A Scholarly Look at the True Villain of Jaws (hint: it's not Jaws) - Shark Week


Written By Kit Clattery, Harvard Ph.D in Magical Societal Analysis

The villain in the 1975 movie that redefined summer entertainment might seem obvious at first, what with the menacing title of the film being Jaws.

Stephen Spielberg, a modern, allegedly civilized director
Photo courtesy of Gerald Geronimo.

A simplistic analysis of the movie will invariably find the shark at fault for the town of Amityville’s (the setting of the film) problems. Such is the arrogance, and folly, of the modern, allegedly civilized man. It is exceedingly convenient to blame the shark for eating people. The modern, allegedly civilized man demands an apology from the meddling shark. The modern, allegedly civilized man curses the mysterious blue abyss beyond the shore. “Why can’t there be a safe shopping mall down there?” ponders the modern, allegedly civilized man.

Before casting stones at the innocent shark, shouldn’t we attempt to at least pretend to be the modern, allegedly civilized men we claim to be? Shouldn’t we at least look into the eyes of the shark for the sake of understanding it better? Consider the human-made name we give to the film’s supposed nemesis. We call him “shark”. We call him a “man-eater”. The more cruel individuals call him Finwick the third and bring him to masquerade parties clad in a top-hat and monocle. They tell him to shut up and sip the bitter wine slowly, and oh, do some tricks after midnight. Maybe flap his fin for the enjoyment of the party guests.

No shark should be treated in such a cruel manner, not even a fictional one. Instead of calling the shark in Jaws by its bastardized human name, we shall henceforth refer to him as Lennie. This will allow us to relate to Lennie on a more empathetic level, calling to mind the tragic literary figure found in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. For who are we to truly know the intentions of this great fish, Lennie? Who are we to judge? Do we really know for sure whether Lennie meant to devour little Alex Kitner? Perhaps, similar to his namesake found within Steinbeck’s pages, his motivations were pure, and the disastrous consequences unintentional.

No, this holy, scholarly paper refuses to find fault with the charismatic creature known as Lennie. Shall we instead investigate the humans found in Jaws, the supposed saviors of Western society?

Selfish, inconsiderate humans.
Photo courtesy of Vladimir Gook.

Oh, nearly all the familiar archetypes make an appearance, furrowing their brows in a vain attempt to comprehend nature, and the sweet independent soul vibe of a friendly fish like Lennie. There’s the incompetent police chief, Brody, who had relocated to Amityville after being dismissed by the New York Police Department for blowing up East River fish with yellow gas tanks.

Then there’s the nauseatingly self-assured marine biologist Hooper, who does a fine job representing the useless scientific community at large. Some of the more tasteless scenes in the film involve Hooper begging the mayor of Amityville to close the beaches so as to cut off Leonard’s food supply of fresh human meat. Luckily for us, theses injustices are mitigated by sequences of Leonard satisfying his terrible hunger (author’s note: Lennie is too diminutive for such a heroic figure. I will now refer to his full first name, Leonard). And who could forget Quint, the drunken fisherman with his drooling charm and violent solutions? There is a heart-warming sequence at the climax of the movie where Leonard drags a panicking, drowning Quint into his safe underwater recovery palace. Who’s the hero now?

But of all the scummy mammals in Jaws, nobody takes the cake quite like Mayor Larry Vaughn. He’s a relatable figure. Vaughn is a corrupt politician masquerading as a man of reason, valuing profit over the sanctity of fish life.

Sure, it all starts out innocently enough, covering up the tracks of Leonard’s dinner in the film’s first act, but everything changes after a publicity disaster on the Fourth of July. Leonard shows up on the beach and helps a boatman find his missing leg before steering some lost kids to the shore. Unfortunately, this courageousness is misinterpreted, and for his heroism, Leonard loses his food supply. As if closing the beaches weren’t enough, after leaving them open throughout the movie, Vaughn sends out madmen with gas tanks to hunt our hero.

The results were predictably disastrous. Hooper tried imprisoning Leonard in a cage underwater. Quint swung his machete. The most dehumanizing insult, though: Before his final, fatal shot, Brody insults Leonard’s deceased mother.

Humans write history as they go along. The supposed heroes of Jaws may be immortalized when viewing the film through the contaminated lenses of mainstream society. For true humanitarians, however, the hero is easy to identify. He’s the one with the theme music.