Last week, in an attempt to check off the remaining films on the list of Oscar nominees, I went to see The Shape of Water, by Guillermo Del Toro. I'm not terribly impressed by this year's list and my two favorites for the year--The Big Sick, a great film about immigrants, and The Florida Project, a harrowing piece of social realism--were not nominated. I am not going to discuss The Shape of Water primarily as a film, although I will have to give away the plot. It held my interest as a thriller and included several fine performances. I don't know much about Del Toro's background--he wrote, as well as directed--but it struck me that the film reflected almost perfectly the new left wing world view, based upon identities, that now dominates our campuses, much of the liberal media, and a good deal of the Democratic Party. Almost without exception, each character's moral worth is determined by their demographic characteristics.
The film is set in the fall of 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis briefly enters in) inside a secret U.S. government research facility that seems to be working on questions relating to the effort to put men in space. The protagonist of the film, Elisa Esposito (played by the wonderful actress Sally Hawkins), is part of the custodial staff, and a mute. Her inability to speak makes her sufficiently marginalized to be the film's hero. Her best and indeed her only friend at work is Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who happens to be black. Zelda, as she lets Elisa and the audience know several times, is married to a stereotypical mid-century man who never helps with housework or talks to her very much. Of him, more later. Eventually it turns out that it is only her dual, "intersectional" status as a minority--both a woman and black--that makes her so sympathetic to Elisa.
Elisa's only other friend in the movie lives next door to her upstairs from a movie palace--Giles, played by the excellent Richard Jenkins. Giles is an artist who is still working on drawings of white bread American families for ads, but his work is no longer being accepted, for reasons that are not initially clear. The most likely reason emerges as the film goes on: Giles is gay. When he makes a very tentative advance towards the manager of a nearby dessert cafe, he is immediately thrown out and asked not to return. The same cafe turns some black patrons away without serving them.
The drama in the film comes from the arrival at the institute of "Amphibian man," as he is known in the credits, whom the US military has managed to capture somewhere in the Amazon basin. He is under the care of security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The government--and more specifically the military--are interested in Amphibian man because they think he might have natural abilities from which astronauts might benefit, but they quickly decide that he has to be killed, instead. Strickland is literally a comic-book villain with no human feeling and a particular contempt for Elisa--whom, at one point, he also harasses sexually. Meanwhile, Elisa has gotten close enough to his tank to see the humanity in him--which none of the white males in charge, of course, can do--and to fall in love with him. Amphibian man is also being stalked by two Soviet spies, one of whom has infiltrated the research group. They also decide that he is a threat who must be killed, but the covert spy--the only white male in the film with a heart--has a change of heart and eventually collaborates with Elisa in a plot to help Amphibian man escape, stash him in her apartment, and wait for the water in a local canal to rise to the level that will allow him to escape into the ocean and swim home. Elisa's other confederate in the escape is, of course, the gay Giles.
The film takes things to the next level after the escape, when Elisa, already in love with Amphibian man, has sex with him. This struck me as a paean to sex "outside the binary," as the saying now goes. Strickland the bad guy gets on to their trail thanks to Zelda's husband, who turns out to be a craven coward, suggesting that not even black straight men can be trusted. Eventually the couple outwits, outlasts and outplays the bad guys, and do indeed swim off to live happily ever after in the Amazon basin, leaving the wicked, white-male dominated US of the early 1960s to stew in its own wretched juice. One can believe, as I do, that all deserve equal rights, without believing that the United States for most of its history has been ruled by an evil white patriarchy, concerned above all with its own hegemony.
The reason that I did feel The Shape of Water was worth this post is that the world view that it embodies--that of an evil white patriarchy oppressing virtuous women, minorities, differently abled peopled, gays, and perhaps transgenders as well--not only dominates campus humanities departments and diversity bureaucracies today, but is constantly popping up in the op-ed pages of major newspapers as well. "This is an administration," wrote Lindy West in yesterday's New York Times, "that campaigned, explicitly, on a promised return to some mid century mirage of American 'greatness,' when white men ruled unfettered and the rest of us resumed our places on the spectrum between poverty and servitude." That is exactly the vision of the 1950s and early 1960s on display in The Shape of Water, and it is the image that young people are getting from their college experience, too. One would never know that that was an era in which young families could afford to buy homes, in which the prison population was a fraction of what it is today, in which the working and middle classes were gaining, and in which 91% marginal tax rates made it impossible for billionaires to emerge who would dominate our politics. None of that, however, seems to be very important to many of today's liberals.
In the course I taught for many years, Generations in Film, I nearly always used the 1958 classic, Twelve Angry Men about a jury charged with judging the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic charged with murdering his father. Every member of the jury is a white male--but for nearly two hours, they argue violently about what should be done about the case. The clear message of the movie is not that there is anything particularly virtuous about being a white male--virtue lies in ones beliefs and actions, one's openness to evidence and one's capacity for tolerance. Today much of the left believes in a world where virtue or the lack of it is defined by skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.
Another glimpse of this new ideology came from the last season of the tv series Transparent, when the younger sister Ali--now studying gender--speculates that among all those silenced or marginalized by "the patriarchy"--women, gays, minorities, those outside the binary--must be the new Messiah. Indeed, the new ideology resembles certain strains of Christian thought--strains which argued that "the last shall be first," and that the poor are the guardians of virtue among us. But that is a subject for another time. I do not believe a functioning free society can be built on moral scheme that specifically links virtue and vice with demographic categories. Meanwhile--to state the obvious--the new ideology, whatever one may think of it, has no resonance at all among a very large number of our fellow citizens. And since we live in a democracy, their votes count as much as anyone else's.