The 2018 Academy Awards, otherwise known as the Oscars, will be held on March 4. As the awards ceremony approaches, I have been trying to see all of the highly-anticipated nominees, as they are generally considered to be the most important films of the year. According to the numbers, the most important of these important films is Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” It’s the film with the most nominations this year, a total of 13, including Best Picture and Best Director. The critical appeal of this was intriguing to me, so I was really excited when I finally got the chance to see it. However, my excitement was very, very short lived.
Actually, a better word to describe what I felt sitting in the movie theater was confusion. I asked myself, “Am I missing something?” I kept waiting for something remarkable to happen. As the film continued, I grew more and more disappointed. I thought, “Maybe this is it.” Maybe one of 2018’s most groundbreaking films really is an unoriginal, perverted, sexual fantasy that is not groundbreaking at all. Rather, it relies on the excessive sexualization of a female protagonist that is portrayed through the eyes of a male director and an under-credited supporting role of a Black colleague and gay best friend; it reflects age-old patterns in Hollywood that reflect the problematic way our society functions in terms of sexism, racism and phallic worship.
As I processed the film, my confusion turned to anger and frustration. In fact, I was so frustrated that I abandoned what I was originally planning to write about this week to talk about this.
Let’s start my complaints with protagonist Elisa Esposito, a janitor working in a secret military laboratory. Elisa has been mute since birth and she expresses herself through sign language and facial expressions. The audience gets to know Elisa pretty quickly; within the first five minutes of the film, we see Elisa’s naked body in its entirety when she masturbates in her bathtub. Some critics consider this scene as a display of Elisa’s sexual liberty, even calling Del Torro a feminist for it. To me, this is not feminism. It shows nothing more but the male gaze of a straight male director. Why do we need to see Elisa’s naked body multiple times throughout the film, but her amphibian lover doesn’t even have genitalia? Sure, he might technically be “naked” throughout the film, but he is a fish with scales covering his entire body and webbed hands. He’s not so sexy. Why is her body objectified when he gets his privacy?
Another appalling theme that seems to have slipped by the Academy is the fetishization of Elisa’s muteness, a fact which is unbelievably offensive, gross and twisted. Throughout the movie, the main antagonist, Colonel Richard Strickland, expresses a boorish sexual desire toward Elisa based solely on the fact that she is mute. In Matt Lauer fashion, Strickland locks Elisa in his office and proceeds to tell her how he would like to have sex with her because she would not be able to verbally refuse.
How is this “feminism”? In light of the #MeToo movement, this is what the Academy picked? This isn’t sexual liberation; it’s just another reinforcement of the backward construction of gender in our society: the domineering man and his submissive female subordinate. As the director, Del Torro could have been so much more innovative with the way he used a female protagonist. Instead, he chose to focus on her sex appeal and the fetishization of her disability.
I think this has something to do with how so many movies in Hollywood continue to be directed by men. For example, even after the publicity of the #MeToo movement, only one out of every 22 directors is a female — that’s only 4 percent! Furthermore, the trend is reflected during awards season; not a single woman was nominated for Best Director at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. And this year, cinematographer Rachel Morrison became the very first woman to be nominated for best cinematography for her work in the film “Mudbound.” I’m not jumping to any conclusions, but I can’t help but wonder about the correlation between a constant need to sexualize women and the looming presence of male directors. Perhaps if we had more female directors, then the ubiquitous male eye would dissolve and allow female characters to be presented in something other than a sensual manner.
I was excited when I learned that Octavia Spencer had a role in “The Shape of Water.” After all, she is the first Black woman in Hollywood history to have three Oscar nominations (one of which became an award). However, much to my disappointment, it became very clear within the first few scenes exactly what type of role Spencer would be playing: a supporting character. Her character, Zelda, is so overlooked that I barely even noticed she was there. I am so tired of seeing Black actors being represented as secondary to an all-white cast. I understand this movie is supposed to take place during the 1960s, a period marked by racial segregation, but if the main character’s love interest is an amphibian, would it really be so crazy to have a Black heroine too? How have we gotten to the point when a non-human creature has a bigger role in a movie than Octavia Spencer? How can a movie that is nominated for 13 Academy awards operate on such a primitive model of racial representation?
The answer is simple, and it only reinforces a problematic pattern in Hollywood films: women of color have continuously been excluded from awards ceremonies, specifically from the leading actress category. For example, Salma Hayek, who earned praise for a powerful performance in last summer’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” has escaped this awards season entirely. Her absence also highlights a lack of Latino representation within Hollywood. Given that Del Torro is a Mexican director himself, it is surprising that the movie operates on such a lack of diverse racial representation.
The other supporting role in the movie is Elisa’s only friend, a closeted gay artist named Giles. Through Giles’s storyline, Del Torro does highlight the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ community, which I think is important for increasing awareness on the issue. However, it is disappointing to see a gay character being minimized to a “supporting” role. Like Zelda, Giles is not nearly as developed and does not share as much screen time as Elisa. Once again, Hollywood has done it. A study from 2016 found that only 23 percent of main characters in movies were identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. In my opinion, if this movie was as “groundbreaking” as everyone claims it to be, then Giles and Zelda would have been the main focus of the plot instead of falling trap to the same patterns of heteronormativity that we keep seeing in film.
Maybe I’m being too harsh of a critic. Maybe I’m missing the point of the movie completely. But for some reason, I just can’t shake this feeling of frustration. It is disheartening to think that the themes in this movie reflect the way our society still operates, at least in terms of sexism, racism and heteronormative notions of sexuality. I was expecting something groundbreaking, but there is nothing groundbreaking about a film that plays out more like a conventional fever dream than a sensual fairy tale about love. I can’t take back the two hours of my life that I spent watching this film, but I can only maintain hope that one day we will place importance on a new type of movie.
Carli Cosenza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.