How Jaws Influenced Shark Perception

The 1975 film Jaws had a significant impact on the public perception of sharks, most of if it bad. The film depicted a rogue great white shark as a ferocious and mindless man-eater, and this portrayal has persisted in popular culture to this day. The film’s depiction of sharks as fearsome predators that attack humans for no apparent reason led to a widespread fear of sharks, and many people believe that all sharks are dangerous to humans. In California, the film led to vendetta killings, shark tournaments, and a commercial fishery that along with bycatch, nearly wiped out the population of white sharks along the west coast of North America.

Most species of sharks are not dangerous to humans and very few species have been involved in attacks on humans. In fact, many species of sharks are endangered and are facing threats such as overfishing and habitat loss, and they play a crucial role in maintaining healthy ocean ecosystems.

It’s important to note that the negative portrayal of sharks in “Jaws” has had real-world consequences. Sports fishermen catch and display sharks without regard to cruelty. Coastal ocean goers ignorant about true shark behavior and relative risk are overly fearful of sharks and this perception can generate overly-reactive public policy in the event of a (rare) attack on a human. The general attitude about sharks has led from a general disregard and mismanagement of sharks in fisheries to an outright vilification of these apex predators. For example, shark fisheries and finning have become major issues facing shark populations globally, and as a result, many shark species are facing huge population declines with little public attention. Additionally, the negative perception of sharks has made it difficult for conservation efforts to gain traction in some areas, as many people are reluctant to support measures to protect these important animals.

Stephen Spielberg has said that Jaws was a challenging film to make, especially with the mechanical shark “Bruce”, used throughout the film as a major character. He considers it one of his most personal and successful films, recognizing the signature score by John Williams played a significant role in creating the suspense and tension in the movie.

Jaws movie
Original Movie Poster Jaws

For many reasons Jaws is a great film, but most people dont see the fictional behavior of the shark, and instead focus on the fear factor generated by Spielberg and the cast. However, after close to five decades, Spielberg finally admitted he can’t help but feel a little responsible for the negative stereotype that Jaws inspired.

Since 1970, the abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by more than 70% as a result of an 18-fold increase in fishing pressure, according to a Nature study conducted in 2022. As a result of the depletion, the risk for global extinction now impacts three-quarters of shark and ray species.

Our irrational fear of sharks, a general disconnection from them and the man eating myth generated by media attention whenever a shark attack occurs has not helped protect sharks. Although Jaws might have inspired a negative attitude towards white sharks in particular, and all sharks in general, we cant hold Spielberg entirely responsible. However, like Peter Benchley, Spielberg’s celebrity voice can make a dramatic impact on people’s views for sharks in a positive light. However, it is unfortunate that it has taken Steven Spielberg over 30 years to recant, but he has recently expressed regret.

“That’s one of the things I still fear. Not to get eaten by a shark, but that sharks are somehow mad at me for the feeding frenzy of crazy sport fishermen that happened after 1975,” the celebrated filmmaker stated during a December 2022 interview on the BBC’s Island Discs program. “To this day, I regret the decimation of the shark population because of the book and the film. I really, truly regret that.”

Not long after the blockbuster film generated a widespread irrational fear of great white sharks, Peter Benchley, the author of the best-selling 1974 novel from which the film script was derived, lamented the depiction of sharks, and the backlash on sharks generated by his book and movie. Benchley spent the rest of his career writing novels depicting sharks in a more favorable role, and actively working to protect sharks.

Although “Jaws” was a highly successful film, its portrayal of sharks as dangerous man-eaters is far from the truth, and it has had a lasting impact on public perception of these fascinating and important animals.