The 1960s represent a complicated era of hate in the United States. While our films and music from that era tell the story of an innocent nation in love with everything that could ever be felt, it is important to remember it is only like that because the people who had the power to send such messages were the white men who didn’t even have gender or sexuality issues on their mind. Now, in 2018, we define those people as cishet white men, but back then, we didn’t have the proper vocabulary to open up a true dialog.
The Others of society were hated, the discriminations told more through micro-aggressions and the silence of segregation. Despite the lovely little musicals with starstruck, tap-dancing lovers, our reality was anything but, and that is the backdrop to Guillermo Del Toro’s most recent film, The Shape of Water.
The Shape of Water is a story about four left behind Others of society joining forces to create one singular instance of love. In an era of hatred guided by a high and mighty patriarchy, our four heroes sacrifice everything to have that one victory. For two of the characters, it’s about finding love in one another. And for the other two, it’s about delivering the opportunity of love to them.
The movie begins with narration from Richard Jenkins’ character, Giles, our resident gay artist who spends much of his time watching old Hollywood musicals, voyeuristically experiencing the heteronormative and free life that he can never have. It is unsurprising that Giles goes to that media for his comfort, because so much of LGBT media comes from an almost unrelated place, such as the connection gay men share with Judy Garland.
Judy Garland is almost a universal symbol for the pain Hollywood can deliver to a young girl who is not quite yet ready to celebrated. Suffering from such visible addiction and abuse, it wasn’t a stretch for the hurt gay men of our society to connect with her. We, as LGBT people, have such little representation in our media, that all we have to grapple onto sometimes is the dark and defeated people of our world.
Giles, being the actual queer character of the four mains, Elisa, Zelda, The Amphibian Man, and him, serves as a nice centerpiece to the story. He lives in complacency, doing little to progress forward. His only companion being a mute woman, Giles lives his life as a full-time chatterbox. He talks and talks and talks and never shut ups.
When he confronts the ad man to show him his latest piece, which is his only remaining chance at employment, Giles hogs the bulk of their conversation, carelessly dropping the expression, “my greatest work.” Which he says regarding every one of his pieces, the repetition of it likely stemming from some insecurity; he wants to be great. The same could be said for the villain of the film, Strickland, played by Hollywood’s go-to for a toxic man, Michael Shannon. But what is Giles’ so called “greatest work”?
Advertising, where it is less about the image and more about the demographic. Not to knock marketing artwork, it is surely an under-appreciated medium, but for a man surrounded by pure artistry and cinema within his home, it is clear he longs for something more.
Giles is a gay man living during a time in America where that is unacceptable. Every day, he and Elisa visit a diner where they purchase slices of pie. Elisa bites her tongue, unable to bring herself to finish the dessert, always bringing it home as leftovers, leading to a fridge full of lackluster pie. It becomes clear that there is something else about this diner beyond the food that keeps Giles coming back time and time again.
Halfway into the film, we learn what it is: he has a crush on the young diner boy that works there. Which isn’t uncommon for an elderly gay man to experience; there’s a confusing dichotomy to the older gay man who wants to find love but also to be someone younger and less broken. Body envy fused with desire. He wants the diner boy as much as he wants to be him.
But after finally mustering the courage to lay his weathered hand onto their youthful one, he is rejected and immediately treated as a lesser. Soon after, a black couple enters the diner and are refused service. It is at this moment that Giles accepts his fate as an LGBT man and how difficult it will be for him to become truly happy.
Terrified of his age, hiding under a toupee, he attempts to hide the truth of his failings. At the end of the day, all that’s left for his empty soul is Elisa. And all she has is the Amphibian Man, their connection born from their shared inability to speak. Despite some of the harsh reality Del Toro throws at us, the love that Elisa and the Amphibian Man share is immediately genuine. While many films would spend a lengthy duration building on their love, Elisa and the Amphibian Man connect almost immediately.
Elisa offers an egg to the Amphibian Man and he gratefully accepts it. The next time we see her do this, she has five eggs lined up for him. We don’t do any of that one-two-three-four-five thing, we just skip straight to five eggs. It’s a lot to swallow, but the Amphibian Man accepts them and after chewing each egg into bits.
Elisa has lived her whole life unable to communicate the way that she wants to be heard. While she finds companionship with Zelda and Giles, it doesn’t satisfy the intense passions she contains within. Her mind operates like the fairytale that Giles spins for us, her desires almost liberated from consequence, such as the scene where she fills the bathroom from floor to ceiling with water so she can swim with the Amphibian Man.
There is so much adventure she longs for that the world won’t allow for her because she is mute. She is dismissed as a nobody by so many, but the Amphibian Man is the first one who truly understands her, and they have lived long enough to understand how important that connection is; it can’t go to waste.
The chemistry between the two is electric, so much so that it engineers a new destiny for every character. The doomsday clock of the film begins to count down as the inevitability of the Amphibian Man either leaving for the ocean or getting caught by the government approaches. During this time, each character faces a major moment of resistance.
Giles’ resistance is when he walks away from Elisa and goes to the diner by himself, which leads to the moment where he finally accepts the inevitability of his queerness.
For Zelda, it is when her lousy husband, whom we have heard her joke freely about, betrays her trust. His eyes heavy with rage, body so fixed and still, he recognizes the power he has over his wife. And when she sees that, she finally walks away from him.
For Strickland, our villain, his resistance is throughout the film. He, despite his position as a cisgender heterosexual white man in the ‘60s, has so much in common with our heroes, but he refuses to accept it. The key to his entire arc lies in his fingers; he loses two of them to the Amphibian Man, rightfully so, after horrifically subjecting him to torture.
His fingers damaged beyond repair, Strickland continues to brandish them, the black, decaying bits of flesh gnarled below his knuckle, permanently curled as vestigial organs. He is different, like Zelda, Giles, and Elisa, and also like them, his Otherness is visible. Despite the disturbing nature of his ruined hand, many characters passively point out that he should probably give up on them.
He relishes in his Otherness, using it to harm people. When his blood from his mangled hand leaks onto his wife while having sex, he smiles, this toxic release of his anguish fulfilling him. Later, he uses his rotting fingers as a prop to intimidate Zelda into giving him the intel he needs.
Like LGBT alt-right figures such as Blaire White and Milo Yiannopoulos, he mechanizes his insecurities and weaknesses so that he may put others down. While not gay or trans or really anything of the sort, Strickland’s psychotic lust to be accepted as a real man — and his simultaneous failings at doing so — is what permanently severs him from other men.
Strickland’s vice is his pride, his need to impress, or as he says, “I always deliver.” Despite all his bravado, his put-on attempts at masculinity tell the whole story. He is so desperate to be a “somebody” that he becomes a lapdog to anyone with any semblance of power. He is weak.
Even in his colorful home with his beautiful housewife ripped straight from a 1960s PSA and his two adoring children, Strickland is weak. He sits there as silently as Elisa, allowing his wife to guide his hand to her breast. Almost as if inviting him to breastfeed, she babies Strickland, unintentionally emasculating him day in and day out.
But of course, being a psychotic man who tortures sea monsters for a living, he doesn’t process this very well.
Strickland is so unaware of his feelings that he can’t even really make decisions for himself. When purchasing a car, he attempts to turn down a charismatic salesman who pushes him to buy a teal car. He doesn’t even like the color teal; much less be able to differentiate it from the color green.
But ten seconds into the up-selling, the salesman pitches that it’s the car for a true man. Smash cut to Strickland driving down the road, unsure of his compulsive purchase, and there we see the whole story.
The Amphibian Man is as trapped and as helpless as Strickland, but somehow The Amphibian Man can love. He hates him because he feels.
As cruelly and savagely as Strickland treats the Amphibian Man in this bizarre quest to impress everyone around him, he is merely a pawn. To that Five Star General who walks into the facility, Strickland is just another asset. Despite the sexual thrill it gives him to cause injury and to spill blood, his job fails to grant him the power he lusts for. He’s just another lackey to bigger and better men.
He’s not the aggressive dominator he play-acts as, and if he had any self awareness at all, he would be standing among our heroes at the end of this story. Not with blood spilling from his neck as the failed villain, but as a friend. Letting Elisa and the Amphibian Man be together could have been another way for Stickland to “always deliver.”
The film ends with Elisa and the Amphibian Man swimming away, the police pulling up to the scene to find a gay man and a black woman standing besides a white authority member at death’s door. It’s not too difficult to imagine the fate of Zelda and Giles, but that’s not the focus of the ending, or even a point Giles makes in his closing narration.
What matters is that our four heroes beat the system; they, despite their shortcomings, fought for something they believed in and triumphed. Neither Giles nor Zelda had much of a future ahead of them; only Elisa did, and this was only because of her connection with the Amphibian Man. One that only spawned from her disability.
Elisa, against all odds, finds the love that society doesn’t want her to possess. She wins, swimming away into her fairytale ending. And after leading such a miserable and lonely life, it is Giles who guides us out of this story. He doesn’t mention what happens to him and Zelda following this; which is what you would expect from a somewhat selfish old man.
Instead he assures us of their happiness, and while he might not say it, giving this gift of happiness to two Others destined for each other was his greatest work.