Queer as Fish

Love and Monstrous Bodies in ‘The Shape of Water’

“If I spoke about it, if I did, what would I tell you?… Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you about the truth of these facts and the tale of love and loss, and the monster who tried to destroy it all.”

The queer is evocative: non-normal, weird, Other, the body or love that dares not speak its name. Queer embraces more than sex and gender. Queering is, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says, “at its heart a process of wonder”: it is resistance, the alternative experiences of marginalised identities and rejected bodies.¹ The monstrous body, too, holds many ideas and identities. With his deep understanding of the meanings, the very essence of monsters, Guillermo del Toro speaks through that language of cryptid-cryptology to challenge the limits of ‘human’. Queer transforms, questioning whether our categories are enough to grasp the potential of what every being can truly be.

Queer is finding that we could breathe underwater all along.

Black and white figures shimmer across the screen. A woman in a white bathing suit strokes along the surface of a lagoon, while below her the monster swims in tandem, his face fixed toward her silhouette. The shape of water between them holds a tension, an unfulfilled potential and desire. He follows, reaches, but she evades.

They recur later, in sketchbooks and fantasies: eating ice cream, sitting down to dinner, riding a bicycle built for two. Lovers, sweet and familiar.

On a different screen, a woman sits at the edge of an indoor tank. As a webbed hand reaches to take a boiled egg, she smiles and bites her sandwich. Music plays from a portable turntable, filling the air between. She teaches him to speak with hands, as she does. Their fingers entwine.

All these images are of a woman and the monster who desires her, and all are, undeniably, queer.

The first is an iconic scene from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), directed by Jack Arnold. The third is from del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017), a filmic response to that earlier story. Between, for those intervening years, a weird romance kept alive in the imagination of the young del Toro, who felt ardently that monsters should be loved.²

Del Toro’s film has received wide critical attention, picking up multiple festival and Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Responses range from the effusive praise of Mark Kermode to Rex Reed’s infamously bad, bad review in the Observer. Even in positive reviews, there can be a struggle to justify why a monster romance feels so deeply important.

Now that the initial flurry of commercial interest and hot takes is fading, and in resistance to commentators like Kyle Buchanan of Vulture, that this “whiz-bang fish-bang fantasy” is “not destined to spawn as many think pieces”, it is time we considered where, culturally, this monster is going to live. By inhabiting the world of fairy stories and giving voice to queer, disabled and non-white narratives and identities through the language of monsters, this film has become a vital and deeply moving contribution to our cultural conversation. Drawing from the past to look towards our uncertain, potentially wonderful, future, Shape has an important place in our discourse on humanity and ‘posthuman’ possibilities.

Filmed in the magical city of Toronto (shapeshifter, hybrid every-place, city of a thousand film and television identities), Shape is a different kind of monster movie. The story follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in a government research facility in 1960s Baltimore, who falls in love with a strange creature, the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). With her friends, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a facility scientist/Russian spy Dr Robert Hoffstetler/Dimitri Mosenkov (Michael Stuhlbarg), she orchestrates its liberation from the clutches of the American government and Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who then pursues them furiously.

In Shape, del Toro fulfilled the promise that lay between the two swimmers across that silver screen. He has brought the bodies together, hybrid and woman. The beast with two backs. In reclaiming the monster, through a Beauty who cannot speak and a Beast who is never transformed, del Toro offers a celebration of wonderful strangeness: queer love and disabled bodies, those states of being or desire often marginalised as aberrations or as unlovable tragedies. There has always been queerness in the desire of a fish-man for a human woman. As a child del Toro did not see this as an unthinkable love:

“The creature was the most beautiful design I’d ever seen… and I saw him swimming under [actress] Julie Adams, and I loved that the creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together.”³

Del Toro’s “fairy tale for troubled times” reveals not only how we may, wonderfully, make love to a mermaid, but what it means to desire that body, give it a home, derive joy from difference. He shows us how monsters may be loved.

Fairy tales have a great deal in common with horror, as del Toro has observed.⁴ They use the fantastic to explore fears, usually reaffirming boundaries of what is safe or ‘normal’: borders policed by danger, pain or unnatural beasts, stories tied up with an exemplary or cautionary moral bow. They often carry something of the grotesque or disquieting, and represent disablement more than other fiction genres, usually as a mental or bodily ‘wrongness’ or curse.⁵ Del Toro’s creature, drawn from the dark river of horror to new possibilities of fairy tale, is given license to explore.

“The beauty of monsters,” del Toro has observed, “is by their mere existence, without being provocative, they exist as a living difference, the living other.” An exceptional body critiques categories by its very presence. These creatures ask us why they exist, to which del Toro replies, “because we need them.”⁶ Monsters consume del Toro, wonderfully, and he understands their bodies as prisms through which we contemplate the human and sublime.

The travelling exhibit At Home with Monsters showcased del Toro’s personal collection of models, marvels and monstrous oddities that normally reside in his adjoining properties of ‘Bleak House’, near his home in LA. It included concept art for his creations, as well as collected filmic and mythical beasts. The title, At Home, suggests del Toro’s exceptional relationship with monstrosity. Like Elisa, he invites the monster in, loves it and makes it a part of his world: “Monsters are, to this day, true family to me”.⁷ The monster is inside the house, and it is most welcome.

‘Monsters and Such’

In 1954, an article with that title appeared in the New York Times, carrying the subtitle ‘Standard Menaces, Including Females, Turn Up in Three New Films.’⁸ The piece comprised a review of Black Lagoon, Flame and the Flesh and River of No Return. Bosley Crowther compared the “queer, piscatorial” beast of the Amazon with the female leads of the other two motion pictures, declaring all to be “familiar and calculated threats to honest men.” The female characters are “symbols of menace” with “monster-like powers”, disrupting the influence of male order and sharing the same monstrous soul as creatures of the horror film pantheon.

This shows the many things a monster can be. You have your standard creature/beast/aberration of the hybrid Gill-Man in Black Lagoon. Then there is the use of ‘monster’ to reinforce boundaries and systems of power, marginalising people like Elisa (disabled, woman), Giles (queer) and Zelda (non-white). Even Robert, secretly Dimitri the Russian spy, is a monstrous figure in Cold War America: the hidden communist, eroding American stability like the burrowing ants of Them! (1954). Many monsters are the result of this impulse: the abject horrors of H.P. Lovecraft can be linked to fears of non-white groups, women and miscegenation. In the story ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, the ‘queer’ look of the insular townspeople, initially coded as inbreeding, is actually the result of outbreeding: hybrids from unnatural sexual congress between humans and fish-people.

The true beast, for del Toro, is the human, social monster, that which excludes, denies or violates the humanity of others, “the rules that we live by but that I find horrible to embrace.”⁹ This monster begets monsters, as Crowther and Lovecraft do, to enforce the limits of normalcy. In Shape, Strickland is this beast incarnate, even as he suffers its effects. Normally, he would be the hero of this film, man against monster. As del Toro has flipped the heroes and villains, however, Strickland becomes an emblematic horror of a society that marginalises those identities which this film seeks to uplift: the ‘monstrous’ disabled, queer and racially Other. Strickland’s violent adherence to such ideals causes anxiety and self-destruction. After his fingers are torn off and reattached early in the film, he attempts to resume normal life, but experiences a gradual state of psychological and physical decay as he resists the possibility of an un-whole, disabled body. In Strickland’s world, where disability is abject horror, his physical disarticulation and professional failure create a trauma of ‘uselessness’. At the climax, he tears his fingers off. They are a black, stinking mess of pus and decayed flesh; the social monster has rotted him from within. A society that makes monsters by degradation and exclusion is one that sickens and fails.

David Edelstein wrongly points to a gloss of ‘nostalgia’ as a reason for Shape’s Oscar success. The film has an ambivalent relationship to its period setting, between fairy tale whimsy and social horror. Society is a heightened Cold War version of our present tensions, in a state of decay and fear. Set not too long after Black Lagoon, Shape responds to that traditional monster-making, and the horror that del Toro perceives in a society that demands normativity. We sense a wistful longing in Giles’ narration from that opening scene, the monster who “tried to destroy it all”.

If only it had succeeded.

Behold, the beast!

We know the monster when we see it: this body exists to be seen, producing reactions by strange familiarity or unsettling composition. Del Toro has a sophisticated eye for the grotesque. He is one of those that Crowther observes has “been so careless as to see every monster picture made”. He is fluent in monstrosity, intuiting how to twist it into new, challenging shapes. The Amphibian Man is reaffirmed throughout the film as not being human, through act, body and the language defining it: monster, creature, asset, affront, wild, mermaid and god. It is aligned with social outcasts, a resistance to the categorical limitations of ‘human’ and its relation to the divine. It is a monster that shows us who we are.

Such hybrids challenge us, their bodies made of disparate pieces, where things that should be neatly divided are instead combined.¹⁰ The design began with the Gill-Man of the Black Lagoon: webbed hands, scales, gills, two sets of lungs. Patterns of cobalt and copper shimmer across the Amphibian Man’s skin, highlighted by flashes of deep-sea bioluminescence. In spite of fishy features, its plump, pre-Raphaelite lips and high cheekbones make this monster a far cry from Lovecraft’s ‘Innsmouth look’. Del Toro’s instructions for Mike Hill, co-creature-creator, were for a “leading man”, with the muscularity and grace of a Toreador, and, to quote Doug Jones, “an ass that would kill”. Upon seeing the Amphibian Man, Giles is astounded by its unconventional and challenging beauty. As a commercial artist, Giles painstakingly creates and recreates the unnatural joy of the Jell-o family, selling products as gateways to an ecstatic normalcy from which he, an aging gay man, is excluded. Contemplation of the monster provokes wonder, its liberating beauty making us consider the multitudes we contain, and whether we would want to maintain boundaries that make such splendid things impossible.

The body of the Amphibian Man comprises a patchwork of ‘outsider’ identities long associated with the monstrous: disabled, culturally ‘other’, queer. Within our construction of ‘human’, we have categories of partial or incomplete humanity, those whose lives, and deaths, are less worthwhile. A vital part of the film’s romance is the Amphibian Man’s separation from social assumptions about Elisa’s worth: “When he looks at me… he does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete.” Del Toro asks that we also extract ourselves from these ideas and look through a monster’s eyes, perceiving the wholeness of those we see as incomplete.

“You don’t think that’s what God looks like, do you?” As we are “created in the Lord’s image”, implicit in Strickland’s question is the idea that what does not ‘look like’ a particular Christian God-form is sub-human. Questions of the human and monstrous divine are interrelated ideas in Shape, and remain deeply important to del Toro, from his first encounter with Frankenstein (1931) (“like Paul on the road to Damascus I was struck… I said ‘This is the guy that is going to give his life for my sins… This is the Messiah that has been promised.’”¹¹) to the “temple” of monsters in Bleak House, wherein he has laid “devotional shrines”.¹²

The Amphibian Man was a god in the Amazon. A healing touch, rising from and raising the dead, transforming a body: these abilities are unquestionably divine. But it is too immanent, too wild to be our acceptable divinity: there, crouched on the floor of Giles’ apartment, limp feline in hand, wide eyes and bloody mouth like Francesco Goya’s Saturn consuming his child. Through Giles, (“Is he a god? I don’t know… He ate a cat.”) Shape is possibly the first film to ask whether eating a cat precludes one from godhood.

To twist Strickland’s question, if that is what god looks like, we are forced to ask ‘what are we?’ A challenge to the idea of god challenges the human category, opening us to new ways of considering and accepting difference. Monsters, for del Toro, make the best gods, because they provoke thought and humility.¹³

The Amphibian Man marvellously resists taxonomy: it is unlike any creature encountered, a scientific curiosity that is never explained even at the film’s end. Historically long subject to experimentation, sterilisation and institutional captivity, disabled bodies share with the Amphibian Man that experience of being dehumanised by the scientific gaze. Being marked, like monsters, as abject and less-than-completely human, disability is, as Julia Kristeva says, the “most formidable of exclusions”.¹⁴ That we can read the monster as disabled as well as queer is signalled by Elisa’s own identification: “I move my mouth like him, I make no sound like him.”

When it does make sounds, they are not the intelligible ones we demand: as Strickland cattle-prods the creature into a wailing, bleeding mess, he taunts “There you go again, making that god-awful sound. Is that you crying?” Even if Strickland understands the meaning, its inability to form words make it worthy of contempt. This unintelligibility of language also shows the Amphibian Man’s cultural Otherness, which is never fully lost even as it learns about music, television and the proper use of cats (i.e. not lunch). A filmic child of a Mexican auteur, this Toreador-bodied figure from the Amazon gestures towards the Americas and its place in Western colonial narratives as a home of monsters, both cryptid and cultural. Unlike traditional monster-making, gesturing towards ethnicity to degrade it, del Toro reclaims this feature to bestow identity: this is a monster with culture.

This is also a monster with sexuality. Monsters often have problematic gender: too many, too few or too aggressive. To the idea of mermaid sex, we may at first react like Zelda: “Why? How? How? Does he have a…?” Smiling, Elisa describes, through gesture, her lover’s hidden parts: hands together, she parts them slightly, like labia, lowering her finger to point outward. While the internet has reacted as expected, producing a fish-dildo (to the upset of Jones), the suggestion of Elisa’s motions is more complex: ambiguous genitalia where the supposed binaries of male/female become impossible. A vibrant dildo alone cannot demystify the sexuality of monsters.

In every Beauty and the Beast story where the monster is transformed, there exists a moment of queerness, a point at which a human woman loves a monster without expectation of it gaining human form. In Shape, del Toro prolongs that moment. Elisa responds with wonder and awe, and the act of desiring the creature takes this romance out of heteronormativity and into the queer territory of sexual ambiguity. Where monstrosity and queerness converge, we also see similar ideas to those around sexuality and disability. That body is not considered sexual, that touch is not erotic: for the able-bodied, they exist as warnings, metaphors or tragedy. From the beginning of Shape, however, where Elisa enthusiastically masturbates in the bathtub as part of her morning routine, the disabled body is allowed sexual agency, beauty and the capacity to be desired.

While some have expressed curiosity about the mechanics of these encounters, others have asked how we could permit this desire, how we could think it delightful rather than grotesque. Edelstein is squeamish about the “soft-core fish porn”. Even Crowther saw the desire of the Gill-Man as a threat to heteronormativity in a “competition between man and beast”. For him, it remained safely impossible: “What with reason and the screen’s Production Code, it hasn’t happened — and it’s not very likely — that the monster ever marries the girl.” Significantly, Shape’s is not a monster-sex that illustrates primal or shameful urges, like the tentacled sex-beast of Amat Escalante’s The ­­Untamed (2016). This is a monster that offers alternative, liberating spaces for desire, where we transgress norms in exchange for the wondrous.

Shape explores a joy of embodiment and fleshly experience, whatever that flesh may be. The monster is not a projection of anxieties, but a harbinger of curious, queer, inclusive love. From the first sexual encounter, when afterwards water follows Elisa’s finger on a rainy bus window, to the final moment when, at a touch from her lover’s hand, gills open from the scars on her neck, it is a journey of miraculous transcendence and culmination of bodily potential. It is Beauty and the Beast, but where the transformation means something different. That “corrosive and yucky” aspect of the original fairy tale, the monster neutralised into a handsome man, is gone. Monsters carry a threat of contagion, a risk that we might become monstrous by influence or proximity.¹⁵ For del Toro, however, to be made monstrous is marvellous.

The Monster Always Escapes

Monsters persist, they recur and find us again.¹⁶

There were other endings for Gill-Man. Two sequels were made to Black Lagoon: Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). In Revenge, the monster is captured and displaced to Florida, eventually escaping in a rampage. In the third film, the creature is badly burned while being recaptured, shedding its scales, gills and aqua-lungs. The creature is dis-abled, and sorrowfully struggles to learn to be ‘human’. Ultimately, this is impossible: the monster can never be assimilated. In Shape, del Toro gives his long-beloved monster the happy ending it never had. The Amphibian Man and Elisa evade capture. The Beast is not transformed or subsumed into the dominant social order. It exists blissfully apart, loving and beloved. Deviant and splendid, voiceless and radiant, the monster and its princess.

The beast is, as Giles says, “not even human”, but the film shows there are many people also denied the fullness of that dignity and identity. Shape questions whether ‘human’ is a meaningful category at all if it excludes so many who are not considered ‘enough’. This is why Shape will endure beyond PR and Oscar charm-offensives. Through del Toro’s love story, we are offered a glimpse of utopian potential, if we could tear down the world with our strange limbs, our ‘crippled’ hands: a world where identifying as or loving monsters, aberrant or fractured bodies, is possible.

Del Toro has said that he lives with brokenness: the anxieties of incompleteness, of psychological or physical difference. As with the Amphibian Man, there is no ultimate goal of transformation.

“There is a Japanese aesthetic and philosophical belief called kintsugi, which is broken pottery that you put back together with gold. You don’t want to be repaired; you just want to be aware that there is gold in your fractures.”¹⁷

This is why Shape feels important, even if we cannot articulate why the love of a fishperson and a voiceless woman resonates. We are fragmented, we lack or we are incomplete. We are imperfect humans, monsters made of parts.

But our fragments are held together with gold, and in this we are whole. We are all the more beautiful for in these lines we trace our idiosyncrasies.

We are not normal: but in our abnormality, we are resplendent.

  1. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) 28.

2. Borys Kit, ‘Making the Shape of Water’, The Hollywood Reporter, November 1 2017.

3. Stephen Galloway, ‘Guillermo del Toro can’t escape his nightmares’, The Hollywood Reporter, 1 November 2017.

4. Guillermo del Toro, ‘Why kids are key to gothic horror’, The Times, 9 November 2013.

5. Melinda Hall, ‘Horrible Heroes: Liberating Alternative Visions of Disability in Horror’, Disability Studies Quarterly, (Vol. 36, №1: 2016).

6. Neal Conan, Interview: ‘Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Eternal’ Monster Obsession’, Talk of the Nation, NPR, October 24, 2011.

7. Quoted in Terence Rafferty, ‘The Master of Highbrow Horror’, The Atlantic Monthly, (Boston),Vol. 318, №4: November 2016.

8. Bosley Crowther, ‘Monsters and Such’, New York Times, May 9, 1954.

9. Conan, ‘Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Eternal’ Monster Obsession’.

10. Cohen, ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses)’ in Monster Theory.

11. Galloway, ‘Guillermo del Toro can’t escape his nightmares’.

12. Quoted in Rafferty, ‘The Master of Highbrow Horror’.

13. Conan, ‘Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Eternal’ Monster Obsession’.

14. J. Kristeva and J. Vanier, Leur regard perce nos ombres, (Paris: Fayard, 2011) 12.

15. Cohen, ‘Monster Culture’, 12.

16. Cohen, ‘Monster Culture’, 4–5.

17. Galloway, ‘Guillermo del Toro can’t escape his nightmares’.