The Shape of Prejudice


I saw Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water in February, before it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Elizabeth and I both loved it and couldn’t stop telling all our friends about it.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a sci-fi drama set during the Cold War. A woman named Elisa, who’s mute from a childhood injury, works as a janitor at a secret government research facility. There she learns that the military has captured an intelligent amphibious humanoid from somewhere in South America and is subjecting him to cruel experiments that are little more than torture.

Elisa is assigned to clean the lab where the creature lives in a tank, and the two of them form an unlikely bond of sympathy. When she finds out about a plan to vivisect him, she decides to help him escape. While she’s trying to keep him hidden until she can get him to the sea, the two of them fall in love. And yes, there’s a sex scene. (If you’re wondering about the anatomical plausibility of sex between a human and a fish-creature, let’s just say the movie addresses that.)

Described in these black-and-white terms, it sounds like a schlocky sci-fi fantasy with gratuitous titillation. In fact, it’s a powerful parable about love and prejudice, one whose message transcends its admittedly bizarre plot. Through the characters of Elisa herself, her best friend and coworker Zelda, a black woman, and her housemate Giles, a closeted gay man, we see the ways in which love endures oppression in a society where white male heterosexuality reigns supreme and seeks to crush all difference from the norm. The movie is like a prism, refracting the moral into different images through the lenses of gender, race, sexuality and disability.

In some quarters of the religious right, that message has been heard loud and clear, and it’s inspiring violent revulsion. Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher describes the movie as the “triumph of the freaks“:

If there is no intrinsic meaning in matter — including in the human species — then individuals have the power to follow their desires wherever they lead. Including into bed with a swamp monster. This is liberation, because it overturns the power of the repressive white male Christian normies. You, too, viewer, might find that your innermost repressed desires, which white male Christian conservative society considers to be monstrous, can be activated and revealed to be something life-giving, if only you will open yourself up to a sexual relationship with a so-called monster.

Wait a minute. Why is it the case that we can only follow our own desires if there’s “no intrinsic meaning” in life? Why not accept the intrinsic moral of the movie itself, which is that love shouldn’t be limited by irrational and arbitrary prejudice, and that kindred souls can recognize each other even when society teaches that their relationship is taboo?

Conservative Christian apologists like Dreher just can’t give up the false dichotomy that it’s either their specific, rigidly proscribed set of gender and sexual roles, or else anything-goes nihilism. This fallacy is so habitual for them that I’m not sure if they even realize they’re doing it.

As many people have pointed out, The Shape of Water has the same basic moral as Beauty and the Beast: what makes you a “monster” isn’t your outward appearance, but what’s in your heart. That’s hardly a brand-new or disturbingly revolutionary idea! It’s just that del Toro’s version lacks the kid-friendly (and uptight-Christian-friendly) fairytale ending where a pure woman’s love magically reveals the “monstrous” character to have been a handsome human all along. (For more analysis of this trope, I recommend Lindsay Ellis’ video My Monster Boyfriend.)

Back to Dreher:

Listen to me, conservative Christian readers:

• there are no politicians on earth capable of turning this tide of decadence; the power of culture is far too strong;
• you cannot expect your children to be salt and light to a culture that gives its highest honor to a movie celebrating bestiality as an act of liberation, and a “love letter to love”;
• soon, people who believe the things you do will be regarded as perverted and dangerous to the common good; are you ready for that?

First, because it has to be said from now till the end of time: When the nominally conservative party in America threw its support behind a shamelessly greedy, narcissistic tycoon who brags about sexually assaulting women, they forever surrendered any claim to care about “decadence”. There’s not enough perfume in the world to disguise the reek of that manure pile.

Second: A woman having sex with a fish-man on screen signals the end of Christianity in America and a coming era of anti-religious persecution? Really, that’s all it takes? The only thing Dreher is missing to complete this portrait of privileged-white-guy paranoia is to express his fear of verbal jackboots.

Just so we’re clear on this, The Shape of Water doesn’t depict “bestiality”. That term refers to humans having sex with animals, and the Asset (the movie’s only name for the creature) isn’t an animal. He’s not human, but he’s self-aware, intelligent, able to communicate, and he has a moral sense. This is like saying that Mr. Spock is the product of bestiality because one of his parents is human and one is Vulcan.

Ironically, Dreher missing this point is symbolic of everything the movie wants to say about prejudice and hatred of the Other. He’s advocating the same viewpoint as the film’s villains, the military officials who can’t conceive of love or sentience in any shape other than the ones they’re familiar with. Their disgust and violence toward the creature echoes every bigot through the ages who reviled immigrants and foreigners, who stereotyped indigenous people as savages, who confined women to the home, who sought to ban interracial relationships as against nature, or who treated LGBT people as freaks or mentally ill.

What’s more, it’s an inversion of the classic Beauty and the Beast story, in that the love of the woman doesn’t change the beast, but the love of the beast changes the woman. “Revaluation of all values!” (to quote Nietzsche’s command).

I’m all in favor of reevaluating all values, and here’s why: unlike Dreher, I believe the good ones will survive the process. The only values that will be discarded are the ones that weren’t worth keeping in the first place.

Again, this is an extremely common trope among Christian apologists. Dreher believes that all moral values are mystical dogmas, none better or worse than any other. Thus, if we start throwing out any of them, there’s no way of telling how far it will go or when it will stop. We might end up living under some nightmarish, randomly-thrown-together moral system (human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!).

That vision is true nihilism. But I’m not so pessimistic. I believe that good moral principles are good for reasons, and that those reasons will be apparent under scrutiny. I believe that the truth has nothing to fear from critical reexamination, and that this holds in the moral domain as well as in the factual. I’d go so far as to argue that both moral and factual beliefs should be regularly reexamined, in case there are old errors lurking that we missed before.

That’s why I spend so much time writing about racism and sexism, as well as religious oppression. These prejudices are often found together because they spring from the same root: fear of the outsider, irrational tribal loyalty, and the assumption that our own culture is the only way to live. Any message that questions these assumptions, even in the most outlandish symbolic form, will strike the gatekeepers of orthodoxy as a grave threat.

Image credit: Susanne Nilsson, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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