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Triumph Of The Freaks

A reader writes to ask if I’m going to do an Oscars post. The answer is no; I didn’t watch the show, or see the movies nominated. He responded by saying that I really ought to write something. “The Academy used to play it safe with controversy, but now it’s moving the Overton window faster than in real life,” he wrote. “Who’d have thought one decade ago that the most prestigious award in the film industry would go to a film about bestiality, and casting it in a positive light?”

He’s talking about The Shape Of Water [1], a movie in which the female protagonist falls in love with a humanoid amphibian, and has sex with it (“cod coitus,” according to Sonny Bunch). The reader continues:

Even more astounding is that no one seemed to care: the critics, the media and now the Academy all applauded at director Guillermo Del Toro’s “boldness”. The Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Film winners — respectively about a pederastic love story and a trans woman fighting prejudice — look almost tame in comparison, though they’re symptomatic too.

The Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñarritú has praised The Shape Of Water like this, in Daily Variety:

change_me

“Shape of Water” is a love letter to love. And a love declaration for cinema. And Guillermo changed the paradigm of the monster tale because no monster or princess has to change. The only real transformation comes from within, by loving and accepting each other as they are.

A film that loves, without conditions, the marginalized, the rejects, those beings that are “different” and have no voice. It has a perfect villain that embodies those ideologies from the past, but are so relevant, recycled, and even more dangerous today. The fear of the otherness. Blinded by fear and ignorance, he cannot see the others for what they really are, but loses control and reason with the idea they represent for him.

In other words, you can have sex with anyone or anything you want, because love is love, and love wins. The reader continues:

I agree with the things you say most of the time, but something I think you miss is how the turmoil we’re witnessing is basically a transfer of power from “regular” people to the freaks. Everything previously deemed inferior, abnormal, marginal, obscene is now not only normalized but embraced, even glorified. In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche denounced Christianity as a perversion of all good and healthy values. He called for a total revolution in values [2], to overturn Christian morality and replace it with its opposite. That’s what we’re seeing now, at a very deep level.

This wouldn’t matter that much if our new lords weren’t so full of rancor and determined to get their revenge on those who humiliated them, hence the attacks on the various “privileges” that systematically target the representatives of the old order: patriarchy, masculinity, heterosexuality, “whiteness” and — yes — Christianity. As a member of a minority group, this shouldn’t worry me so much, as many aspects of said “old order” were not worth preserving or friendly to me. But I’m telling you, what is coming threatens to be much worse because it’s revenge, not justice.

Thoughts, readers? I don’t pay attention to the Oscars, or Hollywood, because I’m interested in other things. But what this reader says about Hollywood and the power of culture-making is absolutely true. Did you see The Shape Of Water? What did you think? I watched the trailer just now, and it seems interesting to me that the action takes place at a research facility named “Occam,” as in William of Occam. It is Occam who is mostly credited (or blamed) with setting into motion the separation of meaning from matter, via his philosophy of nominalism (I wrote about this in The Benedict Option [3]). Could it be in this film, what happens at the Occam facility is Elisa, who works there as a janitor and first encounters the creature, learns to separate morality from matter, so that she can open herself to a sexual relationship with an aquatic creature? In other words, if there is no intrinsic meaning to matter, including humanity, then we can do with it whatever we want. Including submitting sexually to animals, or any creatures that give us pleasure and affection?

Based on the summary of the plot on Wikipedia, and on Inarritu’s praise, it sounds like the movie is exactly what this reader says it is. What’s more, it’s an inversion of the classic Beauty and the Beast story, in that the love of the woman doesn’t change the beast, but the love of the beast changes the woman. “Revaluation of all values!” (to quote Nietzsche’s command).

Yesterday I started watching the Netflix series “Babylon Berlin,” a crime drama set in the Weimar Republic. In the first episode, the vice squad busts a porno shoot in which the actors are turning the Nativity into an orgy. What is so chilling about that scene is the banality of the blasphemy. It’s just business in Weimar Germany — and that, I take it, is the point: that late Weimar culture is so decadent that even something as defiling as that porn scenario is treated as par for the course (though technically a crime). We know what came next for Weimar Germany.

Listen to me, conservative Christian readers:

You had better be ready for that. The handwriting is on the wall, and the cracks are widening in the foundations. May I introduce you to Peter Sanlon? [4] You need to know him.

UPDATE: Of course. How did I miss this? The Shape of Water is the cinematic epitome of liquid modernity [5]. A society that casts off all structure, all sense of meaning, is one in which emotion is the only guide — and one that ends up with movies celebrating screwing animals.

UPDATE.2: You guys, knock it off with “you didn’t see the movie so you don’t have the right to say anything about it.” I conceded early on that I hadn’t seen the film, and that my comments are based only on the Wikipedia description of its plot, and things both the director and others favorable to the film have said about it. Of course I could be wrong! If I’ve made a mistake in my description of the plotting, then I welcome correction. Nobody has yet said that I got that wrong; they only object to my interpretation. I’m not going to publish any more “You didn’t see it” whining, unless your point is to correct what I’ve assumed about the plot (in which case, again, I thank you for the correction).

UPDATE.3: Let me try a different angle. Look, I don’t think this movie is telling people to go out and tap the tilapia. Come on. Rather, this movie appears in a culture that fetishizes the Other, and that also holds sexual expression to be at the core of one’s identity. Within the context of the plot, “normality” is portrayed as cruel and repressive. The female protagonist, Elisa, only finds her true self through a romantic and sexual relationship with a humanoid, who opens her hidden gills and sets her free. Her “liberation” occurs in the context of the civil rights movement and the Sexual Revolution. It cannot be for nothing that the research facility where she learns compassion for the swamp monster (her future lover) is named Occam — this, given that it was William of Occam who is credited with overturning traditional Christian metaphysics, which taught that purpose is intrinsic to matter. In other words, the film expresses historian Yuval Noah Harari’s take on modernity: “The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”

If there is no intrinsic meaning in matter — including in the human species — then individuals have the power to follow their desires wherever they lead. Including into bed with a swamp monster. This is liberation, because it overturns the power of the repressive white male Christian normies. You, too, viewer, might find that your innermost repressed desires, which white male Christian conservative society considers to be monstrous, can be activated and revealed to be something life-giving, if only you will open yourself up to a sexual relationship with a so-called monster.

That is the message of this film, based on the descriptions I’ve read of its plot. Unless I’m missing something about the plot — and again, please correct me if so — then it ought to be bloody obvious what The Shape Of Water means in this particular culture. It’s a total inversion of the Beauty And The Beast story, in which the love of a human activates what is most human inside a monster, and transforms him into a human. In this one, it’s the love — including sexual love — of a monster that brings out what is monstrous inside a human, and transforms her into a monster. Which is not really a monster, because the real monster is the repressive white male Christian Cold Warrior…

245 Comments (Open | Close)

245 Comments To "Triumph Of The Freaks"

#1 Comment By CMPT On March 6, 2018 @ 11:10 am

sjb: “Just read about one of the movies nominated for four oscars last night, including best picture: Call Me By Your Name. It’s a disturbing story about pederasty . . . Decided I’d like to see Bruce Willis’ new movie: Death Wish. I need a palate cleanser.”

As between Call Me By Your Name and Death Wish, which movie do you think will be seen by more people? Which movie do you think will have more influence on the culture? And, which movie do you think is a greater offense to the tenets of Christianity?

#2 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 6, 2018 @ 11:45 am

John: I wish you all the best with your daughter, joy and the occasional ability to get more than two hours of sleep. 😀

My youngest is 25. My eldest has gifted us with three grandchildren. It is all good stuff!!

#3 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On March 6, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

Margaret writes: “The quote from St. Anthony is for all Christians at all stages of life and he spoke this truth a long time ago: ‘A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad; you are not like us.”’”

I would say that the quote is for all people at all stages of life. As a queer, there have been times in my life when I has deemed mad (and worse) for not being like others. I have also been deemed mad (and worse) by other queers for not being like them.

Maybe people need to practice deeming by examining the consequences of people’s actions/behaviors/speech along with the actions/behaviors/speech themselves.

#4 Comment By Erin M. On March 6, 2018 @ 12:26 pm

[NFR: Her latent fish-ness blossomed through her love of fish-man. It’s a reversal of Beauty and the Beast. It turns out in this film that the normal person was really the freak, and it took screwing a fish for the protagonist to discover her True Self. — RD]

Shrek. That is the plot of Shrek, minus the sex of course. But that’s just because Shrek is a kids movie while SoW is a movie directed by someone who sees sex as a part of life and human connection/expression; it isn’t meant to be, like, magic sex, it’s just part of their love story.

This movie isn’t an inversion of Beauty and the Beast. Both stories have exactly the same point, which is that ones humanity lies in ones heart, not in the way one is perceived or judged by society. They are stories that argue for the dignity of every human soul (the cartoonishness of the villain in the story undercuts this message, unfortunately). And yes, they argue against the mob, and the worst tendencies of human nature to judge and condemn others without understanding.

Whether the beast becomes human (Beauty and the Beast) or the human becomes beast (Shrek) the point of the story is the same–there are no beasts, except when someone behaves in a beastly manner. In SoW in particular, the woman becomes “monster” because society has not allowed her and her lover a place, despite their humanity. It’s both pessimistic and optimistic. Pessimistic to suggest that they were, in the end, hounded out, but optimistically suggesting that they can still enjoy a shared world of of their own, withdrawn and apart from society. You could even see some BenOp parallels in the ending.

Do you really come down so hard on the side of conventionality and against the freaks? (Newsflash, we are all secretly freaks, some just hide it better than others).

[NFR: You are missing my point: reality *doesn’t* get defined by what’s in one’s heart. What if one’s heart leads one to sexually desire a child? If there is no objective referent outside the human heart, then anything is possible. Harari is right: give up meaning for power — that’s modernity. Walker Percy was right: this is how tenderness leads to the gas chamber. — RD]

#5 Comment By Rob G On March 6, 2018 @ 1:22 pm

[NFR: You are missing my point: reality *doesn’t* get defined by what’s in one’s heart. What if one’s heart leads one to sexually desire a child? If there is no objective referent outside the human heart, then anything is possible. Harari is right: give up meaning for power — that’s modernity. Walker Percy was right: this is how tenderness leads to the gas chamber. — RD]

Spot on. I had almost this exact same conversation with a left-leaning Christian SJW-type a couple weeks ago on a different issue. With a few slight variations what Erin M. wrote could have been lifted straight out of my interlocutor’s “argument.” It’s MTD boilerplate.

#6 Comment By Rob G On March 6, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

‘A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad; you are not like us.”’

As I once heard it put, progressivism is standing on your head and telling everyone else they’re upside-down.

#7 Comment By elizabeth On March 6, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

KS:

You get it so right. While the current Right is hung up on the 60s as the source of all that is wrong with our society, the Left does the same thing with the 50s.

Re: Our Hosts’s comment about the heart not defining reality. The film is just one of thousands of mythic fictional tales. No one in their right mind thinks it is literally suggesting sex with fish-men, if you happen to find one. It really was necessary in this story to make it romantic, as noted by a previous comment, to specify that this was true recognition of the creature’s “humanity” if you will, not just empathy for a beloved pet.

#8 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On March 6, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

Rod writes: “If there is no objective referent outside the human heart, then anything is possible.”

Even among those people who maintain there is an objective referent outside of the human heart, history has demonstrated that anything is possible for such folk as well.

To riff on Erin M.’s point: we are all freaks. It is just that some of us get our freak on without harming others; others are sometimes unable to freak without harm; and yet for others harming is their freak.

#9 Comment By Daniel (not Larrison) On March 6, 2018 @ 2:25 pm

Rod, someone may have mentioned this before, but…

Were you not irritated when people would write reviews about your books without reading them?

And yes, I know this blog was not a review of TSOW…but still, it seems uncomfortably close to what you have decried in others.

[NFR: Yes, I was. That’s why I pointed out that I had not seen the film, was basing my comments on neutral descriptions of its plot, and welcomed correction. Nobody has said that I got facts wrong; they only object to my interpretation. When I complained that certain critics hadn’t read my book, it’s because they were claiming that I said this or that thing that either I did not say, or had said the exact opposite. — RD]

#10 Comment By Robert On March 6, 2018 @ 2:49 pm

Man has sex with Dolphin, the smartest mammal in the sea. Is the man bad, or is the dolphin bad. OR, is if it feels good, is it just fine?
[6]

#11 Comment By Ronald On March 6, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

I didn’t see the brutal villain’s religion mentioned at all. He could have been a pagan. He was a white male cold-warrior, but his defining qualities were that he was a sexual predator, he hated his wife and he liked to torture beasts and kill people.

#12 Comment By EngineerScotty On March 6, 2018 @ 3:14 pm

Remember back in the halcyon days of the 50s and early 60s, when children believed that dogs were male and cats were female, and that male dogs married female cats, having boy babies who were dogs and girl babies who were cats?

Never heard that one; although it’s not much more fanciful than the belief that human babies are delivered by storks.

EngineerScotty: The picture is “Dream of a fisherman’s wife”, by Hokusai.

That would be the one, thanks. (Was at work, so googling that particular topic didn’t seem a wise thing to do).

Another example of recent literature with cross-species mating–Harry Potter. Hagrid is the offspring of a giant and a human, and giants (as shown in Order of the Phoenix) are barely sentient. It is strongly implied that the antagonist of that particular novel, one Dolores Umbridge, is raped by a herd of centaurs at the end thereof. Oh, and Dumbledore is gay, and his brother reportedly had a thing for goats.

But all this action occurs offscreen (or off the page).

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 6, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

Whether the beast becomes human (Beauty and the Beast) or the human becomes beast (Shrek) the point of the story is the same–there are no beasts, except when someone behaves in a beastly manner.

That’s cute in an animated cartoon. But in the real world, there are beasts.

I see Robert has outflanked my earlier remark… once again, someone’s real life exploits anticipate what I thought was satire.

#14 Comment By LouB On March 6, 2018 @ 3:49 pm

Out here in the hinterlands, we rubes aren’t buying into the moral relativism trope.

#15 Comment By Rob G On March 6, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

~~~Our Hosts’s comment about the heart not defining reality. The film is just one of thousands of mythic fictional tales. No one in their right mind thinks it is literally suggesting sex with fish-men, if you happen to find one. It really was necessary in this story to make it romantic, as noted by a previous comment, to specify that this was true recognition of the creature’s “humanity” if you will, not just empathy for a beloved pet.~~~

Point-miss much? This is all about “love for” (i.e., sex with) the “other.” Doesn’t matter who (or what) “the other” is. Del Toro said as much in an interview a few weeks ago. Is it any wonder all the rainbow-flag wavers totally ate this movie up? Seriously, if you can’t see through the metaphors here you need to put your thinking cap on, if you have one.

#16 Comment By Buzz Baldrin On March 6, 2018 @ 5:20 pm

Perhaps Del Toro’s amorphous amphibian, like Yeats’s swan, metaphorically confronts a damsel with an aspect of nature.

𝐋𝐞𝐝𝐚 𝐀𝐧𝐝 𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐒𝐰𝐚𝐧
𝑏𝑦 𝑊𝑖𝑙𝑙𝑖𝑎𝑚 𝐵𝑢𝑡𝑙𝑒𝑟 𝑌𝑒𝑎𝑡𝑠

A SUDDEN blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

#17 Comment By Hyperion On March 6, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

I’m a long time reader of your column, and although I come from an extremely different background (atheist, secular humanist, etc.), I’ve always appreciated reading your take on contemporary culture and religion. Your columns are invariably thoughtful and well reasoned. They’ve often challenged my preconceived notions and forced me to reevaluate how I perceive people who choose to live their lives in accordance with an orthodox religious world view. I bring all of these points up because this is my first actual comment to any of your articles, and unfortunately it’s going to be a highly negative one. So please believe me when I say that I respect what you’re doing, I plan to keep reading your posts, and I’m not a random internet troll.

IMO, your take on “The Shape Of Water” is almost laughably simplistic. Before you tune me out, please take my word for it: there are literally NO secular humanists who went to this movie and came out of it thinking “bestiality is clearly a fundamental human right that we all need to rally behind.” The movie uses Doug Jones’s character as an obvious metaphor for ANY “outsider” who winds up being denied basic human rights simply because of superficial differences. Of course you COULD interpret this in a way that’s antagonistic to Christian orthodoxy (gay rights, trans rights, etc.). But you could just as easily interpret it as a condemnation of laws that prohibit inter-racial or inter-faith marriage. Broadly speaking, all it’s saying is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

I understand that you’ve read descriptions of this movie and come away with a completely different interpretation. But allow me to make the following observation. I assume you’d agree with me that most secular humanists do an absolutely horrible, embarrassingly simplistic job of interpreting Christian orthodoxy. With that in mind, you might want to consider the possibility that you’ve jumped to a similarly horrible, embarrassingly simplistic interpretation of “The Shape of Water.” In my opinion, you’re fundamentally wrong in your understanding of this movie (which, by your own admission you haven’t seen). At some point, you need to step back and ask yourself if this is an article you can stand behind, or if you might have been wrong.

[NFR: Well, if you think that I came away from this movie thinking it was an advertisement for screwing animals, I’ve done a poor job of making my view clear. — RD]

#18 Comment By Nina McDonald On March 6, 2018 @ 7:43 pm

Dear Rod,
I follow your columns with regularity. And I too am an Orthodox Christian. I think you made a lot of great points here… but it is a bit problematic if you haven’t seen the movie. I understand that the woman in the movie, is actually a cursed mermaid… which kind of changes the narrative…..

I have not seen the movie yet myself. (But plan to. I liked Pan’s labyrinth, and appreciate del Toro’s filmmaking…)

I do think there seems to be an agenda That the LGBTQ+ community is pushing… That seemed fairly obvious to me when I watched the Academy awards the other night.Instead of finding our identity in Christ, looking for the imago dei, “and being accepted in the Beloved,””Identity” has become whatever we want it to be. And we insist on everyone else accepting ours…ultimately, there is neither humility nor love in that. But rather the hubris of ego and self love. Which will ultimately destroy us.

It’s just another version of becoming our own gods… instead of identifying with the God-man, Jesus.

Also, the title of this column isn’t helpful… I have friends who have trans children. I would love to be able to post this on Facebook, but they wouldn’t get past the title… It produced a knee-jerk reaction in me when I read it, even though I understand where you’re coming from.

Lastly, if you DO see the movie I would love if you wrote an update…
In Christ,
Nina

#19 Comment By Erin M. On March 6, 2018 @ 8:48 pm

[NFR: You are missing my point: reality *doesn’t* get defined by what’s in one’s heart. What if one’s heart leads one to sexually desire a child? If there is no objective referent outside the human heart, then anything is possible. Harari is right: give up meaning for power — that’s modernity. Walker Percy was right: this is how tenderness leads to the gas chamber. — RD]

Rod, you are misunderstanding me, and it seems to me that you underline my point. A person’s humanity comes for their basic worth, their basic integrity, regardless of how society perceives or judges them. People have worth and deserve kindness and respect simply for being. However, being a monster is based not on who you are (a mute, a fish man, a gay person, even a person that’s attracted to children), but on what you do.

The protagonists of Shape of Water are actively good, kind people. This is shown in numerous ways, especially on the part of the woman. If they weren’t good or kind, then it is *that* that would call their humanity into question, but their differences from the norm do not. As your commentariat here have thoroughly documented, the interspecies thing is not meant to be some bizarrely literal bestiality thing. Trust me, no one on the left wants bestiality, yuck. You are free to condemn the premarital sex that goes against your value system, but it is perfectly in line with the value system of most of this country.

A person that is attracted to children is not an inherently bad person (research is pretty clear that people can’t help this preference). A person that acts on that attraction is a monster indeed. This movie isn’t arguing for active pedophiles, it’s arguing for people who are excluded for being “freaks” even though they are good and decent people. Sure, this can include gay people (again, you and I have different value systems here), but it can include people of different races and ethnicities, disabled people, mutilated people, and people with a thousand other oddnesses and eccentricities that the broader culture doesn’t understand. I know that this is a value you believe in in the right context, when you’re not off on a chicken little rant about progessivism.

#20 Comment By JPJ On March 6, 2018 @ 10:25 pm

Why, I wonder them does Makoto Fujimura call it a deeply empathic film about exilic hopes and a #culturecare film of the year? [7]

[NFR: Because he interprets it differently? — RD]

#21 Comment By Anne On March 6, 2018 @ 10:39 pm

As a film buff who actually saw the movie, I’m really sorry to come to this discussion so late, but so it goes. Of course, the Academy Awards are bunk. Everybody knows that. The real “best pictures” oftentimes don’t even get nominated. But of the films named, I’d probably have picked “Shape of Water” as the better one. (Best, no, that one wasn’t nominated.) Maybe. When it comes to production design, effects and cinematography, it’s stunning…as they say, a visual treat, which counts for a lot when you’re talking about film. This is not a movie that would make a better book. Unfortunately, that said, the sex does detract from what the story could have been, although not for the reasons most seem to think.

The concept itself is fairy tale fodder: A lonely woman falls for a beast no one can love. And who does fantasy or fable better than Guillermo del Toro, the director of “Pan’s Labyrinth”? Problem is this Sea Guy’s a hunk, but not the brightest anemone in the ocean, and even for a mute woman with only a gay guy to keep her company, a mate needs a brain, or at least a modicum of humanity. Really. Women have standards, which Guillermo del Toro, the director, apparently forgot. About halfway through the romance, he has the sea hunk eat somebody’s pet cat. “He’s a wild animal, after all.” someone says in defense. Talk about killing the mood.

Clearly, the director was trying to make some sort of point about female sexuality in this Year of Woman at the Oscars, but from the heroine masturbating to a timer set for the four minutes it takes to hard boil her morning eggs to her jumping naked into a tub with a creature who’s only claim to shared interests are that he too likes eggs and possibly music as well (!), she seems more some male’s twisted idea of what female sexuality should be than what it actually is. Beyond the morality or “liquid modernity,” the sex just doesn’t work.
The first week the movie was out — when I saw it — I remember at least two reviewers — both women — simply remarking “Eeeuuww.”

What’s really a shame in my humble opinion is that Sally Hawkins got nominated for Best Actress for her role in this movie the very same year she turned in an awesome performance as the crippled Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis in another, less glitzy film, i.e., “Maudie.” Since an actress can only be nominated for one role in any given year, they chose this one. Too bad. I would definitely have chosen the other. She should have won for that.

(As for the movie that should have won Best Picture this year, “Blade Runner 2049,” they say it was locked out of the big awards — it won for Cinematography and Visual Effects — because it wasn’t politically relevant. Be that as it may, don’t let it’s sci fi reputation fool you, it’s a ultra-serious reflection on hubris, isolation, and what it means to be human, heart and soul. Its art and humanity far excel the original “Blade Runner,” film classic that it is in its own right. See it. It’s been playing continuously in some cities since Oct. 2017.)

#22 Comment By Erin M. On March 7, 2018 @ 12:23 am

That’s cute in an animated cartoon. But in the real world, there are beasts.

Well, yeah, and this movie is a skin-deep fable (I actually didn’t care much for this movie despite it’s incredible beauty; fables shouldn’t be made into feature-length films.) It’s an idealized, wildly simplified view of the world.

What my sentence should have said is that monstrousness is not based on difference or on society’s judgements, it is based only on what you do. That is one of the base messages of these tales.

#23 Comment By Erin M. On March 7, 2018 @ 12:30 am

Anne, THANK YOU! The relationship in Shape of Water has left me with a bad taste in my mouth since I saw it. I haven’t been able to identify with why, other than that it felt icky to my feminist radar in some subtle way–and I was surprised not to see other women have the same response. So thank you for articulating this so perfectly!

#24 Comment By Randal On March 7, 2018 @ 3:50 am

Oh for goodness sake: she was a sea creature like him. She was found on a river bank with wounds on her neck. At the end, he touched her scars on her neck and they revealed her gills. She had somehow been transformed from the sea creature into a human.

#25 Comment By Christoph On March 7, 2018 @ 10:07 am

That many commenters have reacted negatively to this post does not mean they have all missed the point. Any semi-regular reader of this blog would have to be quite obtuse not to understand Rod’s basic Occam-to-Caitlyn Jenner argument by now, and that his views draw from a rich intellectual tradition among religious conservatives.

For my part this post puts me in mind of some feminist who, after seeing a cutesy icon on the door of the women’s lavatory, launches into their favourite rant about how this is the culmination of the history of patriarchal oppression stretching back to the dawn of civilisation. On *some* level that might be true, and these issues are certainly worth engaging in their own right, but in this particular case the connection is tenuous and the reaction is wildly inappropriate.

#26 Comment By KD On March 7, 2018 @ 10:20 am

Possibly inappropriate.

As Arianna Huffington once observed “All women want happiness!”:

[8]

#27 Comment By Franklin Evans On March 7, 2018 @ 10:30 am

Anne,

I add my thanks for your excellent commentary. I do have a quibble or two…

There is, as Cristoph points out, a validity that deserves respect in many reactions to the movie. Consistency is a hallmark of Rod’s writing. I daresay some (I’ve seen the comments) denigrate that to predictability. Such views miss the value of it entirely.

However… there is another aspect to this. When a superficial choice in mode of expression serves to obscure a point, or divert attention from it, it’s a two-way street. The chooser can (and often must) be chastised for making a choice that damages his or her purpose, but the observer bears a similar onus: they deserve no respect for filling in the blank of their perception with assumptions — usually wrong — about the intended purpose when it isn’t really that difficult to find it. Of course, if the “ick” factor is strong enough, they can easily be forgiven for not making that effort. I, for one, will not forgive them for drawing conclusions in the absence of that effort.

In short, I found none of del Toro’s choices gratuitous. I agree that they are still open to criticism.

I make no such criticism of you, Anne. My point of disagreement is in Sally Hawkins’ performance, and how it is often interpreted. I will admit a bias of my own: I am very close to my local theater community. I’ve learned from my friends, actors and directors, that the best performance clearly demonstrates to the audience the motivation and commitment of the actor to the role and the story.

I agree that Hawkins’ performance in Maudie was outstanding, worthy of a nomination. I disagree that it was more worthy than her performance in The Shape of Water. Both performances were, for me, totally engaging and crystal clear expressions of her talent, her skill, and her commitment to the roles.

As for the sexuality of the story, it was an example of that choice I mention above. For some — for many, with the elevation of voyeurism as a cultural “value” in our society, ahem — it obscured her (yes, to me) clear expression of empathy for the sea creature. The masturbation established her motivation, her unhesitating visceral connection to the creature an expression of her empathy… and, I submit, the only mode of expression possible for her, being mute.

#28 Comment By Rob G On March 7, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

“What my sentence should have said is that monstrousness is not based on difference or on society’s judgements, it is based only on what you do.”

Ok, now apply this statement to the traditionalist Christian understanding of homosexuality and you’re on your way to getting it. It’s not about who they are but what they do. That’s how it’s different from racism.

(Not saying you’re going to be on the same page, of course. But you’re at least looking at the right book.)

#29 Comment By KStolz On March 7, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

What Hyperion said, but instead of piling on, I’m going to look further into Occam, and the connection between material and meaning. I rarely agree with Rod in cultural or political matters, but nonetheless I often learn from his outpourings.

#30 Comment By Brian Kaller On March 7, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

I stopped watching the Oscar ceremony years ago, even before I moved to a time zone that prohibited easy viewing. I always take an interest in the nominees, though, as I love film and like to hear what other film lovers liked, even if I don’t agree. This year, moreover, I was actually familiar with some of the nominees; while my daughter was growing up, I didn’t get out to the cinema much, and missed most of the 21st century.

Honestly, I was largely disappointed by “The Shape of Water,” despite its stylish design and lovely cinematography. The moment Michael Shannon’s antagonist appeared, any enjoyment came crashing down.

As soon as we find out that he’s a husband and father in the suburban 1950s, we can guess the rest; of course he turns out to be a racist, a rapist, a sadist, fanatic, madman and general moustache-twirling villain. He’s not just broadly drawn; he’s so unbelievable and so unpleasant that he destroys any credibility or enjoyment.

I felt the same way as I did toward the villain in Titanic: imagine how much more interesting the film could have been, if either character had been a decent, realistic character facing a moral dilemma.

It’s not just him, though: in a film praised for its diversity, every character starts as a broad stereotype and ends the same way. When we see the mute girl, we know she will be dreamy yet pure-hearted; when we see the heavyset black woman, we know she will be a comic sidekick, sassy yet maternal. The film hammers us over the head with what it wants us to feel, unsubtle as a television commercial.

You might be tempted to cut the film more slack because of its fairy-tale quality; I don’t criticise the Wizard of Oz for its unsubtle characters. Yet if this is a children’s fairy tale, why the torture, nudity, gangrene, and … um … bestiality? I was reminded of Roger Ebert saying something like, “I don’t mind the performance of the actor playing the pimp. My question is, in a family Christmas film, why was it necessary to include a pimp?”

The film’s tone was all over the place, and I don’t know who it was meant for. It seemed a shame, and I left actually itching to take a bootleg version of it to an editing programme, to see what other kind of movie it could have been.

#31 Comment By Petra On March 7, 2018 @ 7:19 pm

“there are no politicians on earth capable of turning this tide of decadence; the power of culture is far too strong;
you cannot expect your children to be salt and light to a culture that gives its highest honor to a movie celebrating bestiality as an act of liberation, and a ‘love letter to love’;
soon, people who believe the things you do will be regarded as perverted and dangerous to the common good; are you ready for that?”

Why doesn’t anyone seem to understand the truth and urgency of the above? The point is that the Oscars are just a microcosm of the cesspool our society is becoming/has already become.

There is a thread about this column on an Orthodox FB group of which I am a part. What I find terribly sad is both the fact that a) this column is not a movie review and people don’t seem to get that, and also that b) there is even a debate at all over this movie on said FB page (and here), as if there is really any question about whether or not this is a movie any of us who call ourselves Christians could really righteously choose to see/support with our dollars precisely because of the content. I think, “Would you go see this movie with your Orthodox priest? Or with Jesus? How could you justify this film as something edifying?” I don’t think I am some mental midget missing some larger, intellectual proposition at play here that everyone is turning this into. Really, when you put a tutu on a pig, it’s still a pig, and that is what debate about something so anti-Christian is: a tutu on a pig. Why are we looking for diamonds in garbage when we have diamond mines available (especially we who are Orthodox)? Why are Christians – especially Orthodox Christians or any conservative Christians – trying to justify seeing this? Or worse yet, “Call Me By My Name”? Let’s face it, if that movie was a 17 year old girl and a 24 year old white male, everyone would be shouting from the rooftops about hateful white males, and #MeToo and all the rest of it. Pederasty isn’t romantic – it’s immoral and disgusting, and I say the same to anyone trying to make a case for either of these movies as containing some sort of positive allegorical message – it’s just not possible. You can talk a tutu onto it, but the truth is that it’s still a pig. I am deeply saddened that we Christians are apparently so impoverished mentally and emotionally that we will work to defend something like this instead of just stepping away and feeding our souls and minds something of value.

#32 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 7, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

What my sentence should have said is that monstrousness is not based on difference or on society’s judgements, it is based only on what you do. That is one of the base messages of these tales.

As you had just said, such tales are not a good medium for base messages. I recall that in Jurassic Park (the novel) one of the pre-teens being chased by a Tyrannosaur assures his little sister that the Rex is not evil, he is just doing what he does. That is true, but doesn’t change the fact that the kids really would prefer to survive, by any means necessary.

#33 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On March 8, 2018 @ 9:19 am

Rob G writes: “Ok, now apply this statement to the traditionalist Christian understanding of homosexuality and you’re on your way to getting it. It’s not about who they are but what they do. That’s how it’s different from racism.”

But some traditonal Christians maintain that even the arising of same-sex desire is wrong, and I do not cause that desire to arise–it occurs.

#34 Comment By Joshua Horne On March 8, 2018 @ 10:19 am

Haven’t seen it. Does the water creature have an intellect and a will? Is the female protagonist having marital relations with a non-human person, or a beast?

#35 Comment By Doug On March 8, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

If human sexuality is no longer about reproduction; creating children for God, and we continue to celebrate birth control, promiscuity, abortion, masturbation, homosexuality, Shape of Water, then what is the point of humanity? Why would God allow us to continue?

#36 Comment By S Michael On March 8, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

I never saw Shrek (or The Shape of Waterl probably never will, not even on Netflix), but the 1984 film Splash was similar if less dark, in which a dissatisfied human (Tom Hanks) is rescued by and falls in love with a mermaid (Daryl Hannah), who is pursued by evil government agents who want to dissect her. Helping her escape to the sea, he can live with her undersea, but can’t come back, and “takes the plunge.” Less sex and violence, won a Golden Globe best picture (musical/comedy), an Oscar for best screenplay. Things had changed more drastically by Avatar (2009), where healed Jake goes Na’vi, mates with Neytiri, and sides with the nice creatures against evil humans.

#37 Comment By MarWes On March 8, 2018 @ 3:10 pm

Actually, Nietzsche would never stop throwing up if he saw what’s happening to Western culture. His ideals were heroic, not scatological.

#38 Comment By Lou On March 8, 2018 @ 8:05 pm

The movie is not about bestiality (sex between human and animal). The humanoid amphibian in the movie is not animal, but a person.

But of course, free sex is still something wrong.

#39 Comment By Michael On March 9, 2018 @ 3:33 am

I was struck by how – in this year of MeToo – if the Elisa character had been male, the entire movie would have been lambasted as animal rape. She springs the simple-minded (yet magically powerful) creature from the lab…takes it home…then essentially date rapes it in the bathtub where it’s gasping for life.

How romantic!

But she’s a woman. So it’s liberating and empowering.

How very odd that this juxtaposition seems to have occurred to NO ONE.

#40 Comment By Rob G On March 9, 2018 @ 7:01 am

“But some traditonal Christians maintain that even the arising of same-sex desire is wrong, and I do not cause that desire to arise–it occurs.”

The desire is “wrong” however it arises, but wrong desires are not culpable unless they’re welcomed and/or acted upon. This aspect of the thing is no different from that of “wrong” heterosexual desires.

It’s like the joke about the Irishman who went to confession and told the priest that he had had lustful thoughts about his neighbor’s wife.

“My son,” said the priest, “it’s no sin to have lustful thoughts. The question is, did you entertain them?”

The man thought for a minute. “Well, father, to be honest, I’d have to say that they entertained me.”

The sin is not in the having but in the entertaining.

#41 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 9, 2018 @ 9:47 pm

The humanoid amphibian in the movie is not animal, but a person.

That assertion, which I acknowledged may have been satiric hyperbole, begs definition of terms.

What does it mean to be “humanoid” if one is not human? What does it mean to be a “person.” Is a sentient organism of a different species really the same species as ourselves. Is sex between sentient species licit merely because they are sentient? Is it even possible? Salmon don’t have mammalian sexual organs… what makes the script writer think that this extra-terrestrial aquatic species does?

At least Mr. Limpet had to become a fish in order to mate with one, and had to give up his human wife given that she really didn’t want a wet fish in her bed.

#42 Comment By Rob G On March 10, 2018 @ 9:58 am

‘How very odd that this juxtaposition seems to have occurred to NO ONE.’

Feminism does not grant the existence of the female cad. If this juxtaposition did occur to them, they’d necessarily stay quiet about it.

#43 Comment By lugnutism On March 11, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

Heavens to Betsy, the movie is a sequel to The Little Mermaid! And not the Disney version!
GAH!

#44 Comment By Chris C. On March 18, 2018 @ 6:16 pm

So last night, I watched the first episode of Babylon Berlin. I’m a pretty irreverent guy, but the Nativity porn shoot nonetheless disgusted me, at least morally if not religiously. At least this article forewarned me.

#45 Comment By Hyperion On March 20, 2018 @ 7:24 pm

[NFR: Well, if you think that I came away from this movie thinking it was an advertisement for screwing animals, I’ve done a poor job of making my view clear. — RD]

RD: If you don’t want people to come away from this thinking you see “Shape of Water” as an advertisement for “screwing animals” then you probably shouldn’t have included the following statement in your article. “you cannot expect your children to be salt and light to a culture that gives its highest honor to a movie celebrating bestiality as an act of liberation, and a ‘love letter to love.'”