When Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” hit theatres in 1975, it did more than just help invent the concept of the summer blockbluster. It also played a dominant role in shaping the idea of sharks as intelligent, vengeful, and ultimately cruel killers, a stereotype that continues to this day.
The movie, based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Peter Benchley. The film follows a local police chief named Martin Brody (played by Roy Scheider) as he tries to keep his town safe from a rampaging Great White Shark. The film was a critical and commercial success, grossing US$7 million in its opening weekend and won three Academy Awards for Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound. It was even nominated for Best Picture but lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The release of Jaws (along with Star Wars two years later) revolutionised the US film industry. It ushered in an era of summer blockbusters and“high-concept” films that focused on easy-to-market premises designed for as large an audience possible.
However, the movie did far more than just usher in the modern age of cinema. It also helped fuel a worldwide revulsion of a species that, before, had been ignored at best or considered a distant threat at worst.
The shark of Jaws was as far from the real thing as one could get. Real-life sharks prefer to be left alone while Jaws’ shark is shown to actively hunt humans. A real shark will only take a bite of you by mistake but Jaws’ shark is deliberate in its attacks. You are more likely to die from cows or performing DIY at home than a real shark attack but you’d never guess that watching Jaws.
The shark of Jaws was little more than a basic movie monster and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – who doesn’t love a good monster flick? But on the other hand, people didn’t go on massive iguana-killing sprees after seeing Godzilla.
By making the monster an easily identifiable, real-life animal, Jaws inadvertently convinced audiences that this is what sharks were actually like. And if sharks are vicious killing machines just waiting for a chance to turn your family into a gory picnic, then going out to hunt them is not such a bad thing. George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, in a 2015 article (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33049099) by the BBC: “A collective testosterone rush certainly swept through the east coast of the US. Thousands of fishers set out to catch trophy sharks after seeing Jaws.”
What made it worse was the relative ease with which people could go about hunting sharks (something the film showed clearly). To quote Burgess again: “It was good blue collar fishing. You didn’t have to have a fancy boat or gear – an average Joe could catch big fish, and there was no remorse, since there was this mindset that they were man-killers.”
After Jaws first screened, many species of shark saw their populations suddenly drop by between 50 and 90%.
Of course, sharks are endangered by other factors that don’t involve human vendettas – Greenpeace, for example, estimates that as many as 11 417 sharks are killed every hour, mostly due to commercial fishing accidently catching them in their nets or deliberately catching for their fins.
Still, the reputation of sharks as ruthless killers hasn’t exactly helped conservation efforts. Things have gotten so bad that even Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, eventually wrote an open letter to the Australian Guardian newspaper where he urged people to stop using his work to justify anti-shark hatred.
At the end of the day sharks are no more dangerous than any other predator which finds their natural habitat disturbed. As we commemorate International Shark Awareness Day, we should take the opportunity to educate ourselves on the important role they play in their ecosystem and learn why it is so important that they be protected.