The Shape of Water and the Heart of Shipping
Why the romance between a mute janitor and an amphibian man made my fangirl heart soar
December 15, 2017 at 12:50 pm
With so much glowing praise surrounding its release, you’ve likely heard by now that Guillermo del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water is a beautifully made “adult fairy tale” that begins with a charmingly odd premise and delivers a breathtaking and unforgettable experience. Indeed, the simple story is presented in a rich and engaging way and was as romantic and sensual as I had hoped.
I also connected with it in a very specific way that I wasn’t really expecting: It felt, to me, like an allegory for shipping. Del Toro unmistakably approaches this tale with a shipper’s heart, and the result is something truly magical on more levels than I ever dreamed.
I suspect most POME readers are familiar with shipping, but as a brief refresher, “ship” is a fandom term that refers to a fictional character pairing (relationship) fans enjoy so much that they create and/or seek out fanworks celebrating it. Shipping is about so much more than wanting two characters to end up together for real, even if that’s part of it. Genuine shipping, to me, signifies that a particular character pairing is so meaningful to a fan that it stays with them far beyond the actual story.
Before seeing the film, reading del Toro’s thoughts and inspirations for the story fueled my anticipation and excitement. He’s explained how the movie is “a love letter to love and cinema,” and that a core part of the message he’s presenting is “love is real—absolutely real, and like water, it is the most gentle and most powerful force in the universe.”
What’s more, he also details just how long the notion of this premise has been with him:
I’ve had this movie in my head since I was 6, not as a story but as an idea. When I saw the creature swimming under Julie Adams [in 1954’s “Creature From the Black Lagoon”], I thought three things: I thought, “Hubba-hubba.” I thought, “This is the most poetic thing I’ll ever see.” I was overwhelmed by the beauty. And the third thing I thought is, “I hope they end up together.”
Maybe I should have paid more attention to this particular anecdote. I’ve been a “shipper” in some capacity since childhood—long before I knew terms like fanfiction or shipping or even fangirl. From a young age, I found that I best engaged with stories when I was particularly drawn to the chemistry of two characters, to the point that I’d happily daydream my own stories for them. As a certified crone, I still view shipping as a wonderful thing. Sure, there are ships I can’t stand and actively avoid, and there are fans who turn ships into battles and spoil the fun. But to me, the point of shipping is that the chemistry (or potential chemistry) between certain characters is so electric to you that you just can’t ignore it—even if the story never taps into their potential, as is all too common for any variety of “off-kilter” pairings.
And that’s where The Shape of Water is blissfully different: Not only does it set the stage for an unapologetically weird romance between a janitor and an amphibian man creature, it does so in a way that invites us as viewers to bask in it.
I’ve genuinely never encountered such an unabashed shipper’s journey and full-on celebration of unexpected chemistry in film. So many of the questions shippers ask ourselves about a new pairing are clearly playing through Elisa’s head as her fascination and attraction to the creature grow: Does this make any sense? Where did this come from? Does it even matter, now that I’m so happy?
From there, more magic happens. Rather than shying away from the groundwork it has laid for this unlikely pairing, the film lets us live vicariously through Elisa and fully enjoy her blossoming crush. We’re smitten along with her any time she has more contact with the fish man (the way she holds him against her in the escape van, oh my gah) and over the moon when she decides to make love to him (twice!)—in no small part because so few films would plunge us into a shamelessly weird love and give us “permission” to be swept away (rather than dangling a carrot and then yanking it from sight).
Of course, anything so boldly bizarre can’t resonate with everyone. A GameSpot review excerpt recently made the rounds on social media, wherein writer Candice Frederick called the movie’s romantic plot “ridiculous” and “unbelievable,” wondering how viewers could be expected to suspend our disbelief regarding a woman falling for a fish man in a town full of “actual men.” The quote has been widely misrepresented online as being from a male writer, probably because so many women watching this movie have no problem admitting that we would love a bioluminescent aquatic boyfriend ASAP, damn it. But, to be honest, I do understand how someone could see the central romance in this movie as more bizarre than, well, romantic. Watching this film as a lifelong shipper, I found a rare wholeness and gleeful satisfaction in the profound (and fulfilled) connection between these characters. Someone who doesn’t feel any version of that joy is almost certainly going to walk away scratching their head.
But for viewers hungry to see unusual love get the spotlight, The Shape of Water is a feast for the soul. Elisa’s relationship with the sea creature is as unrealistic as it is strange, but none of that fucking matters, because they have a connection that is too real to ignore.
To echo many other reviewers, I don’t think a different director could have made this film and made it work. Beyond even del Toro’s signature auteur flair, someone who approached this as a classic monster movie with a romantic twist would be missing what’s really at the heart of the story, and that’s the pure indulgence of watching these two characters come together and cherish one another. Del Toro clearly holds the love story at the center of this tale close to his heart: he commissioned a hand drawing of the pair for the official teaser poster, he includes an original (and moving) line of verse in the movie’s narrated epilogue, and in one scene he even gives us a wild showbiz AU imagined by Elisa, wherein she and the creature dance together in the style of the vintage shows/movies she enjoys. I immediately recognized this sequence as equivalent to the type of ridiculous and wonderful scenarios I’d dream up about a ship that was wrecking my life (in a good way).
I have extremely real respect for del Toro and his commitment to going all-in on his dream ship; he’s the captain here, and we’re all aboard. Maybe if more directors approached their passion projects so fearlessly, the connection I felt with this story wouldn’t be so rare. (Maybe.)
Because I loved the central romance in this film so much, my only gripe is about scenes that didn’t include it. The movie seems hell-bent on ensuring we hate antagonist Col. Strickland by giving him a bizarrely excessive amount of screen time. This isn’t a commentary on Michael Shannon’s spot-on performance, nor am I disputing his effectiveness as a villain; it’s just that there’s way too much of him, especially when compared to how much time we get with our amphibian heartthrob. I know who Strickland is within a few minutes of his entrance: He’s the quintessential unempathetic “alpha male” (barf), living what appears to be a picture-perfect life while not fully engaging with any of it. He worships the status quo that has made him what he is, and it makes him angry when he can’t control or contain a potential “threat” to his ideal life.
While Elisa falling for the creature represents the best kind of fantasy, Strickland represents reality: He’s a racist who sexually harasses women and finds sick pleasure in torturing the fish man. I GET IT. I don’t need to see him being a dick during sex with his wife or watch him buy a new car. I was so tired of Strickland (and his disgusting necrotic fingers) by Act III that I was a little frustrated with this otherwise incredible movie for telling me so much about him. The ever-present harshness of the Cold War-era setting works well as a backdrop for this gritty fantasy; extended villain presence isn’t necessary to hammer it in.
All that said, I really can’t complain too much—because the gorgeous, angsty, romantic journey of Elisa and her fish darling culminates in a satisfying ending that perfectly captures the wonder of fairy tales, love stories, and shipping all in one stunning scene. An enchanting journey, The Shape of Water gives us a story filled with rich and genuine characters centered on an unexpected and fully realized love that will stay with me—long after seeing it, if not always.