At the 2018 Academy Awards (Oscars), a rather unusual film won ‘Best picture’ and also three other awards – ‘Directing’ (Guillermo del Toro), ‘Music’ (Alexandre Desplat), and ‘Production design’ (Paul Denham Austerberry; Set decoration: Shane Vieau and Jeffrey A. Melvin).
‘The Shape of Water’ (TSoW), is a story about janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who works at a government laboratory with her friend Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Whilst Elisa is not D/deaf, she is not able to verbalise and thus communicates with Zelda and her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), in (context-specific) American Sign Language (ASL). Elisa becomes drawn to a humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones) being held at the laboratory; upon learning that he is in danger from his captors, Elisa and her friends help him to escape. An unusual romance then blossoms between Amphibian-man and Elisa, culminating in them escaping together to the ocean. TSoW is described on its Wikipedia page as an:
“American romantic dark fantasy drama”.
Elsewhere it has also been described as an “otherworldy fable”, and “magical or marvellous realism” – with editor Rachel Hatzipanagos making the connection between this genre and writer/ director Guillermo del Toro’s Mexican Heritage. Meanwhile, film critic Christopher Orr quipped:
“If the phrase magical realism hadn’t already been coined, someone would have to coin it quickly”.
An article about TSoW in ‘Vulture’ begins by describing the film as del Toro’s:
This article goes on to report how a slightly inebriated del Toro first described the film to actress Sally Hawkins whilst at a Golden Globes party in 2013; meeting her for the first time, he apparently told her:
“I’m writing a movie for you where you fall in love with a fish-man!”.
Anyway, regardless of how we choose to describe this film, it is certainly thought-provoking and has generated much debate on a wide variety of topics. As I have previously pointed out, it was one of three films at the 2018 Oscars which depicted signed languages and their role within everyday life. This is part of a wider trend in which more attention is beginning to be paid to signed languages, deafness and Deafhood, within films and popular culture; this is a welcome development and I am following it with much interest.
Recently, I came across a journal article about TSoW, in which the three authors (Wilde, Crawshaw & Sheldon, 2018) explore the sensitive debates regarding the portrayal of a disabled woman in this film, and how this has been received by the disabled people’s community/ disabled academics. The discussion on this subject is fascinating, complex, and warrants focussed attention in a separate essay. However, it was whilst reading this article that I became aware of the subtle, semiotic clues of onomastic interest, nestling within TSoW; I will thus now set about exploring some of these matters.
Esposito – an onomastic clue as to the protagonist’s amphibian ancestry?
One of the central themes of TSoW is that of humanity. As Wilde et al (2018) note, there is a scene in which Elisa is trying to persuade her friend Giles to help save Amphibian-man from the vivisection planned by his primary captor, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). In this scene, Giles complains that Amphibian-man isn’t even human, to which Elisa replies: “if we do nothing, neither are we” (p2).
This, of course, is an interesting linguistic point in itself – what do we mean in everyday parlance when we use the word ‘human’? However, on a more onomastic note, Wilde et al (2018) point out that Elisa’s surname perhaps hints that she may not, in fact, be human:
“Esposito is an Italian surname thought to derive from the term for ‘placed outside’ or ‘exposed’. Historically it was often given to abandoned children. This works on both literal and metaphorical levels. As an infant, Elisa was found in the river where she had been ‘placed outside’. As an adult with a communication impairment, whose best friends have also experienced racism (Zelda) and homophobia (Giles), she found herself ‘placed outside’ mainstream society” (Wilde et al, 2018, p3).
Obviously, as an onomastician, I found this intriguing. According to the Wikipedia page for the surname ‘Esposito’, etymologically it is thought to derive from Latin ‘expositus’ (Italian esposto, Old Italian or dialect Esposito), which is the past participle of the Latin verb exponere, which literally means ‘placed outside’ or ‘expose’. Apparently, this surname was given to children who were abandoned, given up for adoption or handed over to an orphanage – which in Italian would be called an ‘Ospizio degli esposti’- literally a ‘home or hospice of the exposed’.
Interestingly, following the unification of Italy, or the Risorgimento, in the 19th century, laws were introduced forbidding the practice of giving surnames that reflected a child’s origins in this manner. However, given that Elisa was born in the USA during the 1960s, it would be reasonable to conclude that her surname may reflect her origins, following this tradition.
The transformation of the ‘Elisas’?
In an article in ‘Mental floss’, Scott Beggs points out that Elisa’s forename may also be significant, in that it makes a connection with the film ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964). According to Beggs (2018):
“Both Elisa from ‘The Shape of Water’ and Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) from ‘My Fair Lady’ are working-class characters who undergo a transformation that allows them to find their own voice. Elisa does that literally in the dreamy musical act where she professes her love, but discovering her voice is largely metaphorical, an act of refusing to remain silent in the face of oppression. The connection is purposeful, too. Hawkins studied Hepburn, among other classic actors, for the role, and Giles has a drawing of Hepburn in his apartment studio”.
I’ll begin here with the caveat that, as Beggs alludes to in his article, and Wilde et al (2018) explicitly address in their article, the dream sequence where Elisa can, all of a sudden, magically verbalise, is problematic and has been heavily criticised. However, I find the idea that Elisa’s forename may be a subtle nod to her character’s transformation, a la Eliza Doolittle, pervasive, particularly considering the other semiotic clues such as the drawing of Hepburn in Giles’ apartment, coupled with the fact that her surname is quite overtly meaningful.
A very particular film title?
The importance of film titles should not be underestimated. Much thought, effort, analysis and, no doubt, money, is expended on finding the right title. However, as I have previously discussed, in relation to the science fiction film ‘John Carter’, the choices made do not always reflect this effortful process, which can have unfortunate consequences for the film-makers and the fans.
Now then, on the face of things, ‘The Shape of Water’ would seem to be a perfect, made-to-measure title for this particular film. Amphibian-man is, in some ways, the perfectly embodied ‘shape of water’ – representing a life form which has been snatched from some otherworldly, watery place. There are hints throughout the film that Elisa is also ‘of water’, with her sexuality seemingly connected to water, and her final destination, along with her Amphibian-Man lover, being the ocean.
Meanwhile, Wilde et al (2018) point out that the three scars on Elisa’s neck, and the fact that they open at the end of the film when Amphibian-man touches them, would appear to suggest that Elisa’s natural home is in the water she was originally found in. Furthermore:
“The opening credits’ dream sequence, showing her contentedly floating in her home which appears to be at the bottom of a river, suggest this, along with the almost exclusively bluey-green aquatic palette of the film. Her somewhat melancholic demeanour and designation as outsider underlies imagery which suggests that her human life is one where she is literally ‘a fish out of water’ (Wilde et al, 2018, p3).
There is also a narrated section, near the end of the film, where Giles is reflecting on Elisa’s departure, and he refers to a poem “whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago”:
“Unable to perceive the shape of you,
I find you all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes
with your love.
It humbles my heart,
for you are everywhere”.
If I had to guess at the title of this poem, I might have said “The Shape of Water”, and thus might assume that the title of the film derived from this ancient poem (which, incidentally, is a much debated issue). It also brings to mind other metaphors about love and the fluidity of being, for example the verse in Roxette’s “It must have been love”:
“Make-believing we’re together
that I’m sheltered by your heart.
but in and outside I’ve turned to water
like a teardrop in your palm”.
So anyway, I therefore personally found the title ‘The Shape of Water’, to be onomastically satisfying and appropriate, and I thus did not think to question it; that was, however, until I began casually browsing the academic literature, to see what other scholars had said about this film thus far, and I came across a film review in the journal Women’s Studies Quarterly, dated Fall 2007. I was confused. Upon reading Sharmila Lodhia’s review, however, it became clear that she was talking about a different film – a feature documentary film written, produced and directed by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
At the time of writing this review, I have not seen Bhavnani’s 2006 documentary film, but I have ordered a copy from her website and so I will be able to provide a second instalment of this onomastic consideration, regarding “The Shape of Water” as a film title. In the meantime, from Lodhia’s 2007 review of Bhavnani’s film, I have learnt that it is about feminist activism and social justice, and that it provides insights into topics such as female genital cutting and sustainable development in rubber harvesting in the rainforests. Bhavnani apparently does this by “weaving together the stories of five uncommon women from Brazil, India, Israel, and Senegal” (p312). Interestingly, Lodhia comments that:
“The Shape of Water provides viewers with a visual embodiment of Chandra Mohanty’s critique of the essentializing gaze of Western feminism. Avoiding rescue narratives and colonial scripts, Bhavnani’s film enables viewers to gain astonishing insights into the lives of ordinary women working to create change in their communities – and succeeding.” (p312)
I found this particularly interesting, since it resonated, not only with Beggs’ (2018) description of Elisa as a working-class woman who undergoes a transformation, but also with a comment by Wilde et al (2018) regarding the sensitive depiction of Elisa’s presumed ‘disability’:
“Despite some suggestive scarring on Elisa’s neck, we are not told why she cannot, or does not, communicate verbally. We all found ourselves thinking about this, then questioned why it should matter. Few of us appreciate being quizzed about the causes and manifestations of our impairments. Arguably, the decision to withhold such details in the film averts the medical gaze of the viewer, allowing us to focus on the disablement Elisa faces and the way she lives her life. It might also allow us to reflect on the way that what is and is not a significant impairment is largely determined by context. Is ‘mutism’ Elisa’s most significant impairment or is it her inability to breathe under-water?” (p3).
There are, therefore, some overt similarities between these two films, at least as they are perceived by reviewers, particularly in terms of the aversion of intrusive gazes of more powerful outsiders, into the lives of ordinary women – women who exhibit individual agency and the ability to enact change within their own lives. Without having seen the Bhavnani’s 2006 film, my ability to compare the films themselves is obviously limited – I am, however, intrigued and excited by the prospect of viewing the 2006 documentary film. Whilst I cannot find any reference in which del Toro makes any connection to the 2007 documentary of the same name, it is highly likely that he is aware of it and that perhaps in choosing this title for his film, he is in some way making a connection (though this is of course pure speculation on my part.
In addition to the Bhavani documentary film, there is also an Italian/ Sicilian novel whose title “La Forma dell’acqua”, when translated into English (in 2002 by Stephen Sartarelli) is “The Shape of Water”. According to the Wikipedia page: “This was the first novel in the internationally popular Inspector Montalbano series and the third of the RAI TV Montalbano films”. So it would appear that this phrase has been popular as a name for stories, in many countries and many formats.
Guillermo del Toro’s 2017, Academy Award-winning film is, in itself, intriguing – even just as a very enjoyable film. The attention to detail, for example the context-specific ASL, is impressive – though as Wilde et al (2018) discuss in their article, has been criticised in terms of quality and inappropriateness of not ‘impairment-matching’. On the other hand, as has been discussed, it is not entirely clear what Elisa’s impairment actually is and her character’s context means that she would not have had access to Deaf culture and thus native-level ASL fluency – thus it could be argued that the portrayal may be quite authentic of a character in Elisa’s somewhat unique set of circumstances. There is now a novelization of the film, available in a variety of formats, so perhaps new details might be gained from this resource.
In any case, it would seem that the same level of detailed consideration has extended to the film’s onomastics. In this essay, I have discussed the forename and surname of the main protagonist and also the name of the film itself. However, I am sure that if I were to spend time analysing various aspects of the film, including other character names, more onomastic treasures could be unearthed, analysed and enjoyed. However, such a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this essay and, in any case, throws down the gauntlet quite neatly to those of you reading this blog: have you spotted any other onomastic clues in TSoW? Or perhaps you have seen the 2007 documentary film, or read the 1994 novel or seen the associated film, and can shed some light as to the intriguing shared title and its relevance for some or all of these? I would be delighted if you might share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Bhavnani, Kum-Kum. The Shape of Water. USA: Kum-Kum Bhavnani Productions, 2006. Film.
del Toro, Guillermo. The Shape of Water. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2018. Film.
Lodhia, Sharmila. “A Film Review: Kum-Kum Bhavnani’s The Shape of Water.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35.3/4 (2007): 312–313. Print.
Wilde, Alison, Gill Crawshaw, and Alison Sheldon. “Talking about The Shape of Water: Three Women Dip Their Toes In.” Disability & Society (2018): 1–5. Web.