(Non-)Consenting Aliens

The Abduction of Ganymede (ca. 1650), by Eustache Le Sueur

We didn’t use to wonder if it was okay to fuck a donkey, but now we do. Zoophiles suggest that animals can consent to engaging in sexual acts, while their detractors claim they cannot. This disagreement carries neatly into a world that is now asking, is consent possible? If so, when and how? These questions generate a corresponding fantasy of ultimate or total consent that defines the current cultural moment. In this fantasy, sexual partners fully know what they want and can clearly and completely communicate their desires to each other in a shared language. Given the impossibility of such a condition, I suggest that moving forward, we take a cue from the zoophiles, and so does Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

Elisa Esposito, a mute custodian played by Sally Hawkins, is asked how, as in how did you have sex. Here, how is not the indignant how of “how could you?”, but rather one of mechanics, one of possibility. She responds by motioning that the amphibious creature’s genitals, a clam-like exoskeleton, opened, from which a phallus—symbolized by her rising fist—emerged (let’s skip the obvious hermaphroditic or intersexual qualities for a moment).

The creature was saved from a government experiment and housed in her bathtub. A bathtub in which she had previously masturbated daily, her orgasm marked by the ringing of an egg timer, conveniently and simultaneously noting that the eggs she had boiled were ready, the same eggs with which she would eventually win over the creature and begin their affair.

Elisa is hesitant about the first percolations of sex. Initially, the creature takes its (his) web-like hands to the buttons on her blouse. She responds by shying away, but, upon reflection, returns to consummate the relationship. They have sex in the following days, packing towels under the door, filling the bathroom to the brim with water in a climactic scene, and flooding the cinema that Eliza lives above.

If you move past the exasperating, overladen symbolism that embeds this encounter, what excites me is the spreading of pleasure’s location for its interlocutors. It is a topic that the movie devotes real, expansive time to, more than would be possible if the couple was human—it would feel overdone, cheap, saccharine, and predictable if they were. While the creature in The Shape of Water remains sufficiently humanoid for fornication to remain within the bounds of a normative sexuality, the ambiguity of its genitals, its skin, and its echo of other domestic animals allows the movie to soften into a sort of soft-core bestiality, the rub of an animal against you that feels (uncomfortably) pleasurable.

The sex in the movie is hot and exciting. By being completely other and alien, the creature, with its (his) shrouded genitalia and neutered nudity, becomes a vast empty web of fantasy. It could have anything down there. It could do anything to you. It arouses by suggesting nothing, letting the viewer’s mind fill in the gap naturally. It is a well-crafted psychological hole into which the subconscious falls to play out its fantasies.

Detail from the poster for The Shape of Water.

What is clearly exciting, at least for Elisa, is that the creature is not human. If it (he) was, the creature would understand too much about her, perhaps even pity her for her inability to speak. The creature’s separateness, that it (he) is outside of the expectations and norms of her distinctly human life, opens up the sexuality of the movie. This separation allows them to connect—it (he) is mute too, she teaches it (him) sign language, they begin to slowly communicate—driving their relationship.

While the ambiguity of the creature’s gender may suggest that the movie is somehow queer, this reading forecloses the movie’s challenge to fantasies of total consent. The creature is portrayed as amphibious, primordial, it’s mating rituals and practices likely unclear and alien. Queering the creature would only underscore the need to anthropomorphize in order to love, rather than letting the creature remain as it (he) is in order to lust.