from the diagnosing psychiatrist saying that I was safe to be around children. A concern that didn’t exist prediagnosis.

I went through all of those indignities and I can’t claim that I didn’t know other disabled people weren’t making the cut. I had read a news story (that I, unfortunately, can’t find anymore) about a wheelchair user who tried and failed to force the program into accepting him.

I knew, that the program excluded other disabled people. I knew that but I went anyway. I went anyway and I reaped the benefits of the experience both at work and in the relationships I created with the people I met.

I absolutely would not be who I am now if I hadn’t. I probably wouldn’t be here feeling discomfort at the benefits of being not disabled enough to exclude.

I am uncomfortable though and Katimavik is back so that discomfort matters. It matters because I know what I got out of the program. I know I wouldn’t have a Masters degree. I wouldn’t be a PhD student.

Disabled people need access to coming of age experiences. Not just the work experience. The lived experience of navigating cohabitation with too many strangers in too small of a house. The experiences of misunderstandings and fights and learning to create boundaries.

Katimavik has always been fundamentally about creating a quintessential Canadian experience and by actively excluding disabled people, it reinforces how not apart of Canada we are unless we fit a narrow standard of “able-bodied enough” and a willingness to leave other disabled people behind.

It’s 2018 and I hope the new Katimavik does better but honestly, I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

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