Myths and fairytales are dangerous. It’s a lesson we’ve learned from Freud, Bettelheim, Levi-Strauss, and (as I have done most recently) Roland Barthes. Myths are dangerous because they scoop up social threats and ambiguities and throw them at us like a snowball. It is dangerous to treat with danger. Perhaps, like a snowball, the myth will break apart and dissolve the threat; perhaps it is the means by which danger is reconciled to the ongoing life of society. Barthes asserts something like this in Camera Lucida (# 11), and though he is speaking of photographs, we know from Grimm, from novels, from Hollywood, from music, really from every cultural endeavor, that myths labor against any perceived irruption or intrusion into social status quo. But it also is true that the status quo is stable (a “state” or status) only by means of lived concepts that are always also unstable (the capacious ambiguity of that quo, “in which”). This means that the nearly infinite content of myth always functions concretely and finitely—but also never completely—to reconcile a specific threat back to social stability, an intruding difference back to assimilated sameness, an unfamiliar, unheimlich outside back to the warm, homey inside. The labor of reconciliation proceeds through representation and therefore repeats the threat it strives to mute. But all of this is old hat, yes?*
Indeed, the very title of del Toro’s film suggests this trivial lesson about myths and social concepts since water, of course, has no shape but takes on the shape of its container. Critics frequently cite the film’s final poem—a paraphrase of Rumi, it is thought—to suggest the pervasive presence of love, or of the divine, and the poem does suggest both of these. And it also suggests the pervasiveness of meaning.
We are literally awash in meaning but we require channels to receive and communicate it to each other.
One of those channels is narrative form. Even though Giles’s (Richard Jenkins) opening narration does not begin with “Once upon a time,” the cadence and content of his words signal immediately that this is something like a fairytale. We settle into our seats expecting a story about how huge, age-old categories, cultural promises, and social ideologies come to bear down on the lives and pains and deaths of very small, single, trivial, creatures. At the end of the film, Giles’s narration doesn’t hesitate to satisfy his audience’s culturally shaped expectation for “They lived happily ever after,” but then through that poem, he parlays it into a deeper comment about meaning’s fundamental relationality.
That this film teaches us about the omnipresence of meaning and the necessity of viable forms or channels to translate and interpret that meaning could not be made more bluntly, more obviously, than by making its star a mute. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) can hear but not speak and this singular fact radically defamiliarizes communication for us, that of both those who talk in the film and, profoundly, Elisa herself. The normal state of things—the status quo—is our human world of speaking and speaking-back (in both senses), but what Elisa’s quiet presence and non-trivial interventions in conversation index is the stark rarity of listening. To quote a song from My Fair Lady, most of the world around Elisa is just blathering “words, words words.” (“I hear words all day through, first from him now from you…”)
Elisa, I submit, is an inside-out Eliza Doolittle. Instead of a social misfit (lower-class) who is appropriated by a linguistics professor (on a bet with a male friend) to learn the Queen’s English in order for her to catch the eye of masculine Imperial power, Elisa is a social misfit (a mute) who attunes her friends and us to the unhierarchized joys of the world’s profusion of dialects. There is American Sign Language, of course, but also the dialects of neighborly care, of friendship with co-workers, of Hollywood musicals and Bible epics, of painting, of recorded music, of dance, of eggs and pie and other culinary arts, of touch, and (if I can stretch your patience, but I really do want to call this a dialect) of self-care, the self-constitutive syntax of daily routine.
Dialect just means a form of speaking. Dialects are subsets of a language, a term too loaded for me to define here, but in this film, it clearly has something to do with American English in 1950s Baltimore. The film offers other dialects, then: General Hoyt’s (Richard Searcy) dialect of American military power, Richard Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) appropriation of Norman Vincent Peale’s dialect of the power of positive thinking, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Mihalkov’s (Nigel Bennett) Cold War antics (complete with poetic passwords, flashlights, and untranslatable words like “butter cake”), and another use of the bible, this time channeled through a Foucaultian technology of language that establishes the White male norms of Cold War America, particulary aimed at the only prominent Black character, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Strickland’s casual insertion of White male normativity into the imago dei story, for instance, is not socially, practically distant from his sexual attraction to Elisa in her very status as a mutant, a monstrosity (as he sees her) that might “squawk” for him during sexual intercourse (another kind of communication in the film).
By the time we get to that scene between Strickland and Elisa, the distastefulness of his harassment lies not only in the boringly predictable story of white male entitlement but also in the ugly smallness of his understanding of humanity. Humanism, that liberal periapt of the 1950s, shimmers with universality but behind its curtained facade it chewed up and spewed out anyone who didn’t assimilate to white, male, European values and comportment. The dialects of Strickland, the General, and the Russian bosses are status quo but not relational. Each puffs up the male ego, each claims the right to dominate, each shouts down, makes demands, and humiliates.
The only time Elisa “yells” is when she is desperate for Giles to hear her. She stomps her feet, hits him, pounds the wall. LOOK at me, she says. SAY what I’m saying. Touch my words with your tongue, touch my fingers with your eyes, touch my heart with your heart. Hear me.
Elisa shows us species being that includes and bursts through Humanism’s limitations. Indeed, expanding the concept of “living being”, of “valued life”, is at the heart of the message of this film and of the reconciling work of its myth. Consider this: we know from Giles’s opening narrative that Elisa is a princess. He tells us. And yet most of us still translated the lines on her neck into the scars of violent wounding, and not gills, into a traumatic past and not the identity and belongingness of an incomprehensible difference. The God-like creature is not assimilated into Baltimore society but instead rescues Elisa for a life of a divine connection.
The reconciling work failed. Or is it cast out of the screen to us?
- I want to acknowledge Ken Derry’s helpful review of this film, “The Shape of Water,” in The Journal of Religion and Film, 21:2 (Oct 2017). Derry notes his ambivalence toward the film because of its clichéd tropes.