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Why I Can’t Embrace the Animal Rights Themes in The Shape of Water

Why I Can’t Embrace the Animal Rights Themes in The Shape of Water

I finally watched The Shape of Water last night and I’m torn about its messaging about animal rights and anti-vivisection. (Fun fact: One of the film’s characters even uses the term "vivisection.")

For those of you who haven’t seen it, The Shape of Water's plot involves a sentient being who happens to be a sea creature. This creature has been captured by the U.S. government during the space race of the 1960s and is experimented on and tortured to explore his viability for survival in space. 

The different perspectives on the being’s sentience and his rights are key themes of the film. At its best, this film highlights the cognitive dissonance exhibited by most people regarding their treatment of animals. It also is a reminder of the incredible suffering experienced by more than 100 million animals, which will suffer and die in labs in 2018.

The interspecies romance between Eliza and the sentient sea creature was the film's most uncomfortable aspect. Eliza, a mute orphan, is played beautifully by Sally Hawkins who is presented as an irreproachably good character throughout the film. The film's director (Guillermo del Toro) disrupts the traditional "prince-rescues-princess" fairytale model and presents Eliza and the imprisoned being as both needing rescue. 

The film embraces these two characters’ “different-ness” as sufficient to seed love, and after an intense liberation scene, the blossoming connection between Eliza and the sentient sea creature leads to sexual romance. While, as viewers, we’re clearly intended to humanize, and even deify the sea creature who can communicate, feel pain & joy, and heal via supernatural powers, I simply could not get past the coercive nature of their sexual relationship. Without agency, without the freedom to leave either the government facility or Eliza’s apartment, the being was always captive, and fully dependent on humans for survival.

I’m not going to go so far as calling this romance bestiality, but as Kate Nibs noted in her film review: “...zookeepers teach gorillas ADSL and form intense emotional connections with them, but it’s not OK for them to have sex with the gorillas, and it would be very weird to make a movie romance about it.” 

I agree with Kate. As anti-vivisectionists, we do not believe non-human animals should be subject to this inane “research” in the first place.

While The Shape of Water deserves its accolades for beautiful cinematography, directing, and acting, I can’t fully celebrate the film as a victory for the animal rights community.