I’m no expert—I’m hearing and my understanding of American Sign Language is extremely limited—so please feel free to correct/add on to this! But I was just really struck by (and loved!) Elisa’s “F U” to Strickland in the above scene, which was featured at the end of the newly-released Red Band trailer for The Shape of Water.
Here, Elisa is literally signing “F” and “U” from the ASL alphabet, but what makes this so striking is that, by doing so, she’s not exactly speaking ASL—she’s fingerspelling English.
ASL is a completely separate language from spoken/written English, and fingerspelling is pretty much only used if there are no ASL equivalents for what needs to be conveyed, such as in the case of names. (In fact, when I was learning ASL, my teacher waited a while before teaching us the alphabet because she didn’t want us fingerspelling English instead of actually trying to sign!)
So the fact that Elisa uses fingerspelling here, when there are other ways in ASL to convey the idea of “fuck you,” says a lot. It says even more when you consider how she’s fingerspelling, since her fingerspelling here is not how a deaf person/someone who speaks ASL would typically fingerspell.
‘Cause fingerspelling? It’s fast. Extremely fast. Each letter flows smoothly into the next. When you fingerspell, it should be an incredibly fluid motion.
But here? That’s 110% not the case. Elisa is slow and measured. She holds out each letter nice and long. It’s the kinda way you’d fingerspell to someone learning ASL—and actually, my teacher would say to not even do that. If you slow down so much for them all the time, they’ll never be able to keep up with real ASL!
So, this scene? This scene with Elisa fingerspelling something that doesn’t need to be fingerspelled, in an incredible, deliberate, slower-than-college-WiFi pace? Well, Elisa is doing more than just dissing Strickland—she’s absolutely taunting him. She’s saying, “I’m speaking your language. I dare you to understand me.”
And she knows that he won’t. She’s speaking crystal clearly, no stuttering, no hesitance, no nothing, and Strickland can’t even be damned to attempt the basic ASL alphabet because he would never, ever try to understand anything different from him.
And Elisa knows this and completely, totally rubs it in his bigoted face.