Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water, premiered to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival before taking home its most prestigious prize, the Golden Lion. After a similarly glowing response at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festival, the film has become an unlikely front-runner for this year's Oscar race. Not bad for a film that TimeOut described as "an aggressively adorable (and somewhat effortful) version of Amélie in which our hero fucks the Creature From the Black Lagoon."
That whole part about the inter-species sex scene has raised more than a few eyebrows since the film first screened. It’s fair to say that such things aren’t typical in film, or at least movies packaged as mainstream holiday fare to enjoy with your family during the Christmas season. Fox Searchlight aren’t exactly hiding the central romance from their marketing, either, as the trailer shows a kiss between the amphibious specimen (Doug Jones) and mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Some critics have been unnerved by the story, but there are also plenty of women who are incredibly excited to see this romance play out. Critically acclaimed romance films are hard to find in modern cinema, much less so with a genre focus that stretches the boundaries of attraction in such a manner. That's not to say that women are suddenly super attracted to fish-men, but there is a long and fascinating history in culture of depictions of women and the monsters they love.
Historically, this trend can go all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the various forms Zeus took to force himself onto women, as well as the motif of Death and the Maiden as a common feature in Renaissance art, but the most commonly used version of this trope originates in fairy tales. The story of Beauty and the Beast is the obvious forefather for generations of women finding love in the monstrous.
While there are countless variations of the story from French and Italian storytelling, as well as the parallels with Cupid and Psyche from Greek mythology, they are bound together by that striking image of the gorgeous maiden who finds companionship with a monster, whose brutishness melts away to reveal a kind heart. The French story was an allegory for young women in arranged marriages, but through the centuries the story has been retold through film, television, literature, and song to explore more personal and romantic themes. Part of that appeal -- the image of the powerful beast, more animal than man -- is what keeps women coming back to the story. There are countless girls who watched the now-iconic Disney adaptation and felt that twinge of disappointment when the Beast turned out to be nowhere near as attractive as a man.
Beauty and the Beast signifies much of what makes the monstrous so appealing to women -- the brooding hero, the tale of redemption, the gothic romance archetypes of passion -- but the story almost always ends the same: The beast becomes human, and so the happily ever after is reliant on returning to the status quo of partnership. Obviously, that has its own appeal -- there's a reason the bad boy trope is so popular in romance -- but what about when the beast stays a beast? What about when that's the prize and not the puzzle to solve?
Everyone’s probably read a book or seen a movie with a sexy vampire or werewolf, but there are also the times when you find yourself oddly enticed or fascinated by the creatures who don’t have distinctly human forms. Think of Tim Curry in Legend, Ron Perlman in Hellboy, Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler in X-Men 2, even Channing Tatum as the universe’s cutest dog man in Jupiter Ascending. By and large, they're immense in size, tightly muscled and scream "power," but they often have a softer side, one that's been clamped down by a tough past or penchant for darkness they must either fight or embrace. Even in the most horror or science fiction-slanted story, many of these monstrous heroes embody many of the romance tropes that women have favored for decades -- the brooding alpha, the bad boy with secrets, the ultimate display of macho strength (but with a soft center).
It’s rarer to see the monstrous sexuality explored in pop culture where the man is human and the woman is the beast, or at least it’s rare to see the woman be truly non-human. The women in these cases tend to be humanoid, often indistinguishable from human women. How often have you seen a sci-fi film with a sexy female alien who looks entirely human except for some contact lenses or prosthetic ears? It’s ironic that women’s sexual power is often painted as evil or malicious in culture but the idealized sexual form of that for male consumption is still as pretty as they can get it. Any cases involving the opposite – what Anita Sarkeesian calls the “sinister seductress” in her web series Feminist Frequency – is painted more as evil than sexy. The monstrous woman can often be sexualized, but in a manner that evokes distaste, as is the case with one of Sarkeesian’s examples, the Vagary from Doom 3: a creature with the lower half of a giant spider and the upper half of a naked woman. When designing this character, the makers of the game used the equation "sexy + gross = scary,” which says it all.
For women – at least in a very heteronormative manner – the more monstrous elements aren’t necessarily a turn-off or a sign of terror. The beastly male is just an extension of everything we know and interrogate about masculinity. Pop culture by and for women is chock full of men who represent sheer untamed id. Every fear you’ve ever had about the brutishness of the masculine identity, and every attraction you’ve felt to the concept, can be explored in its most literal form. Not only that, but it can be controlled and interrogated in a way where the power belongs to the women. The chances are that the idea of really dating a so-called bad boy fills you with dread or bad memories from more innocent times. It’s an awkward thing to live with, but in the realm of genre fiction, under the boundaries of fantasy as preferred by women, it takes on a more appealing form. It’s power and magnetism with fur, ceaseless passion with added scales. Sometimes the beast can be tamed, and other times he can’t, but both have their obvious allure and, in a genre context, that allots immense freedom for women to dig into why that makes them feel such a way.
Domina Franco, a writer and relationship coach, discussed the ways this particular fantasy can offer freedom to women:
"Transforming men into somewhat unpredictable monsters, somehow removed from reality, might also help distance women from stigma or shame they may have around their sexuality and how that sexuality may be perceived by society. I think as with many other edge behaviours, fantasies or kinks there is an aspect of a release from accountability of one's sexuality and an illicit sense of freedom. If a fantasy is removed from reality or disassociated from your presented identity in society there may be less stigma associated with it. Albeit one may be judged for fantasizing about a monster the point remains that this is something that can not actually be put into practice and could be more difficult to shame. Sex fantasies with a mythical, supernatural entity would certainly have lower stakes versus fantasies of a similar nature with human partners which could actually come to fruition and lead to real life slut shaming."
Romance has been doing this for as long as the genre has existed, but there’s also a deliberately darker strain of erotica with a specific focus on the more literally beastly side of the bad boy. Take a few minutes to do some searching on Amazon and you'll be surprised to discover the selection of romance and erotica novels where human women are seduced by everything from aliens to demons to monsters to even the occasional robot. These books don’t mess around, either – the sex is full-on, the relationships torrid and complex, and the common factor is a clear acceptance of mutual attraction between the central pairs. Reading them is certainly a bracing experience – I’m not sure there is a way to prepare for the graphic description of a lizard man’s penis, as I saw in one such story – but the methods are nothing new. The use of monsters can also blur the lines of gender in fascinating ways, as mentioned by Franco:
"In regards to ungendering monster eroticism things like tentacle porn sort of take away/blur the edges with gender (but do still focus on women as the receivers) -- you do not really know what the gender the "monster" with the tentacles is, sometimes the view is just the tentacles themselves and a viewer doesn't even see the body of the creature in some instances."
For women seeking to use the trope in non-heteronormative ways, the possibilities are also endless. Allison Moon, a sex educator and author of Girl Sex 101 and the Tales of the Pack series, a saga of novels centered on a group of lesbian werewolves, explains:
"I think there’s a powerful metaphor in examining queerness as monstrous. Not that it is violent, but that it is misunderstood, shadowy, or frightening to mainstream society. Western society has long considered queer people as aberrations. Lesbians were often witches in ancient societies— unmarried and spending their time in covens among other wise, unmarried women ... The attraction readers have to erotic stories with monsters is often an erotic inclination to the “other.” We are attracted to the taboo and the mysterious. We are curious about creatures that don’t need the trappings of modern society to survive. They have their own rules, and that is often undeniably sexy. Werewolves, mermaids, vampires … we like the idea of surrendering to the power of the otherworldly. We like the idea of being erotically possessed."
This is what women have always done – use the tools at their disposal to challenge and expand upon new ideas, ones we’re usually told to not bother with.
Saying all of this out loud may seem obvious in hindsight, yet it’s still an area where women are massively judged for even thinking about it. That’s what makes genre fiction so thrilling: It offers the safe space women need to discuss this. Sci-fi lets them imagine brighter futures for our gender or more horrific alternatives or ones free of gender altogether. Romance gives us freedom to control our fantasies in a way society often dismisses or shuns. Even horror lets women tangle with death and pain in a controlled environment. Combine the three and you have one of the most potent ways for women to creatively explore everything that excites and scares us. Those sexy beasts are doing more than just making comments sections uncomfortable: They’re telling us a lot about love, sex, masculinity, and womanhood.