How 'The Shape Of Water' Makes People With Disabilities Feel Less Human

The movie, which won Best Picture, tells “disabled people [that they] should go and be with their kind,” one critic said.
Sally Hawkins, left, and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Sally Hawkins, left, and Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water."
Fox Searchlight/Twentieth Century Fox

Warning: This article contains spoilers for “The Shape of Water.”

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry was psyched when she heard about Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.”

As a speculative fiction author and editor who is legally blind and deaf, Sjunneson-Henry couldn’t wait to see a science fiction film featuring a protagonist with a disability.

“I was super excited to potentially see a movie about a disabled woman as a hero in a genre setting,” Sjunneson-Henry told HuffPost.

The film, which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a cleaning woman who works at a top-secret government lab in the 1960s. Elisa, who is mute, lives a lonely life despite having two caring friends who are also outsiders — Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is gay, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who is black.

But Elisa’s life drastically changes when she discovers that the research facility where she works is performing questionable experiments on an aquatic but human-like creature (Doug Jones).

Elisa (Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), two women who clean at a top-secret research facility.
Elisa (Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), two women who clean at a top-secret research facility.
Fox Searchlight/Twentieth Century Fox

Sjunneson-Henry thought “The Shape of Water” would be a heist movie, in which Elisa and her ragtag group of underdog friends band together, save the fish man and triumph over injustice.

“I wanted to walk away from that movie feeling like, ‘Yay! I got to see a disabled main character have lots of agency and [engage in] a lot of bad ass-ery,’” she said. “But that’s not what I got.”

What she got instead was a love story in which a character who is disabled falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon because he’s the only being she can relate to on a deeper, emotional level.

In a heated scene in which Elisa explains why rescuing the Amphibian Man (as the character is listed on IMDb) is so important to her, she says that the creature “does not know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I am, as I am.”

The sentiment is romantic, and is supposed to convey that the creature sees beyond Elisa’s physical abilities. Del Toro himself has expressed that this was his intention. But Sjunneson-Henry poignantly writes how this sentiment makes some people with disabilities “feel less human,” in her essay, “I Belong Where the People Are.”

“On the one hand I have always known in my soul that [able-bodied] people see me as half of them, that they see me as less than whole. Which is why I hate that in media such as this, we can only be desired by those who don’t know any better.”

- Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, a speculative fiction author and editor who is disabled

“On the one hand I have always known in my soul that [able-bodied] people see me as half of them, that they see me as less than whole,” she wrote. “Which is why I hate that in media such as this, we can only be desired by those who don’t know any better.”

The problem with this love story may be due, in part, to the fact that there were very few people with disabilities involved in the creation of this film. When HuffPost reached out to Fox Searchlight to ask whether there were any disabled consultants involved in the film, a rep said two ASL coaches were involved during production. And though leading lady Hawkins has dyslexia, she has said publicly that she is “not disabled.”

There are also plenty of arguments that could support why this pairing is acceptable.

The movie hits viewers over the head with the message that the real monster in this fable isn’t Amphibian Man, but a human — Elisa’s boss Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a villain hellbent on vivisecting “the asset” (the monster) by any means.

Elisa teaches Amphibian Man sign language.
Elisa teaches Amphibian Man sign language.
Fox Searchlight/Twentieth Century Fox

Both Elisa and her webbed boo are isolated and voiceless, but bond intimately, on their own terms, through the sign language that Elisa teaches him.

Kristen Lopez, a film critic who is physically disabled, argues in a piece titled “How ‘Shape of Water’ Breaks Down Barriers About Sex and Disability” that placing an openly sexual disabled woman at the forefront of a mainstream Hollywood film is a pretty revolutionary move.

Lopez points out that women with disabilities are often characterized as unattractive and asexual. Yet, in the first few moments of the film, we see Elisa masturbating in her bathtub, which “removes the presumed barriers that separate people with disabilities from the able-bodied.”

Other scenes in the movie are relatable to those with disabilities as well.

In another scene, the able-bodied Strickland sexually harasses Elisa, which he perceives not as misconduct but a compliment, “since in his mind, he is the only one who perceives Elisa in a sexual context,” Lopez writes. It is a power dynamic that Sjunneson-Henry has experienced in her own life and said the movie portrayed well.

But though she related to the sexual harassment scene, Sjunneson-Henry told HuffPost she didn’t “feel great” about the movie as a whole.

That’s because the ending of the film and its final message is one that even Lopez, in her article, admits “undermines the film’s treatment of disability.”

For instance, in one scene, the audience learns that Elisa became mute as a baby after experiencing a violent act that left scars on her neck. In another scene, viewers discover that Amphibian Man has special powers after he heals a cut on Giles’ arm and cures him of his baldness.

These revelations come full circle at the end of the movie.

During the final climactic scene, Strickland shoots Elisa as she attempts to release her finned boyfriend into a canal so that he can swim back home.

In response to this, Amphibian Man kills Strickland, picks up Elisa’s dying body and jumps with her into the canal.

Once in the water, the creature heals Elisa by turning the scars on her neck into gills so that she could live out the rest of her life underwater with him.

The act is supposed to be viewed as romantic, but as Sjunneson-Henry points out, it also tells “disabled people [that they] should go and be with their kind.” It also says that if you don’t fit into society, it’s better that you leave.

Kim Sauder, a Ph.D. student in critical disability studies who is disabled, wrote in her essay “‘The Shape of Water’ is a Toxic Romantic Fantasy” that the story also tells people with disabilities that finding a romantic partner is a rarity and that they should hold on to whoever chooses them — even if it’s a monster.

“It is interesting how closely this conclusion mirrors my own youthful fantasies about romantic relationships (except that I kept my imaginary lovers human),” Sauder wrote. “I often felt like any relationship I might find would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and that we would inevitably end up living a secluded life together because of the discrimination that I faced. Except in the real world, that kind of relationship is a recipe for abuse and I’m glad I grew out of it.”

Not to mention that Elisa didn’t intend to leave with Amphibian Man. Earlier in the scene, when the creature learns that Elisa intends to set him free, he asks her to come with him and she rejects his offer.

She also had little agency in this decision, being that she was dying and unconscious when her lover turned her into a sea dweller.

Filmmaker and activist Dominick Evans, who has spinal muscular atrophy — a progressive neuromuscular disability — told HuffPost that the message that Elisa needed to be “fixed” or “cured” to have a successful romantic relationship is troubling.

“People think that the creature healed her, so we have non-disabled people thinking that disabled people want or need to be healed,” Evans told HuffPost. “And some people do, but when that’s the default message, that’s a problem. Some of us will never be the non-disabled version of ‘healed.’ Some of us will never have treatment options that ‘cure us.’”

It also reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are second-rate humans — even to those with disabilities themselves.

“I hated myself for being disabled for so long,” Evans told HuffPost. “I know other disabled people who have tried to kill themselves because they internalize these messages. They don’t go to school, they don’t have a relationship, they just sit around waiting to be cured or die.”

Some who are able-bodied and fans of the film may argue that it’s just a movie, but both Evans and Sjunneson-Henry assert that these kinds of narratives do have real-life consequences.

“It says to us that without being cured, we’re not going to be loved or worthwhile to another human being,” Evans told HuffPost. “And society absorbs that.”

Sjunneson-Henry says that some people have responded to her feelings about the film with anger.

“I would ask people who are angry to think about how angry they would be if they only saw [a few] representations of themselves in film, and one of them involved monster love.”

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