The problem with 'The Shape of Water' and other 'woke' films

Guillermo Del Toro's movie embodies what's wrong with a certain school of self-satisfied, performatively socially conscious filmmaking

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in 'The Shape of Water.' (Fox Searchlight Pictures/Everett Collection)

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in ‘The Shape of Water.’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures/Everett Collection)

In a review published in The New York Times in May 1954, critic A.H. Weiler laid out the premise for a new 3-D horror sci-fi spectacle, Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. “Hollywood’s science-fiction faction, a crew obviously second to none,” wrote Weiler, acknowledging the popularity of the genre in Cold War-era America, “has found another lost world and conquered it.”

While ostensibly just describing the film’s plot, in which of a boatload of burly scientists are lured to the Amazon after finding fossils connecting modern humankind with an evolutionary fish-human missing link, Weiler was also laying out Creature’s deeper theme. As much as it’s a film about a man in a webby fish-suit chasing scuba-diving scientists and bathing beauties around a pond, Arnold’s movie is also fundamentally about conquest: about the colonial subjugation of so-called “new worlds,” about the lust for power and infamy masquerading as ambivalent scientific inquiry, about the historical evil that men (and white, western men specifically) inflict upon the world. These themes may not be readily apparent, couched as they are in a serviceable Universal Monsters adventure-horror. But like the Gill-man, the film’s titular creature, they teem below the surface.

It’s telling that in The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro’s new romance-fantasy riff of The Creature from the Black Lagoon—which earned raves when it made its Canadian debut at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, and hits theatres on Dec. 8—the Gill-man spends more of his time out of water. This is a film of surface sheen, from the nostalgic gloss of its production design, to the conventionality of the plotting, to the patent obviousness of its theme. Set in 1960s Baltimore (which is played onscreen by Toronto, Del Toro’s adopted hometown) amid the Civil Rights movement, The Shape of Water casts Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a secret research facility who falls hopelessly in love with “the Asset” (Doug Jones), a subaquatic humanoid deliberately styled after Jack Arnold’s old-school Gill-man.

Curious, then, that The Shape of Water utterly squanders its social-historical milieu. In one scene, a character frantically turns away from a TV set showing black protesters set upon by police. In another, a lonely gay man (Richard Jenkins) is rejected by a diner waiter who turns instantly homophobic. Octavia Spencer plays a gabby coworker whose character is despairingly one-note, verging on racist parody. The villain, played by Michael Shannon, is likewise parodic: a cartoon of repressed, white-male patriarchy and castrated Cold War authority who, midway through the film, has his fingers bitten off, before they’re reattached and begin to putrefy, a phallic allegory likely to launch thousands of undergrad film-studies papers.

The film gets us to root for the marginalized underdogs—the sexually voracious mute woman, her gay male neighbour, her black friend, and her sympathetic fish-monster love who defies evolutionary and social categorization—because, well, how could we not? But where Arnold’s original Creature poked and prodded at its more serious ideas, Del Toro’s maudlin feature jabs viewers in the ribs: Here is a movie about outcasts, love, and the things that keep people (and even fish-people) from understanding one another. In this way, the prestige-feeling The Shape of Water exemplifies a modern form of cinema, one that straddles the border between the respectable, well-preened suburbs of serious drama and the dingy slums of genre flicks, and which draw together the worst aspects of both modes. The Shape of Water is a definitive piece of woke cinema.

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One of the most prominent early uses of “wokeness” goes back at least as far as 2008, when Erykah Badu peppered the chorus of her song “Master Teacher” with the hook, “I stay woke.” As a noun, “wokeness” or to be “woke” refers to a state of remaining vigilantly aware of the systemic biases and challenges facing marginalized communities. As a metaphor, wokeness compares this awareness to rousing oneself from the proverbial dream of political and social life, which lulls so many of us into a false sense of sleepy security, a concept that dates back to some of the earliest traditions of Eastern and Western philosophy. But it perhaps best articulated in John Carpenter’s 1988 cult movie They Live, in which a cabal of extraterrestrial billionaires use consumerism and subliminal messaging to soothe society into complacency. As a graffiti scrawl bleats in the film: They live, we sleep.

But in the time since “Master Teacher” (and certainly since They Live), the value of wokeness has changed. Where it once suggested a militant hyper-awareness of injustice, it’s now just as often used dismissively, to critique a vacuous performance of this hyper-awareness. Like pretty much everything under capitalism, wokeness has become commodified. And this commodification has come to bear on art and entertainment, and in the way we make sense of it.

Take, for example, the minor dust-up last month when Get Out, the record-breaking, racially charged horror movie from writer/director Jordan Peele, was nominated for a Golden Globe Award—but in the comedy category. Never mind that Peele is a comedian by trade, best known for his work on MADtv and the Comedy Central sketch program Key & Peele, or that Get Out does feature actual jokes. (Peele himself made light of the matter, tweeting: “Get Out is a documentary.”) For a film that generated so much critical acclaim for its indictment of America’s racial politics and privileged white liberalism, calling it a comedy felt vaguely insulting, as if diminishing its impact.

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But while Get Out’s themes are no doubt heavy, serious and totally relevant, the way they’re put across—the cartoonish menace of its villains, the catty interplay between its leads, the way it productively subverts tropes of American whiteness and American blackness—isn’t. It is fleet, and fun, without feeling frivolous. And even if it’s not necessarily “ha-ha” funny, it certainly functions (following from its obvious influences, such as The Wicker Man or The Stepford Wives) as a satire. The outrage is misplaced because it ignores this fact: Just because something is funny (or scary) doesn’t necessarily make it unserious. Historically, in fact, quite the opposite is true.

In “Introduction to the American Horror Film,” his landmark theoretical study of the genre, the late British-Canadian critic Robin Wood advanced the idea that horror movies are much more politically and socially relevant precisely because nobody takes them seriously. The American film critic and painter Manny Farber drew a similar distinction between what he called “white elephant art”—self-important masterpieces—and “termite art,” which “goes always forward eating its own boundaries.”

Glossy prestige dramas, which announce their lofty (or lofty-seeming) ideas and take care to bold, italicize, and double-underline their themes, more often than not reveal themselves as pretentious, didactic, even insulting—wokeness as performative. Because scuzzy genre films like horror or comedy don’t generally announce themselves as important, they paradoxically possess the ability to “be far more radical and fundamentally undermining than works of serious social criticism,” says Wood. And for him, the stakes of the horror genre are especially high in this respect. “The true subject of the horror genre,” he writes, “is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses: its reemergence dramatized.” He might as well be describing Get Out, a film that dramatizes the reemerging racial ideology in the context of a patronizing “post-racial” United States. Its horror and satire trappings don’t diminish, but rather enlarge, the film’s importance.

The problem with the trend of woke cinema is the way in which they so proudly broadcast their very wokeness. Once-disreputable genres are scrubbed of their shagginess, subtlety and nuance, and injected with the thematic pretension and bloat that sinks the worst “serious dramas.” Irrespective of their ostensible merits, or demerits, films like Get Out, the cross-cultural romance The Big Sick and The Shape of Water seem to exist in part simply to be liked. Conspicuously enjoying them, and announcing that enjoyment, expressed not only a given viewer’s taste, but their whole worldview.

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To this, one may naturally respond: so what? What’s wrong with being a Good Person who responds to art and entertainment tailor-made for Good People?

It boils down, I suppose, to how one regards the purpose of art—or even entertainment. There’s arguably an inherent value in having our biases challenged, even if they’re good biases. It’s certainly a more productive exercise than being comforted by art and entertainment (and the cultural reception to that art and entertainment), and compulsively reassured that we are valiant, correct-thinking, and above reproach.

The valuation of wokeness, or a more pejorative, performative kind of “wokeness” in art, creates its own kind of paradox. We become so self-satisfied at appreciating the markers of good, woke, noble, liberal art that we risk blinding ourselves to the ever-mutating realities of social and political injustice. Instead of engaging, we can watch a movie like The Shape of Water, feel sufficiently aware, and mistake that feeling for actually being engaged. Instead of being restlessly, terrifyingly awake, we slip back into a soothing slumber, and dream the dream of being woke.

The goal of art, and of life, should be to always gnaw at our own boundaries, however pleasantly defined—to plumb the inky depths of meaning and feeling lurking beneath the pleasing surfaces. The rest? That’s just pond scum.

CORRECTIONS, Dec. 7, 2017: In a previous version of this post, the author wrote that Sally Jenkins portrays a deaf janitor in The Shape of Water. She is in fact mute. That version also claimed that TIFF was the festival at which the film premiered; its world premiere was at the Venice Film Festival. We regret the errors.

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