Since my 2017 Year in Review posts, I’ve had the chance to see Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I loved it. I felt that, like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, it reflected the filmmaker’s sympathy with daydreamers whose wavelengths are out of tune with the ordinary and mundane. I viewed Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, like Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth, as a powerful woman who knows society views her as powerless and uses that perception to deceive and defy those who would dismiss her. I connected with her almost immediately, thanks to Hawkins’ deftly detailed performance. How could I not like a woman who wishfully imitates Bill Robinson’s dance moves? I came away hoping this movie might clean up at this year’s Oscars, embracing it as a welcome rarity, a critically acclaimed film with an abundance of heart.
Then I read the following article on Tor.com. (Warning: it contains Spoilers.)
The author of this article is looking at the movie from a different perspective from my own, focusing on the ways in which it portrays the heroine’s disability. As I read it, I could understand, point for point, all the elements in the movie that she found frustrating. I remembered them all, but caught up in the film’s dreamlike romanticism, I didn’t see them in the same way. While I was engaged by Hawkins’ performance, I didn’t consider that some might be bothered that the role didn’t go to an actress with the same disability as the character. Now I can see it. I can’t say that a single word of this article is wrong.
So, is it okay if I still love The Shape of Water?
The worst thing anyone can say in response to a differing perspective is, “You shouldn’t be offended.” It’s not one person’s place to judge what someone else finds offensive or problematic. Yet while I can perceive the movie’s problems, I can’t deny it caught me up in its spell. I can’t deny I want to see it again. The difference of opinion/response offers more proof that each of us creates meaning in tandem with the creators of the art we consume. Our own identities and experiences affect our responses to it. If we bear this in mind, surely we can understand and appreciate someone else’s different movies on a piece of art we love, without necessarily losing that love.
I had a similar experience when I read Tor’s review of Roald Dahl’s Matilda:
I’d praised Matilda as a good read for girls in my previous blog post. The story still has my heart, more than ever since I saw the musical recently. But I can’t deny that everything the author found problematic is very much a part of the tale. Miss Trunchbull is as despicable as the story demands (and I have my own issues with the ways in which her evil is bound up with her physical strength and bigness), but did her more competent replacement have to be a man? Why not promote Miss Honey instead, as happened in the film version?
But darn it, I still love Matilda. I actually think it does us good to read perspectives on stories that diverge from ours, particularly when it concerns something we love. Understanding that not everyone sees the same thing the same way doesn’t have to diminish our joy. But maybe it makes us think a little more about where our joy might be coming from.
What I appreciate about these two articles I’ve shared is that neither author is what I call a “Missionary of Hate.” They state, “I find these aspects problematic,” and then they explain their case. They do NOT cry out, in so many words, “I hated it, and if you didn’t hate it too, then you’re WRONG!”
For contrast we have only to look at the Internet vitriol directed at Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Now, The Last Jedi has problematic aspects of its own, and some have pointed them out with a great deal of insight. Foz Meadows, for instance, notes how the choice to ignore the chemistry between Finn and Poe in favor of building up a heterosexual love subplot for the former diminishes the movie as a whole (though she does point out she enjoyed it). Again, beware Spoilers:
Yet voices like Meadows’ have been drowned in a flood of shouts declaring that critics who praised the movie must have been paid off. Some haters have even started a petition with the apparent aim of forcing writer/director Rian Johnson to admit publicly that his movie sucks. When I read Meadows’ article, I know we saw the same movie. But when I venture a look into the haters’ spew, I can’t believe we saw the same movie.
The haters’ aim is to make those who disagree with them feel like fools, to the point where we may be embarrassed or even afraid to admit that we actually like the object of their scorn. They’re not happy until their voices alone are heard. While we should be accepting and understanding of opinions different from ours, we should take care to keep a clear view of the line between disagreement and bullying. Disagreement we should appreciate, but bullying we should resist with all our might.
Bullies should never win.