Aquaman is undeniably a story where hybridity and inclusivity triumph, as both personal characteristics and philosophical approaches to life. This celebration of mixed bloodlines has been hailed as a revocation of the racist ideologies embedded in much of its pulp inspiration, such as the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
While Lovecraft would certainly have been distressed by the moral of Aquaman (as by the teratophilic romance in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water), there is more of the racism associated with the author embedded in the film than is immediately apparent. Lovecraft’s stories utilize – to borrow the term from Brooks E. Hefner – a “eugenic epistemology,” a racist view which holds “that knowledge about character and identity can be gained through the description and taxonomic indexing of bodies.” (652) Or, in other words, that appearance is indicative of an individual’s personal qualities. Even as Aquaman rejects notions of racial purity and as it celebrates the possibilities inherent in hybridity and change, it still falls back on narratives of genetic determinacy and degeneracy. These ideas are inextricably linked to the eugenic epistemology which defines the supremacism the film is trying to critique.
Understanding the racial politics of Aquaman requires a simultaneous acceptance of the biological narrative established within the world of the film and a critical view of the creative decisions which resulted in that reality. First, there is the film’s propagation of a narrative of evolutionary “progress” by willingly classifying the outcomes of natural selection as a degenerate and regressive.
Second, it is necessary to explore the way the film’s assumptions interact with historical reality, with special attention to the audience’s credulity when presented with a narrative which explicitly uses visual cues—as well as narrative ones—conveying degeneracy and hierarchical taxonomy.
Does evolution make mistakes?
The biological reality in Aquaman is aggressively segregated. Each of the undersea kingdoms of Atlantis is patterned on a drastically different body type, conveying a long evolutionary history of isolation and dramatic speciation. By providing an explanation for the various kingdoms which relies on an evolutionary process, the film implicitly posits that a formerly unified humanoid species (seen briefly in a flashback) with minor variation in gene expression at a surface level (variations in skin tone, eye color, hair color and texture, etc.) would evolve into sexually incompatible species exhibiting massive morphological differences in the course of mere tens of thousands of years. In so doing, Aquaman is unconsciously reinforcing the idea that “race” is a prelude to speciation, an idea which is in no way reflected in the biological record.
Each kingdom that evolved out of the original Atlantis is established as having developed from a sentient, humanoid species into distinct sentient species possessing of differences in culture, political ideology, and physical traits. Their morphological distinctions are seen as correlating with their social development, for example, the crab-like Brine – renown for their prowess in physical conflict – are possessing of powerful bodies and hard carapaces (the better to fight you with, presumably). While, the kingdom of the Fishermen are delicate, polychromatic merpeople noted for being a non-violent, intellectually and artistically motivated society. The hand-wave-y evolutionary explanation postulates some form of environmental natural selection was involved in the speciation of the different kingdoms.
Taken without its pseudo-scientific evolutionary history, those choices would have remained ambiguous in their allegorical potential. But the inclusion of that history and the decision to characterize the mysterious Kingdom of the Trench as a primitive, evolutionary regression unfortunately cleave closer to the racist semiotics of the pulp era, ultimately undermining the film’s attempt at deconstructing supremacist ideology.
The manifestation of an “animalistic,” “primitive” degeneracy through genetic contamination or evolutionary error is rampant throughout Lovecraft. It is, arguably, the defining feature of Lovecraft’s racial anxieties, encompassing religious, class, and ethnic groups whom he considered inferior. Lovecraft explicitly invokes a eugenicist, genetic determinist vocabulary when describing rural whites in “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Lurking Fear:”
…a primitive colonial peasant stock whose isolation for nearly three centuries in the hilly fastnesses of a little-travelled countryside has caused them to sink to a kind of barbaric degeneracy, rather than advance with their more fortunately placed brethren of the thickly settled districts.
(“Beyond the Wall of Sleep” 28)
Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation.
(“The Lurking Fear” 285)
Embedded within the ideas of de-evolution and degeneracy is the belief that there is such a thing as evolutionary “error.” This normative, teleological understanding of evolution is a direct continuation of the eugenicist view that social and cultural variance and adherence to Western standards of “development” reflect not only immutable, fundamental differences between groups, but also indicate different stages along the evolutionary path towards a perfected biological organism.
Given that natural selection operates on a non-normative principle of survival, it is illogical to argue that a species which is well-suited to its environment is a product of de-evolution. The Kingdom of the Trench evolved within an environment of limited natural resources. They are swift to respond to new presences in their environment, do not appear to have any defined settlements, and they are able to communicate between themselves insofar as they act as a group.
Unfortunately, given the tendency toward anthropocentrism and specifically to the prioritization of the cognitive and social characteristics which are considered to evidence “sentience,” the Kingdom of the Trench is subjected to evaluation using a set of standards which, in addition to continually being updated, are impossible to ascertain from the evidence presented in the film itself.
For example, the ability to communicate abstract knowledge between individuals is one of the qualities which is considered proof of a high degree of sentience. There is no evidence of audible language in the few scenes where actual denizens of the Trench are present. They are capable of coordinated responses, however, which implies at least the level of sophistication present in social insects (bees, ants, and termites). The possibility of non-verbal communication, through metaphysical or mundane means, is never addressed. It is possible that they have some method of communication equivalent to sign language (which emerges organically in communities with significant rates of congenital deafness just as spoken language does in communities dominated by hearing individuals). And, given that Aquaman, includes a giant telepathic sea monster, the possibility of telepathic communication between individuals of the Kingdom of the Trench cannot be discounted.
Not intended as a full-scale re-interpretation of the Aquaman cinematic canon, these questions are intended to encourage a critical response to the paucity of information provided by the characters and, therefore, the audience. Even the hybrid champion of the narrative is unable to eschew the rampant hierarchical taxonomy which dominates Atlantean culture. The relative “inhumanity” of the Kingdom of the Trench is accepted at face value and its people are dealt with accordingly; they are invaded and slaughtered in the name of personal and political expediency.
Looking for ourselves
The reduction of an entire branch of Atlantean evolution to an undifferentiated, expendable Other is part and parcel of a eugenic semiotics which strips groups of their potential as subjects and, simultaneously, relieves the audience of any moral or emotional responsibility to them.
It is imperative to recognize the way that physiognomic indicators (the lack of humanoid features, the absence of spoken language, inclusion of claws and teeth, etc.) are still used in fantasy media to demarcate the “human” (or “analogously human”) from the “in-human” and “non-human.”
Acceptance by authors and audiences of this sort of physiognomic shorthand is an implicit acceptance of the eugenic epistemology employed by Lovecraft and others who shared his limitations. It actively transforms bodies into texts which can be perused for information about the emotional and intellectual capacities of other beings and propagates the idea that it is possible to intuit the presence of subjectivity by observing an entity’s physical form. In addition to the racist underpinnings of this logic, it closes the door on the possibilities—narrative and philosophical—provided by intelligences or beings which fail to conform to categories with which we are already comfortable.
Human history is a litany of failure to recognize subjectivity. Inclusion and exclusion from “the human” has been the primary method of instituting power relations and enacting political and social subjugation. Consider the way Black people were reduced to chattel under American slavery, the belief that women are dominated by their biological functions (and thereby cognitively and emotionally deficient), or the assertion that life begins at conception, and it is possible to see how, in defining what constitutes a “human being,” we have determined not only which people are allowed to engage in self-determination, but which entities are entitled to consideration and empathy.
Lovecraft failed to appreciate that the human experience is multifarious, and that variety in ways of life in no way diminishes the humanity of those who live it. He could more easily imagine vast unknown and unknowable alien intelligences capable of dwarfing mankind in their considerations, than he could imagine that working class immigrants might contribute intellectually and culturally to the human experience. Continuing the Lovecraftian tradition which can imagine previously unknown sentience and intelligence existing only at a scale greater than humanity’s would be a mistake. We should be able to imagine that such unexplored ways of being exist on Earth concurrent with humanity, not only as intrusions from beyond the stars.
Ultimately, by endowing a comprehensible—if unknowable—consciousness to the Cthulhoid horror at the bottom of the trench and banishing an entire branch of the Atlantean evolutionary line to mute unrecognizable collectivism, Aquaman may have become truly Lovecraftian.
Brooks E. Hefner. “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 60, no. 4 (2014): 651-676. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 23, 2019).
Aquaman. Directed by James Wan. United States: Warner Bros., 2018. Film.
Lovecraft, H.P. “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” In The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ruth Tillman, 28–40. CthulhuChick.com, 2011. http://arkhamarchivist.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/.
Lovecraft, H.P. “The Lurking Fear.” In The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Ruth Tillman, 277–301. CthulhuChick.com, 2011. http://arkhamarchivist.com/free-complete-lovecraft-ebook-nook-kindle/.