Eggplant – The Shape of Empathy
*Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for The Shape of Water.*
In this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, one of the more memorable lines was from Pakistani-American comedian (and Best Original Screenplay nominee) Kumail Nanjiani, who in a montage about increasing diversity in Hollywood said “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now straight white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” In a time when it feels like certain demographics of Americans are all but at war with others, Nanjiani reminds us that isn’t difficult to view another person’s story and identify with them even if they do not look like you. The popularity of Wonder Woman and Black Panther demonstrate that a well-told superhero movie can resonate with a wide audience (including white males) even when it’s white women or Black people who can most easily see themselves in the protagonist and the white dudes are reduced to supporting roles.
This year’s Best Picture winner, however, takes Nanjiani’s line a step further, not only decentering the straight white dude but laying bare his sins. The Shape of Water is often described as a modern fairy tale, telling the love story between a mute cleaning lady and the fish-man being experimented on at the lab where she works in 1962 Baltimore; although the film incorporates elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and thriller, it doesn’t fit neatly into any of those genres. The Shape of Water is best understood as a mid-century creature feature remade with a contemporary eye: there is nothing in the movie to suggest that the villain wouldn’t have been the hero if it were made fifty or sixty years ago.
Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, comes to the lab with what’s referred to as the asset, an amphibious humanoid that he captured in South America; his military superiors hope that the asset’s physiology will yield knowledge allowing the United States to regain the advantage in the space race with the Soviet Union. Strickland bears all the hallmarks of a Cold War protagonist: straight, white, male, with a successful military record and a good home life, and never questioning that he is the hero of his story. He self-identifies as “decent,” and makes genial small talk with the help. He has a comfortable, fairly new house in the suburbs where he lives with his lovely wife and well-behaved children. He is Christian (of an unspecified background) and cites the Bible in the course of his work. He is dedicated to his job, and if he seems too suspicious of the scientists or cruel to the asset, his hatred of the Russians and violent history with the creature readily excuse him.
But writer/director Guillermo del Toro exposes the dark realities of such white masculinity that Cold War movies usually ignored. Strickland’s small talk is crude, and by casually discussing urination habits with two cleaning ladies, he is at best exhibiting extreme tone-deafness and at worst committing sexual harassment. He treats his wife and children as objects, and propositions the mute cleaning lady in the hopes of fulfilling his fantasy to have sex while the woman is totally silent (which definitely is sexual harassment, and of a particularly concerning sort because of the power differential between the characters). The only evidence of his religion is when he cites Genesis to identify the asset as an affront to creation and the story of Samson and Delilah to intimidate a cleaning lady in her own home; if his faith taught him to love his neighbor at all, he only does so within a very limited definition of ‘neighbor.’ He gladly shoots and tortures not just the asset but several people after his superior reminds him that the only “decency” they care about is not screwing up.
As a straight white dude, The Shape of Water thus presents a twofold challenge. First, to get into the story I must empathize with two women (one mute, the other Black), a gay man, an undercover Russian, and a fish-man. At this point, I’ve enjoyed sufficient entertainments with protagonists who don’t resemble me that this isn’t really difficult, except insofar as I forget that it’s still unusual for folks who aren’t straight white dudes to watch protagonists to whom they can readily relate. The second, harder challenge is to accept that not only does the villain look like me but everything he does would be considered acceptable and heroic by straight white dudes of his time, and indeed there are many straight white dudes today who would consider Strickland a hero for his military service and obedience, stable home life, Christian decency, and enmity toward Russians and inhuman creatures.
All of this is relevant because straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church today face the same two challenges. In the past forty years, we have grown increasingly comfortable with clergy who are homosexual, female, and/or come from non-Caucasian racial and ethnic backgrounds, and I hope and believe that most straight white dudes in the Episcopal Church have no problem seeing those who do not resemble them as their pastors and priests. But there is still much work to do, both in promoting full equality (for example, increasing the number of female bishops and eliminating the pay gap between male and female priests) and in fully incorporating children of God across less-well-trod lines of difference (such as those who are transsexual, gender-nonconforming, or facing physical disabilities).
With regard to some of the ways straight white dudes have acted as villains in the past, the Episcopal Church (and some Dioceses, parishes, and other institutions thereof) has already begun the hard work of listening as those sins are named, identifying and recognizing those whose voices were disregarded in the past, and crafting policy to address such problems going forward. Right now, for example, the University of the South is studying how its sinful racist history is encoded on its campus and considering how the work of racial reconciliation might progress. But there is much of this work still to do, and it is painful both to tell and to hear. In January, the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies issued a joint letter calling the Episcopal Church to examine and repent of our history of sexual harassment and discrimination. At the end of February, the President of the House of Deputies appointed a special committee (including two Nebraska clergy among the forty-seven members) to draft legislation for this summer’s General Convention considering gender in our theological language, addressing gender inequality in pay and benefits, and creating a truth and reconciliation process to bring our sexist sins into the light of God’s truth, among other things.
Such processes invite straight white dudes in the Church to listen to those who have been disregarded, to loose our historical grip on power, and to empathize with those who differ from us. It takes a certain mental flexibility to relate to stories that differ so greatly from our own, and a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude to hear of the sins committed by folks who look and perhaps think like us without becoming defensive, but as Kumail Nanjiani reminded us, it shouldn’t be that hard, especially when we do so with God’s help.
The Rev. John Adams