Friday, May 4, 2012



     Released to theaters in the summer of 1975, Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws was nothing less than a cultural event, the first movie to “…break the $100 million mark in box office takings…” (Buckland 86) as well as being the film that set a new standard for Hollywood formulaics.  With Jaws Spielberg “…ushered in the age of the contemporary summer blockbuster” (Buckland 86) and “…revolutionized industry practice…” (Morris 43).  Jaws opened on 494 screens simultaneously and “…eventually grossed around $500 million worldwide…” (Morris 44), reaching millions of people and allowing its director to tap into a mass cultural consciousness.  While Jaws is primarily thought of as a thriller par excellence, it is actually an intellectually complex and disturbing film, most notably in its open embrace of misogyny and depiction of male impotence.  By romanticizing male power dynamics and interrelationships, Jaws posits a highly misogynistic worldview that effectively endorses a deep hatred of the female.
     Jaws is based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, itself a bestseller.  In her book-length study of the film, Antonia Quirke maintains the novel “…was of no particular merit, even as a time passing page turner…” (Quirke 6), but Spielberg hired Benchley to draft the film’s screenplay, which eventually went through three major revisions before arriving at its heavily truncated final form.  Spielberg excised much of Benchley’s plot in favor of an intense emphasis on the shark and its reign of terror over Amity island; Benchley’s novel is more concerned with the personal and psychological effects the shark’s presence has on the principal characters.  Where film and novel converge, though, is in their explorations of masculinity and their demonizations of the female.  Benchley’s prose is wrought with misogyny, reveling in rape fantasies and implied sexual punishments.  Spielberg, while more subtle, allows the same attitudes of dominance to infect his film.  Jaws becomes less a “Moby Dick” evocation of obsession, the classic “man vs. nature vs. himself” motif, than a glorification of male virulence and ascendancy, a “will to power” by way of a natural threat to society; in their heavily academic essay, Thomas Frentz and Janice Rushing posit that the film effectively “…reaffirms patriarchy through the slaying of the feminine…” (Silet 37).


Chrissie Watkins, punished for her sexuality.

     The film’s opening scene establishes Spielberg’s misogynistic tendency.  After flirting with a drunken islander, pretty, young Chrissie Watkins goes for a late night swim and is attacked and killed by the shark.  The attack itself is horrifically violent, Chrissie’s death being “…unconventionally protracted, longer than your average screen murder…something as long as a screen rape” (Quirke 12). Spielberg shoots the scene in a way that heightens its sexualized content: the camera beneath Chrissie, with the shark gazing voyeuristically up at her through the murky blue of the water and the heavenly, ethereal moonlight from above.  John Williams’ score is fittingly surreal, as though hypnotized by Chrissie’s blatant femininity.  If, as David Gilmore states in his full-length study of misogyny that “…the greatest obsession in history is that of a man with a woman’s body” (Gilmore 17), then this opening scene is nothing less than a coveting, with the female (Chrissie) an object of hungry, violent lust.  The shark here illustrates the subtext.  Chrissie’s immolation is “…the perfect metaphor for casual sex…” (Quirke 13); her death is punishment for her wanton sexuality.
     Benchley’s novel is even more explicit in this association.  Prior to the attack, Chrissie and the drunken man have sex on the beach, a mess of “…twined limbs around limbs…”, an act of copulation performed “…with urgent ardor on the cold sand” (Benchley 10).  Afterwards Chrissie bounds into the water, bearing the stench of her sex.  Benchley makes mention of the shark smelling Chrissie; given that sharks are tuned to the scent of blood, Benchley is here suggesting the bizarre quality of menstrual blood as “…the world’s most deadly substance and a magical scourge” (Gilmore 25).  That the shark then destroys Chrissie completely references primitive beliefs of women as sexual witches, reinforcing “…misogynist pollution fears…” with the blood in the water as a contaminant (Gilmore 32) and a deep-rooted, perhaps culturally ingrained, fear of the female.  Spielberg shoots Benchley’s vision of the Watkins attack almost exactly as it occurs “…even to the subjective mood” (Bowles 209), highlighting the author and director’s shared sexual conservatism.


Martin Brody, unsure of himself as always.
     After the attack on Chrissie, Spielberg introduces us to Martin Brody and the film’s other major thematic concern: male impotency.  Brody enters Jaws waking, tired and groggy.  The world continually forgets him; he is small, simple, unmemorable.  Brody is Amity’s Chief of Police, removed from New York, where he was even more invisible.  Brody relishes Amity because in Amity, small and isolated Amity, “…one man can make a difference” (Quirke 41).  Spielberg here gives the impression Brody has never made any difference, in either the lives of the anonymous citizens he’s sworn to protect or the lives of his own wife and children.  As seen by critic Nigel Morris, Brody is shown to be “…morally spineless in his conformity…” (Morris 53), unable to stand up to the various authority figures bearing down on him in the wake of the shark’s voracious attacks.  Spielberg continually shows Brody in the far left or right of the frame, pushed against a figurative wall, pinned down and squirming under the thumbs of Amity’s economic guardians (the shark is pure poison to a community that survives on its summer tourist influx.)

The terror, revealed?
Spielberg revels in Brody’s ineffectualness and pitiful self-awareness.  The most demonstrative instance of this is the pierside confrontation between Brody and Mrs. Kintner regarding the death of her boy, Alex, taken by the shark in a brutal attack several days prior.  Wearing a beaming, near ecstatic smile awash with naivety, Brody hams it up for the newspaper photographers, posing with a group of local fisherman who have just hauled in a tiger shark, which everyone (except for Matt Hooper, the young marine biologist requested by Brody to help deal with the shark) assumes to be responsible for the recent attacks.  Mrs. Kintner approaches Brody clad in a black dress and mourning veil and the entire pier goes silent-her entrance is almost ghostly, perhaps a harbinger of violence to come.  Standing before Brody, Mrs. Kintner slaps him full force and admonishes him publicly for not closing the beaches when he knew there was a shark in the water.  The slap has an incredible significance in establishing Spielberg’s themes.  First and foremost, Mrs. Kintner is calling Brody out on his impotency.  He could have prevented the attack by closing the beaches, if only he could have stood up to Amity’s economic guardianship.  “You knew,” Mrs. Kintner laments.  “My boy is dead,” she goes on, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”       
Brody, humiliated in front of the entire community.
    This is Brody defined: complete inefficacy.  Brody could not gather the courage to stand for what he knew to be right; in sexual terms, this is equitable to failure in maintaining an erection.  Here the slap’s secondary implication becomes clearer.  Mrs. Kintner’s accusation is a public emasculation.  “A slap in cinema is sexual…” (Quirke 36), carrying a severe intimacy.  Mrs. Kintner’s slap “…is like being kissed by a skeleton…” (Quirke 36), both enervating and painful.  Brody is made to cower before a woman, unable to offer up any sort of defense.  He is a failure as an authority figure and also as a man, and the entire gathered community is allowed to bear witness to it.  It’s a humiliating scene that Spielberg plays up for thematic effect; in Benchley’s novel the encounter is private, in Brody’s office, without the physical confrontation.  Spielberg wants to create a sense of rage towards the female in Brody-the embarrassment he suffers as a result of this encounter with Mrs. Kintner will later manifest itself as rage towards and fear of the shark, itself cast as an embodiment of the female.
It's all happening right before his eyes.
     Brody’s emasculation continues in one of the most loaded, subtextual scenes in the film, the dinner scene between Brody, Hooper, and Brody’s wife Ellen.  Over a copious amount of wine, Hooper and Ellen exchange glances and smiles while an oblivious Brody descends into drunkenness (watch how he pours himself an entire glass of wine, more than anyone else at the table).  Ellen is clearly infatuated with Hooper, a young, virile, intelligent man with an aristocratic upbringing, the very opposite of her husband.  Brody is old, tired, and common, retreating from the difficulties of life in New York and finding himself unable to face the challenges wrought by the shark terrorizing Amity island.  The contrast between Brody and Hooper here is extreme; Spielberg uses Ellen’s attraction to Hooper to illustrate Brody’s feelings of insecurity and suggests that they may not be entirely unfounded.  Brody recedes into the background of his own home, made invisible by his wife’s dismissal.  At one point, Ellen’s hand comes to rest on Hooper’s as she gazes at him, seemingly dazzled; in response “Hooper flirts with Ellen, who flirts back, so subtly, almost unaware she’s doing so” (Quirke 39).  Ellen’s eyes glint in the low light of the dining room, a little girl lost in the glow of a crush.  Brody then rouses himself and reiterates Hooper’s earlier suggestion that they go into town and cut open the tiger shark caught earlier, to see if the Kintner boy’s remains are inside.  Ellen reacts immediately, asking “Martin, can you do that?”  It seems a minor, almost throwaway remark, but in light of the tableside scene that just took place, it becomes bitter mockery, a woman questioning a man’s desire and authority.
Together but apart.  The rift that will never be traversed.
     The scene has no parallel in Benchley’s novel.  It was an invention by Spielberg, but it subtly reinforces one of the novel’s strangest and most disturbing (as well as its most misogynistic) episodes, the sexual affair between Hooper and Ellen.  Benchley saw his novel as a comment on class relations, a discourse “…about class consciousness centered around the Sheriff Brody-Ellen Brody-Matt Hooper triangle” (Bowles 211).  Benchley’s Hooper is an arrogant, Ivy League islander, the younger brother of one of Ellen Brody’s old boyfriends.  Spielberg dismisses much of this backstory but does acknowledge Hooper’s wealthy background (at one point in the film, Hooper confesses to Brody that he purchased his research boat with money given to him by his wealthy parents.)  The Ellen Brody of the novel is wracked with longing for the life she could have had had she not married Brody, and she uses Hooper to achieve some semblance of the life she so desperately regrets leaving behind.  Ellen sets out to seduce Hooper; meeting him at an out of the way restaurant, the two get drunk together and discuss sexual matters:

          “(Hooper) poured Ellen a glass of wine, then filled his own and raised it for a toast.  “To fantasies,” he said.  “Tell me about yours.”  His eyes were a bright, liquid blue, and his lips were parted in a half smile.
            Ellen laughed.  “Oh, mine aren’t very interesting.  I imagine they’re just your old run-of-the-mill fantasies.”
            “There’s no such thing,” said Hooper.  “Tell me.”  He was asking, not demanding, but Ellen felt that the game she had started demanded that she answer.
            “Oh, you know,” she said.  Her stomach felt warm, and the back of her neck was hot.  “Just the standard things.  Rape, I guess, is one.”  (Benchley 147).

     This is a very interesting exchange, and is evident of Benchley’s blatant misogyny.  The first fantasy Ellen blurts out is rape, which she considers to be one of “the standard things” a woman fantasizes about.  Benchley also implies that the idea of talking about rape is arousing to Ellen, endorsing a primitive idea of subservience to male sexual authority.  In the novel, Ellen goes on to detail exactly how she would want a man to rape her; Hooper asks if the man raping Ellen has a large penis.  The conversation is so titillating for both parties, they find themselves in a hotel room having sex, and Ellen finds herself reduced to an object:

          Even after his obvious, violent climax, Hooper’s countenance had not changed.  His teeth were still clenched, his eyes still fixed on the wall, and he continued to pump madly.  He was oblivious of the being beneath him, and when, perhaps a full minute after his climax, Hooper still did not relax, Ellen had become afraid-of what, she wasn’t sure, but the ferocity and intensity of his assault seemed to her a pursuit in which she was only a vehicle.  (Benchley 153).

     Again Benchley’s misogyny is on full display here.  The female is only an object to be used for the sole purpose of male satisfaction; the entire conversation that preceded Ellen and Hooper’s coupling was not an instance of two people getting to know one another but a prolonged arousal ritual for the male party’s sole benefit.  Brody eventually begins to suspect the affair, and tensions between the two men in the novel’s final third set aboard the Orca reach a boiling point.  The dinner scene in Spielberg’s film is a heavily truncated version of the events in the novel; we never see Hooper and Ellen have an affair, but the suggestion is made implicit by the flirtations between the two.  Spielberg uses it as a device to further explore Brody’s male insecurities, which manifest themselves aboard the Orca via extended contact with Hooper and Quint, the latter being the garrulous, rogue islander Brody hires to hunt and kill the shark.


Quint brings a lifetime of hatred to his craft.
     The second half of the film and the final third of the novel are congruent, with both detailing the hunt for the shark in the open seas.  Benchley furthers his class consciousness theme with the introduction of Quint, a salt –of-the-earth fisherman who represents, even more strongly than Brody, the “…crusty know-how of small, local businesspeople in America” (Silet 28).  Quint is possessed of a lifetime of wisdom and experience; he is at once arrogant in his confidence and suspicious of what he doesn’t understand or trust (made manifest in his derision towards Hooper’s “anti-shark cage” and chemical means of killing the shark.)  Spielberg brings this into the film almost exactly while adding more misogynistic traits.  Quint is ribald and obvious, given to reciting a number of sexist song lyrics like “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women” and “Here lies the body of Mary Lee/died at the age of one hundred and three/for fifteen years she kept her virginity/not a bad record for this vicinity.”  Quint also takes an immediate dislike to Hooper.   
In one of the more “rapid fire” sequences in Spielberg’s film, Quint and Hooper engage in a back and forth over what it takes to be a fisherman; Quint demands Hooper tie a basic knot and accuses Hooper of having “city hands”: “You’ve been counting money all your life.”  Hooper replies venomously, “I don’t need this working class hero crap!”  Spielberg establishes an early antagonism that clearly makes Brody uncomfortable.  Thrust between two extreme personalities whose knowledge on the matter at hand (sharks and, to a certain degree, masculinity) far exceeds his own, Brody is forced into a diminished role again wherein his authority amounts to nothing other than a title.
Class warfare on the high seas.
     Once aboard Quint’s boat the Orca, Hooper and Quint engage in a number of games of one-upmanship: Quint downs a can of beer in one gulp and crushes the can while glaring at Hooper; Hooper drains a small Styrofoam cup of coffee and crushes the cup in his hand in sarcastic response.  They argue constantly over the most effective methods of fishing for the shark.  As the hunt progresses, the two men fall into something like a rapport based on a latent homoerotic attraction: Hooper sees in Quint the sort of man he wishes he could be, the rogue individual making his own way in the world oblivious to social concerns and obligations.  Quint sees in Hooper what he could have been had his ambition been stronger, had he been less docile and more willing to take part in society.  This dual magnetism becomes a uniting aspect for the two men and allows them to establish a bond based on mutual admiration and attraction.    Though “Quint and Hooper represent polar opposites in almost every imaginable realm…” (Friedman 166), they “…ultimately learn to understand and respect each other, to work together to defeat a common enemy” (Friedman 165).  The bond, which excludes Brody, reaches its culmination in the “scar comparison” scene in the film.
Scars of the flesh, scars of the heart.
     The interactions aboard the Orca almost all revolve around the absence of any female presence, and the “scar comparison” scene is no exception.  Few sequences in the film so aptly demonstrate Spielberg’s latent misogyny.  Over a number of drinks, Quint and Hooper trade barbs, eventually settling in to a swap of war stories and battle wounds: being cut by a thresher shark’s tale (Quint), being bitten by a moray eel (Hooper), etc.  This interaction isolates Brody, standing away from the table where Hooper and Quint sit together; Brody “…has never looked so lonely” (Quirke 70).  Clouded with doubts as to his own masculinity, Brody can only recede into the background yet again as he glances at his tiny appendix scar, ignored by the alpha males.  Quint’s memories in particular speak to a hatred of the female (his reference to an arm-wrestling contest/night out in which he was “…celebrating my third wife’s demise…”) with squealing delight, as well as a glorification of the masculine (again, arm wrestling).  Not to be outdone, reveling in the contest and a need to top Quint, Hooper reveals the ultimate scar.  Baring his chest, he cackles “Mary Ellen Moffit, she broke my heart.”  All three men laugh at this, suggesting a shared understanding that to be spurned by a woman is the greatest pain of all.  Spielberg implies that a woman’s motives are ultimately unknowable (why did Mary Ellen Moffit break Hooper’s heart?) and therefore utterly alien, a true manifestation of the psychoanalytical Other in society. 
The sharks acts according to stranger motivations.
     This brings us to the question of the shark and what it ultimately represents.  In the film, Hooper refers to the shark as “a miracle of evolution,” unchanged in its design since prehistoric times.  The shark is ancient, unknowable, and mysterious.  It is a simple element of nature, supposedly beyond any sort of intelligent motivation; the shark is animal instinct in its purest form.  This shark, though, is different.  Both Quint and Hooper acknowledge it in the film, remarking that neither, between their shared lifetimes of experience, have ever seen a shark behave the way this one does.  Spielberg allows a supernatural element to attach itself to the shark; it seems to strike with intelligence and malice.  It is very much a force beyond instinct.  It makes conscious decisions and behaves in an almost human way.
Hooper, Brody, and Quint, in awe of the shark.
     It becomes apparent that the shark is emblematic of the female in society, the ultimate Other.  Quint and Hooper both react to the shark as one would an attractive woman: they watch it glide along the boat and are mesmerized by its size and grace.  Hooper proclaims the shark “beautiful.”  As it becomes obvious that neither man can possess the shark, though, the attraction becomes anger and disgust, and the urge to destroy it becomes overwhelming for both men.  Brody, true to his established character, is afraid of the shark and fears being devoured, of completely disappearing inside it.  Brody feels eclipsed by the idea of femininity; Hooper and Quint merely hate it.  “The ability of feminine sexuality to disrupt the displaced onto the shark…” (Silet 25) and it becomes the men’s collective mission to silence that sexuality through immolation.
Brody confronts the vagina dentata.
     At this point the shark attains a mythic symbolism.  Jane Caputi, professor of women’s studies at Florida Atlantic University, sees the shark as representing “…the primordial female and her most dreaded aspects…the Terrible Mother of death and hell…” (Caputi 307-08), an engine of fear rooted in primitive beliefs revolving around “…a frightening and terrible mother goddess locked in love/war with a young male protagonist who ultimately kills and dismembers her, thereby creating the new patriarchal order” (Silet 25).  The shark here ceases to be a mere animal and instead assumes the role of a female threat, one that must be slain in order for society to function.  The shark, in the film and the novel, becomes an evocation of one of the most ancient misogynistic beliefs, that of the vagina dentate, the toothed vagina.  In the film especially, there is an intense focus on the shark’s mouth, ringed with bloody, gnashing teeth, eager to consume anything in its path.  In the film’s epic conclusion, we watch as Brody shoves a cylinder of compressed air into the shark’s yawning mouth, effectively smashing the vaginal teeth “…so as to ‘prepare’ the female orifice for male entry” (Silet 26).  This entry comes in the form of a bullet to the tank that explodes and destroys the shark completely. The male penetration and climax (Brody firing the bullet and the subsequent explosion) is so powerful, it renders the female form non-existent, virtually reducing it to a receptacle for male desire and dominance.  The patriarchy is restored through the absolute eradication of the female.
The female, eradicated.
     Both Spielberg and Benchley suggest that the female is inherently evil; by making the shark something beyond an ordinary animal, they imbue it with a motivation towards ruining men in particular.  One could cite the opening attack on Chrissie Watkins or the constant reference in book and film to the shark as “he” as negation of claims of misogyny, but “…gender disguise…is a common practice among patriarchal myths…” (Silet 25) that connects to Spielberg and Benchley’s ultimate distrust and fear of the female.  The shark functions most vividly as threat that is distinctly feminine.  That the threat is contained in such a violent, literally explosive manner is indicative of the subconscious hatred both author and director hold towards the female person.


     In her 2010 book The Male Brain, Louann Brizendine makes the claim that a man’s brain is more interested in objects than emotions.  Perhaps this idea helps to explain why Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley so willingly reduce female characters and female personifications (the shark) into mere totems.  Objects and symbols are far easier to deal with than complex, thinking persons; in a constructed world wherein one object represents another, meanings can be interpreted in any number of ways.  Jaws, as a film and as a novel, offers a fear of an unbridled female sexuality.  Spielberg and Benchley both seem terrified by the possibility of a woman as a sexual or intellectual equal, and in their creative works both men go to lengths to establish scenarios in which the female is reduced or removed. 
Steven Spielberg confronts his greatest fear.
     While not inherently frightening, especially in light of more modern approaches to gender differences in society, the works of Benchley and Spielberg should be approached carefully, with a cognizance of the somewhat archaic notions of femininity both contain.  The works of Spielberg especially bear reflection, as he has maintained a significantly higher and more influential cultural relevance than Benchley.  Ideas have a way of taking on power when they’re communicated and received en masse, and Spielberg certainly has the reach.  Recent films, like Schindler’s List and Munich, have both shown a remarkable leap in maturity, but the critical complaints against him, of being “…incapable of creating complex female figures” (Friedman 8), are as true today as they were when Jaws was released over forty years ago.  The fear of the female is still very present in modern culture, and while our society has made advances in correcting gender inequality, the specter of hatred still looms in the shadows.  Or beneath the waves.


  Benchley, Peter.  Jaws.  New York: Doubleday, 1994.  Print.

  Bowles, Stephen E.  “The Exorcist and Jaws.”  Literature Film Quarterly 4.3 (1976): 196-214.  Print.

  Brizendine, Louann.  The Male Brain.  New York: Broadway Books, 2010.  Print.

  Buckland, Warren.  Directed by Steven Spielberg: Poetics Of the Contemporary Hollywood Blockbuster.  New York: Continuum, 2006.  Print.

  Caputi, Jane E.  “Jaws as Patriarchal Myth.”  Journal of Popular Film 6 (1978): 305-26.  Print.

  Gilmore, David D.  Misogyny: The Male Malady.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.  Print.

  Jaws.  Dir. Steven Spielberg.  1975.  Universal Studios, 2000.  DVD.

  Morris, Nigel, ed.  The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light.  London: Wallflower Press, 2007.  Print.

  Quirke, Antonia.  Jaws.  London: British Film Institute, 2002.    Print.

  Silet, Charles L. P.  The Films of Steven Spielberg: Critical Essays.  Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2002.  Print.