Researched by Harrie Woodhams and Maeve Cullinan
Written by Harrie Woodhams
Edited by Maeve Cullinan
Trigger warning: this article includes discussion of rape, gendered and sexual violence.
Disclaimer: To make it clear, we’re not trivialising sexual assault or trying to say that
shark attacks are the same as rape. Nor are we saying that those who survive shark attacks are the same as survivors of sexual assault. We’re reflecting on the way that the violence depicted within shark films is deeply misogynistic and sexualised.
Jaws, when it was first released, became the highest grossing film in history. Since then, hundreds of shark films have been released, resulting in the popular ‘sharkploitation’ film genre. Containing many of the same tropes as horror and slasher films, they are some of the most tropological films in history, so it makes sense to think about them generally. It’s undeniable - society loves shark films. There are over 180 different films centred on shark attacks on IMDb+. According to this article, The Meg grossed $530 million in box office sales worldwide. 47 Meters Down’s budget was $5.5 million, yet it made a $40 million profit. We live in a world in which there are six Sharknado films – and counting. But we need to talk about how shark films are deeply problematic.
We need to examine the sexual politics of shark films. We need to talk about their depictions of sexualised violence.
Shark films can be read as an extension of rape fantasy. Take the opening scene of Jaws as an example: a young woman named Chrissy skinny dips in the sea after a beach party, and she is followed by a man who has been watching her. She begins to be attacked by a shark as she exclaims in pain “it hurts” and “please stop”, whilst the man takes his clothes off on the beach and shouts “I’m coming”. Walter Metz, in his paper, describes how these sounds alone would surely constitute the scene as a kind of rape. The advertising poster of Jaws further emphasises this, indicated by the phallic shape of the shark’s head. The shark in Jaws is male; although this is not explicitly referred to in the film, Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel on which the film is based presents the shark as male and Spielberg echoed this during filming. A popular trope in shark films is to film voyeuristically from the perspective of the shark, with the camera angled at the legs and genitals. This can be interpreted as a representation of the voyeuristic, predatory male gaze. Sharks stalk their female victims before attacking them, mirroring the patterns of gendered violence in the real world. The misogynistic undertones typical to shark films are latent; Jane Captui’s essay Jaws as Patriarchal Myth exemplifies this, in which she describes how Jaws was partly a retaliation to the women’s liberation movement.
So, if shark attacks are incredibly rare (2 people were killed by Sharks in 2019), yet gendered violence is all too common (2 women a week killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone) – what does this say about society’s perception of male violence? Can we liken this more broadly to the ‘not all men’ argument, most recently used in the widespread response to the rape and murder of Sarah Everard? By both pushing male violence into the abstract as well as presenting the female characters in these films as objects, that both the audience and male characters inevitably want to protect, do shark films remove society’s accountability for gendered violence? Savanna Teague described how the plot of Jaws, outside of the shark attacks, is about “male-driven conflict”. Indeed, the men of the film save the day - Chief Brody, Hooper, and Quint act as “acceptable masculine presences” and defend the community from harm (see here her full analysis of the gender politics of Jaws). The shark in Jaws is depicted as a particularly violent and blood thirsty villain, the megalodon in The Meg as an extra-terrestrial demon. Making the security threat (the shark) so hyperbolically villainous distracts the viewer from the normality of gendered violence and allows cishet men, the usual perpetrators, to occupy the position of hero.
We have watched and analysed many shark films and the recurring tropes are always objectified female bodies, stalking, terrified women, and extreme violence. These tropes mirror the fantasies of rape pornography and are deeply misogynistic. Yet, these films are readily available and legal. A new shark film is churned out each year with little thought. They’re often rated 15. The interpretation of shark films as rape pornography is elucidated in Shark Night. Again, the advertising poster of this film features a phallic shark head, this time coupled with the face of a terrified, screaming woman. The film is deeply troubling containing all of the problematic tropes. Its reception was predominantly negative – it has a rotten tomatoes score of only 18%. Yet, the plot of the film, perhaps unintentionally, can reveal the more unsettling way in which violence against women is captured on screen. It follows a group of college friends who go to a lake house and are terrorised by sharks; towards the end of the film it is revealed that these sharks have been intentionally placed in the lake by three men who have been recording these torturous killings and selling the footage on the dark web. Again, the connections to rape pornography are evident. This review of the film reveals the problem with what people want from shark films: “a joyless excursion into the water that doesn't even produce good gore or nudity thanks to the neutered PG-13 rating". The connection between “good gore” and “nudity” shows that what people desire from shark films is one in the same as what they enjoy about rape pornography. One reviewer reflects on how the film ventures into “torture-porn” territory, yet it could be argued that every shark film, in some way, employs an element of “torture” porn.
Arguably, another common theme in shark films, particularly those released in the past 5 years, is the erotization of female sexuality for the consumption of cishet male audiences. In shark films, women’s appearances and actions alike operate in accordance with the male gaze: they appear helpless (in need of a male saviour), they have the idealised female body, and, for most of their time on screen, appear in tiny bikinis with their bodies on show. Notably, several shark films such as 47 Meters Down, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged,The Reef, and Surrounded see female characters undergoing shark attacks together. They are often sisters or friends who have a strained relationship that is overcome through their attempts at survival against the threat of the shark. At the end of the film, there is often one or multiple women covered in blood having enacted revenge upon the shark, clinging to some sort of raft, or each other. These moments certainly have erotic undertones, owing to their constantly sexualised appearances and physical interactions with one another. Yet, these women are idealised, and more often than not written and watched by men. As Kristin Puhl argued in her article on the co-option of lesbianism by straight men, the sexualised, feminine lesbian has been a long staple in mainstream media – “from Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl to the infamous kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears”. The absence of male characters in these more recent shark films and the survival of near-naked women going through a traumatic event with one another, we would argue, is yet another example of male control of female sexuality.
However, are all shark films really extensions and sanitisations of rape fantasies? Some of the shark films we have watched left us feeling confused. Yes, they employed many of the problematic features of shark films which we’d deem misogynistic: objectification of women constantly in bikinis, voyeuristic camera angles and extreme violence combined. Yet, there was also elements to some of the films we watched that felt at odds with this. For example, Metz describes how the film Open Water, which follows a couple’s holiday to the Caribbean where they are left stranded whilst on a snorkelling boat tour, avoids misogynistic undertones by its use of anti-pornography. It has many of the features of a pornographic film: banal film aesthetic, cheap video production and bad acting. Yet, the sex act is never fulfilled, as such, the audiences’ sexual gratification is unfulfilled. The violence of the shark act is not made obvious to the viewer, it goes on below the water and whilst the couple are sleeping. When the husband eventually dies from shark related injuries, the wife submerges under the water, taking her life. There is something powerful about this moment, a display of agency in a situation where all signs of agency have been lost. Within the films, The Reef, 47 Metres Down Uncaged and Surrounded, although also feature many misogynistic tropes, in contrast to this, is the fact that the female protagonist survives in each film, whilst the men surrounding the female protagonist die, often plagued by hubristic arrogance. There is an element of female survival which is at odds with the misogynistic depictions of violence within shark films.
A particularly powerful example of this is The Shallows. Again, there are the objectifying bikini shots coupled with violence. There are also very cheesy moments. But, to us, there was something that felt feminist about it. Blake Lively’s character Nancy is not your usual damsel in distress- she’s a medical student, a talented surfer and displays a great deal of skill and intelligence which eventually allows her to survive from the shark attack. Moreover, like 47 Metres Down, 47 Metres Down Uncaged and Surrounded, the film very much passes the Bechdel test. Perhaps, then, these films still can be read as depictions of misogynistic, sexualised violence, but also their depiction of female survival can be aligned with sexual assault victim’s survival stories. Does Nancy’s triumph, bravery, and determination to overcome the shark after her horrific ordeal act as some sort of catharsis to victims of male violence on screen? Maybe.
So, the question remains - shark films: an exercise of darkest predatory fantasies, or expressions of survivor’s resilience?