Why The Shape Of Water's Masturbation Scene Is So Important

Photo: K Hayes/20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Sally Hawkins in The Shape Of Water, 2017
Let me ask you this: How many times in the last couple of months have you seen a peach emoji on social media and known exactly what was being referenced? For those of you who haven’t yet succumbed to the allure of Call Me By Your Name, one of its main characters, Elio, pleasures himself into the Italian-sunned fuzzy fruit. And ever since its release, the scene has been celebrated, feverishly referenced and even found itself at the centre of some unusual fan-fiction.
And throughout this commotion, in fellow Oscar contender The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins quietly slips into a bathtub and, in the minutes it takes to boil an egg (there’s a timer and everything), rubs one out. It’s completely and utterly unremarkable. Blink and you’d miss it.
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If, more than ever, the Oscars noms are reflective of the zeitgeist and what matters most to us, then getting off has never been more topical. Male masturbation in film has been ubiquitous for decades – covering the antics of 40-year-old virgins, Tom Cruise engaging in some risky business and even spawning a decade-long movie franchise, which, in its basic premise, is about a guy sticking his dick in a pie. Yes, if there was a penny for every gratuitous male wank film scene, our cups would runneth over. And yet, portrayals of female masturbation remain few and far between. And when they do crop up, are rarely shown in a positive light.
One of the earliest examples in film may well be Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 Swedish flick The Silence, where a sickly Ingrid Thulin mechanically masturbates, but seemingly derives no pleasure from it. It is a scene which enriches Bergman’s commentary on the joyless lives of its characters but at the time was met with outrage from 1960s censors, who condemned the film as “dangerously close to pornography” and violating “artistic taste”. It was even banned to Catholic churchgoers.
And this shame and condemnation has long permeated representations of female desire on screen, creating a damaging trope of the masturbating woman as the unhinged or deviant woman. I mean, we all know that disturbing crucifix scene in The Exorcist, and c’mon, Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female? It’s a symptom of mental instability at best, and an affront to all things good and natural at worst. In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, we see Naomi Watts, hand in shorts – her face contorted and alternating between anger and uncontrollable sobbing. We come to understand that she’s a disturbed and jealous junkie, distracting herself while awaiting confirmation of the assassination of her lover. Yes, shame is very much the name of the game.
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And when it isn’t? One place where female masturbation does monopolise the screen is porn. But realism has no place here. It’s straight-up fantasy with a dash of scream-down-the-walls theatrics, and almost always a warm-up to penetrative sex. And too often, its cinematic counterparts aren’t all that different; just with expanded storylines and better lighting.
Although initially celebrated for its advancement of the LGBT film canon, arthouse flick, Blue Is The Warmest Colour was later criticised for its unrealistic portrayals of lesbian sex, in particular its masturbation scene, which is equal parts artsy shadows bouncing off taut skin and slow-mo sensual hipbone caressing. In Black Swan we see Natalie Portman touching herself after her ballet company’s male artistic director explains that her frigidity is essentially what is holding her back from a perfect performance. After doing her, ahem, homework (plus the addition of one gratuitous lesbian encounter with Mila Kunis), suddenly, her abilities flourish. Like a jewellery-box ballerina wound-up, she dances with renewed vigour and effortless joie de vivre. For men, by men.
Unexpectedly, it is Pleasantville, an innocuous 1998 film that adds an enriching layer to the discourse: that a woman – quelle horreur – might actually do it ‘cos it’s fun and ‘cos she can. In it, a 1950s housewife gets her rocks off for the first time, and the black-and-white scene glimmers into colour, with a tree even bursting into flames outside. Clearly liberated, she later leaves her dumbfounded husband to cook dinner himself.
In Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal frantically goes for it in an office stall while looking at a sheet of typing mistakes outlined in red by her boss. She rubs her breasts and even talks dirty to egg herself on but oddly, it’s not particularly sexy. It’s not a performance. It’s all for her own enjoyment, and she saunters out afterwards with a smirk on her face. While her niche wank-bank material may coax a laugh, it’s strangely empowering to watch.
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While the scene in The Shape of Water may seem pale in comparison (there’s no revelatory moment, no earth-shattering climax, just some sloshing of water), there isn’t a doubt that its power lies in its modesty.
“It’s important how [these scenes] go unremarked. They are not used to judge her, but are used to set the scene of her routine, and to indicate that she is sensual and feels sexually comfortable in water,” explains Anna Smith, film critic and broadcaster.
“Male masturbation scenes are commonplace, because the reality is, these stories have been told from the male perspective, and are funded, green-lit and marketed by men. But it seems filmmakers can't escape the necessity for [female representation] now, which is fantastic. We need a balanced view of the realities of sex, and film is a powerful outlet to do it through.”
As exhibited by The Shape of Water, women masturbate, are sexual, and have sex. It could be between breakfast and getting dressed, and that’s the everyday reality of it. No, it isn’t always toe-curling, or sexy, but it certainly isn’t shameful. And with this message slotted neatly into the most Oscar-nominated film of 2018, it surely marks a monumental shift in mainstream attitudes to women, sex, agency and female pleasure.
The Shape Of Water is in UK cinemas now