Friday, July 1, 2016

Biting into Stereotypes

During the past week, the US-based Discovery Channel has again broadcast Shark Week, a series of television programs that has become a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, since it began, audience interest in Shark Week has spawned an increase in the amount of programming offered and has allowed “Shark Week” as a term to enter the popular lexicon. All this, and yet the stars of the show are not human but rather are creatures that have been largely demonized throughout society.

Shark Week itself is an umbrella for myriad programs that address sharks and topics related to them. The exact contents of Shark Week’s programs varies from year to year but a general theme is to expose viewers to the wide swath of creatures that exists under the rubric of “sharks” and to allow viewers to understand scientific and behavioural aspects of them.

Society generally construes sharks as dangerous, vicious, man-eating villains of the sea that typically look like the Great White featured in Jaws or, for younger viewers, the campy cult movie Sharknado. Along with this, there tends to be an underestimate of the intellect possessed by sharks outside of the motivation to kill and the willingness to eat anything in their paths.

While movies have perpetuated these stereotypes, news stories have been and continue to be instrumental in these beliefs through reporting on shark attacks or shark sightings in areas frequented by humans. These stereotypes also tend not to place the shark in an ecosystem or in the chain of survival for creatures of the sea, with the exception of occasional portrayals of them as indiscriminate killers of species that tend to be viewed more sympathetically, such as seals and dolphins.

The programs featured during Shark Week introduce viewers to the many forms of sharks that exist by taking the audience into the habitat of the shark itself. Rather than presenting the shark in a museum or even in an aquarium setting, Shark Week programs feature researchers and scientists who have extensive knowledge of the topic and who travel to locations where various forms of shark are found. This allows viewers a glimpse into the natural habit in which sharks function rather than simply a beach full of swimmers and sunbathers. In many instances, the shark is the main predator in the eco-system, and could potentially pose a threat to a curious human, but this is explained through the scientific and behavioural process rather than through a reliance on fear alone.

Through this, the audience is able to appreciate the shark as more than the killing machine of mass media. Where the shark is a predator of more valued species, such as seals, this is explained in terms of eco-systems balance rather than indiscriminate killing. Even in programs that discuss the existence of extremely aggressive sharks or shark attacks, there is an explanation as to the behavioural aspects involved not simply a call to mass hysteria. Indeed, often the message of these programs is that the fault may fall more on human activities, decisions and attempts to encourage shark sightings or cage diving with sharks for recreation and tourism than on a fiend of the deep. Further, several Shark Week programs feature those who have survived shark attacks. These survivors do not hide the nature of their encounters but also present a balanced view and in many instances serve as advocates for sharks and their preservation.

This leads into another aspect of Shark Week – efforts to give viewers an understanding of the need to preserve and protect sharks and their habitats of sharks, and by extension other marine life. Many viewers are doubtless familiar with the need to protect the environment generally, or perhaps with the need to protect eco-systems such as rain forests, yet the importance of protecting marine resources and wildlife might not be that familiar. The scientists, researchers and citizens featured on Shark Week present the need for protection and conservation of sharks and marine wildlife in a way that breaks down stereotypes and exposes audiences to the importance of eco-system balance at sea.

Certainly, Shark Week incorporates and plays on the more stereotypical agents of shark fear that have been perpetuated in media – notably the use of music and logos that call to mind the movie Jaws. However, rather than reinforcing the fears that such forms of media have sought to create, Shark Week does the opposite by exposing viewers to the true nature of something that has been used to cause fear.

Shark Week is an innovative and successful method of using media to address and debunk stereotypes against a particular species – stereotypes that have in part been created and fed into mass media. While the goal of Shark Week is to highlight one entity, the lessons it offers for addressing stereotypes of many different forms are instructive and demonstrate the ways in which media can be used to break down stereotypes held by society as well as to create them.  

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