Alissa Wilkinson, of Vox, called last year’s Oscar winner, “an allegorical film about embracing the other.” E. Oliver Whitney of ScreenCrush said the film’s characters “transcend barriers and prejudices to find strength, love, and connection.” And Kenneth Turan, of The LA Times, said the movie had “moral overtones.” They were talking, of course, about The Shape of Water, a film in which a woman has sex with a fish monster.
The monster romance narrative isn’t new. In fact, you might even call it a tale as old as time (ha ha). But what is new is the feminist acceptance — even adulation — of it. Look at the way feminists discuss Beauty and the Beast. Thelma Adams, of The Observer, said the story of Beauty and the Beast was about “bestiality,” plain and simple. Jia Tolentino wrote a piece in The New Yorker called “Beauty and the Bestiality” in which she points out that Belle’s “man was a bison.” And Anna Klassen, of Bustle, says “The idea of a woman falling in love with a talking animal” is “dark.” Just so we’re clear: for feminists, The Shape of Water is a work of genius, but Beauty and the Beast is really gross.
Turan calls The Shape of Water a “fairy tale.” So does Wilkinson. So does Guy Lodge of Variety. So do lots and lots of other film critics and bloggers on the internet. But what makes this “fairy tale” about a girl falling in love with a monster, so much better than the actual fairy tale about a girl falling in love with a monster? How is this one an “allegory” and the other one “bestiality”? It’s simple really: feminists don’t get fairy tales.
Here’s the problem: the Beast in Beauty and the Beast is actually a man, Amphibian Man is not. The allegory of the monster romance narrative in a fairy tale comes from the fact that the beast form is symbolic. The man becomes a beast because he has let his base male urges run unchecked such that he is like (though not actually) an animal. So he takes on an animal form to represent that. The arc of his narrative is to find a way to channel those urges and instincts. When he does, this is represented by the restoration of is human form. The woman in the story sees past the beastly exterior to the man within. She responds to him as a man and this allows him to change back into one. She is attracted to what his beast form represents — his raw masculinity — but not his beast form itself. (For more on the symbolism of Beauty and the Beast click here, and here.)
Amphibian Man, from The Shape of Water, on the other hand was never a man. The whole point of him is that he is “other.” His monster form doesn’t represent anything, he really is a monster. His human lover, Elisa, doesn’t see the man within the beast (there is no man!), she just sees the beast — and she wants to have sex with it. But this, we’re supposed to all rapturously agree, is not bestiality (like that awful Beauty and the Beast story), this is the “allegory.” But, an allegory of what? (Excuse me while I go scream into a pillow.)
Guillermo del Toro, who directed and wrote The Shape of Water, said he was influenced by the1954 monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon. Turan relates that del Toro wondered why the creature never got the girl. Turan chimes in: “Why, indeed.” But the answer to that is simple: Creature from the Black Lagoon was not a fairy tale. It was a monster movie. There’s a big difference.
In a monster movie the monster was never a man. Films like Creature from the Black Lagoon or King Kong, for example, feature the unrequited love of a monster for a human woman. This makes sense. Women aren’t attracted to monsters! They can become attracted to the man they see beyond the monstrous exterior. But only if there is one. In a monster movie (as opposed to a fairy tale) there is no man. A monster who is somewhat human-like might yearn for humanity (even though he can never achieve it), and that might cause him to fall for a human girl. But the attraction doesn’t go both ways. It can’t. And if we feel sorry for the monster — which we might — it’s because of his lack of humanity, not because we wish the girl would just forget that he’s not human and get with him anyway.
But in The Shape of Water that’s exactly what she does. The thing that feminists think is so wonderful about The Shape of Water is the very fact that Amphibian Man isn’t actually a man. How wonderful that the ugly creature doesn’t have to turn into a handsome prince in order for the woman to want to sleep with him! It’s so accepting! So moral! So adult! It’s so wonderfully radical that the movie goes into detail about Amphibian Man’s genitals and how they work and that no one in the film is grossed out by this. (I’m grossed out by this!) But Beauty and the Beast is about a woman who falls in love with an animal, and that’s disgusting. Feminists want to remove all the symbolism from the fairy tale, and place it somehow on the monster movie. But that doesn’t work. It cant.
What if the Beast was really a beast? What if, instead of being a man under a spell, he was actually born a sort of part buffalo, part lion, part bear creature? What if he didn’t talk — and never could? What if he wasn’t really interested in becoming human? Would we still want Belle to fall in love with him? To marry him? To have sex with him? (Please, for the love of God, say no!)
And yet, for feminists, a woman falling in love with a man whose base masculinity is allegorically represented as a beast is bestiality. But a woman falling in love with an actual beast — that’s romantic. That’s the allegory. (What?!)
The fact that Elisa turns out to perhaps also be some sort of aquatic creature doesn’t actually change any of this. It just makes the whole thing more confusing. Because, if she really is the same species as Aquatic Man, then none of the “barrier breaking” feminist wonderfulness of it all still applies. And if she isn’t, then she just had a bunch of sex with a fish.
The real problem is this: feminists don’t understand fairy tales. So they rip them apart, and put their elements back together in ways that don’t make any sense and call it progress. It isn’t progress. It’s sloppy. (And frankly kind of gross.) Read some fairy tales. Then read a book about fairy tales. Then read some more fairy tales. Then tell me what you think.