This analysis contains lots of spoilers.
The Shape of Water won best picture at the Oscars last night. If you haven't seen it, you probably have at least heard about the fact that the plot includes a woman having sex with an aquatic creature. You might think that a film with such a scene has little to teach the church, but it actually is an incredibly convicting story for an American church that continues to grapple with racism and sexism.
The film directly asks this question: who is made in the image of God: a man or a monster? This seems like a gimme question that seminarians would love to see on a systematic theology test. In the fairy-tale world of Guillermo del Toro’s movie, the answer is still obvious, but it’s not the answer we might expect.
The questioning is started by Richard Strickland, who by all accounts should be the hero of this movie. He’s a red-blooded American male starring in a Cold War espionage film. Who else could the hero be?
Strickland certainly believes he is the hero. He has helped to capture an Amazonian aquatic creature and is continuing to provide security now that the creature has been brought to a top-secret lab in Baltimore. The scientists hope to conduct research on the creature that will help America gain scientific dominance over the Russians. Strickland hopes to successfully complete his task so he can be promoted out of Baltimore.
A Man Made in God’s Image
Strickland has no doubt that he is superior to other people and that he is infinitely superior to the creature. He tells the janitors charged with tidying the lab, Elisa and Delilah, not to go near the creature’s tank, saying, “You may think, ‘That thing looks human.’ Stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”
He follows up, saying that God looks like us—humans. He says, “God looks like me” then, to Delilah, a black woman, “and you.” And then, after a slight pause: “Maybe a little more like me.”
But Strickland does not act like a person created in the image of God. He cruelly abuses the creature. He is callous toward his wife. He sexually harasses Elisa, the mute janitor, and threatens to rape her, specifically preying on her vulnerabilities. He is sickeningly violent to other people (so violent that I can’t tell you what he actually did, because I didn’t watch those parts of the movie). He is outrageously and grossly entitled for the entirety of the film.
A Monster Who Acts Likes God’s Image
The creature, the supposed monster, is another story altogether. Strickland informs the other scientists, with shocked disbelief, that the creature was worshiped as a god by the Amazonians. This idea is patently ridiculous to him, but as the moral character of the creature is revealed throughout the film, it isn’t so farfetched.
First, the creature appreciates Elisa, the woman who eventually saves him from the lab. She explains to her friend Giles: “He doesn’t know what I lack or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me every time, every day.” She feels invisible because of her disability, but he sees her and values her. In this he images God, whom Hagar names “the God who sees me” when she encounters God in her own solitude and desperation.
Elisa and the creature eventually fall in love and engage in a loving embrace. This is very different from the sex Strickland has with his wife, which is cold, brutish, and dismissive. For Strickland, sex (even in a relationship) is only about domination and a means for his own pleasure. By contrast, Elisa and the creature care about and delight in one another.
Later, Giles is supposed to be watching the creature, but he falls asleep and the creature eats his cat. When Giles confronts him, the creature flees in terror and scratches Giles in the process. When he has calmed down, the creature touches the scratch and heals it. He also touches Giles’s bald head and causes hair to grow, which is wonderful for Giles because he’s very sensitive about his baldness. The creature gives him both physical restoration and a deep desire of his heart.
This healing helps Giles see the creature as more than a creature, although he is not so sure about his divinity per se: “He might be a god . . . he ate a cat.” The cat-eating reminds us that the creature is wild and certainly not an actual god, but he continues to image God nevertheless. Further healing powers are revealed at the end of the film, when the creature heals both Elisa and himself from life-threatening gunshot wounds inflicted by Strickland.
The Shape of God’s Image
Strickland, who is positive he is the spitting image of God, is cruel, sadistic, selfish, and violent. The creature, the alleged monster, is caring, attentive, loving, and restorative. He is far closer to acting in God’s image than Strickland. He is infinitely more humane.
In answering who is made in the image of God, or who reflects that image more fully, the movie clearly judges in the creature’s favor. At the end, the man who thinks he’s the hero doesn’t get the girl. The girl chooses the monster. Elisa joins the creature in the water and grows gills, so they can live happily ever after, far away from the likes of Richard Strickland.
But What about the Interspecies Sex?
Some Christians have been upset by this film because of the sexual relationship between Elisa and the creature. Author Brett McCracken recently wrote:
[This movie] pushes the “love is love” conception of sex in disturbing, perverse directions . . . Elisa and the non-human creature soon become more than friends, and their romance is sexually consummated in an explicit scene of brazen, no-shame interspecies sex.
But that is to be upset about the wrong thing. First, it’s a misunderstanding of genre. If you’re upset about this relationship, you should be upset about the relationships in The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast or Shrek (fairy-tale interspecies romances also resolved by magical transformations).
More importantly, the point of their relationship is not to brazenly break taboos against interspecies relationships in the name of love. The point of their relationship is that so much of what passes for love in this world is not love. Richard Strickland’s marriage would have been socially sanctioned as a good marriage in his day. It wasn’t interracial, it was heterosexual, and they had children. But it wasn’t loving.
The relationship between Elisa and the creature shows what real sacrifice and delight and respect look like, outside of society’s expectations and power games. But the moral of the story is not that you should find yourself a mythical aquatic creature (or a real creature) to love. Instead, the story explains why Richard Strickland, with society’s approbation and his high opinion of himself, fails to love so spectacularly.
The Real Crime against Humanity
It turns out that his horrific behavior is actually caused by his high opinion of himself and society’s continuing approbation—his belief in his own supremacy leads inevitably to the devaluing of others. He learned from his Christian faith that he is made in the image of God more than others: more than women, more than African Americans. He has gone on to make God in his own image; as he says, God looks like him. Because of his maleness and whiteness, he believes he is inherently godlike, with the authority to work his will however he pleases. He doesn’t need to act like the image of God; he IS the image of God.
In his schema, Elisa is less than human because she is a woman and disabled; Delilah is less than human because she is a woman and black; the creature is less than human because he doesn’t talk and is covered in scales. We never learn what the creature is, but Strickland does not care. Once he has decided someone isn’t on his level, he feels free to dehumanize and abuse them.
This line of thinking is all too common in the real world, and the white American church has contributed to this process (as it did for Strickland). This is the aspect of the movie that should upset and horrify Christians. We might like to think that our churches don’t create monsters as ugly as Strickland or that we have moved on from the 1960s. But the theology that supports white supremacy and patriarchy is still around, it’s still poison, and the church needs to be ruthless in rooting in out. It’s only after repentance from these sins that the church can truly image our God and get down to the business of loving like we have been loved.
I am not a proponent of interspecies sex. But in the fairy-tale world Guillermo del Toro creates, the love between Elisa and the creature is not depraved. It’s beautiful. And the person who should be the hero, according to all our cultural privileges, is a monster. The movie invites us to see beyond the power of people’s appearances and appreciate their character. To ask, who thinks they are made in the image of God more than others, and who actually acts like the God we were created to image? The answers might not be the ones we expect.