Warning: This post is swimming in sexy spoilers.
A fish-sex movie won big at the Oscars, and the bright spotlight seems to have heightened discomfort around the erotic interspecies romance at the center of The Shape of Water.
From film critics to Twitter, people appear most conflicted over what is arguably the film’s true climax: the sex scene between its mute female protagonist and a fish-man god. But this derision and revulsion misses the point entirely.
Because, like Elisa, the mute maid working in a secret government facility played by Sally Hawkins, some left the theater sincerely wanting to fuck that fish-man monster. And if you stomached the movie’s overarching message, then that really shouldn’t gross you out.
The abundance of monster romances throughout history have tended to resonate most with marginalized people, including women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities. From Greek mythology to Beauty and the Beast, Shape of Water joins a long, well-established history of erotic monster tales used to address otherness.
“The need to be accepted for who you are links otherness with the monstrous,” said Kristie Overstreet, a psychotherapist and author who has a doctorate in clinical sexology. “Being different attracts you to others who are seen as different, so there is comfort in being connected with another person that understands.”
Even for director Guillermo del Toro, the movie intertwines his own experience of otherness as an immigrant with his early, semi-erotic obsession with monsters as a kid.
“When I saw the creature swimming under Julie Adams [in 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon], I thought three things: I thought ‘Hubba hubba,'”he told the Los Angeles Times. “I thought ‘This is the most poetic thing I will ever see’. And the third thing I thought was ‘I hope they get together.'”
Yet the question remains: What exactly is making people want to have sex with an Amazonian fish god?
Well, the answer is layered. To some extent, it’s the universal appeal of the unknown. “The mystery, build up, anticipation, and not knowing what to expect with a creature brings much sexual allure,” said Overstreet.
Sexualized aquatic creatures like mermaids further embody the dark, mysterious pull of the sea, because, “Humans can’t dominate the ocean. The power we see during natural disasters reminds us just how powerless we are.”
“Monsters are sexy too because they challenge the rigid conformities of sex appeal.”
The inherent dominant/submissive power dynamic of supernatural sex just does it for some people. But it also goes deeper than that.
“Like the stereotypes of the ‘bad boy’ or the ‘kinky girl,’ monsters seem to tickle the intrigue of those who feel ostracized because the ‘otherness’ or outer flaws of the monster can sync with those who empathize over whatever inner flaws they see in themselves,” said Christopher J. Irving, Beacon CollegeEnglish professor and pop culture expert.
Yet, monster stories haven’t always been about accepting otherness. Chelsea Reynolds, an assistant professor of communications at California State University Fullerton who studies sexuality in media culture, explained “they can sometimes serve as allegories, but other times as expressions of our fantasies and phobias.”
And when it comes to The Shape of Water, there appears to be a little bit of both going on. Sure it’s a movie that luxuriates in the fantasy of erotic fish-man romance. But it also depicts people with fetishes as off-putting, if not downright evil. That’s crystallized in the character of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), who fetishizes Elisa’s muteness through non-consensual domination fantasies.
This anti-fetishist attitude has bled into the repulsed reactions to the fish-man sex. But according to media studies scholars and sexologists, a fetish for monstrous creatures — or teratophilia — is far from new, and a lot more widespread than you’d think.
An Etsy shop known for fantasy-themed dildos keeps selling out of their Shape of Water-inspired toy. The first listing of about two dozen sold out quickly, but the second of roughly the same amount — posted shortly after the movie’s Oscar wins — sold out in 20 minutes flat.
It’s important to note, however, that fetishes are more specific and demanding than the general umbrella of kink. You can find the creature in Shape of Water sexy, without being a full-on teratophile — though neither deserves stigmatization for being nontraditional expressions of human sexuality.
“Monsters are sexy too because they challenge the rigid conformities of sex appeal,” Irving, the English professor, said. “An attraction to monsters offers a convenient loophole for storytellers (or publishers or producers) who would only risk using a ‘monster metaphor’ as a means of exploring sexual attraction to something outside traditional, mainstream, or cisgender representations.”
After all, the Shape of Water‘s general message on inclusivity and dehumanization has landed it four Academy Awards. Yet, oddly, that message doesn’t appear to have extended to those who developed a sexual desire for the creature through their empathy. Not even for its own director, who repeatedly insisted he designed the fish monster so people could fall in love with him.
When addressing the existence of the Shape of Water dildo, Guillermo del Toro lamented to The Wrap that other Oscar-nominated films like Dunkirk don’t “have this problem,” adding with a certain level of contempt that it’s “some form of fan art … I guess.” In Vulture, del Toro called out the media for focusing on the sexual aspects of the movie, because “it’s not a story about sex at all.”
But I mean… really?
It’s pretty strange for the director and co-writer of a film trumpeting humanity for all — whether for a closeted gay man or an Amazonian fish monster — to draw the line at sexual fetishes and kinks. It’s even stranger that a movie explicitly exploring female sexuality through Elisa’s unabashed masturbation scenes still feels the need to sanitize it.
But sure enough, in an interview with Straits Times, del Toro said he actively tried to, “take the fetishistic or grandiose tone out of [the sex] by doing it in a way that feels everyday and homey.” But embedded in that sentiment is the idea that people with fetishes are uncommon or even alien.
Disgust towards people with taboo sexual preferences isn’t new or hard to understand, either.
Overstreet, the sexologist, explained that distaste for teratophiles or fish-sex kinksters, even from the very director who awakened their aquatic thirst, expresses an adherence to sexual norms. “Disgust comes from our social and cultural experiences with sex.” Like people who think anal sex is “gross,” people interpret the sexualization of the creature as, “‘gross’ because it’s not how they want to see sex.”
“They’re cultural manifestations of … the animal parts of us that are slimy, sweaty, stinky, gassy, and hairy.”
But no matter how hard you try to remove it from the story, romantic monster tales are almost always about confronting various types of sexual taboos. Werewolves and vampires, for example, were often imbued with homosexual undertones, painting them as a threat spreading their dehumanizing disease.
“Monsters represent a part of normal human sexuality that has been repressed, or called ‘perverse’ and ‘deviant,'” said Reynolds, who has a doctorate in mass communication. “They’re also cultural manifestations of the icky parts of human anatomy and behavior — the animal parts of us that are slimy, sweaty, stinky, gassy, and hairy.”
Shaming people who get off on the creature in The Shape of Water makes the movie’s supposedly all-encompassing message of acceptance look a lot less encompassing. Or, at the very least, it’s odd to portray falling in love with a fish-man monster as beautiful, while also saying it’s kind of gross to fantasize about having sex with that fish-man monster IRL.
However, to its credit, The Shape of Water does challenge a differn modern social norm embedded in the typical monster romance narrative: the idea that women aren’t agents of their own sexual desire.
Historically, monster-meets-girl stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and Princess and the Frog, used to “provide moral warnings about male predation and fragile female sexuality,” said Reynolds. Folklore with sexualized monsters tended to educate children about their socially-acceptable gender roles, while also giving them strict sexual scripts to follow.
Beauty and the Beast and Princess and the Frog, for example,show how, “an ugly and unruly man may be tamed with enough patience and care from a woman.” These stories, Reynolds said, not only depict men as insatiable, animalistic sexual aggressors, but also “teach young girls that they have two choices: Either be victimized by men’s desires or pander to them.”
But not The Shape of Water.
Del Toro specifically sought to explore female sexuality through aninversion of the typical power dynamic. Elisa is the seducer, while the creature is depicted as vulnerable and reliant on her for survival. Also unlike Beauty and the Beast and the Princess and the Frog, the monster is not forced to shed his grotesque exterior in order to conform to a more acceptable human form. Instead, he transforms Elisa’s otherness — symbolized through the scars on her neck — into a power.
And, as a whole, leaning into both their animalistic qualities implies a complete surrender to the “deviant” sexual desires they represent.
Overall, the simultaneous adoration and repulsion toward The Shape of Water tells us a lot about where we are culturally.
“The movie appeals to contemporary audiences because it presents a smart critique of hetero-patriarchy and surveillance culture in a fantastical form,” said Reynolds. “Guillermo del Toro asks us to consider whether we’re really all in this together or not.”
Strict sexual norms are being questioned. But there are still nontraditional forms of sexuality we struggle to embrace. Del Toro’s contradictory attraction and rejection of his own creation is apparent throughout the film, and falls short of truly finding the humanity in everyone.
So maybe you left the movie theater feeling horny and maybe you started to feel like the freakish monster — persecuted for your natural instincts and desires. Because beneath every monstrous allegory is the story of a very human, marginalized experience.
We still have a ways to go before there is total acceptance of sexuality’s wide spectrum. But when we get there, we’ll have to admit that the shape of water is fluid in every way.