A Review Of 'The Shape Of Water,' From A Guy Who Had Sex With A Dolphin

"I find a dolphin a lot more sexy than that thing was," said Malcolm Brenner.
Malcolm Brenner with an unidentified dolphin.
Malcolm Brenner with an unidentified dolphin.
Malcolm Brenner

In 2010, journalist Malcolm J. Brenner released his autobiographical novel, Wet Goddess. A few years later, Brenner was the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Dolphin Lover.” Both works explore a period in the 1970s for which Brenner became famous — the time he fell in love with and ultimately made love to a dolphin named Dolly.

As he was rocketing toward a sensational sort of renown, Brenner also became the subject of a number of think pieces and interviews. But the internet’s metabolism is quick, even when inter-species dolphin sex is involved, and Brenner’s name slowly faded from the national conversation.

Then, Guillermo del Toro made “The Shape of Water,” a movie about a mute woman who falls in love with and ultimately makes love to a strapping humanoid amphibian, and it won the Best Picture Academy Award this past Sunday. I immediately thought of Brenner.

In 1970, when Brenner was a college sophomore, he was given open access to the now-defunct theme park Floridaland near Sarasota to take photos for a book about the dolphin show. There, he claims, Dolly the dolphin began courting him.

“She would rub her genital slit against me,” he says in “Dolphin Lover.” “And if I tried to push her away, she would get very angry with me. One time, when she wanted to masturbate on my foot and I wouldn’t let her, she threw herself on top of me and pushed me down to the 12-foot bottom of the pool.”

After some time, Brenner and Dolly consummated their relationship — he vertical, she horizontal — but Brenner eventually moved away and Dolly was sent to an aquarium in Mississippi, where she later died.

Brenner is a thinking person’s zoophile. He draws a careful distinction between zoophiles and mere bestialists, noting in “Dolphin Lover” that the latter “might just have sex with an animal and walk away,” while the former “is someone who has tender or caring emotions for their animal partner.”

He doesn’t think anyone is necessarily born with these particular sexual proclivities. That runs counter to the dogma of a number of other zoophiles. In the documentary, Brenner explains that he believes his zoophilia is the result of the “very intense physical and sexual abuse” he claims to have suffered in early childhood at the hands of psychologist Albert Duvall, a student of the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. “I think I found animals to be a safe and secure repository for my sexual desires,” he says in the movie.

Brenner also draws parallels between current anti-bestiality laws and the anti-miscegenation laws of the 19th and 20th centuries because, as he says in the documentary, “150 years ago, black people were considered a degenerate sub-species of the human being. ... And I’m hoping that in a more enlightened future, zoophilia will be no more regarded as controversial or harmful than interracial sex is today.”

“The Shape of Water” likewise frames its interspecies romance in social-justice terms. Perhaps, I thought, Brenner considered the movie a personal triumph, a sign that zoophiles are at last gaining acceptance in the mainstream.

Brenner, as it turned out, had not seen the film, but he was happy to watch it for the purposes of our discussion, which took place over the phone and via Facebook. The conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and continuity.

So, what’d you think?

My overall impression is it was an unabashedly romantic fantasy.

How so?

Oh, the whole setting. The elaborately evil and oppressive institution, the notion of a couple of washerwomen going up against big whatever-it-was, big military, I guess. This godlike fish being that is ugly in a beautiful sort of way — or beautiful in an ugly sort of way. I thought they did a very good job of conveying that. I found myself alternately attracted and repulsed by him. And the way the whole romance developed, I thought it developed much too quickly.

You know, even though he had mangled one human being, it just seemed like she felt he had a heart of gold from the beginning. It was a very stereotypical romance. I thought it went more back to “Splash” with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, like a female version of “Splash.” It didn’t have much to do with my book, which I think of as journalism passing as a novel.

Do you think the fact that the creature in the movie was in captivity changed the nature of the relationship at all?

Well, the captivity was so patently cruel and sadistic. I don’t think you can compare it to much in the way of the captivity of marine mammals — at least what I’m familiar with, outside of some places like Indonesia or Russia, where they still have traveling dolphin shows. In fact, there’s one scene where the creature is shackled down and he looks like Charles Laughton in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” That’s a little cinematic giveaway there.

There is the parallel between the fact that both Elisa and the creature are mute. Although, the creature certainly manages to express itself.

Yeah, it actually reminded me a lot of how you wrote that there was a telepathic connection between you and the dolphin.

The thing about that is, if you’re a rational, or more or less rational, human being and you start thinking you’re having a telepathic communication of any kind, you doubt your sanity. I think the only thing that was in any doubt was whether the creature could actually communicate or not. And the only guy who did doubt it was the bad guy, what was his name, I forget. [It was Richard Strickland.]

I thought it was a good movie, it was enjoyable. I thought it was a little long, especially toward the end. A flaw of a lot of modern movies, I think. They’d be better off if they could stick to 90 to 100 minutes.

A lot of people have focused almost entirely on the fact that the movie depicts Elisa having sex with this fish man. I’m just curious what your reaction to that is.

Given the course of the development of their relationship, it seems sort of natural. Although I must say, I find a dolphin a lot more sexy than that thing was. Then again, I’m not Elisa. Maybe you have to take it where you can get it.

But to me, the fact that this won Best Picture, that’s just astonishing. It just shows to what degree it really is fantasy.

Why do you say that?

Because I don’t think … There was a documentary made a couple of years ago ― I’m trying to remember what the name of it was now, I think it was “Zoo.” And it was about this incident where this Boeing engineer went out to this zoo farm in the country and got buggered by a stallion and died. And though that was a very artsy movie in the way it dealt with the subject, it was still, I think, a quadruped.

As long as, apparently, the object of your desire is a featherless biped, we’re not going to let a few gills or scales stand in the way of true romance, seems to be Hollywood’s dictum. Quadrupeds? No. Animals with flukes? No. But if it looks like a man …

You said you find dolphins a lot sexier. Is there any specific quality about dolphins that’s more appealing to you than what was in the movie?

Let’s face it, the whole concept of a gilled man comes from the fact that they didn’t have CGI in the 1950s when they wanted to make “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” They had to use a guy in a rubber suit. This dictates a sort of anthropomorphic form to the creature. A dolphin’s form is non-anthropomorphic. They don’t have any legs. Their limbs are flippers. Their nostrils are a blowhole on top of their head. Their buttocks have become powerful flukes, and they can swim at 20 miles per hour. They are the most radically divergent and one of the oldest of all mammal species from the main mammal line. They’re sleek. They’re smooth. They are interested in us, usually.

And they can be, if they want to be ― as I found out with Dolly, the dolphin that turned into the character Ruby in Wet Goddess ― they can be very discriminating and very, very delicate and gentle with a human being. When she would open her mouth and run her teeth very lightly along my arms and my legs, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I mean, it was amazing. And to have gone through this whole process of where she started out expecting me to respond like a male dolphin would, until it finally had somehow gotten through to her that she had to be more gentle with me, and to see her respond in that way was haunting. It was haunting. That is the kind of intelligence at work in the dolphin mind.

I don’t know to this day and I refuse to speculate about why she might have wanted to have sex with me or a human being in general, but somehow she devoted a lot of attention to me. And over time I came to find it flattering, especially when nobody else was paying any attention to me. So I can understand how Elisa in the movie felt.

Does the fact that Dolly was a female have anything to do with your attraction to her? Do you think you’d be attracted to male dolphins?

No, I wouldn’t be sexually attracted to male dolphins. As an adult, I’m heterosexual, although I cross species lines. As a teenager, as I wrote about in my memoir, there was a time in my life where I was jerking off to the family dog, a male poodle. But it wasn’t because I was gay. It was because his excitement got me very excited, and I found it pleasurable for both of us. If the female poodle had been as responsive as he was, I probably would have been boinking her.

For you, personally, would the presence of humanlike features change your level of attraction?

I think it would, because I’m not attracted to furry art, which combines anthropomorphic and animalistic qualities. What I was really attracted to was her attention and the intellectual ways she challenged me, not her appearance.

You said, “To me, the fact that this won Best Picture, that’s just astonishing. It just shows to what degree it really is fantasy.” I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a little more. Do you think that if the relationship had been depicted as less fantastical, people would have been less accepting?

Oh, yeah, definitely. The closer something comes to bestiality in a person’s mind, the more it’s going to be rejected in the typical case. Guillermo carefully set up a very fantastic atmosphere for the film with very realistic elements in it, like Elisa’s life. That whole laboratory that the women work in is a fantastic fantasy. Most marine research labs look nothing like that.

I’m sure a lot of the good liberals who criticized me for making love with a dolphin loved this film because the hero was a featherless biped. If “the asset” had been a dolphin, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as popular.

Does it bother you at all that people only seem to find this acceptable when it’s fantasy or an allegory? And do you think there will be a day when that changes?

Of course it bothers me. I don’t like people threatening to go Lorena Bobbitt on me because I made love with a dolphin.

Will it change? Who knows? I would like to think that society will become less religious, because the prohibitions in Leviticus are the only conceivable basis for any laws against bestiality. I can’t see that my boffing my dog has any effect on society, good or ill, as long as I’m not hurting her or abusing her. Laws against animal cruelty ought to be sufficient without criminalizing the act of interspecies sex, which organizations like PETA are trying to do.

Do you see this movie as a step toward acceptance at all?

I don’t see it as a step toward acceptance. It’s so obviously a fantasy that most people won’t carry the goodwill over to zoophiles like me. Ask me again when I’ve signed a film contract for Wet Goddess. But I want to be clear about one thing: I didn’t write Wet Goddess for zoophiles. I wrote it for dolphins.

Did you see any of the other movies that were up for Best Picture?

I don’t get out to the movies much.

Is there anything else in particular that stuck out to you about “The Shape of Water”?

I very much like the fact that the academy decided to give Best Picture to a movie with women’s breasts in it. I thought there was nothing inappropriate with that, given the story. You know, it’s probably much more salacious to have the suggestion of a woman having sex with a sea creature than seeing her tits.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Wet Goddess was published. It came out in 2010.

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