The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.
If there’s one thing the internet loves, it’s taking a joke too far. It’s hard to remember such things in 2020, but there was a time when trying to one-up the absurdity of the day’s meme was one of the major pastimes of Twitter. (Were we ever so young … ?) These days, for good reason, that happens less and less. But this week, for a brief moment, and in a much more subdued manner, it happened again. The topic? Octopus sex.
Let’s get a couple things out of the way first. One, this is not about The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife or tentacle porn. Two, it’s not about sex at all. Instead, the subject of this discussion is My Octopus Teacher, a new Netflix documentary that explores the relationship its subject and producer—Craig Foster—forms with a cephalopod in a South African kelp forest. It’s a very sweet and heart-wrenching film, and while, yes, the term cephalopod does sound vaguely horny, there is nothing sexual about My Octopus Teacher. It’s just a story about a guy who really, really loves a mollusk.
We can hear you snickering. We are too, largely because that feels OK. No one involved in the Octopus Sex Movie Discourse (at least none that we’ve seen) is actually claiming malpractice. No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. Or, well, they weren’t harmed by humans; octopi are still predators, after all. No, this entire meme is the result of a game of Twitter Telephone that turned increasingly bizarre largely thanks to juvenile humor and the fact that Covid lockdowns mean that a lot of people are watching a lot more Netflix.
As best as we can tell, here’s what happened. Netflix released My Octopus Teacher on September 4. It gained a few viewers over the next week or so, and then, earlier this week, feminist scholar Sophie Lewis wrote a Twitter thread in which she called it “a flawed but moving documentary about a straight man who has a life-changing erotic relationship with a female octopus.” Lewis’ point was far more nuanced than the initial tweet let on, but as soon as the notion of octopus sex was suggested, the idea took off.
In many ways, the documentary invites this commentary. In the opening sequence, Foster, discussing his relationship with said octopus, notes, “You feel you’re on the brink of something extraordinary, but you realize there is a line that can’t be crossed.” He later goes on to say that he “slept, dreamt this animal” and that she “was teaching me to be sensitized to the Other—especially wild creatures.” Finally, he notes, “I fell in love with her, but also with that amazing wildness she represented and how that changed me.” Although the physical contact between the two is limited to the kind of touching most people do with their cats, it’s also not wrong to note the language is romantic. It’s also not wrong to just, you know, take “octopus sex” and run with it. It was a nice distraction.
As the discourse continued, it jumped from Twitter into mainstream media. Soon, Vulture had a piece titled “So How Horny Is the Netflix Octopus Movie?” in which writer Rebecca Alter compared the movie’s sexiness to the relationship she had with a leopard slug that stowed away in her takeout bag. (Reader, it was not sexy.) The Daily Beast published a story titled “The Epic Love Story Between a Man and an Octopus.” Finally, just yesterday, The Guardian ran a piece under the headline “An Octopus ‘Love Story’ on Netflix Has Caused Thoughts to Run Wild. Why?”—a question perfect for the answer “because internet” but for which writer Elle Hunt gives a much more thoughtful response. Ultimately, she echoes Lewis’ original point that My Octopus Teacher reflects a certain kind of “scientific masculinity”—the mollusk is only compelling and worthy of study because a man has deemed her so.
Truly, if this isn’t an apt end to this week’s roller coaster of octopus sex discourse, what is? In what other time could we so rapidly go from Innocuous Sea Life Documentary to Sex Scandal to Misogyny Strikes Again in so short a time? It’s 2020; everything has eight arms and lurks below, waiting until you look so that it may suck you in.
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