After Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water swept the 90th Academy Awards, one question was on everybody’s minds: what is it about monster romances that’s so alluring?
Critics offered all kinds of answers, many coming from a feminist perspective pointing out the preponderance of stories in which a woman has to “see past” a man’s monstrous form and the comparative dearth of the inverse (with the perennial exception of Splash). Pairings of beautiful women and monsters go back at least to Beauty and the Beast, and it’s easy to read them as parables about good women looking past brutish appearances to see the good beneath—not necessarily a great lesson about violent, brooding men. Alternately, these stories can be read as coded references to the chastity expected of young women prior to marriage versus the near-predatory sexual hunger of young bachelors.
But I don’t think this is the whole picture. These explanations don’t account for the contemporary popularity of monster love stories amongst women, including the immense numbers of such stories written by women themselves.
One of my favorites in this category is Kore Yamazaki’s The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which was adapted into a anime in 2017. But don’t take my word for it: the series won Best Drama in the 2017 Crunchyroll anime awards. It’s a story about a mysterious, bone-headed (literally and figuratively) mage who adopts a young girl with immense magical powers named Chise Hatori as his apprentice, with the goal of finding a way to prevent her natural magical prowess from killing her—the typical fate of her kind.
The Ancient Magus’ Bride isn’t quite a traditional romance—while the title implies romantic connection, the relationship between the titular Magus Elias and Chise is somewhat ambiguous. Initially, Elias takes on a fatherly, mentor-like role, introducing Chise to the world of magic. Later however, Chise becomes the teacher as she guides him on the equally-mysterious ways of humanity. It’s a complicated relationship, a sometimes-uncomfortable one, and one that in the hands of a less-skilled writer could easily verge into off-putting territory. So why is it so popular, especially amongst female audiences?
Well, what if we reversed the question? Instead of asking about the attraction to these stories in spite of the monsters’ inhumanity, we assumed that this was exactly their draw? What would that mean for the peculiar appeal of the human woman and monstrous man pairing?
When I asked Twitter what they found compelling about these stories, I got over a hundred passionate replies. These responses show that it isn’t a simple matter of learning to love a dangerous or volatile man—audiences enjoy these tales for all kinds of reasons. Here are some of my favorites:
they have the appeal of a protective, strong type but without the cultural baggage most men have of ‘masculinity’. Additionally a non-human person would presumably have less normative perceptions of human bodies which deeply appeals to me as a trans person.
— Mia (@DeadTomsDead) April 27, 2018
The monster is a way to indulge in all the things we are told are really scary about sex — the wildness, the physicality — that are in fact awesome when compared to sterile bourgeois sexual conventions. I especially dig ones where the non-monster char becomes a monster
— Roxy 🌹🦁 (@redrawnoxen) April 27, 2018
I think in the case of male monsters, it’s approaching something dangerous and potentially harmful, which people who attracted to or date men are very accustomed to, but finding gentleness and kindness, which we aren’t necessarily
— Kendra 🐷 (@kendrawcandraw) April 27, 2018
As an ace person, I really like how sexual attraction isn’t really as in-focus in monster relationships (though it can be)… they kind of transcend that and focus on the souls and the partnership of the characters. I like the idea of connecting with someone in that way.
— ♥ Reilly ♥ // NO. GENDER. in. THE WASTELAND. (@rararazputins) April 27, 2018
nb here but honestly its the factor is that usually, monsters won’t follow the socialization dudes do. sure, they might not look human but at least they wont start catcalling, feeling entitled to sex, or enforce the whole alpha male bs
(and monsters in general are NEAT)
— Radicles ! (@radicles_) April 27, 2018
BIG. But it’s interesting how modern monster romances are the opposite of the beast husband trope in fairytales. Where marrying a beast used to represent anxiety of arranger marriage, now a beast can represent a masculine force w/o toxic masculinity.
— brianna “jean jacket” jean barker (@bri_bark) April 27, 2018
It’s enticing to see seeing something dangerous or powerful or ancient or unknowable showing weakness and acting as an equal to a character that you yourself can project onto, there’s a lot of allure in that.
— Yuko (@aidosaur) April 28, 2018
As the myriad responses show (and you should totally check out the dozens more I received), for many fans monster love stories are less about the taming of the bestial qualities in men and more about the monsters themselves—similar to, but set apart from men themselves. In The Ancient Magus’ Bride, for instance, Elias first appears as a totally alien, unknowable creature. As a result, Chise and Elias’ dynamic is very different from the relationship between Chise’s friend Alice and her human mentor Renfred.
In attempting to explain the female appeal of slash fic, academics reasoned that these stories provided an outlet for straight women to experience romance where the lovers were on an equal footing. It makes sense, then, that monster romance stories are written and read for similar reasons—only in this case, the character the reader can identify with is paired with a male-coded yet socially alien creature, one who doesn’t carry the baggage of sexism and misogyny. The monster characters can take on protective, nurturing roles and paradoxically may even carry less fear of unpredictable behavior and violence than actual men.
Plus, as several people told me, it doesn’t hurt than monsters are alien not just socially, but physically. As one person put it:
— 🍄Lilypad🌸 (@enabledowner) April 27, 2018
So if you’re a fan of the genre and you haven’t already checked it out, I highly recommend The Ancient Magus’ Bride. And if you love that Oscar-winning fishman and want more stories like it, the series is the perfect place to start.