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The Shape of Water: Why Everyone is Obsessed With F***ing the Fishman

Guillermo del Toro's filmography is what a fanboy's wish-fulfillment should look like. It's not the overt sexualization of women, or hyper-violent masculinity, or even meek, less-qualified men somehow usurping everyone else (again, usually women) to claim an undeserved spotlight.

Instead he creates wholesome fannish films. Do you like humanity using giant robots to punch giant sea aliens in the face? You've got it, but you'll also get one of Science Fiction's most down-to-earth male protagonists and a woman who inspired her own Bechdel test alternative. Do you instead prefer fairy tales? How about one that tackles the horrific effects of war on children and contains one of the most messed up monsters you've ever seen? Yes, sometimes his work is hit or miss, but there's needed substance in his Hobbit adaptations and I will defend Crimson Peak for many of the same reasons I continue to defend Jupiter Ascending. For the most part, del Toro knows what's up.

And now he wants us to f*** a fish person.

You read that right. Fish person. Not a mermaid! Fish. Person. Looking like this:

Yes, this is an official poster

And honestly I'm kind of all for it.

The Shape of Water----scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8th----has caused a wealth of jokes to appear on tumblr since the trailer first dropped, even more so now that some have seen the film pre-release at the Venice International Film Festival. Though there are numerous elements to the film worth discussing (American discrimination as depicted by a non-American screenwriter, nostalgia for the 1960s, the depiction of deaf/Deaf/mute individuals on film----something I'd like to discuss in a later post), people are fixating on the romance. It's not just the fans either. Critics are hailing The Shape of Water as a breathtaking piece because of, not in spite of, the human/non-human romance. Though I haven't read it for fear of spoilers, I'm particularly fond of this review title, "Sex With a Sea Creature Never Seemed so Sweet."

And this is only the tip of a wonderfully strange iceberg

It might seem weird, all these people clamoring to love the fish dude, but interspecies relationships are an important part of our culture and mythology (just grab any random Greek myth and you'll see what I mean). I've found over the years that there are tiers at work and each level tends to dictate how comfortable we are with the relationship.

Tier 5 - Two Humans Looking Non-Human Getting it On

Think Princess and the Frog. Sure, Tiana and Naveen might fall in love while they're amphibians, but we all know they're really human. We also know they won't be doing anything past PG until they've turned back. It's fine.

Tier 4: Two Non-Humans Getting it On

Often played for laughs due to 'incompatibility.' Easiest example is Donkey and the Dragon from Shrek. How... how did they make all those babies?? We don't know. We don't care. They're just cute together. Opposites attract, right?

Tier 3: A Human and a Human Look-Alike Getting it On

Okay we LOVE this tier. Sexy vampires, sexy werewolves, Superman, the Doctor, Jupiter's angel-wolf boyfriend who comes in gravity boots to sweep her off her feet----I could go on and on. Provided they look mostly human and act mostly human, we adore the idea of having someone "exotic" to be with (which is where a lot of racism comes into play). Star Trek might promote infinite diversity, but all the aliens the crew has relations with sure tend to act pretty human until their next solo episode about cultural differences...

Tier 2: A Human and a Non-Human Waiting to Get it On Until The Other Is Fully Human

We love these stories too. They're our childhood: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. It's even recent comedies like Warm Bodies. There's a certain level of discomfort there (Belle sure did like the Beast as he was... oh god is she a furry??) but for the most part we're able to ignore the hints of beastiality and focus on the all-human endings. The Beast's spell lifts. R is no longer a zombie. Ariel keeps her human legs. Everyone lives happily ever after and doesn't think too much about what they would have done if their partner hadn't turned back at the end.

And then there's

Tier 1: A Human and a Monster Getting it On

This tier is King Kong. It's The Fly. It's The Bee Movie, okay, and we all know how messed up that is. This tier isn't a human/non-human romance, it's a human/monster romance and we're generally not supposed to root for both parties' survival. Now I don't know how The Shape of Water will end, but by appearances alone del Toro's fishman should be placed in tier 1, as something for our heroine to escape... but he's very much not.

So what gives?

It's useful to note that most of the people making these posts appear to be Millennials and that they're doing so on websites like tumblr and reddit, known for housing outsiders. I'm not talking here about people who are "nerds" or "geeks" or any other term that no longer carries the same negative weight that it did thirty years ago. Rather, these are people who identify as something that remains outside of the current status-quo, as cultural minorities. Using the above posts as examples, three tumblr users provided personal information on their blogs: two identify by "they/them" pronouns while the third says that "any pronouns are fine." Additionally, that third blogger lists "Mexican + s/e Asian" under their "About" page, revealing----like many users---not only that they're members of the LGBTQIA community, but that they also belong to a wide range of racial communities, disabled communities, etc.

Is it any wonder then that these bloggers might be drawn to the literal outsiders of a film----characters like del Toro's sea creature who is captured and experimented on by the government? In a country still grappling with horrific issues like conversion therapy, the shooting of unarmed black civilians, and a president who openly discriminates against Muslims, the message behind del Toro's sympathetic treatment of the "monster" isn't hard to grasp. Humanizing the "other" in stories has always been a resource for actual marginalized groups.

Why people don't just want to accept the sea creature but want to be with him is a far more complicated question. There's still that element of "exoticism," and through it elements of danger, power, and the feeling of a unique identity. Humans love to feel special, and what's more special than being the one snowflake that the vampire falls for, the only one capable of taming the beast? For many it's the ultimate feeling of validation.

For others the fantasy element acts as a buffer, allowing readers and viewers to enjoy romances with controversial elements (such as rape or sadism) without letting that fantasy negatively impact their everyday lives. It's one thing to read about a man overpowering and having his way with you----for many that scenario would induce fear and disgust. It's quite another to imagine a monster overpowering and having his way with you because we're not actually worried about alien abductions or werewolves lurking around the corner. By including impossible creatures, the story helps regulate these scenarios into the realm of "impossibility" as well.

Still others may be jumping on this bandwagon simply because that's what you do online. It's rule 34-----people have never needed creators' permission to think pornographically about any subject and here we have a film actively encouraging it. What else do you expect? Yet despite the crude examples I've collected here, The Shape of Water seems concerned with more a romantic (even "pure") idea of love, one that is capable of transcending physicality. It's what Eliza signs in the trailer, "He sees me as I am," vs. the horrified exclamation, "Oh god, it's not even human." We can think about the title itself. Water has no shape. Rather, it takes on the shape of whatever container it's poured into; it adapts: as a monster does to a relationship with a mute woman, as the woman does with the monster. Though these fans love to joke about fucking the fishman, I'll bet that a large number of those eager for the film's release use these memes to cover a more sentimental view of what, on the surface, appears to be something strange and disturbing.

So yeah, get excited for some fish on human action this holiday season. The Shape of Water comes out on December 8th.

Image Credit

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