The Fantastic Everyday: The Shape of Water and Female Sexuality

A romantic tryst between a woman and an amphibious sea creature was never going to be an easy elevator pitch and yet, with all of The Shape of Water’s unusual elements, it includes something so staggeringly normal. Amongst the gills and frills, a relentlessly realistic view of female sexuality marks this film out as exceptional in a cinematic landscape that takes vast liberties with women and sexual desire.

Now, to pre-empt any inevitable quibbles here, I’ve not forgotten that the two at the centre of this love story exist deep within a fairytale. This is not an enthusiastic endorsement for human/amphibian relations. It’s fantasy fiction, which means the mechanisms of the Eliza and the Creature’s relationship aren’t the central concern, and it works just as in time-honoured tales like Beauty and the Beast. In an impressive feat, the film is sincere enough that people can support a relationship that sits right in the realm of the fantastical, creating a romantic story that is essentially about two outsiders finding each other.

For a film that is so unusually optimistic and imaginative, The Shape of Water is also delightfully rebellious in its exceptionally normal portrayal of female sexuality. Never cinema’s strong point, women have been overwhelmingly portrayed as passive supplicants or victims over the years. In fact, the most direct inspiration for this film, 1954’s monster horror Creature from the Black Lagoon, is a classic example of that — a helpless heroine abducted by a predatory creature, she’s there to be both an object of desire and a damsel in distress.

That trend hasn’t really disappeared in recent years as it should have done; in fact, it’s just evolved with a different mask. We are frequently exposed to the damaging patriarchal concept that the men are the ones who must make be in charge of a dalliance, and the woman subject to their whims. When a film comes out with a woman in charge of her sexual encounters, it’s unusual and often comedic, arriving to be described as ‘raunchy’ or ‘edgy’, while the woman at the centre must be ‘strong-willed’, rather than, you know, a regular person. Whether it’s in a fun rom-com or a dark drama, women are rarely the masters of their own fate when it comes to sex.

Enter Eliza, The Shape of Water’s heroine. Mute since childhood, her prim appearance and repetitive job superficially masks a rich inner life. She supports her neighbour, loves old movies and appreciates the everyday beauties. Like every real human out there, she’s complex and doesn’t always make the right decision. Most crucially, Eliza is allowed to enjoy her sexuality on her own terms. In her character and her relationship with the monster, director and writer Guillermo del Toro demands that we leave our cynicism at the door and ignore snap judgments.

This stands out right from the beginning of the film, where Eliza begins her morning routine by masturbating in her bathtub. It isn’t done for comedic effect because really, there’s nothing strange about what she does. Still, watching it and hearing a few giggles from some nervous young guys in the audience, it seemed like something unusual. That isn’t the fault of the film or us — rather, it’s a revealing reminder of how little female self love is shown on screen as a part of the human experience.

Times when it has been discussed onscreen are rare. In one notable (and very different) pop culture example is when Sex and the City caused a furore in 1998 by having one of the leading ladies get addicted to her vibrator. Quite a risk for television at the time, it provoked plenty of writing in the media, as well as some excellent publicity for the creators of that particular sex toy. However, 20 years later, it’s still rare to have acknowledgement of female pleasure without a partner, and even if women are shown in that context, it’s often with the use of the male gaze. Rarely is it shown in such a situation of affectionate normalcy as with Eliza in The Shape of Water.

I accept that there’s a certain contradiction in writing a lengthy essay on how something should be treated normally. However, in this case, the normal becomes the exceptional by its appearance. The fact that Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins never portray Eliza’s sexuality as something unusual, even in a surreal context, is so important.

Likewise, Eliza remains in control of her own body and pleasure when her relationship with the Creature progresses. Prior to the consummation of their relationship, she removes her own clothes and is the one to draw the curtain. None of this is not done in a predatory fashion but as a gentle initiation to which the humanoid Creature consents. It’s a happy subversion of an age-old heterosexual stereotype where the male figure must be the one to take initiative.

For a film that is overwhelming beautiful, there is one shot that stayed with me after long after The Shape of Water ended. After Eliza and the Creature have had sex, her neighbour walks in on them in an embrace. Eliza smiles at him in the arms of the creature, with a look that is rich with meaning.

It’s hard to break down the significance of that single shot adequately — perhaps it’s how even encased in the arms of her larger companion, you don’t doubt that Eliza is an equal in that embrace. Perhaps it’s her sparkling eyes and that implied smile that speaks to a women utterly contented.

Yet what stands out most is how Eliza doesn’t spring away when her neighbour walks in. She stands there and meets his eye with a stance of pride, free from the culture of shame that women have been taught to feel from a young age. It’s not exhibitionism, but rather a silent proclamation to a trusted friend. Eliza has had sex, and she’s not ashamed to acknowledge it. That in itself, is far more sensual than most of the sex scenes that we’ve seen portrayed in recent cinema. In those tiny few seconds, we see a profound rejection of the idea that women must subject to other peoples’ desires, rather than the pioneers of their own lives.

It’s not just self-expression that cinematic conventions have forgotten, but the fact that women can be something other than victims of other peoples’ desire. There’s been a notable increase in portrayals of sexual assault in film, to the point that actresses like Keira Knightley are pointing this out. The violation of female bodies is now frequently used as a prompt for a male lover’s rage, while the victims remain voiceless in their recovery.

That’s not to say that sexual assault shouldn’t be portrayed in film. However, in the way it’s been shown recently, it’s become a device that filmmakers feel they need to make the audience hurt for heroines, or else motivate the hero into action. Sometimes it’s even filmed in a way that suggests conscious, or subconscious, intentions to relish a women’s violation. It’s extremely worrying.

That brings us to the antithesis of Eliza’s freedom from societal conformity. Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland is a man who arrives into the film broken. The root of his endless fury is unseen, born of conflict, but in his tirade again the Creature, he wants to crush the slightest hint of what would be viewed as abnormal. His home is spotless, his wife loving and his children happy. From the exterior, he has what that society of the time would term as a ‘normal’ household.

Strickland’s drive to stamp out that which he perceives as wrong manifests in an obsession with uniformity. This behaviour sees him persist with two badly reattached fingers after an amputation until they go black and rotten, such is his desire to keep himself ‘complete’.

Just look at the shot below, as the shadows from the rain forms a pattern on Strickland’s face. For a moment, he has facial markings that resemble the Creature, but while the Creature is naive and curious, Strickland represents the danger that others see in the amphibian. Continuing with Guillermo del Toro’s inversion of the human versus monster balance of morals, it’s Strickland’s toxic view of the world that is the true monster of the film, instead of the scaly being kept in a tank.

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As someone who is swallowed by the expectations of society and turned toxic by traditional masculinity, Strickland also holds hidden dark desires. He preys on Eliza, mistaking her silence as the sign of someone who will be a willing supplicant in whatever impulses he’s repressing.

In Strickland’s obsession with Eliza, the film could so easily have joined the long roster of movies that punish their heroines with sexual assault. That The Shape of Water doesn’t allow Strickland’s actions to escalate against her again marks it as a film that refuses recent conventions. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel the need to subject its fictional heroine to sexual violation in order to make her agonising moments sympathetic.

Eliza is a character who is allowed to express her sexuality with autonomy, with pride and without trauma. Her circumstances may be part of a fairytale but The Shape of Water offers us a brilliantly real view of a complex, realistic woman. That the film won the biggest award of the year, alongside a lot of box office success, is an exciting sign that audiences don’t always need to be offered tired or dangerous tropes when it comes to female representation and sexuality. In fact, we’re ready for many more revolutionary portrayals of the ordinary — even if they’re surrounded in glorious fantasy.