The Shape of Water: Desiring Monsters Is a Tale As Old As Time

The Shape of Water is in theaters now.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite fairy tale: aesthetically meticulous with an elegant soundtrack and tender, diligent performances. From the picture-perfect surrealism of its opening scene, The Shape of Water makes no claims to be anything other than exactly that. It is a love story, a celebration of sexuality and cinema that wraps itself joyfully in the all trappings of the fairy tales that came before it.

It is intertextually indebted to any number of things: from Beauty and the Beast to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, from Shirley Temple to John le Carré. The Shape of Water weaves together elements of these works in an impossible picture, with the kind of unique and tender detail that feels honestly rendered on the screen, even as it decisively refuses the realm of realism altogether.

#TheShapeofWater is a love story, a celebration of sexuality and cinema that wraps itself joyfully in the all trappings of the fairy tales that came before it. - @cprevas Click To Tweet

Writer and director Guillermo del Toro stated in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that The Shape of Water is a “fable and parable […] in love with love” and, because of the gentle frankness with which it approaches love and sexualiy, it is “liberating.”

I love the word liberating in reference to this film. For a movie written and directed by a Mexican immigrant who has stated explicitly that the movie is about exploring the “idea of otherness being seen as the enemy,” liberating felt like the only word I could conjure as I left the theater — except for, possibly, joyous.

Apparently, not everyone who saw The Shape of Water felt this way: in a review of the film on Gamespot, Candice Frederick complains that the romance that is central to the film stands in the way of its success, writing that “the fact that this is a love story between a woman and a monster is too ridiculous to ignore.”

Frederick adds, “It’s one thing to ask audiences to suspend belief for this fairy tale, and it’s a whole other thing to ask them to consider for one moment that an otherwise sane woman would be so desperate as to fall for a creature who can’t even survive on dry land — not when there are actual men in this town.” It is increasingly apparent, as the article goes on, that Frederick missed the point of the film entirely.

Here’s what Frederick doesn’t seem to understand. Forgive my crassness, but we have always wanted to fuck monsters, for as long as monsters have existed.

I should clarify: when I speak, here, of monsters, I do not mean people who have committed atrocities. I do not mean average looking people engaging in monstrous acts. I mean monsters that are physically and physiologically different from humans. Think: vampires, werewolves, gorgons, mermaids. Mermen.

Forgive my crassness, but we have always wanted to fuck monsters, for as long as monsters have existed. - @cprevas #TheShapeofWater Click To Tweet

If we take “monster” to mean someone who does monstrous things, the only monster in The Shape of Water is Michael Shannon’s Strickland — and, indeed, if The Shape of Water is a monster movie, he is its relentless beast.

Narratively speaking, monsters have always been representative of outsiders. Monsters represent those we push to the margins of society, those we deem outside of our in-group. Through geographic distance, physical abnormality, and behavioural difference, monsters police the borders of what a dominant society will allow its members to be and do.

If you deviate, if you step outside those limits, you are a monster, whether it is because of your place of origin, your appearance, or your sexual behavior.

Monsters are a rhetorical creation designed to police bodies and sexuality, to delineate a set of acceptable standards, and to discipline anyone who attempts to move outside of that circumscribed space.

For as long as there have been monsters to tell us what a “good” body looks and acts like, there has also been desire for the very bodies we deem monstrous. Desire for the monster is queer desire and, as The Shape of Water shows us, it is exquisite and beautiful and joyous. It is worthy of an epic love story.

There has been a cultural backlash against the queerness of these monsters. One only need look as far as the Twilight series (vampire abstains from his monstrous behavior and earns the love of a human woman, absolving himself of his own monstrosity) to see that. We have deemed monsters appropriately desirable, but only under certain circumstances. This is just another delineation of “appropriate” desire.

Stories try to tell us that, in order to love a monster, we have to take its monstrosity away and leave only that which is appropriate. As if it is not the monstrosity itself that makes the monster desirable.

This is where The Shape of Water differs, and where it excels. The Shape of Water is a Beauty and the Beast story, but it is not just that. It is also a Little Mermaid story, in its way, allowing its mermaid to regrow her gills and return to the water. It is a fairy tale in which a woman falls in love with a monster and, rather than redeeming the monster by making him human, it heals and helps the woman by making her the monster she was always meant to be.

#TheShapeofWater is a Beauty and the Beast story, but.... It is also a Little Mermaid story ... allowing its mermaid to regrow her gills and return to the water. - @cprevas Click To Tweet

In a world of people who are lonely and isolated for reasons beyond their control — Giles’ sexuality, Zelda’s absent husband, Hoffstetler’s political allegiance, Elisa’s inability to speak — Elisa finds companionship not by trying to be more like other people, but by embracing that which makes her unique. The love story between her and the Amphibian Man does not stand in the way of this; it guides her there with a gentle hand and a coy smile.

It is a love story between two people — or, two monsters — yes, but above all that, it is a love story to Elisa, to everything she is and everything she refuses not to be. And it is a love story to the idea that, no matter what this world becomes around you, or what it tries to do to you, there is always space to be a monster.

The Shape of Water Rating: ★★★★★