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Space the Nation: Something fishy about sex

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Mar 13, 2018, 2:01 PM EDT

The headlines: 
The fish-monster sex movie was a disappointingly safe choice for Best Picture
Let the sex toy makers inspired by The Shape of Water explain themselves
The Shape of Water proved there are only so many ways to write human/fish love stories

The trope: Guillermo del Toro created a thoughtful and surprising meditation on marginal identities and the subversive nature of love, but that’s not what most people think about when they consider The Shape of Water. They think about fish-f*cking, a specific variation of a genre tradition as old as myth: The Interspecies Romance.

Within this trope is a literal embarrassment of material, as a large subset of its stories also relate to the internet’s “Rule 34” (“If it exists, there is porn of it”). But in homage to del Toro, and because I don’t want to have to clear my browser cache, we’ll focus narratives that are philosophical rather than pornographic. Or, at least, philosophical as well as pornographic. (We already made start on this project here.)

Where you can find it: People who find del Toro’s amorous aquarian shocking or indicative of cultural decay (looking at you, American Conservative!) must have slept through their ancient history classes. Animal-human affairs are a major theme in Greek and Roman myths, often telling the story of a god who takes the form of an animal in order to seduce a woman. There are mermaids, centaurs and minotaurs, Leda and the swan, and Pan, who would screw anything that moved. Several native North American cultures have stories about men and women who fall in love with beings who are also animals in some form. Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the underworld and the sea, is variously said to have married a sea bird or a dog. Korean, Chinese, and Japanese folklore all feature female fox-creatures who seduce human men (or take the place of their brides). The Irish have an usually populous grouping of imaginary creatures bent on getting it on with humans: selkies (seal-things), kelpies (“water horses”), and the humanoid gancanaugh, whose skin secretes an addictive chemical that enthralls his conquests (once you’ve had gancanaugh, you can’t get enough?). 

Basically, if your desires lead you outside your species — well, you’re only human.

That said, conservatives are probably right to read the more modern versions of this trope as attempts to reckon with contemporary restrictions on what kind of relationships are “allowed” and, indeed, who is allowed to be human. Genre stories about interspecies intercourse (or even chaste flirtations) are rarely subtle in their symbolism, though they can be unselfaware. For instance, Captain Kirk’s one-man mission to bed every galactic beauty flowed somewhat naturally from Star Trek’s general ethos of groovy diversity, but the casting was pure eye candy and an excuse to flash as much alien underboob as censors would allow. Ironically, it’s probably Kirk’s futuristic friskyness — it established him as someone with otherworldly desires — that enabled the show’s truly historic moment: American television’s first interracial kiss.

The later Star Trek series are more deliberate and sophisticated about the gender and ethnic metaphors in interspecies romance—and there’s a lot more of it. (All the better to slash with, I suppose.) Those series looked at your basic human/alien pairs and then pushed beyond. The Trills’ ability to transfer consciousness to another body, and their lack of concern about keeping gender consistent, gave both Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation storylines about gender identity and gender fluidity. 

But even then, the Star Trek universe — and most popular science fiction — tends to err on the familiar side of odd couples; the romantic pairings may raise questions about gender or identity, but usually stop short of exploring intermingling with species whose bodies or notions of reproduction are truly different from ours. I’d categorize multiple sets of breasts as comical wish fulfillment, not actual boundary-pushing. Mork getting pregnant with an egg, however, is more radical than primetime usually gets credit for.

The Shape of Water’s willingness to push what you could call “the ick factor” means it has more common with the intellectual experiments of Ursula K. LeGuin and Octavia Butler than your typical space opera — though give credit where credit's due to Galaxy Quest’s acknowledgement that there is tentacle love as well as tentacle porn.

LeGuin’s Gethenians are still humanoid, yes, but they’re complete untethered to gender—the “equipment” isn’t just changeable, it’s completely beside the point. Imagine trying to explain a “bathroom bill” to them. The Oankali in Butler’s books happen to be tentacled, but their physical strangeness — and the repulsion the protagonist Lilith initially feels — is a proxy for cultural invasion and bodily colonization. Butler’s books are as much about the entire African diaspora as they are about the relatively narrow experience of who one happens to love.

Only you: Yet the strangest thing to me about sex with strange things is that genre creators have put so much energy into imagining uncanny aliens when there are still so many Earthlings who can’t imagine anything beyond heteronormativity. Yes, we’ve come a long way in accepting differences among us, but this tolerance might be more delicate than we want to believe. Social conservatives are hacking away at the laws that force them to treat LGBTQ people as equals. The Trump administration wants to undo the gains made by trans people in the military, telegraphing their belief that trans people don’t deserve any gains at all. And a part of me wonders if it’s a bad sign that the Academy rewarded a fantasy movie about interspecies sex that has a happy ending over Get Out, whose ending is okay, but whose message about interracial relations is unrelentingly brutal.

The appeal of genre fiction is to think in terms of centuries and not decades, to entertain ideas that are unthinkable in the here and now. Certainly, it boggles the mind that LeGuin was asking questions about the nature of gender in 1969, five years before women could legally apply for their own credit cards. But sometimes the grand scope of science fiction only reminds me of how short our history really is, how fragile is the intellectual scaffolding that supports our reach beyond beyond the stars. 

Perhaps that’s rather sad place to end things, and weird way to end a column that started with joking about fish sex. But that’s the lasting gift of Del Toro’s movie, and of all the weird pairings we’ve skimmed through: the point isn’t to understand more about aliens, but to understand more about ourselves.

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