[NOTE: This piece includes spoilers for The Shape of Water and Melissa Broder’s new novel, The Pisces.]
It’s been four months and I’m still horny for the fish from The Shape of Water.
“Why do I only want to have sex with fish and robots now?” I ask the great wide internet.
Bedridden with confused horniness, I’m fresh off a viewing of the Netflix reboot of Lost in Space, a show that features one of the most cut robots I’ve ever seen. I’m still reeling from my thoughts on the fish from The Shape of the Water and Melissa Broder’s novel The Pisces waiting on my bedside table. Is this how straight men feel all the time watching movies? Is this what it feels like to have someone objectified and presented for your consumption? Why are none of the characters being presented to the female gaze in recent months… you know… human?
The answer from the echo chamber is overwhelming: “because cis straight men are trash.”
“Maybe it’s how women can explore relationships with a tabula la rasa to distance themselves from the patriarchy,” one suggested.
“It’s a way to have a love story where the ‘man’ doesn’t talk and the woman gets to be at the center,” said another.
“Straight, white and patriarchal audiences would rather see a story about a woman falling for a literal monster than a story about actual human marginalized people falling for one another,” someone commented.
There’s a niche community for interspecies sex between women and nonhumans, but it’s never been one I’ve felt allegiance to before it entered the mainstream in earnest beginning last year. I don’t feel alone, here—there’s been plenty written on the topic, most praising the trend, but a lot of it left me feeling hollow.
Yes, I am horny for a tight ass. But I am infinitely more horny for respect from a human, and I can only find it in pescasexual characters. Why?
Let’s get into it.
As anyone who has taken even a cursory look at DeviantArt can attest, women lusting after nonhuman Creatures is nothing new. In fact, it’s a narrative as old as narratives—problematic Greek fave Zeus could take the form of nearly anything (eagle, bull, swan, rain) to rape a woman of his choosing, and stories between beauty and othered beast have persisted in literature and cinema from Kong to The Shape of Water fishman. Why have variants of this same story existed for so long? First, we’ve got to take a look at who the male-coded monster is, and what he represents.
Historically, monsters in movies represent cultural anxieties of the day—take the original Kong character being commonly interpreted as racist,every Disney villain ever as queer panic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob and The Thing as a fear of communism in the McCarthy era. While the movie and its makers will rarely outright state what these monsters represent and may not intend it as full allegory in the first place, monsters generally represent something society is “supposed to be” afraid of.
So monsters can represent white America’s anxiety of the moment—how does this affect the female objects of their affection? Oftentimes the coded creature lusts after a woman—usually white—and her empathy or reciprocation of that lust either quickens the creature’s downfall or, if it’s a happily-ever-after joint, transforms him into a more acceptable form. Love is transformative, we are told by these stories, as long as a woman’s very hetero love and unquestioned self-sacrificing nature can ‘fix’ what society perceives as inadequate or othered. In reality, both characters are sacrificing a critical element of themselves—the woman her freedom, the male what made him different from others—in order to have a relationship that society approves.
Then there’s the capture narrative, or love-as-Stockholm-Syndrome. In this story, the Creature or othered male-coded character kidnaps the woman of his desire and re-educates her, breaking down her resistance and resulting in, if not an actual romance, pretty significant emotional labor on her part. Examples include Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, V for Vendetta, King Kong and on and on. The capture narrative first represented a marked change in the evolution of the creature: the resulting empathy of its white female captive indicated that whatever anxieties the creatures represented were just that—anxieties—and required a second look. These texts still suggest that what the Creature represents is still inherently unattractive to the world and manifests as violent shame in the creature—most of them, after all, are wearing masks and hiding—but suggesting that they too are capable of love and could deserve it from a leading lady was a new concept.
Still, such stories leverage the captors’ honest struggle as outsiders into narrative permission to kidnap—and punish—women they are attracted to. They nearly always lose. Kong is killed, the Phantom loses Christine to the conventionally handsome rich guy, V dies, the Beast cannot ‘win’ the love of Beauty until he changes into a cis straight male form.
And their female counterpoints? Their core values remain the same—they are required to suffer the consequences of the Creature’s anxieties by being taken prisoner in the first place, then required to release themselves by “fixing” the Creature. In keeping with the deeply flawed male underdog narrative that’s also prevalent in the “nerd gets the girl by tricking her” narrative popularized in the 1980s, it is the woman’s responsibility to accept the stalking and abuse that happens to her as an offshoot of her captor’s insecurities.
This is where I return to my horny dilemma. I was never attracted to movie Creatures when they were stalking, kidnapping and gaslighting the objects of their desires. So how do these new stories subvert this centuries-long tradition of societally transformative love? Sexual agency, baby! Allowing the leading lady to dictate her own sexuality and preferences without shame seems to me the leading factor that sets the mermen and robotic romantic leads apart from their predecessors.
Not being kidnapped and raped: for today’s modern woman, a very hot and fantastical concept!
Elisa of The Shape of Water and Lucy of The Pisces are not kidnapped and gaslighted into feeling for the Creature of their story. In fact, they pursue them, and they call the shots, sexually, throughout. This is part of what has earned these and other narratives the much-coveted Badge of Progress as it pertains to representing women. Sure, it’s technically progress that a male-coded character isn’t lying and raping a woman into a false precedent for love, but is that the bar we’re setting? (This is a theme The Pisces explores, and reaches conclusions on far more thoughtfully.) These characters’ agency is extended beyond their sex lives, but more often than not the plot makes clear that no matter what choice its female lead makes, the relationship is doomed from the start. Elisa, for instance, must be willing to literally change her species to make it work.
And, dear reader, if you thought you could get through an essay penned in the year 2018 without a mention of the #MeToo movement, sorry. Beginning with the allegations against Harvey Weinstein in late 2017, the national conversation has been calling the treatment of women into question both in the externalized breaking of silence of the rape culture that sustains so many industries, and in the internalized cause for men to examine their own behaviors—where they have belittled, dismissed and harassed women throughout their lives merely because this is the norm, even if no law has been broken.
An overwhelming number of people I spoke with consider this the primary force behind this new surge of monsters. The concept of a male-coded character that listens to and respect the sexual desires and fantasies of their female partner, as story after story reminded the public painfully in the past year, is just that—a fantasy for most.
#MeToo has had a massive cultural impact, and it makes sense that popular culture is trying to reflect this to some extent—particularly because the entertainment industry has gained particular scrutiny as a fundamentally flawed institution that has long enabled abuse and protected abusers. So, okay, sayeth Hollywood—cis straight men are decidedly out. How do we reflect this change on-screen without alienating too many ticket-buyers?
For this cause, the Creature is a creative solution no matter what it’s representing. The box office has clearly indicated that betas don’t sell, if superhero movies continue to reign, and queer and nonwhite narratives. are still largely relegated to Oscar bait—though that’s slowly changing.
Hollywood still hedges its bets by sticking to the white and hetero in terms of casting, and by letting men control the narrative. Though they are touted as sex-positive for women, The Shape of Water and Lost In Space are both written and directed by cis straight men. Both filmmakers wrote these characters with specific, stated symbolism in mind, and Del Toro has said explicitly that his Creature is representative of an nonwhite immigrant narrative.
“I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote, unquote, ‘the other,’” he said on Fresh Air late last year. “As opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face in—every day in the news and politics and so forth.”
To achieve this end, Del Toro uses the characters surrounding the Creature—some female, one queer, some nonwhite, some irreparably toxic, white and male—to function as reminders of why his Creature should be accepted and loved by the audience. It’s not necessarily his objective for his female protagonist to be romantically fulfilled by his Creature, but for the Creature to be seen, empathized with and respected because of what it represents to him. Elisa is able to ask for and receive pleasure, but there are specific terms under which she can keep them—it’s never implied that these desires are sustainable in this world.
This isn’t to say that every monster narrative has to cater to every audience member, but the reaction to Del Toro and Broder’s fishmen, as well as the overwhelming response to the robot in Lost in Space, is telling. There’s a demand for a subversion of the romantic hero that systematically abused the object of their desires through the history of cinema; seeing a story of mutual sexual respect play itself out in fantasy makes it more fun and palatable for female audiences while not prompting too much criticism of masculinity or risk on the part of the under-fire Hollywood system.
At a recent reading of The Pisces in New York, Melissa Broder mentioned limerence, “the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person, typically experienced involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings but not primarily for a sexual relationship.” It’s the feeling associated with being head over heels, and she uses it to describe what her protagonist Lucy feels for the merman she has sex with in The Pisces. One of the main qualities of limerence is that, while deeply felt, it is temporary.
This (spoiler alert) is reflected in the outcome of her protagonist Lucy, who ultimately finds too many of the qualities of human men who have hurt her in her slippery new companion; she decides to work things through in therapy and end the relationship. It’s not the most romantic ending to a story, but it is a more realistic reflection of a modern woman’s predicament than almost anything on-screen.
When the hero gets the girl at the end of the cookie cutter Hollywood hetero romance, they stay together. Why don’t the reimaginings of anxiety-fueled movie monsters reflect this, too?
That’s one of the main qualities that keeps these fishmen and robots so firmly rooted in fantasy—their inability to sustain. With a few exceptions, the interspecies romance is one that every story in recent memory reminds us cannot possibly last. In The Shape of Water, Elisa must pull what I, as an academic, will refer to as a “reverse little mermaid” to sustain her relationship with The Creature. Both characters are shot but he is able to heal them both when they are taken underwater, causing Elisa to sprout a set of gills and live out the remainder of her days underwater.
To some extent, these new stories still abide by the rules of the genre they begin to subvert. The success of the relationship requires significant sacrifice by the female protagonist exclusively; else the Creature dies or otherwise cannot remain. In none of the current texts is the concept of the coded-male-creature’s sacrifice put on the table.
The new popular creature-woman narratives succeed in having the audience examine the anxiety the creature represents. But they still deny the woman full agency. They still deny a representation of these women as anything but white and attractive by Western conventions. The Creature, while more sympathetic and respectful of his temporary partner than ever, does not necessarily challenge the type of man women are tired of seeing capture, rape and gaslight them “in the name of love” to examine themselves in any way. For women, it plays as a fantasy of being respected and the opportunity to be a sexual equal, but this comes at the expense of a traditional happy ending.
At the end of the day, even fantastical interspecies relationships on-screen require the extreme compromise of a woman, even if she is allowed agency in the narrative that has rarely been afforded to her in the past. She is still usually white. She is still usually straight. She is still, by the end of the story, either bodily compromised or alone. The love she shares with the other can be pure, but the main difference is that she has not been captured or gaslighted in order to find this love. The unbalanced self-sacrifice of the creature-woman required to maintain this newly granted agency, usually one granted by a male author, remains the same.
So I want to bang the fish because I want to bang something untethered from the deeply ingrained societal values that have held women back for as long as they have existed? Yes.
So I want to bang the fish because there is still massive anxiety around seeing queer and nonwhite romantic leads at all? Yes.
So I want to bang the fish because there’s still a holdover on seeing a human man give a female lead sexual agency on-screen? Yes.
So I want to bang the fish because I guess I kind of want to? Yeah, I guess so.
In a climate that increasingly demands representation and for popular culture to reflect progressive values, the straight white lady with an anthropomorphic sex-positive boyfriend is a way for Hollywood to have its cake and eat it too. It’s a less unnerving variation on a theme that demands emotional labor, a marginally more inclusive fantasy.
The fantastical, silent fish is here to remind women seeking respect and equity in a relationship with a man is just that: still a fantasy, while the rest of the world catches up.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian, writer and social media victim of the International Olympic Committee. She’s the creator and star of the Comedy Central online original series Irrational Fears. You can find her some of the time, most days at @jamieloftusHELP or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.