My favorite actress is Sally Hawkins, and for me the loveliest thing about the Best Picture Oscar going to The Shape of Water is the recognition of her starring performance. (Want to know why she's my favorite? Try a triple bill of Maudie, Paddington, and Happy-Go-Lucky.) Also lovely was that The Shape of Water seeks to respect character types who have often been marginalized, exoticized, or otherwise dehumanized: a mute woman, a woman of color, a gay man, and a foreign agent, not to mention a "monster," accompanied by exquisite production design and music, warm and engaging storytelling, and Guillermo del Toro’s rare directorial craft.
Yet I was also troubled by The Shape of Water, which ultimately resorts to meting out retributive violence to a caricatured bad guy. We're inviting a conversation in the new edition of The Porch magazine about how easily our fictional heroes slip into murderous violence, and how just as easily we applaud.
Meanwhile, I've been pondering how one of the characters in the original King Kong famously says that “it was beauty who killed the beast.” This line is spoken after the magnificent ape is hounded to his death by buzzing planes which knock him off the side of the Empire State Building, so it’s not strictly true. Beauty is actually what Kong wanted to save; I guess we could say it was the military-industrial-special-effects complex that killed him. It’s a nice turn of phrase, nonetheless, and came to mind recently. The Disney version of Beauty and the Beast doesn't immediately invite comparison with King Kong, but the story it's based on is actually about the same thing: finding vulnerability behind terrifying facades.
The tenderness of Kong's approach to Fay Wray and Belle’s openness to the light that might be hiding behind the Beast’s frightening demeanor are mirrors. But it’s inaccurate to think that the transformation—or the risk—in these stories travels only in one direction. Fay gets rescued; the Beast turns back into a man. But, also, Kong experiences love, and Belle undergoes a rite of passage that leaves her more whole than before.
What initiates positive change in wiser stories is the risk taken by a vulnerable character to face something fearful and allow themselves to imagine they might be looking at more than just a monster. Behind every human face, there’s always something which could lead us to empathize with even our worst enemies.
While passionate opposition to policy or behavior that harms people or the earth is a necessary part of living with integrity, courageous peacemakers tell us that dehumanizing our opponents doesn’t move us further in the direction of a society at home with itself.
When we know that we’re safe, or have found allies who will support us, or perhaps when we’re willing to take the risk of meeting people whose beliefs might oppose ours, one of the most vital things that we can do to help transform aggression into passion for the common good is to approach strangers with curiosity. What are the hopes, dreams, fears, and needs that lead them to feel the way they do about the world, and about us who are asking the questions? Do we have anything in common? Can we help each other? We may all be invited to be Fay Wray, or Belle, open to the hidden light behind a face that frightens us.
Let's keep the conversation going.
PS: We talk about these things at The Porch's annual gathering, the Movies & Meaning Experience, happening just a few weeks from now. People who have attended in the past have told us it made a positive difference in their lives. I'd love to see you there. Click here to find out more about how you can join us.