Movies Pop Culture

This director’s approach to diverse female characters completely changed my movie-watching experience

Director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film The Shape of Water, recently took home the Oscar award for Best Picture. Written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, the film boasted an impressive 13 Academy Awards nominations. We see Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaning lady working at a top-secret facility, where she falls in love with a human amphibian and tries to rescue him from the government. Elisa is one of the rare female lead characters with a disability.

Many scriptwriters, especially male writers seem to think that all women want a ‘strong female lead’. We don’t. All we want are normal characters we can relate to or fantasize about. “Normal” includes women who work, women who are housewives, Black women, Muslim women, women who cry easily, women who talk too much. We want the same treatment given to male characters. We don’t want to be just the girlfriend or wife, we want to make mistakes and we definitely don’t want rape or abuse to make us stronger. We just want normal and del Toro is one of the few male writers that gives us a wide range of normal female characters.

[bctt tweet=”All we want is normal characters we can relate to or fantasize about. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

With Elisa, we have a brave woman who hasn’t been accepted by society risking her life for love. We see her in her most intimate moments, whether it’s her masturbating or her lovemaking. Unfortunately, its uncommon for women with disabilities to be sexually active on the big screen. Disabled characters are only remembered for their disabilities in film. The Shape of Water changes this. However, there is one major criticism of the film that I fully support: the production company’s decision to hire a non-disabled actress for the role. Representation on screen is important, but it’s also important for it to be genuine. It’s not fair wanting to write and use disabled characters but not want to work with disabled people. This defeats the purpose of representation and actually excludes the people affected.

Although film critics and many audiences loved the film, some from the disabled community have talked about the ableism in the film. Disabled writer Elsa Sjunneson-Henry explains one of the problems in the film: “The first time in years that I have seen a disabled woman sexually desired, and indeed, sexually active, and loved in a film is by a monster. Monsterhood and disability are inextricably linked in our genre”. On the other hand however, writer Kristen Lopez, who has a physical disability wrote: “As a film writer with a physical disability, I find it hard not to feel personally offended by movies that reiterate that disabled people aren’t sexual. But watching The Shape of Water gives me hope that maybe barriers can be broken down regarding sex and disability.”

[bctt tweet=”Representation on screen is important, but it’s also important for it to be genuine.” username=”wearethetempest”]

One of del Toro’s greatest accomplishments is casting Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi as a protagonist opposite Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim (2013). The film had a budget of $190 million and although Kikuchi is the first Japanese actress to be nominated for an Oscar in 50 years, she was relatively unknown and a newcomer to big franchises in Hollywood. Nevertheless, this did not stop del Toro from casting a WOC as the lead role in his film. The film takes place in the future where humans are fighting sea monsters called Kaiju who are attacking Earth. To fight these creatures, countries have come together and created massive robots called Jaegers to fight them. The Jaegers have to be piloted by two or more people and we watch as Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Kikuchi) try to work together as pilots.

In an interview, del Toro explains Mori: “One of the other things I decided was that I wanted a female lead who has the equal force as the male lead. She’s not going to be a sex kitten, she’s not going to come out in cut off shorts and a tank top and it’s going to be a real earnestly drawn character”.

I think this explains del Toro’s approach to female characters. Of course, we still want sexy women on screen, but we have been portrayed like this far too much for the male gaze for far too long. Now, we want diverse female characters and, in my opinion, del Toro delivers every single time.

Like Shonda Rhimes warns: “Entertainment industry, time to stop using the phrases ‘smart, strong women’ and ‘strong female leads’. There are no Dumb Weak Women. A smart strong woman is just a WOMAN”. And del Toro is one of the rare writers who understands and caters to this.

[bctt tweet=”Now, we want diverse female characters and, in my opinion, del Toro delivers every single time.” username=”wearethetempest”]