The Shape Of Water was a beautiful film, with gorgeous visual effects, excellent music, and a heart-wrenching storyline with love and drama and a little more graphic blood than I would have liked, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Bechdel Test Results

Film: The Shape of Water

1. Is there more than one woman with a first name? Yes. Only two who are characters (Elisa and Zelda), and a third whose name is mentioned (Yolanda).

2. Do those women have a conversation? Yes. Zelda and Elisa are good friends and colleagues. They talk to each other throughout the entire movie.

3. Is their conversation about something other than men? No. Zelda mostly rants about her husband and the hygiene in the men’s facilities. When Elisa speaks, she talks about the creature, which is labelled very early in the film as a he. Thus, all of their dialogue is actually about men.

Which is a shame, really. There’s no particular reason the film had to fail. But it did.

Some films don’t pass Bechdel and it makes sense – for example, in a true story, I understand the desire to be true to the gender identity of the people in the original story. So let’s take an example of a film released right around the same time which was based on a true story: The Post.

The Post passed Bechdel. It was still a little tight, but Katherine Graham’s relationship with her daughter emphasized her central role. Notice though, that The Post fails POC Bechdel – and it’s understandable, because it makes sense that most of the people who worked in the White House and were invited to Katherine Graham’s parties were not people of color. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but then, it’s based on a true story.

The Shape of Water is fiction. Which means someone chose genders for each and every one of those characters. You can argue that Strickland and General Hoyt really needed to be men, being in elite government positions, but what about the artist? The guy from the bakery? Strickland’s assistant? The scientist? The Landlord? Any one of those could have been women.

And what about the creature?

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Here I was honestly disappointed at the decision to so blatantly label him as a man. He’s made up. He’s not human. They have no idea what he is and he certainly doesn’t express any kind of human gender identity. What I saw was a perfect opportunity to portray a character who has no gender, wouldn’t that have been interesting? And then what does that say about Elisa? Oh no, but in fiction even non-human characters have to fit into the gender binary, and since Elisa is a woman, and all women are heterosexual, he has to be – not only a male – but a cis male. I was honestly baffled by how far the creators of this movie reached to make the cis-maleness of the creature clear (i.e. the scene where Zelda asks Elisa if he has a “…”). What harm would there have been in just not discussing that, and letting viewers imagine how Elisa and the creature consummated the intimacy they felt for each other?

Once their relationship is shown to actually be a heterosexual relationship between a cis male and a cis female, it ‘s almost as if people don’t notice that one of them is not human. The people closest to Elisa don’t raise their eyebrows even for a second. So while it is clear that their relationship exists in perfect contrast to that of Strickland and his wife, or Giles’s advances on the Pie Guy, it still only reinforces our cultural heteronormativity despite the fact that one of them is not human.

WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?

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