The Shape of Water – a Critique of its Love Story and “Representation”

*spoilers*

I read an interesting article about The Shape of Water the other day. The article 18_05_05_The_Shape_of_Watercelebrates the idea of “queering” in the movie – non-traditional love between “queer” bodies – in this case a mute woman and a “monster.”  The author, Stephanie Monteith, seemed to love the movie as a discussion of the monster as “other,” as a way for us to examine our own humanity through the idea of the monster.

I like Stephanie’s point, but I didn’t really like the movie. It didn’t work for me because I thought the theme was too blatant and simplistic. It felt like Oppression Olympics. The movie had pure, uncomplicatedly good characters: a mute woman, her black female friend, and her gay best friend, all struggling on the brink of abject poverty to save the sweet, loving monster from the horrible, uncomplicatedly bad rich white man who practices unflinching bigotry and cruelty.

I think humans (and monsters) are more complicated and faceted than that, so I tend to get bored with statement pieces that have angel and devil-people functioning as stand-ins for a discussion about social justice. I have no problem with movies that discuss themes of social justice, as long as the story and characters ring true.

The exception, for me, are morality tales, which I love. These stories tend to have very simple plots, and a main character who struggles with his own contradictions. In these stories, the main character is usually the only complicated character, and the plot may or may not be plausible, but the moral struggle rings true. The movie A Simple Plan is my favorite morality tale. I think Fatal Attraction and The Firm (the movie, not the book)  also fall under that category.

The Shape of Water appears to be using the love story to make a statement. But, the love story didn’t quite work for me either. I believe the notion of pure unselfish love would have been more powerfully advanced if the woman and the creature had not had sex, at least not until she had been transformed into a sea creature.

The Inter-species sex introduces a strange element that takes away from the idea of love being selfless and sacrificial. Picture Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Will fought for the life of “Serena” instead of Caesar, and they made love in a tree. Will’s love for Caesar was no less poignant without the “love story,” and Elisa’s love for the Amphibian Man would have been no less touching without the sexual component.

Once Elisa dies and comes back as Amphibian Lady – since their true love had already been firmly established – sex makes sense at that point. Before that, you wonder (well, I wonder) if she was simply horny and desperate. She was a daily, vigorous masturbator, after all.

Having Elisa and the Amphibian Man consummate their relationship in the water – as equals – would have been a lot more beautiful and romantic in my opinion.

So, while I found myself rolling my eyes at some of the more obvious “messages” in The Shape of Water, and while I found the inter-species sex a little creepy and unnecessary, I love it when something unusual gets top honors. I hope the success of the movie will inspire the industry to continue thinking outside the box.

Incidentally, I believe that no group can claim true equality until the individuals in that group are looked at realistically – not all good, not all bad. Not villains. Not angels. Not comic reliefs. Not magical saviors. Not innocent victims who need rescuing. Not sexualized. Not asexual. Not serving merely as support props for the mainstream (white) character. And not as quirky side-kicks who appear when needed, and conveniently disappear when not. Three dimensional characters, just like real people, hold multiple and contradictory characteristics at once. There are no saint groups and no sinner groups.

We’re getting there, but I believe we still have a ways to go.

Peace and love,

Raven

 

 

 

 

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Marriage as Portrayed in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda, a Victorian novel I am currently reading, is one that was considered controversial in its day due to its sympathetic portrayal of the Jews.  Set in England, the novel’s events are described chiefly from the perspective of the upper class white Gentile community. I’m too early in the book to have experienced any of the material regarding Judaism, but I think its depiction of marriage as the end of freedom for women is still, in some ways, controversial.

The stereotype persists that men view marriage as the end of freedom, while women crave the institution the way thirsty desert wanderers crave a cold glass of water. The latest spike in reality shows featuring plural marriages – one husband and several wives – as well as the tireless Bachelor franchise, and the jokes that permeate most sitcoms seem to support this stereotype. I think the truth has always been more complicated.

The novel’s author, George Eliot, sums up her narcissistic, manipulative protagonist, Gwendolyn’s, view of men with the following statement (though she’s talking about gambling, not marriage): “she cared for the excitement of play, not the winnings” (p. 6). Gwendolyn loves the attention of being pursued. She callously enjoys the fact that she can break hearts. She has no real desire to be tied down, though she knows that it’s inevitable at some point.

The patriarchal and hierarchical society of the Victorian age put women in two unfortunate positions: they needed men for their economic survival, and they were expected to be the passive recipients of male desire. It makes marriage the ultimate goal for women – the way an interesting, lucrative job is the ultimate goal for men. However, it deprives women of the opportunity to go for it, as it were. They have to look pretty, wait, and hope to be chosen.

This understandably bred resentment in many women, which, of course, could not be openly expressed (not if they ever hoped to be chosen). So, as annoying as Gwendolyn is, her response is altogether reasonable, given her situation. And the reality, even today, is that marriage tends to be more work for women than it is for men. There are still many men who view marriage as the procurement of nursing care, maid services, and a personal chef – and in response the man brings home a paycheck. Hopefully.

So, while the stereotype of women being desperate to get married persists, it persists, I believe, out of habit and tradition, not out of a rational response to the status quo. Unmarried women tend to live longer than married women. Although most married women work outside the home, they still do most of the childcare and housework. Perhaps, like Gwendolyn, it is the “play” that we really like – the attention, the romance and the drama of a wedding, for example – not the “winnings” – a man who sits on the couch waiting to be fed.

I’m being facetious, of course. I’m not knocking marriage. It’s wonderful with the right person. It’s a chance to grow and mature as a human being. Through the power of synergy, two people can do more together than either one alone. The legal commitment brings a certain sobriety and sense of family to the couple, which can be quite rewarding. But marriage for marriage’s sake is no bargain. As Gwendolyn says “…what is the use of my being charming, if it is to end in my being dull and not minding anything? Is that what marriage always comes to?” (p. 23).

That is not what marriage always comes to, but, if we don’t question society’s narratives and group-think, we can naturally fall into some pretty unhealthy patterns. In 2018 we can surely do better than that.

Peace and love,

Raven

Stephen King, Owen King, and #MeToo

“That instinct, to doubt what women say, it’s always there. To find some reason not to take their word. Men do it…but we do, too. I do it.” P. 439 of  Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties.

I’m on page 495 (of 700) of the above captioned book. This quote struck me for many reasons. But, it touches on the spirit of what’s happening in response to the #metoo movement. The problem of sexism and abuse is not the fault of a specific man or group of men. The problem is not strictly even about men. The problem is the culture as a whole. This is a culture which treats women’s words as suspect or frivolous, and men’s words as authoritative and important. Even if the man is lying. Even if the man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Even if he is not credible. He is given a kind of “benefit of the doubt” (also called privilege) that women, by contrast, have to work long and hard for, if it’s ever given at all.

In the novel Sleeping Beauties, the women are disappearing. (There are no real spoilers here, but if you don’t want to know anything about the book, skip ahead to the next paragraph). They are falling asleep and not waking up. They are not dead, but they are no longer around. Without them, the tiny town in which the story takes place is falling apart. The problem is global. Chaos is reigning all over the world. Women are trying hopelessly to stay awake. Men are trying to live in a world without women. Some men react with sadness; others take to violence. But, throughout the story, the authors comment subtly on the state of male/female relationships.

I don’t know how the novel is going to end, but I can confidently assert my opinion in real life: men and women need each other. We complement each other. Women’s words, their feelings, their experiences, are just as important as men’s. There is nothing we can’t do, if given a fair chance. For tasks where physical strength is necessary, we rely on men on to help, but it is not a requirement. Humans are always creating ways to do things that are physically impossible without mechanized assistance. Men can nurture children and care for elderly parents, just as women stereotypically do. There is wisdom, however, in the division of labor.

This division of labor does not always line up according to gender. Some men are better with children than some women. Some women are much more rational and are better leaders than men. There are gender tendencies, but we are not locked into those. Those difference merely let us know that we need each other. Tasks should be divvied up according to talent and interest, not genitalia.

As we embrace both sides of our natures, we become more mentally balanced, confident, and whole. As a woman, I have some stereotypically female traits: I love babies, I am interested in relationships, I love to make my environment beautiful, and I prioritize people over money and things. On the other hand, I rarely cry, I hate to shop, I’m highly rational, and I’m task-oriented more than social. A man who would balance me out would probably have opposite or complementary traits. Polarity causes attraction, and nature is always seeking a balance.

So, with all the noise and sad news out there, let’s not buy into the idea that we are enemies. Some men do hate women; and some women hate men. But the truth is: we need each other. Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue. It’s a human issue. Listening to women, and taking care of our little girls, is about preserving our human societies. We cannot thrive in a world where women are regularly abused while gaining educations, earning livings, or simply walking down the street.

Men can help protect our societies by protecting the women. Women can express gratitude, acknowledging the good men in our lives who do this automatically. Women can help themselves by refusing to buy into the cultural idea that our thoughts are less relevant than men’s. Discrimination often leads to self-hatred and insecurity. We can’t let this happen. Keep speaking up, ladies! Even when it’s hard. Even when people don’t listen at first. We need our women. And we need our men.

United, we are a human family. Divided, we are each other’s worse nightmares. We get to choose.

 

Peace and love,

Raven