“The Shape Of Water” and Disability

A Breath of Fresh Air, a Repetition of Stereotypes or Something in Between?

Kurt Borg spoke to Dr Anne-Marie Callus, current Acting Head of the Department of Disability Studies at the University of Malta, about the film The Shape of Water. Here’s what she had to say about it:

K.B: The Shape of Water, which has recently won 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture, highlights issues which are relevant to Disability Studies, such as marginalisation, stigma, rights, and others. How do you feel that these issues were presented in this film?

A.C: The fact that the film is set in the 1950s enables the film-maker to bring in overt examples of ableism, sexism, racism, classism and homophobia. There is the danger of 21st century cinemagoers smugly patting themselves on the back, thinking what a long way we have come from those times – and we have – but we must also remember that these prejudices are often still there, albeit more covertly (and sometimes not so covertly). It is therefore important to consider how much the issues that you highlight as related to Disability Studies (as well as to other types of minority studies) are as relevant to contemporary society as they are to any discussion of previous generations’ attitudes to those who looked different from what is considered to be the norm at any given time.

What about disability specifically? A lot of work has been done on cultural representations of disability, in film for example. Do you think that the film presents a progressive/critical portrayal of disability experiences?

The character of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is marked as different with her scars, and her unknown origins, but mostly because she communicates in sign language rather than through spoken words. It is this very language that enables her to communicate and establish a rapport with the creature and to bring out what could be termed as his humanity (it is interesting that he is very clearly identified as male). This idea, of an impairment turning out to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage, has been used before. For example, several Star Trek episodes that feature disabled characters (of which there are many) use this idea. One that comes immediately to mind is ‘Loud as a Whisper’ where it is the mediator’s sign language that brings peace to a planet. See this article for further details.

The creature can also be considered to be disabled. It is interesting for example to see him being referred to as the ‘monster’. That term has very negative connotations. Why should someone who looks completely different and goes completely against our idea of beauty be assumed to be a monster? Frankenstein’s creature would have a lot to say about that if he had been allowed to live! This is related to the issue of which disabilities are considered to be ‘palatable’ and which not. People with facial disfigurements and those whose impairments are associated with what is considered to be challenging behaviour find it much less easy to be accepted in society. They have what Chrissie Rogers calls “difficult difference” in her book Intellectual Disability and Being Human.

These portrayals of disabled characters have much to offer and to talk about and at least they are not stereotyped representations. But they do not offer a critical representation. For me that would be a representation that really challenges stereotypes of what it means to live with a disability, and of how disabled people behave and go about their daily lives. Some films that do present this challenge are O’Donell’s 2004 Inside I’m Dancing, and Nakache and Toledano’s 2011 Untouchable. These films move away from sentimentality and have their characters break taboos and really challenge stereotypes.

Looking at the film more critically: it could be said that disability in the film was presented as an ‘other’, something completely outside of and excluded from so-called normality, as well as radically different (for ex: it was referred to as the ‘monster’). Indeed, without wanting to spoil the movie for those who haven’t watched it, the ending can be interpreted as suggesting that the ‘othered’ individuals can only live happily if secluded from the rest of humanity. What do you think of such an interpretation, presented in articles such as this and this?

They do have a point of course. And given that both authors have a disability it is not a position I will argue with. I am non-disabled myself, and therefore it is not a deeply personal issue for me as it is for them. But perhaps one way of looking at it is that Elisa and the creature were forced into finding love in one another by an othering and disabling society. One must be careful with this line of reasoning though – if two disabled people fall in love, we cannot assume that it’s because they couldn’t find a non-disabled partner. And the ending can make us reflect on how these two characters had no option but to retreat into their own world, because in mainstream society they did not find acceptance.

Another theme explored in the film was that the various struggles pertaining to “identity politics” co-exist together. For example, the film shows instances of racism, classism, ableism, xenophobia, and homophobia in different moments. Do you agree that while it is important to recognise the specific concerns in each, they must be understood together in order to engage suitably with issues of social justice?

I think I would put it the other way round. We do need to see intersections among the different types of prejudice that so many people are subjected to. But we must also be attentive to the specific concerns of different groups. Speaking about disabled people, in countries where for example there is one anti-discrimination body that deals with cases of discrimination on various grounds, disabled people tend to lose out. Their concerns are not only about removing prejudice and stigma, but also about making material changes to the environment that meet their needs – adequate ramps and lifts, accessible websites, sign language interpreting and close captioning. Services are provided to cater for the needs of the majority which means that disabled people, with their varied impairment-related needs, repeatedly lose out. Take the use of sub-titling in The Shape of Water for instance. Elisa’s signing and the Russian dialogue are sub-titled for the benefit of the audience. So the assumption is that the audience can hear, can understand spoken English, but doesn’t know Russian. How are people with hearing impairments going to follow the film without closed captioning? Ironically, this includes Deaf people whose first language very often is sign language, just like Elisa.

Films portraying individuals with disabilities have often been criticised for starring non-disabled actors portraying disabled individuals. This film too has been criticised along these lines, for having a mute person represented by Sally Hawkins. What are your views on the matter?

I agree with this criticism. Roles for disabled actors are hard to come by. Why shouldn’t they be offered these roles when the opportunity arises? Have a listen to this Ted Talk by Maysoon Zayid to learn how she was turned down for a role as a character with cerebral palsy because she was told that she couldn’t do the stunts, when she has cerebral palsy herself! Another example is Artie Abrams in the TV series Glee. Here’s a quotation on the matter from an article by Elvira Psaila:

“One such case was the role of Artie Abrams in ‘Glee’, which was given to a non-disabled actor on the premise that none of the disabled actors who audition had the necessary wheelchair dancing skills and charisma (Gerber 2012). What is interesting and ironic is that this non-disabled actor has a disabled stunt double. So was he really the best choice for the part?”

Then there’s also of course the matter of actors securing Oscars just because they play a character with disability. See this, for example.

You have published on matters pertaining to cultural representations of disability. What have been some of the issues that you have researched in this regard? Moreover, could you point us to other work of importance that has been produced about such topics?

I have co-written an article on Star Trek for a science fiction magazine, which can be found here. I’ve also co-written a chapter on disabled people and culture, which has been published in the Routledge Companion to Global Cultural Policy.

A book which is very relevant to this issue is Mitchell and Snynder’s Narrative Prosthesis. An excellent source of articles on cultural representations of disability is the Journal of Cultural and Literary Disability Studies and the work of many American disability studies scholars, such as Siebers, Mitchell and Snyder, Bruggermann, Kleege, Garland-Thompson, and Lennard Davis among others.

*This article was first published on Isles of the Left

**The lead image is a cropped version of James Jean’s original poster