How “Jaws” Became THE Shark Case-Study

The 1975 film poignantly highlights the eerie use of fictional pieces to shape not only public opinion, but government policy.

There’s no denying it; Jaws is THE shark film. Making a total of $470 million across the globe, and inspiring not one, but 3 sequels, the film cemented sharks as the most classic of movie villains. However, as a shark-fan, I dislike Jaws, but this view was met with confusion from my peers: “What do you mean you hate Jaws? You love sharks”. It is this reply I believe summarises the problem: Jaws is not only THE shark film, it is THE shark case-study, used by many to form their opinions on these animals and influence public policy.

So, what exactly did Jaws do for sharks? The tale of a small town terrified by a spell of fatal shark attacks thrust a relatively unknown animal into infamy overnight. Sharks turned into man-eating monsters.

Indeed, 51% of Americans claim to be scared of sharks, yet only 29% live on the coastline. Therefore, a fraction are actually at risk of a shark attack. The question must be asked whether the public’s fear of sharks is based on the animals themselves or the media’s skewed representation of them.

Jaws depicts 5 fatal shark attacks within a strikingly small timeframe, yet there were only 5 fatal shark attacks globally in 2019. Jaws has drastically over-amplified the threat of sharks to humans. This is echoed in the media’s portal of real-life shark-human interactions. In 2000, after 4 men were killed over 4 months in Australia, witnesses were quick to liken the events to the 1975 film, commenting how “it was Jaws in real action, and I don’t say that lightly”. Then, in 2015, South African newspaper, the Otago Daily Times described surfer, Mick Fanning’s, terrifying “battle” with a shark. In reality, there was no attack; rather a collision between shark and human, and Fanning wasn’t even bitten.

Further concern arises upon the realisation that this is having a direct effect on government legislation. Public policy expert, Christopher Neff, dubbed this the ‘Jaws Effect,’ in which fictional representations in film are used by political figures as analogies to explain real life tragedies. After the events in Australia, the public blamed a single rogue shark, similar to the lone maneater in Jaws. Prominent shark biologists have noted that sharks do not normally hunt humans. Even Jaws author, Peter Benchley, expressed his concern at this legislation, dismissing the idea of the rogue shark, claiming that “such creatures do not exist, despite what you might have derived from Jaws”. Nevertheless, the Australian Government formed the Shark Response Plan, which stated that “in the event of a shark attacking, or attempting to attack, a person, fisheries officers would, upon verification of the identity of the animal, immediately attempt to kill the shark”.

This is a perfect example of the ‘Jaws Effect’. The constant comparison to Jaws was used by the government to form an analogy for the real-life fatalities in Australia. The emotional response generated by a horror like Jaws, when related to real-life events, can be used as a political device to enable swift government action, even in the face of prominent scientific opposition. As a result, lethal shark management measures are still used, not only in Australia, but in 7 other countries, leading to a depletion of shark populations worldwide.

Nevertheless, the media continues to heavily influence public attitude to sharks. Even ‘educational’ shark programs are tinted with the Jaws effect. Discovery Shark Week has been running for 30 years and is admired by shark lovers, including myself, for providing engaging content about one of the world’s top predators. However, its critics have dubbed it “fear mongering week”. In 2014, Shark Week caused outrage by airing “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, which claimed the 15-metre-long prehistoric shark had not gone extinct and instead roamed our oceans to this very day. In airing this documentary, Discovery exploited their position as a scientific platform, inciting irrational fears of extinct sharks as well as living ones.

Sharks are big business, and our fear of them is “used to sell newspapers, magazines and television programs” (Jøn & Aich, 2015),  often at the price of the facts. Therefore, the message of this piece goes beyond a shark fanatic ranting about the injustices faced by her favourite animal. Jaws stands as a poignant reminder of how public perception in society is often entirely fuelled by inaccurate propaganda.

The 1975 film poignantly highlights the eerie use of fictional pieces to shape not only public opinion, but government policy.