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The Insistent Heteronormativity Of THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s tenth feature-length film is his most lauded since 2004’s Pan’s Labyrinth. It led all Golden Globes nominees with seven nominations (winning Best Director and Original Score), and has likewise garnered a leading thirteen Academy Award nominations. The film has been called a touching fairy tale that bridges the lonely lives of outsiders during

The Insistent Heteronormativity Of THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s tenth feature-length film is his most lauded since 2004’s Pan’s Labyrinth. It led all Golden Globes nominees with seven nominations (winning Best Director and Original Score), and has likewise garnered a leading thirteen Academy Award nominations. The film has been called a touching fairy tale that bridges the lonely lives of outsiders during Cold War-era Baltimore – specifically the lives of a mute cleaning woman, Elisa, and a fish-man who’s kept captive at the top-secret military base where Elisa works.

The film is undoubtedly sweet-natured, and I appreciate del Toro’s attempt to tell stories about the difficult lives of marginalized folk, but as Film Inquiry’s Dave Fontana wrote, it’s a frustrating affair – del Toro thinks he’s swimming in the deep end when really, he’s still splashing around in the kiddie pool.

One Small Scene

In the weeks that have past since seeing The Shape of Water, there’s one particular scene that I haven’t been able to shake. Once Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) and the gill-man (played by Doug Jones) consummate their relationship in her apartment bathroom-cum-makeshift-aquarium, Elisa’s coworker and close friend Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) asks her about the logistics of their love-making, since, ya know, Mr. Fishman doesn’t have a visual dick or phallus of any sort. Elisa responds, through sign language, that he has a compartment that opens during sex to make way for his erection.

The Insistent Heteronormativity Of THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water (2017) – source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s a weird scene, but I suppose it’s a reasonable question to ask – although, at the same time, Zelda seems completely unconcerned with how Elisa is able to have sex underwater for presumably long periods of time. But it’s not a necessary question. The film’s fairy tale spirit requires many leaps in logic as it indulges in countless flourishes of magical realism. Yet, imagining sex between Elisa and the gill-man without the use of a penis is a bridge too far. For a film determined to shine a light on otherness and offer hope that can bring disenfranchised people together, The Shape of Water seems to go out of its way, through the use of this one scene, to instill a framework of heteronormativity.

Straight Sex in a Magical World

Why does the fish-man even have to have a penis? He has powers that allow Elisa to breath underwater, yet he can’t have sex with Elisa without a penis? Wouldn’t it make the film more romantic if the characters were able to find a way to have sex in a manner that didn’t conform to a hetero understanding of intercourse? I mean, I’m not sure any sex between a human and a feral creature who bites heads off cats can really be too romantic, but why constrain the boundaries of the characters’ love-making when you literally could have said nothing about anatomy and made it more profound? If you can trust your audience to understand a flamboyant whimsy that traverses well outside the boundaries of our world, why stop at our most conservative understanding of sexual logistics?

The Insistent Heteronormativity Of THE SHAPE OF WATER

source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’ve heard it posited that this one scene, where Elisa describes her bestial beau’s anatomy, might be a reaction to test screenings. Perhaps – after all it does feel oddly dropped into the film as a non-sequitur. Either way, the film is clearly there to contextualize for the audience just how sex works between the sea creature and our ingenue. The scene’s existence is bothersome, and its annoyance is amplified by the film around it. Elisa’s close friend Giles (played by Richard Jenkins) is a gay man struggling with society’s discomfort with his identity. Del Toro has such sympathy for Giles, yet his film seems uncomfortable foregrounding a sexual relationship without explicitly assuring us that Elisa and the gill-man are fucking like two good straight folk.

Did this scene bother you too? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Midwesterner, movie lover, cinnamon enthusiast.

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