7 min read

Heart of Sharkness: Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

I fought the shark and the shark won.
Heart of Sharkness: Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

First, the big news: Beginning this September, my first comic, MAW, will be available at comic shops. It's coming from BOOM! Studios, whose track record with feminist and queer comics is deeply impressive. The artist is A.L. Kaplan, of Full-Spectrum Therapy, meaning (and I'm really grateful for this) that you are going to enjoy looking at the thing, even if you don't enjoy reading it. The covers, from Ariela Kristantina and several other artists, are also unearthly beautiful – just look at this.

I do hope you enjoy reading it, though, because I've been working on MAW for about two years now. It's a horror story about bodies, and trauma, and how cycles of violence repeat themselves; it's got '70s feminists, and witches, and sea monsters, because every good story should have at least one of each.

Beyond that, I don't want to say much. But, as MAW makes its way up into the world, I'll be covering some classic horror movies that are related to it. This newsletter is your first clue.  

It's still scary.

Jaws shouldn’t work in 2021, but it does. It works on me, and I’m a tough crowd. My great philistine shame is that I am bored by most movies from the 1970s. I was born in the ‘80s, so all the media I consumed growing up was at least a little bit hyperactive, and it got more so over the course of my adolescence. The leisurely pace and gold-toned cinematography of ‘70s cinema registers to me as subdued and sleepy, the visual equivalent of being stuck in your Grandma’s den all afternoon.

Jaws is also impossible to spoil. It feels like we were all born knowing the plot. There’s a really big shark off Amity Island, and experts want to close the beaches so it doesn’t eat anybody, but the mayor doesn’t want to, so tourists get chomped. That’s it. You’ve encountered this entire movie in meme form, from the dialogue — “gonna need a bigger boat,” etc. — to the score, which has come to stand in for the very concept of “sharks.”

Jaws is relatively slow, it is shot in a style that I typically don’t find appealing, it has little to no shock value, and most of its scares have been turned into jokes, and yet, whenever I watch Jaws, I recoil in physical terror on multiple occasions. The jump scares still actually make me jump, even the ones that I first encountered as reaction GIFs.

I have no idea what it would have been like to watch Jaws on its opening weekend. I’m amazed anyone survived the initial screenings. What I do know is that even now, its premise — that there is something always out there, always hungry, always waiting for you, right under the surface of the water, where you can’t see — is a tremendous horror.

Jaws, like its large adult son Jurassic Park, tells a universal story: Man, in his arrogance, presumes he can master the natural world. Terror ensues.

I say man with intent. Jaws is very much a dude movie; women don’t do much more than grieve, get eaten, or quietly support their spouses. After about an hour of preliminary tourist-chomping, the story resolves into a contest of masculinities — three would-be shark hunters on a boat, three different styles of being a dude, all of them trying to prove their heroism against the open sea.

Oh, just kiss him and get it over with.

Quint, the shark-hunting sailor with the comical pirate accent, embodies the masculinity of the Greatest Generation. He’s blue-collar and rough and rugged; he fought in World War II; he has seen unbearable horrors, and is consumed with post-traumatic stress, disguised as gruffness and violence and alcoholism. Hooper, the shaggy young oceanographer, is both a nerd and a hippie. His masculinity is looser, softer, funnier, and it is also smarter, by quite a wide margin. Quint and Hooper hate each other, until they wind up drinking together and comparing scars, at which point Quint can concede that Hooper is physically brave enough to join the male gender; it’s an immensely Boomer story, and like all such stories, it is sort of about Vietnam and 100% about hating your Dad.

The third man, Roy Scheider, is there for the shark. Roy Scheider and I are alike in that way. This whole Hurt Locker cauldron-of-masculinity deal, the need to earn your Dad’s respect by getting hurt, requires an outside force to hurt you. If your sense of self is constructed through domination, you need something to dominate. A sailor needs a shark — the bigger the better – and he needs that shark to bite.

Famously, Spielberg doesn’t show us the shark until the very end of Jaws. It was a choice forced on him by a malfunctioning special effect, and it's now perhaps the most famous example of a director using his limitations to make the movie better. The monster's presence is indicated by the objects around it; a swimmer going under, a piece of wreckage being dragged across the surface, the water going red with blood. Because the shark is nowhere, we sense it everywhere. Any time someone enters the water, we expect it to be there, just a fraction of an inch below the frame.

Genuinely one of the scariest shots in the movie.

What we’re afraid of, watching Jaws, isn’t sharks. It’s water. It’s the existence of the ocean, a sphere of life we can never fully monitor or measure, a place where we are fundamentally not at home.

A sailor is a man who creates dry land where there is none. He builds his own little island, his boat, and he goes out, aware that if he fucks up even a little, he will be killed. This is one way to be a man, and it’s the way every guy in Jaws chooses. You tell nature it’s not the boss of you. You find some monster to hunt down and destroy. Even Hooper — who is supposed to be better than this, who is a pacifist and a scientist, committed to studying sea life — eventually agrees that the best way to “study” a great white shark is to blow it into tiny pieces.

I don’t disagree. That shark does like to eat. Still, there are pitfalls to this way of life. There is Quint: A man whose formative traumas all center on sharks, a man who spends his entire life hating sharks and killing sharks and warning everyone against the innate moral wickedness of sharks, a man who deeply needs to show sharks who’s in charge around here, and a man who is eventually eaten by, you guessed it, a fucking shark, because conflict is a form of intimacy, and when you spend your whole life in conflict with something, you give it the chance to get the upper hand.

It’s not the most original plot. There are other nautical epics about obsession with a similar message. Still: In a movie about masculinity, the tragedy of Quint is the tragedy of Men writ large. There’s a conceivable world in which Quint just moved to a landlocked state and spent his whole life whittling and being called “Pappy” by his many grandchildren until he died in his sleep, but that is not a life Quint will ever make available to himself. Patriarchy demands that a man with a profound fear of sharks must build a 98% shark-based lifestyle, just to show he’s not scared.

He should be. The natural world is, and always will be, more powerful than any individual human being, and we know this because in the end, nature always does find some way to kill us. Sure, you can avoid sharks and bears and hurricanes, but heart attacks and strokes are natural events, too. Living graciously in this world requires an acknowledgment that some things are bigger than you, and always will be. If we could admit this, really and fully accept it as a truth, then the way we treat the world, or ourselves, might change.

Jaws became a meme again in the early months of 2020. The mayor’s craven refusal to close the beaches — his choice to just keep sending people out there, for the sake of "the economy," knowing full well that some will die — suddenly felt very contemporary when the coronavirus hit.

All you have to do is shut down the beaches for four weeks, Roy Scheider tells the Mayor, “and we might save August;” if the death toll rises, tourists will flee the town anyway, leading to a far more devastating economic crash. The mayor refuses. More people die. A grieving mother slaps Scheider in the face and says that her son would be alive if the authorities had acted earlier. The parallels are hard to ignore.

I’m also not that interested in talking about them. Now, at the end of the plague, looking back on the past year and a half feels wearying. Still, to this day, that one core conflict — the arrogance of man, the indifference of nature — does keep playing out.

The way you beat a shark is to stay out of the water. The way to save the summer is to close the beach. The way to avoid getting sick is to stay in your house and wear a mask and do all those things men still Quint-ishly refuse to do, because if you fight with the world your entire life, then you are staying in the fight until the day it kills you. There is no other end to this tale. You lose.

It’s scary, and it ought to be. Fear is involuntary humility, your nervous system smacking you upside the head with a reminder of how small and mortal you are. There is no winning the great fight, but humility allows us to negotiate the terms of our defeat, to live our lives with as much peace and ease as possible, until the beast closes in and drags us under. In Jaws, as in life, the man with the most fear lives. At least, he does for now.

Jaws is available to rent on Google Play and Amazon Prime.

At my other job, I wrote about how hating and being hated by the Catholic church hasn't kept me from praying. I also wrote about Britney Spears, and the violence that is excused or denied when we refuse to listen to "crazy" women.

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