From the Dean: Can a Person Fall in Love with a Fish?

March 26, 2018

Sometimes an artist captures the spirit of a time in such a unique way that the object of the art form sticks with you long after you have viewed it. For many people, such is the case with a rather bizarre movie, The Shape of Water, which received 13 Academy Award nominations and won four this year, including best picture. Only three films in history have received 14 nominations, putting this quirky fantasy movie in a rather elite place.

If you have not seen it, The Shape of Water is the story of a woman, Eliza Esposito, who works on the cleaning crew in a top-secret American science lab and falls in love with an amphibian-humanoid captured in the jungle of the Amazon and brought to the lab for research. The goal of the research which is occurring during the Cold War is to weaponize the creature’s abilities to breathe both in and out of the water but slips into various forms of torture. In the midst of this dramatic background, Eliza is living a lonely single life, her only friends an artistic, equally lonely older man struggling with his sexuality, Giles, and a saucy African-American co-worker, Zelda, who is trapped in a dysfunctional marriage. There is plenty to explore artistically in a movie about the McCarthy era relationships between a Latina and a black woman and an older gay man. But, this story is ultimately a fable about a woman falling in love with the ultimate “other” – another species. Witnessing his torture and “de-humanizing” treatment, Eliza makes a compassionate connection with the “Amphibian Man” through music and hardboiled eggs, which blossoms into romantic love. During the year of #MeToo movement, and #TimesUp, when the world is learning about demeaning experiences women have endured for decades at the hands of powerful men, the host of the Oscar’s, Jimmy Kimmel, quipped: "We will remember this year as the year men screwed up so badly, women started dating fish."

CreatureFromBlackLagoonThe Shape of Water is a remake of a famous 1954 film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In the older film, a scientific team in the Amazon goes looking for an evolutionary link between fish and humans. The creature, Gill-man, kills lots of people and ends up riddled with bullets, his dead body sinking to the bottom of the lagoon. Black Lagoon is a story about evolution and the power of human ingenuity and pluck to overcome a more primitive creature. The film was released during the Cold War when nations were portraying their enemies as driven by barbaric and sub-human instincts. It was a film for its time. So is The Shape of Water.

The director of the newer film, Guillermo del Toro, uses Latin American magic realism to flip the narrative of the movie from the mid-1950s and make it a story of human prejudice. His characters, including the creature, juxtapose the virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, and sensitivity, with the vices of indifference, cruelty, arrogance, and hard-heartedness. The movie also reflects on the power of friendship and love to embolden the meek and fearful to take risks and to discover a deeper strength for facing the mean-spirited and chaotic world around them.

If we get depressed about the state of our society, perhaps we can take comfort in realizing that the human race has learned more about its prejudices over the past 50 years, and has deepened our awareness of the human capacity for love and its power to override the hard-wired divisiveness in our instincts. The art forms of the 1950s, especially film, which tended to support cultural prejudices and stereotypes, are also more likely to challenge those biases. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the story of unprepared humans defeating a sub-human enemy; The Shape of Water demonstrates the flawed intellectual concept of “sub-human,” and how it blinds us to our inherent connection with each other and all creation.

There is also a love story in The Shape of Water, reflecting the growing belief in the power of love – especially romantic love – to transcend all kinds of human difference. Since 1967, the year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Loving v. Virginia, interracial marriage has increased from 3% of all weddings to 17% in 2015.

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Naomi Riley’s book, Till Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America explores how U.S. marriage is changing as 45% of the nuptials are between people from different faith traditions. Riley’s book is one of a dozen books exploring the religious divides in our households. And, popular culture, even in television shows like Modern Family and Trophy Wife, mirror an increased fascination with cross-generational or May-December relationships.

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The classic example of this has been the apparent happy, fulfilling marriage of Charlie Chaplain, at 53, and Oona O’Neill, who said “I do” at 18, despite the 35-year age divide. One of the world’s great power couples right now is France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, 39, who is 25 years younger than his wife Brigette, 64, the same age spread in reverse of Donald and Melania Trump.

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But, The Shape of Water is far more than a love story about differences among partners. It is ultimately about the human tendency to sub-humanize others. In his book, less than human: why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others, David Livingstone Smith defines dehumanization as “the belief that some beings only appear human, but beneath the surface, where it really counts, they aren’t human at all.” Smith, the director of the Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology at the University of New England, has been interested in the process of dehumanization, but also “what’s left” if you dehumanize someone.

As a cognitive scientist, Smith wants to understand how humans can “overcome the very deep and natural inhibitions they have against treating other people like game animals or vermin or dangerous predators.” Throughout history we have created ideas, thought processes, ritual practices, and institutional structures to aid the systematic dehumanization of all kinds of “others” In 19th century America, Thomas Nash drew political cartoons of Irish immigrants as monkeys. During the Holocaust, the Nazis referred to Jews as Untermenschen, or subhumans, and called them rats, and throughout the Rwanda civil war, the Hutus compared the Tutsis to snakes and cockroaches.

The amphibian man, in The Shape of Water, transposes Smith’s research interest into a different key. The people in the film who wallow in the suspicions, hatred, and dehumanizations of the Cold War may look like humans, but they operate at a sub-human level. The fish-man, on the other hand, does not look like a human on the surface but demonstrates human tendencies underneath: gentleness, kindness, compassion, loyalty, protectiveness of others, and love. The film symbolically captures the truth about what is best in our humanity – our ability to connect across our differences, to discover aspects in each other that are both attractive and lovable, even at a passionate level. The deepest value and glory of our consciousness, the ability to think and feel and love, the part of us that is made in the image of God, is more than skin (or scales) deep.

UnlikelyFriendshipsAt its root, The Shape of Water is a deeply mythological and religious film. Women-creature pairing is an ancient theme of mythology, as are the offspring of such hybrid relationships. The hybrid humanoid image became a common theme in art as early as 3,000 B.C.E., but certainly the mythologies dated back much earlier, particularly in Mesopotamia and Egypt, with the Egyptians showing the most interest in imagining the cross breeding of animal deities and human bodies. Meanwhile, the faun, which had a human head and a goat body, and the centaur, which blended the lower body of a horse with the upper body of a human, or the harpy, half-bird and half-woman, are all easily recognized features of popular Greek myths. The most popular mixture of fish and human, of course, is the mermaid, who can track its origin back to at least Dagon, the half-man, half-fish deity of the Philistines.

At the same time, cross species friendships also fascinated people, and particularly at this moment in history. Perhaps such images of wolves and lambs frolicking in a pasture is the ultimate symbol for humans that we can rise above our prejudices and tendencies to de-humanize those different than us. Pictures of cross-species friendships have become popular, especially in National Geographic Photographer Jennifer Holland’s book, Unlikely Friendships:47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom, which captures touching images of tenderness and affection between species usually separated into categories of prey and predator: a cat befriending a bird, a snake bonding with a hamster, or a gorilla finding a soul mate in a kitten.

Holland’s book captures in image the possibility of humanity and creation evolving beyond prejudice, overcoming our predator-prey instincts through the power of relationship, and the image comes straight out of one of the more popular passages of the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 11:6-9:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

This film is not everyone’s cup of tea, having elements of graphic violence, crudeness, and sexual license that might offend some people. It is also one of those films that often leaves you asking yourself: “Where is this going?” But, in some ways, the director, Guillermo del Toro, believes this is the point of The Shape of Water. “Love is fluid, like water,” he said, “and takes the shape of whatever it needs to take.” In some ways, the world’s religions, which have had the most to say about love throughout history, are still learning the consequences of this simple but powerful truth.