The Same River Twice

The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro, 2017

“He’s not even human!”

“If we do nothing neither are we.”

Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus once famously exclaimed: “You could not step into the same river twice.” Just as water constantly flows, moves and alters shape, so time pushes us forwards and leaves us in a constant state of flux. Culture goes some way towards defining who we are, but ultimately our essence is constantly bombarded by changing moral and social norms, and we are batted around by the unstoppable tides of progress. The recent rise of transgender rights is one such example, and within this rise the resistance to it from conservative political groups.

Just as water surrounds and permeates all it touches, in del Toro’s The Shape of Water, time is an ever-present spectre. Calendars and clocks play pivotal roles in the constant reminder of the march of progress. But this is not just an existential progress towards our own demise as a human being, but a cultural progression towards different forms of morality. It is not an arbitrary choice to set the film in the 1960s US, a time of huge social and cultural change, with the awakening of secularism, women’s liberation and civil rights.

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Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer)

The film stars Sally Hawkins as Eliza, a mute cleaner working at a shady Cold War research laboratory. She is silenced, however, in more ways than one. This is a world in which all women and people of colour are silenced, not allowed a voice in decisions that are made above their heads by white men in suits. Her cleaning companion, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), despite being relentlessly vocal on the outside, is largely silenced, as both a woman and a person of colour. She regularly expresses her views to power, but is immediately shut down by the voices of authority in her life, both at work and at home.

When Eliza and Zelda discover the existence of a similarly silenced and oppressed aquatic creature known simply as “the Asset” (Doug Jones), they find in him a kindred spirits of sorts, and he comes to symbolise the oppression that they feel in their own lives. Eliza forms an attachment to this aquatic man, and sees him as much more than just a new strange species to be poked and prodded. She sees him as a person in his own right.

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The “Aquatic Man” – All too human?

The film portrays prejudice in all its forms, and does not linger on one, but instead points out the inherent hypocrisy in any kind of prejudice. Similar points led to Australian philosopher Peter Singer developing the idea of speciesism in the 1970s. Singer believes that just as we now look back on Jim Crow era America as a time of racism, or Victorian England as a time of sexism, we will look back on modern cultures as being similarly prejudiced – not against different groups of humans (although that is undeniably still the case) – but against animals.

Singer argues that we cannot deny animals the same rights and personhood that we allow humans, because there is no moral difference between animals and humans. Sometimes we attempt to define moral status in terms of intelligence, but realistically that would mean we would have to deny certain humans moral status, such as newborn infants. This seems wrong. To quote the father of ethical utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham:

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”

Eliza sees her ethical stance in these forward-thinking and relativistic terms. We should not follow arbitrary rules that keep us locked into the ethics of the past, but rather allow the river of change to propel us forward, changing our moral norms as we go. This flies in the face of the ideas of the main antagonist of the film, the Asset’s keeper and torturer, Strickland (Michael Shannon).

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Michael Shannon as Strickland

Strickland draws heavily on biblical rights and his superiority as a white man to force others to his will. He is cold and sadistic in his torturing of the Asset, preferring to see him as an object that he can use for his own ends, rather than as a person in his own right. Throughout the film we are confronted with a paradox within Strickland’s heart. The culture around him wants to forge him into the man of the future, with a flash new car to show that he is motoring forwards, but he is conscious of how much this change will diminish his power. If he starts to give personhood, and thereby tacitly rights, to the Asset, then he will have to relinquish his power, as he may have to do women as women begin to have more of a voice in the workplace. Of course, within the film women remain silenced, but they show a level of internal independence that is propelling them to resist, something which Strickland sees as a danger.

The film works both as an allegory for the rise of women’s rights and civil rights and as a potent reminder not to remain fixed in our moral ideologies. This accords with Singer’s desire to allow us to change our thinking on the moral status of animals. Singer argues that we must attempt to minimise the sufferings of all persons, including animals. This suffering is often inflicted in, for example, meat production or vivisection. To Singer, these types of actions could almost never be justified. Similarly, in The Shape of Water, the audience is confronted with the unpalatable realities of animal testing through the suffering subjected to the Asset.

But the film does not just want to focus on the rights of non-human species. It is about common dignity, respect and care for others. We should never treat others as a means to an end, but rather we should see each other as valuable parts of what forms our notion of self. Eliza believes that cruelty to the Asset diminishes her humanity, and so del Toro tells us that in order to truly be human, we must drive ourselves to change and be surrounded by an all-encompassing love, drowning ourselves in compassion.

 

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