Shark Week: A queer problem
by Matthew Kirschenbaum
This week marks the pinnacle of many men’s year: Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
Premiering in 1987, Shark Week is a weeklong television special of shows, movies, and documentaries that center on none other than the shark species. Originally dedicated to raising shark visibility and awareness, the highly proclaimed series has become a masculine-driven annual anticipation. Shark Week is nothing but a hypermasculine output of consumerist society that asserts male-, human-, and phallus-privilege, which is worrysome to the queer vegan.
So what exactly is a shark and why do we humans demonize their species? The shark species is a group of fish characterized by pectoral fins not fused to the head and five to seven gills, among many other defining biological characteristics. Over their lifetimes, sharks may have around 50,000 teeth, as their rootless teeth are replaced constantly. It makes sense that humans portray sharks as killers, right? Actually, in 2008 sharks reportedly killed only four humans. Only four humans! More humans are killed annually due to dog bites, bicycle accidents, bee stings, or being struck by lightning. Sharks attacks are not as common as the media portrays them to be; there must be another reason why Shark Week is so popular, as the shark attacks are merely a stretching of (morbid) reality.
While it is problematic to attribute solely maleness to Shark Week, many of the broadcasts emphasize themes of patriarchy, human dominance over the nonhuman (the shark), and a demonization of the nonhuman-animal. Majority of the representations of shark attacks include female victims that are infantilized, portrayed as helpless, and complacently interacting with their surroundings (but of course there are male victims). Why are the victims mostly female? Because society finds the feminine character to be subject to an attack, whereas the masculine figure is the savior and leader of humanity.
Humans love to assert their dominance over the nonhuman (animal or not), whether by entrapping them in slaughterhouses, using them for fur, taking them in as companion species, and the like. Shark Week is nothing new in terms of speciesist philosophy, as humans consume the broadcasts that portray the shark species as a contender for the “dominant” species. And the human feels threatened. Because humans don’t have the capacity to fully control the shark, humans feel intimidated and therefore portray a falsified “reality” of the shark species to be a species of violence. Human speciesist dominance is nothing new, however speciesism within shark discourse provides a new means of queer interpretations of programs such as Shark Week.
Male privilege plays a vital role in shark discourse (furthering a lionization of normativity), as many males are the portrayed “saviors” and seamen. Men are commonly at risk for attack since they are at the front of the line, however for some odd reason the woman is the chosen victim. Aside from a promotion of a gender binary, heteronormativity prevails through the “saving” of women by men in Shark Week series, emphasizing the woman’s supposed subservience to the man. I personally do not feel welcome to watch and enjoy shark movies when human characters focus on heteropatriachal relationality and of course speciesist action. Shark Week need be considered queer and vegan problem.
Many criticize ethics such as mine for being “crazy vegan politics” or “over-analytical”, however I think what I feel. Shark Week is problematic in that it uses the shark as the center of attention to blanket portrayals of gender and sexuality that emphasize man’s dominant role in society, over the woman (because those of course are the only genders, right?) and over the nonhuman-animal (because what would “man” be if not on top of the food chain?). Sure, have your fun partaking in the annual Shark Week festivities, but just remember that TV is a falsified “Truth” with a capital ‘T’. Sharks and non-masculine identities alike are subject to patriarchal institutions of masculine violence.