The Shape of Water has been held up as the movie of our current moment. Telling the story of a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) falling in love with an anthropomorphic fishman (Doug Jones), it is both a tribute to old Hollywood horror movies and a rebuke to racial hatred in today’s polarised times. Oscar voters naturally found the movie less divisive then the problematic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, awarding Guillermo Del Toro Best Director and the film Best Picture, surely one of the strangest movies to ever win the prize.
Still, for all its celebration of difference, there is one scene that may irk animal lovers, especially those who keep cats as pets. When Elisa’s flatmate Giles (Richard Jenkins) falls asleep watching the fishman in the bath, the amphibian creature takes the opportunity to sneak into the living room and bite the head off one of his cats. It’s a crucial scene, designed to show us that — despite his affection for Elisa — he isn’t just some poor misunderstood creature, but an actual monster capable of great violence. In the end, this strengthens the core theme of the movie, as Elisa manages to love him anyway, thus making the film’s final scenes all that more hard-earned.
Nevertheless, this got me thinking: what if he had eaten a dog instead? Would The Shape of Water still have won Best Picture? Deep ruminations upon this subject led me to conclude that, given Hollywood’s history and the differing treatment cinema has given both animals, The Shape of Water would have stood no chance of winning Best Picture if the fishman had killed a canine instead. To get to the bottom of this decision is to understand the history of both creatures on film.
There are some differences between dogs and cats; some of them true, some of them reinforced by cliché. While dogs offer unconditional love towards their owners, cats are far more selective in whom they give their attention. Equally, dogs are dependent on their masters, while most cats are free to roam far outside the house. Cats have their own independent and perhaps unknowable thoughts, while dogs are simple and constant companions throughout their protagonist’s journeys. Additionally, while dogs have helped their masters succeed since time immemorial (think the countless dog-centric rescues featured in Tintin), cats have never really been great companions. Even one of cinema’s most memorable felines — Kiki’s cat, Jiji, in Kiki’s Delivery Service — constantly complains and makes snide comments during her story, eventually ditching the protagonist in the hope of mating with another animal. Popular culture constantly reinforces this stereotype, teaching us that cats aren’t our friends, while dogs remain the purest distillation of love possible in cinematic entertainment.
To kill a dog in a movie is a particularly abhorrent crime in cinema. An entire website called doesthedogdie.com exists to warn viewers against canine violence. There is no equivalent website for cats, although the former also warns against cat-based murder (The Shape of Water is currently trending at number one). Entire films such as Marley and Me and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale have been based around the life and times of a dog, eventually culminating in their tearjerking death. Cat deaths do not have the same narrative affixed to them, their deaths often played instead for laughs. Think of The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the dead cat thrown out the window is made humorous by Anderson’s unique symmetrical framing. Or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, where malfunctioning Christmas tree lights spell an unfortunate end for the family pet. Cinema has taught us to expect dog deaths as tragic, and cat deaths as comic. In the case of The Shape of Water, the beheading of a cat is seen as bad, but definitely not as bad as the killing of a dog.
This context is what allows Del Toro to get away with a gruesome death of an animal and still win the Best Picture Oscar. We simply have been conditioned not to see cats in the same way as dogs. A dog’s death is possibly one of the worst things that can happen in a popular film, while a cat’s death is almost always a comic highlight. The scene still comes as shocking, a moment of raw violence when we may not expect it, but a cat’s death still remains insignificant, because cats have never been seen as that important in the first place. This choice makes the fishman look like a beast, but still worthy of love. It simply wouldn’t work with a dog.
Additionally, Del Toro does little to make one feel sympathetic towards the cat in the first place. Giles is a mostly passive character, unable to assert himself in the world. He simply doesn’t have the energy to reprimand the creature. Besides, he has more cats, so it isn’t seen as that big of a deal. As for Elisa, she is both mute (so cannot verbally judge him) and head over heels, ready to forgive in the name of love. The poor cat is reduced to a plot point, a means by which the fishman understands how to act properly in human society. Its a poor fate for the cat, but works like a charm for the purposes of the movie — a crucial scene in the film, a moment that shows the audience that this creature isn’t quite the god that we have expected. While hardly the film’s most important theme, it nonetheless speaks to a certain bias in cinema’s representation of animals.
The audience forgives the monstrous fishman for his mistake, therefore The Shape of Water goes on to win Best Picture. If he had eaten a dog however, we’d probably all be debating about why the far more problematic Three Billboards shouldn’t have won instead. For that reason, at least, I’m glad Del Toro chose a cat.