The Shape of Water's Impact on Deaf Communities

December 9, 2017


 "Does Water Really Amplify Sound?"


Guillermo del Toro released his most aquatic, most obscure film yet on December 1 when The Shape of Water splashed into mainstream theaters. First debuting at the Toronto International FIlm Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival, the plot of the Fox Searchlight independent film revolves around an emerging secret the United States government attempts to hide during the Cold War--a government-protected amphibian man. Uniquely, alongside the theme of the unorthodox interspecies romance,  the protagonist of The Shape of Water,  Elisa Esposito, is mute, and her dialogue is delivered in American Sign Language.


Though actress Sally Hawkins is verbal, her character, Esposito, is not. Taking on the role required Hawkins to train herself in American Sign Language, learning signs from the 1960s that would allow her to communicate with the supporting cast through the subset of the English language. The integration of ASL is briefly featured in the trailers, which depicts Hawkins fingerspelling at her understandable pace. Each sign is drawn out and there are no subtitles, leaving audiences to their own devices to comprehend.


Although many critics praise the film for raising awareness to life within deaf communities, some remain skeptical about the film’s rights and jurisdiction in using ASL. Each bout of ASL is translated verbally into the English equivalent, but the language is very prominently exposed on the silver screen, which leaves audiences with an understandable doubt: is the film appropriating a culture that isn’t theirs? Is it communally acceptable for an able-bodied actress to assume the role of a mute woman using ASL, when this language is most commonly used and reserved for those who are deaf or hard of hearing? It’s no wonder why del Toro’s film is easily one of the cinematic highlights of 2017, given how the Cold War is bizarrely captured in this one-of-a-kind movie, but what are the repercussions of its widespread success within deaf communities? Will they see this as a smear to their means of communication, or a creative take on a language that has been undermined? So far, there has been a lack of controversy about the film, and critics alike praise the blatantly strange piece.


The Shape of Water takes one ludicrous idea, and runs with it to somehow tame and master the most unlikely of relationships. With talent harnessed, was it the right talent that del Toro aimed capture in Fox Searchlight’s latest blockbuster? The use of signing broadcasts the reality of its relevance and use, but is this just another example of able bodies stepping up in Hollywood?


Cover photo: Director Guillermo Del Toro, from Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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