The Shape of Water and Its Use of ‘Image of God’

The Shape of Water functions as an artistic modern morality tale that appropriates the biblical “image of God” concept.
on Feb 1, 2018 · 26 comments

Recently I saw the Academy Award-nominated film The Shape of Water.1

(Spoilers follow!)

This film actually touches on the topic of being in the “image of God,” which is why I’m discussing it here.

But let me start by setting the stage with a general overview and review of the movie.

First, I wish I had paid more attention to the rating before I went and why it’s rated R. I long ago realized that I do not ever need to see a film that features female nudity–and this movie has some, showing both front and back in several scenes.

It also features the F-word, actually not gratuitously, but in describing sex and telling someone to “F off.” So even though the word makes sense in context, I do not care for the fact that modern culture needs to use this word to describe sex at times and needs to tell people, “f&&& you.

The movie also portrays (without showing in detail) female masturbation. And contains multiple scenes of cringe-worthy cruelty.

This is not a family film.

Second, I came out of the movie angered by the immoral morality tale aspects it contains (I was thinking of it as “mere propaganda” for a bit). What I found offensive includes the fact that the main character is a disabled, dis-empowered woman with a Hispanic last name (who is mute), whose best friends are an elderly homosexual man and a black woman employed on a cleaning crew. The story is set during the “bad old days” of early ’60s Cold War hysteria and open racial discrimination. A physically soft and emotionally sensitive scientist, employed by the Soviet Union as a spy at the secret U.S. government facility, provides critical help to the other three and qualifies as a lesser “good guy”–even though he is a Communist agent.

By contrast, the bad guy is a white heterosexual male (and “cisgendered,” in modern terms). He’s a right-wing patriot and a veteran, who references the Bible as if he believes it on three different occasions in the film and thus seems to be a “Christian” character (even though his behavior is in no way Christlike). He is trapped in rampant consumerism, harshly dismissive of others–and arrogant, racist, sexist, and violent.

Oh, and he is also a sexual harasser/potential rapist.

In fact, all clearly masculine characters in the story are bad, though none others so bad as baddie #1. Men who are good or somewhat good are soft-looking and/or homosexual. Men with rugged faces–and physically strong men and men in dominant positions of power are villainous.

The story is to an extent a modern morality tale, in which people the modern mindset sees as oppressed rise up against the white male oppressor in order to prevent him from fulfilling his horrific plan to vivisect the green creature living in the water (who came from South America, by the way). As such the film has certain virtues which it promotes, both overly and covertly, virtues from a view of the world that is distinctly non-Christian, though not in every way anti-Christian.

The first virtue the film praises is friendship, which underpins the relationships between the protagonist and her gay neighbor and black female co-worker. It also shows visual art and music in highly positive ways. As well as a measure of compassion for others–though that compassion is largely limited to those who are “oppressed,” some scenes in the film surprisingly show the main antagonist going through his own version of empty suffering, showing even a bit of compassion for him.

Though arguably the most important modern virtue in the film is a particular kind of personal self-fulfillment. The movie starts with people trapped in the smothering and depressing routines of daily life, yearning for something more, something that will change their lives. In other words, self-fulfillment. And the most important form of self-fulfillment in the movie is found in a sexual relationship.

Yes, I know this movie is billed as a romance and even though there are romantic aspects of the relationship between Elisa Esposito and the amphibious creature from South America, the most important part of the relationship is sexual, rather than romantic.

The creature, though it on a few occasions uses individual sign language words Elisa teaches it, never renders even one full sentence in reply to her, so their relationship has nothing to do with a meeting of minds. As far as how they interact, it treats her differently from other humans soon after they meet, but does not perform any romantic gestures with her (no gifts or hand-holding or arm around her shoulder), so the relationship between the two is not so much a meeting of hearts, either. She does play music for the creature and while it blinks and tilts its head in interest, this level of relationship is not the one which changes everything about the protagonist.

Elisa “before”

The key change in Elisa, when she begins to smile and puts a red band in her hair, does not happen after she meets the creature nor after she rescues him from the lab, nor after watching movies and listing to music with him, but not until after she has sex with him.

Sex–yes, in the context of love, is put on a pedestal as the ultimate attainment of love and self-fulfillment and cannot be restrained by ideas like marriage first or that relationships should be restricted to one’s own species or to heterosexuality. (Note that sex is what Elisa’s gay neighbor is lacking more than anything else, even though he also lacks success in his profession. Also, the villain’s sexual relationship with his wife is by contrast shown to be unloving and unfulfilling.)

Elisa “after” (with Zelda)

People as a general rule find morality tales that conflict with their own morality much more offensive than ones that support their views. I found what I thought of as the propaganda of The Shape of Water troubling mainly because I do not think sexual fulfillment deserves to be considered the highest human virtue. And also because of how it shows only one Bible-quoting character–the villain. Along with some other elements already mentioned.

But calling the movie “mere propaganda,” as if it were only a message piece and had no artistic value at all would not be fair. Hollywood has given this film 13 Oscar nominations, not just because it applauds what their subset of America deeply believes–the movie is also in some ways very beautiful because it features vivid and tender portrayals of characters, is visually striking, employs powerful symbolism, and has moments of strong emotional effect. It’s going to win some Oscars and from a certain point of view, it deserves them. Even though it’s also propaganda–a very well crafted and artistic version of propaganda.

One striking bit of propaganda happened when the villain discussed with two cleaning ladies (Elisa and Zelda, her black friend at work) the creature he had captured. He stated that the creature was not in the “image of God,” because that image is human, “like me.” Along with a racist swipe at Zelda for not being quite as much in the image of God as he is, the villain mentions the creature was worshiped in South America as “a god.”

Later, near the end of the film when he shoots the creature–who we can think of as a non-extraterrestrial alien–it heals itself by passing a hand over its body. The antagonist says in shock, “You really are a god,” just before this alien-from-Earth kills him.

I think the triumph of the non-human over the human being who proclaimed himself to be in the image of God was supposed to be a feel-good moment for the film viewers, a vindication of their concept of good, the oppressed rising up against the oppressor. But the statement the antagonist made before his death sticks with me. Why was it necessary for him to say that the creature, the Earth-bound alien, was “a god”?

Perhaps the movie merely meant to criticize the arrogance of believing oneself to be in the “image of God” while excluding others from being in that image. But sometimes stories have multiple meanings–was this also supposed to be a triumph of “a god” over “the image of God”? Or was that an accident of script writing, a coincidence? Even if an accident, is that a subliminal message of the film?–that “gods” will triumph over the followers of God?

Or is this film, perhaps unconsciously, participating in a general preparation to worship aliens? To regard creatures who are essentially human in character but different from us in physical form as something we should revere? (I realize these questions may sound rather paranoid, but I think they’re worth asking.)

Note, as reflected in what I have previously said in this series, I would consider the alien in The Shape of Water to be more human than not, since it’s mortal, communicates to a degree, and engages in romantic love (er, sex)(though in some ways it’s more like a wild animal than a human being). It does not qualify as being wildly exotic or transcendent from the human race in the way our Creator God actually is.

What do you think? Especially if you’ve seen the movie, but even if you haven’t, what do you think it means that a villain’s last words about an alien creature from Planet Earth was to call it “a god”?

What other thoughts do you have?

  1. The planned part 5 of this series on what aliens teach about God, which will discuss the UFO phenomenon, has been postponed.
Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.
Website ·
  1. Kerry Nietz says:

    Insightful review, Travis. It confirms what I suspected about the movie and its message. Thanks for taking the time!

  2. Gretchen K Engel says:

    As much as I want to see this movie, your review pushes it down on my list. I’m tired of agenda-pushing and being “preached to” in the movies.

    • Gretchen K Engel says:

      If I want to see a movie about the 60s and racial climate of the time, I’ll re-watch Hidden Figures. That is an excellent movie!

      • Sean says:

        That one is just as agenda driven as Shape of Water. According to interviews with the real life version of the main character, she felt no racism at NASA at all. The filmmakers basically slandered the real life non-racists to create that conflict for the movie.

        • Travis Perry says:

          Unfortunately it is true that Hidden Figures overemphasized racism at NASA. Segregated coffee never existed there, the woman who became a supervisor did so in 1949 if I remember correctly, segregated bathrooms did exist at one NASA facility but did not affect the woman they were supposed to affect in the film (she just used the regular bathroom with no troubles at all). But it was true that one of the women petitioned a town to take classes in order to become an engineer and won her case.

          It was at least sort of based in reality. Whereas of course, The Shape of Water is wholly fictional.

  3. notleia says:

    I find it kinda funny, the complaint about soft-looking men being the heroes. I realize you’re biased, being a military guy and all, but nerds do contribute meaningfully to society without having the traditional trappings of masculinity. There’s no reason to be negative about different body types.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I did not intend to be negative about body types–I think Del Toro intended to be negative about traditionally masculine body types. I meant to point that out.

      I personally think your face is what it is–I meant no sneering disrespect towards men who do not happen to look rugged. (But I think Del Toro meant to take a swipe at men who DO look rugged.)

      And as for your quote “nerds do contribute meaningfully to society”–what would make you think I am not a nerd? I assure you, I am.

      • notleia says:

        I wasn’t being entirely serious about the body-shaming, but the basic theme of the movie was sympathy/emotional intelligence is good and dominance/violence is bad, right? In SJW-land, that’s a basic essay on the phenomenon of toxic masculinity.
        Have you heard of toxic masculinity? I think it’s an interesting subject, given that one of the tenets is that toxic masculinity is also harmful to men as well as women.

        • Autumn Grayson says:

          I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m not commenting on it directly, but one issue with that sort of thing is that it tends to come off as one sided. It’s implying that everyone who is religious/muscular/conservative/whatever exhibits toxic masculinity while those who are the opposite of those traits are the only ones who are ‘good’. The argument or story would be far stronger if it addressed the issue with more nuance.

          Maybe there’s a muscular guy in a story that exhibits toxic masculinity because he grew up in a culture that encouraged that sort of thing. Ok, but in that case, there would probably realistically be some scrawny guys from that culture who exhibit toxic masculinity, too. Showing that nuance would point out that the behaviors of toxic masculinity are bad, but also reduce the chances of people thinking that the show is just hating on muscular guys/religious people/whatever.

          • notleia says:

            I’d take it more seriously….except. Except there are tons of other movies where muscle-men are heroes. Traditionally manly men are not an oppressed group, they’re only experiencing privilege distress.

            • Autumn Grayson says:

              There are plenty of muscle men hero movies, but there is also a strong trope out there of a weak opponent fighting against a stronger one. Dismissing every complaint about muscle men and other ‘privileged’ groups as privilege distress is a gross oversimplification. (There’s a stereotype of big people being bullies, stupid, etc.) Yes, some complaints are privilege distress, but other times it’s people pointing out a legitimate issue. If someone truly believes in social justice, they won’t like seeing any group targeted and stereotyped just so that another group can feel less oppressed.

              Now and then I think it’s ok for shows to be a little one sided, so long as it makes sense for the story and as long as mainstream media isn’t constantly making shows that are only one sided toward one perspective.(In terms of the body type example, plenty of shows would have masculine men as the heroes, while plenty of other shows would have them as the villains.) But there should also be plenty of stories that address things from multiple perspectives all in the same tale.

              I think Tui T Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series tends to do a good job of this in many regards, actually. Not all the books in the series are perfect, but many of them are excellent, especially in the second part of the series. The story is about dragons, but there are a lot of parallels to real life things in there. Winter, for instance, is a character that grew up in a society that sees itself as superior, so the story is about him learning about how his society is flawed and that other dragon societies aren’t inferior to his. But the author approaches it in a nuanced way, a way that feels natural rather than making Winter a one dimensional stereotype. And the story is far more entertaining and convincing because of this.

  4. Autumn Grayson says:

    What you said about their romantic relationship kind of reminds me of my general complaint about romances in main stream media. They just tend not to do a super great job with them. It takes a lot of effort to actually build a believable romance within a two hour movie, but they throw romances in all the time, for the sake of marketing or an easy subplot or whatever. Maybe they weren’t trying to make sex the ultimate thing in their relationship, maybe the filmmakers just didn’t know how to communicate all the deeper aspects and didn’t have time in the schedule to make that part make more sense.

    I think the problem with movies like this is how one sided they are. It wouldn’t be so bad if they could depict things realistically and did so from multiple perspectives, but it’s like people have so much fun writing ‘crazy evil religious people’ that they can’t depict religious people as much else. I watched the first couple episodes of Runaways recently and it reminds me of this, though to be fair it seemed a tiny bit better than it could have been. I don’t know if they will ever have a decent presentation of religious people in that show, but they did seem willing to show that a super liberal person is capable of being as pushy and self righteous as they accuse others of being. So their portrayal of religious people could be accidental or something that won’t stay negative the whole show.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Autumn, you are right in pointing out that it is hard to say what the director’s intent was for me as one watching the film. Maybe he himself could not clearly say what his intent was, because people sometimes do things for subconscious reasons.

      However, I can say that there was one bad person that was worse than all the other bad people in the film–and he was the only one to ever bring up the subject of the Bible in the story (and he did so three times). That does not SEEM to be an accident.

  5. Nicola says:

    I found the creature unconvincing. “Gasp, gasp,I can’t breath.But I can heal myself from bullet wounds.”?
    It was too human. Is that what we want in a god? Something that eats…Ok, I won’t spoil it. Something that lashes out indiscriminately? Something that can be chained to live in its own…. again, I’ll refrain. This ‘god’ denotes a severe lack of imagination. “All we can come up with is ourselves.” is not a valid excuse.
    The ‘creators’ might have spent more time imagining a behavioural system for a fish. They might have simulated an aquatic creature’s mating rituals. The True Creator spread the gamut for His fish and eels and octopi.
    I did appreciate that the references to the Little Mermaid were from Hans Christien Andersen, not Disney, as far as my little eye could tell. I am interested in what others saw to this aspect.
    Water, if not a character in the film, at least was treated to gorgeous cinematic effect and given many ‘shapes’. Again, I could think of a few they missed, but what they portrayed was visually poetic.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Yeah, The Shape of Water is definitely not internally consistent science fiction. I mean, in addition to what you said, the creature needed some salt in the bathtub in order to survive, but is totally cool in swimming in a canal filled with rain water? Needed salt, but is a RIVER god? Not well thought out–but this isn’t really a science fiction movie. It’s a fantasy, in which the creature is just a prop to make a point. What exactly that point is, is worth discussing.

      By the way, I’m willing to accept “toxic masculinity” is a thing, but the Shape of Water seems to equate any obvious form of masculinity with being toxic. Though I really don’t care about that issue too much. The Bible-quoting character, along with the sinister presumption that only oppressive white men quote the Bible–THAT was very offensive–and not realistic. How often in America will a white man know more Scripture than a black woman–sometimes, yes, but mostly not. And the woman doesn’t know the origin of her OWN name–sheer nonsense. But it did make the intended political point.

  6. notleia says:

    Y’know, sex is a pretty standard symbol of self-actualization, but it does make me wonder how much people mistake the symbol for the thing. It definitely makes it weird for asexual people.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Yeah–though the film does leave the option of asexual people pining for what they don’t have, as seen in the older gay male character. Sex is extremely important in this film, as it presumably is to modern people in general.

      • notleia says:

        I do not think we are using “asexual” in the same sense. I meant “asexual” as in “people who do not feel sexual desire” not just as a synonym for “celibate.”

        • Travis Perry says:

          Nope, I was reading “asexual” the same way as you. Someone who does not feel sexual desire is still capable of wishing that sexual desire were a possibility. People come in all kinds of self-conflicted types.

          I don’t think Hollywood cares deeply for asexual people in any case…

  7. Sasch says:

    Brian Godawa wrote a review on the movie where he brings out some relevant points about the discussion of the use of “image of God” in the movie.

    • Travis Perry says:

      Yeah, that’s an interesting review. I can easily see The Shape of Water as a promotion of Paganism, though that’s not how I saw it the first time around.

      And yeah, the notion of bestiality is lingering around there somewhere…

  8. Sadly the main villain in this film has an uncomfortable tinge of realism. How many Christians justify animal exploitation (including lethal/painful scientific research) by simplistic appeals to the image of God and the dominion mandate, while ignoring the Bible’s broad messages of love, mercy, self-sacrifice, and servant leadership? In the real world, we haven’t yet had to deal with the issue of how to treat a sapient** but non-human creature, but if some Christians reacted to the discovery of an “alien” the way this movie bad guy does … I can’t say I’d be terribly surprised. I think I remember seeing someone make the (Biblically unsupported, AFAICT) comment that intelligent aliens can’t possibly exist, because humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation and could have no equals. If the person who made that comment were confronted with a sapient alien but chose to cling to that prideful belief … I can imagine some ugly things might happen.

    Should the director have included a more reasonable Christian to balance this guy out? I would have _liked_ that, but I suppose one could argue that there wasn’t room in the film’s character list — the cast of a single movie isn’t large enough to make sure that all possible qualities/beliefs are distributed evenly across the heroes and the villains.

    Of course, if the main villain had been a Muslim and there wasn’t also a decent Muslim in the film, the other side of the political and cultural aisle would probably be up in arms. Is it right to be worried about stereotyping like this, or should we relax and let balancing happen across multiple films? Is there a systemic trend toward portraying Christians as villains in recent media? That would be more of a problem than a single villainous character.

    The film’s notions about relationships and sexual mores do make me uncomfortable, to the point that I don’t plan to see it.

    **Maybe. From your description, it sounds like it’s ambiguous whether the fish-man has human-like cognition, or something on the level of a great ape or parrot.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I would say there is a general trend to make Christians into villains, except of course with films made by Christians. But Christianity is more often simply ignored in science fiction, e.g. there has never been a Christian character in Star Trek, though the Bible has been referenced a few times (as past mythology).

      As for evil things Christians have actually done (and there has been plenty of that), I find that someone willing to quote the Bible to justify his actions but who is not willing to follow it (say, Hernan Cortez) can be a very dangerous person. And is an entirely different sort of person than someone who actually follows the Bible. Is that what the film portrayed? Yes, I would say so.

      But that’s not all the evident purpose of that portrayal. The point where I found it becoming unmistakably offensive and designed to characterize all Christians (and straw man-ish) is when this Bible-quoting white man lectures a black woman about the Biblical origin of her own name–and she quite obviously has no idea what he is talking about. Yes, of course there have been unchurched black women–but NORMALLY speaking, who is going to be exposed to the Bible more, a black woman or a white man (hasn’t anyone noticed how many atheists are white men and how many Christian churches have more female members than male and how churches have been traditionally very important to most black Americans)? And the topic was HER OWN NAME. He knew more about what the Bible says about her own name than she did. Seriously?

      That’s when, in my opinion, the filmmaker made it plain that he believes that there is a positive correlation between even having knowledge of the Bible and villainy. That he believes the Bible itself is a source of human evil. Which I sharply disagree with.

  9. Jesse says:

    This film and its academy award are propaganda; no more, no less. It’s unfortunate for me that I watched it, albeit not intently, as I actually found it quite boring. And interestingly enough, had it not won an acadmay award, I wouldn’t have watched it at all. Can you see how effective their methods are?

    • Travis Perry says:

      I’ve said it was very well performed propaganda. I do think it deserved its awards for music and production design. But not best picture and best director.

  10. James says:

    I know this would be considered very late in the game…. this movie came out quite a while ago but I have only just stumbled upon this article.

    From what i have gathered and with understanding of the message you seemed to have heavily misinterpreted this movie. This was supposed to be a modern beauty and the beast- with a kind of caveat in that the beast doesn’t have to change for the relationship to continue or “be complete” per say. There was a reason that the ballroom scene where they were dancing was included. It was a kind of homage to those classic stories. This is another reason you might say traditional, rough and tough masculinity is portrayed the way that it is. Yes, the main antagonist’s masculine, overbearing presence is supposed to be off-putting, but so is gaston’s from beauty and the beast, and no one is claiming that sexist.

    Another thing I heavily disagree with is that sex is considered the “ultimate attainment of love” in this movie. It’s fairly obvious that they try to build things up with their embraces, or simply them touching each other. They don’t have many ways of showing affection toward each other that because neither of them can talk, and the creature would not understand a human’s expression of love through most normal means. You could see that the creature was developing a kind of awareness of these gestures with how Giles ( The gay character ) and the creature would exchange head pats.

    Also, it wasn’t that Giles needed sex. He wanted a romantic relationship, from my perspective that was fairly cut and dry. It seemed that he was fired from the ad-agency that he was working at because he had been in a relationship and they had found out he was gay. He saw that his friend had the opportunity for a relationship so he tried to help her find her own happiness. There is another interpretation of the story that states that the narrator is Giles because this was an allegory for his own experience at that agency. The main character eliza’s muteness represents his inability to tell anyone that he was gay, the creature possibly being his partner. the taboos would have a parallel in that case. This is all conjecture though, I guess that comes with del toro being the director.

    I have a bit more to say but I have no idea if you’ll even see this comment. For now I guess i’m done rambling.

What do you think?