Image description: Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito looking up at The Asset.
Are we the intended companions of the Gods? I find myself wondering this of disabled people shortly after watching Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. In a society where disabled people are considered faulty or lacking by those around us, The Shape of Water subverts this concept by granting the monstrous autonomy.
In a shadowy government facility, we are introduced to Elisa and The Asset. Elisa Esposito, employed as a custodian, has never known speech. The Asset, a creature drudged out of a South American river, is a mirror image of Elisa: they are both speechless. The outside world perceives them both to be faulty and inhuman. The Asset is presumed to be incapable of communication. However, after finding the Asset, Elisa soon teaches him American Sign Language. Elisa is the only human that understands the Asset and sees him for what he is truly capable of, as opposed to what he lacks.
Like The Asset, Elisa communicates with those around her using sign language. Elisa’s companions often assist in translating for her; however, the only person seemingly incapable of understanding her is Colonel Strickland, the hypermasculine and brutal keeper of the Asset; he only attempts to understand her when he suspects he is being undermined. He is another archetypal cishet, abled white man in a position of power. Strickland is simultaneously disgusted by Elisa’s disability and aroused by it. This begs the question: Is this due to his simple nature as a man or a fetishization of a disabled woman? Perhaps both.
Strickland believes himself to be a God. He is a man set on power and domination with delusions of grandeur; he believes he is incapable of failure. According to Strickland, the residents of the village where he acquired The Asset worshiped him as a God. The Asset may slightly mimic humans, but he is no God to Colonel Strickland. Rather, Strickland believes God to look more like himself, feeding into Strickland’s self-perception that he is greater than his companions.
Strickland, of course, is wrong. While Strickland believes it is he who possesses otherworldly powers, The Asset is the true God amongst men. Shortly after The Asset escapes with the help of Elisa and her companions, he accidentally injures Giles, Elisa’s best friend. The Asset then heals his wound with simply a touch. He proves to be Godlike once again when he and Elisa are shot by Colonel Strickland; the Asset heals himself. Enraged by Elisa’s death, he slashes the throat of Strickland with his claws before jumping into the sea with the corpse of Elisa. He then, quite literally, breathes new life into Elisa and gives her the ability to survive underwater with him. They are believed to live happily ever after.
Much like a God, the Asset is the giver of life and salvation. In many ways, the Asset — and Elisa — are allegorical figures that can represent the disabled community. The idea of a disabled figure possessing fantastical power subverts the real life notion that disabled people are inferior and burdensome. The divinity of the cishet, white, abled man becomes a fallacy in The Shape of Water. Strickland, a man that repeatedly states that he never fails, is defeated by those he views as lesser and powerless. The Asset is oppressed by those around him because of what they do no not know about him. Their assumptions about him are based solely on their differences. His oppressors do not see how they may be similar; he is merely something that must be destroyed or utilized by those that deem themselves superior. Much like the disabled community, he is underestimated for how resilient and worthy of saving he is.
“Monsters, I believe, are the patron saints of our blissful imperfection,” Guillermo Del Toro iterated as he accepted Best Director of a Motion Picture for Shape of Water at the Golden Globes. Despite our shortcomings, those who are disabled or deviate from the norm are capable of Godliness.
jasmine feaster is a non-binary artist from atlanta, georgia. their art consists of filmmaking, poetry, and think pieces. jasmine is 20 and tweets @jsmnrn.