We need to talk about sharks. We love to humanise our animals, make them seem relatable and all, but it seems our poor sharks are missing out.
Think about the success of Blackfish (2013), a documentary on killer whales killing humans. We feel sorry for the orcas because they’ve been portrayed as loving mothers, misunderstood outcasts and intelligent species dreaming of a life at sea. Cue a shark attack and what happens? The media goes crazy over a cold-blooded killer.
So, if we can sympathise with the orca, can we sympathise with the shark?
Bob Al-Greene (2014) talks about Shark Week – Discovery Channel’s longest running program – and sums the issue up:
‘The annual event reminds us to treat these creatures of the deep with deference and respect. Every other week of the year, sharks are cast as man-eating monsters, and, occasionally, an airborne menace.’
That’s exactly it: our perception of sharks is derived from pop culture, an understanding built on myths, rather than solid facts. And it all began with the shark mania of the 1970s, and no, I don’t mean the friendly, air-breathing great white named Jabberjaw (1976).
Jaws (1975) was a strange discovery for the public imagination (Colwell, 2015). Before 1975, sharks in cinema were in a different category. Post Jaws, the idea of marauding sharks became stuck in the psyche of beach-goers around the world, creating a fear the media still exploits today (Francis 2012).
And so, it became the most successful movie of all time (until Star Wars), setting the stage for many spine-chilling thrillers to come: (Deep Blue Sea (1999), Open Water (2003), The Reef (2010), Shark Night 3D (2011) and Bait (2012)) reinforcing the public and scientific perception that sharks are vengeful creatures on the kill (Colwell, 2015).
And, as if our obsession wasn’t enough, Sony releases another thriller with another hot bae.
Beyond pop culture
Over the years Jaws has been a touchstone for media reporting (Francis 2012), with headlines referncing the movie’s themes, exploiting fears whenever a shark attack occurs.
Recent coverage of a local shark attack confirms.
Sydney Morning Herald however, uses quite provocative language: ‘dragged from the surf’; ‘attacked, biting into the flesh’; attacked again, swallowing his leg…’, only to then list every other shark attack since 1923 – proving that 40 years on, the image of sharks as ‘stalking, killing machines’ lives.
Fish are friends, not food
This image however, was challenged with the release of Disney’s Finding Nemo (2003), featuring a fish-friendly shark named Bruce. The character is a to nod the mechanic shark used in Jaws, and while he’s visually similar to a real great white, he showcases a more human and expressive face.
Similarly, DreamWorks’ Shark Tale (2004) follows the story of Lenny, a kind soul who happens to be vegetarian – and much more anthropomorphic in shape and behaviour.
Here, we have two subplots that Eric Maus (2011) puts so perfectly:
‘The sharks have the same problem: they want to give up their fish eating ways and befriend their fellow sea dwellers, instead of devouring them.’
‘You see something, you eat it. Period. That’s what sharks do.’ – Shark Tale (2004)
It’s a technique that Pierson (2005) describes as using human social organisation – with its concerns, values and morals – to evaluate the natural world, or in this case, to understand human relations using animal behaviour.
In this rare occasion, we humanise these sharks and try to portray them as the ‘good guy’, but they loose their true identity along the way: meat eaters, predators of the sea. Must a shark be a vegetarian to avoid being the villain in our story?
Heroes Vs. Villains
According to Pierson (2005), we categorise animals into the cuteness/repulsiveness dichotomy: humans are attracted to animals sharing the same biological features of our infants, such as a lion cub. Animals with features outside human abilities are associated with negative value – hello, shark.
But there’s hope. Pierson (2005) recognises the gradual rise of the beautiful, but deadly predator image – an image serving the survival and protection of sharks by humans.
In fact, sharks have long been held in high reverence as aumakua (spiritual family protectors) by generations of Hawaiians (Ikaika Ito, 2015). And while they’re one the most feared animals, an estimated 100 million are killed per year – by humans – for oil, meat and fins (Stone 2013) – the exact message artists Featherwax & Matteo Musci are trying to get across:
So maybe it’s time to look at sharks with a new light: to surpass decades of fear and acknowledge them as beautiful creatures of the deep.
As The Guardian so powerfully puts it: perhaps their safety is the bigger problem.