By Paige Connell
“Live every week like it’s Shark Week” (Wikiquote). This statement, uttered by none other than 30 Rock’s accidental genius, Tracy Morgan, makes us question what it really means to follow this mantra. Certainly audiences are not searching for shows about actual risk factors, considering Coronary Heart Disease Week and Drunk Driving Week have yet to steal a primetime spot. While the mention of these toothy terrors evokes instantaneous fear, a realistic “shark week” would involve little-to-no shark-human contact. Though the saying appeals to a primal instinct for adrenaline, in reality sharks pose little risk to humans, suggesting that danger may not drive our selection of entertainment. Rather, with evolutionary thought destroying the hierarchical relation of species and closing the species gap, the human race’s evolutionary search for security as the “dominant species” may be fueling inaccurate and blatantly anthropocentric portrayals of sharks in media. Scientific accuracy is suffering as shows prey on our species insecurity with false representations; however, these fears could be quelled by empowering audiences with intellectual dominance over perceived threats, proving that knowledge is all the power we need.
Throughout the history of Shark Week, the media has regressed in its portrayal of shark science accurately, advertising the organism as a threatening predator by giving them a perpetually snacking stereotype. This evolutionarily ingrained fear, and subsequent misrepresentation of another living being, reflects an attempt to retain superiority and is not unique to shark documentaries. Rather, the urge for inaccuracy is reflective of our history as a species obsessed with defending the top rung of the evolutionary ladder. While the media has favored a gruesome stereotype of sharks in order to captivate audiences and fulfill an anthropocentric instinct for distance from “lower organisms,” it is crucial that these documentaries maintain their educational role, increasing scientific literacy not only to promote a healthy relationship between humans and other species, but also to satiate America’s current appetite for intellectually empowering media.
Discovery Channel splashed into the consciousness of viewers everywhere with the debut of Shark Week in 1987, creating an almost cultish following that enticed 29 million viewers to watch in 2008 (Gibson). The Shark Week line-up is synonymous with the success of the Discovery Channel, created to prioritize entertainment over educational value. Yet the shocking media that first attracted audiences over a decade ago was exceedingly more tame and reverent than the “shockumentary” footage of today’s annual munch-marathon. Shows such as Prehistoric Sharks (1998), which highlighted paleontology to recreate past organisms, fostered an ominous atmosphere but excluded all dramatic, bloody footage and mention of humans as potential prey. Even more docile, Sharks in a Desert Sea (1999) followed a family that continually asserted that respectful swimming with sharks underwater is viable, even safe; they took tourists out to watch sharks swarm their daily chum-sicle, playfully naming a frequently spotted shark Freckles. With dangerous music, snapping jaws and swarming sharks providing the appropriate adrenaline rush to captivate audiences, the message was clear: humans are not on the menu.
Despite the power of the earlier shark media in making the Discovery Channel wildly successful, the tone of more recent documentaries paints sharks as maniacal monsters rather than powerful creatures to revere. Shows such as Shark Feeding Frenzy (2008) directly contradict the message of Sharks in a Desert Sea simply through the choice of title; what was once portrayed as an evolutionarily ingrained pecking order to access food is now deemed an insatiable frenzy to gain sustenance. The premise of this recent Shark Week installment is to determine whether or not humans are on the menu, presenting the very reef shark once referred to as Freckles as a merciless murderer of dozens of humans. Another show, Day of the Shark 3, employed a pathetic appeal in the synopsis: “Australian Navy Diver Paul De Gelder is on an anti-terrorist mission when, suddenly, he becomes the hunted” (Shark Week 2010). This description personifies sharks as conscientious hunters, using America’s relatively recent terrorist attacks to create a national bias towards these organisms, as if patriotism was dependent on sustained anthropocentrism.
Not only do these documentaries vilify sharks, but they also create a clear species divide as they elevate sharks to something that humans should not only fear, but fight. The introduction of the “survival show” to the Shark Week canon posits that the casual swimmer should be aware of shark attacks and prepared to combat these predators. In Shark Attack Survival Guide (2010), viewers are taught how to properly punch an attacking shark, as well as the art of “dressing for a shark attack.” Shark Feeding Frenzy furthered this notion of combat by suggesting what color wetsuit to wear to deter sharks, while also instructing audiences on the importance of sustaining a calm heartbeat to evade detection by these hunters. Thus, sharks have not only been misrepresented as exceedingly threatening, but a clear species divide has been created that surmises the necessity for defensive action. Considering that 27 times more fatalities have been linked to dogs, man’s self-proclaimed best friend, than sharks in the past decade, it appears as though audiences are in search of a species to compete with, to watch out for, or, in other words, a predator (Florida Museum of Natural History). Seeing that the potential threat presented of sharks grossly exaggerates the actual threat, it is peculiar that media has chosen to create a hazard rather than exploit more realistic risk factors. Yet, with evolutionary theory’s promotion of species equality becoming increasingly familiar in society, historical and scientific evidence may explain media’s mantra of misrepresentation.
As the unidirectional progression of beings that culminates in humanity has become outdated, evolutionarily literate individuals may feel threatened by equally fit creatures, such as sharks, that were once considered their inferiors. Throughout history, humans have essentially eliminated predators, claiming it was a result of the natural order established by a divine being. Yet, with evolutionary theory dominating intellectual thought for the past century, society’s anthropocentric attitude has lost favor with the scientific community. Now that science has robbed evolution of a greater plan to create a single, flawless species, powerful carnivores such as sharks may be seen as hazardous to our fitness, as they retain the potential to evolve to be more fit to the changing environment than anthropoids. This introduction of species competition, once dispelled by theories of creationism or intelligent design, incites an instinctually defensive attitude in humans as we seek to retain our safety and evolutionary fitness. Historically, when faced with a perceived threat, fear has often enticed the vulnerable society to misrepresent and degrade the opposition, which may explain recent media manifestations of sharks as the scoundrels of the sea.
Yet, as powerful as sharks may be with their heightened senses and carnivorous control of the oceans ecosystems, they rarely threaten, or even interact with, daily human life. Thus, the aggressive stereotype perpetuated on screen to instill audiences with power is unnecessary and ecologically harmful as we are enticed to respond with violence to another species. Not only does the media negatively affect sharks, but it also fosters an unhealthy response towards evolutionary theory, decreasing scientific literacy as people attempt to stand tall on the rungs of a collapsing evolutionary ladder. Viewers, despite their educational exposure to evolutionary thought, are prey to confusion as the idea of evolutionary equality is contradicted by the power struggle fashioned in shark documentaries. The inaccurate representation of a theory as prominent as evolution has the potential to affect societal choices: choices about conservation, choices about ocean management, choices about how large a footprint to leave on the world around us. Viewers are voters, and with a national calling for an educated citizenry, the promotion of scientific literacy by nonfictional media is crucial to direct a democracy forward.
While shark conservation and an educated public should be at the forefront of societal concerns, the media still has a primary purpose: entertainment. Although accuracy is often replaced by adrenaline, recent nature documentary trends suggest that intellect may parallel entertainment in contemporary popular media. Some shark conservationists, such as R. Aidan Martin, suggest that despite inaccuracies, macho and mindless shark media like JAWS can be beneficial as it “ignited the imaginations and inspired the careers of a whole new generation of shark biologists” as well as “caused a major resurgence in funding to support basic shark research” as public interest grew (ReefQuest Center for Shark Research). While Martin finds these benefits sufficient to outweigh the harm caused by JAWS, the necessity to sacrifice accuracy for intellect may have disappeared in contemporary audiences. In fact, several recent science programs have captured audiences and primetime slots without sacrificing their scientific integrity in favor of an adrenaline rush. For example, shows such as Planet Earth captivate simply through high definition photography, letting the inherent drama of nature make this show “the most watched cable event of all time”, drawing in over 65 million viewers in its American broadcast run (Discovery Communications Inc). Stunning visuals aside, the show Mythbusters has fostered intellectual curiosity in audiences for eight years, becoming the number one primetime cable program among men in their 20-50s, as well as starring President Obama in a December 2010 episode (Discovery Press Web). These nonfiction shows, which accurately and creatively display the wonders of real science with outstanding popularity, contradict the perspective that science must rely on adrenaline over intellect. After all, knowledge is power, and the species security audiences once sought through the morbid misrepresentation of sharks could be converted to an intellectual security gained through accurate Shark Week documentaries, promoting a healthy relationship between species as well as increasing the quality of the media itself.
Considering the media’s motivation for misrepresentation, that is sacrificing scientific accuracy for a sense of evolutionary security and entitlement, the question remains: should America live every week like it’s Shark Week, seeking validation in all of our ventures? While audiences will never abandon the evolutionary search for power, recent media trends suggest that society may be seeking strength through improving our offense by strengthening our intellect, rather than demeaning the defense through blatant misrepresentation. By responding to this intellectual evolution, Discovery Channel would continue to fulfill the audience’s search for power by fueling thought, rather than validating audience members by the false perpetuation of species gap. So for now, America, live every week like a Mythbusters Marathon, with intellect bolstering your evolutionary fitness. Hopefully, the notorious Shark Week will soon be brave enough to take the plunge into media’s modern intellectual evolution. When adrenaline is met with accuracy, infamy with intellect, that is the time to live every week like its Shark Week.
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