Entertainment

07.11.13

The ‘Sharknado’ Hype Is Wrong—Sharks Are Awesome

‘Sharknado,’ which premieres on Thursday night, has revived the murderous representation of sharks on film. But don’t fall prey to the hype, argues Winston Ross. Sharks are awesome.

Half of America called in sick on Thursday so they could race down to Radio Shack and buy the biggest LED 3-D Wi-Fi HD 1080P C3Pio big-screen television in stock, in breathless anticipation of the SyFy Channel’s premier of Sharknado, an ORIGINAL movie that is so self-aware that the poster simply proclaims “ENOUGH SAID!”

Not so fast, producers of Sharknado. Because the other half of America is boycotting this “biopic,” mocking it on social-media platforms before they even get a chance to see it. (Basically, it's a biographical film about the life of Tara Reid's character, who battles sharks when a series of tornadoes sucks them out of the ocean and dumps them on Los Angeles. Really.)  

James Poniewozik of Time, obviously still smarting over the fact that someone gave him a goober of a last name, found a way to parody the peanut gallery with that whole “Jump the Shark” concept that refers to television shows that have passed their prime, drawn from the episode of Happy Days wherein Fonzie jumps over a shark while waterskiing:

“With this exploitative, fearmongering insult, SyFy has finally been jumped by Fonzie.”

Political wonks with Z’s in their first name jumped on the Snarknado bandwagon, too (see what I did there?):

“Forget sharknado. This is SENATE LEADERRICANE!” limped in The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, attempting to politicize the hell out of everything.

But here’s the sad thing about both halves of America’s knee-jerk response to Sharknado: we’ve all completely forgotten about how the sharks might feel about all this. This movie unceremoniously demonizes an already woefully misunderstood creature of the deep. I know this because I once demonized an already woefully misunderstood creature of the deep, back when I was a cub reporter at a midsize newspaper in Eugene, Oregon. On October 6, 2009, I learned a lesson I will never forget. And while you’re gasping at flying sharks tonight or mocking them on Twitter, I hope you learn this lesson, too.

Video screenshot

Watch the Sharknado trailer.

I wrote a piece earlier that month that landed on the front page of the newspaper about a great white shark that got stuck in a crab pot off the Oregon coast, a piece that described the beast as “among the ocean’s most feared creatures, terrorizing salmon and surfers alike, gliding effortlessly from one kill to the next.” A piece that mocked the dead bastard’s present state, “beached on a cold steel table at Newport’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, blood oozing from his carcass, poked and prodded by giggling middle-school girls and scheduled for harvest by scalpel-wielding scientists.” A piece rife with colorful facts about how sharks can smell blood and sense electrical pulses in the water, “such as the flailing of a toddler in the surf.”

Four days after the story ran, I got a letter in the mail. Some fan, I figured, writing to congratulate me on another awesome feature story. I tossed it in the huge stack of such letters I had by that point in my career barely the time to sort through. And then, a few weeks later, I opened this letter.

To my great white surprise, it was not an accolade.

“I must say that I was disappointed,” wrote one Kevin Gizara, who both printed and signed his name at the bottom. “I am disappointed in how your writing took the majestic white shark and made it look like a mindless killing machine and used no respect when reporting the situation.” Gizara pulled a few of the piece’s more racy quotes out of context and then closed his first graph: “To say the least, Mr. Ross, I am offended.”

No respect? Offended? I huffed. What about that part about the ocean’s most feared creatures? I kept reading, after lighting up a cigarette tucked into my fedora and adding a dab of bourbon to my otherwise weak office coffee.

“You had a wonderful opportunity to write about the entanglement of a shark with human activities, and how morose it was for this creature to die needlessly and at such a young age,” Gizara continued. “You also could have explained how the marine biologists made the best of this unfortunate event by using the shark’s body to better understand this creature. But your writing proved to be uninformed and consistent with countless cliché shark horror films: insulting sharks and the people who study them.”

I snuffed out my cigarette and threw my whiskey-laced coffee across the newsroom in anger. Insulting sharks!?!?! But I kept reading. The office Internet connection was down and I couldn’t get on Facebook.

“Something that shocked me was that you wrote that sharks are consciously seeking out toddlers as a potential meal,” Gizara continued. “This reminded me of cheap tabloid magazine headlines.”

At that point, I’d had just about enough. Cheap tabloid magazine headlines? Since when have I ever accused sharks of being too skinny?

So I picked up my, uh, keyboard and decided to give this Gizara dude a piece of my own mind. But first, I read the last couple paragraphs, just in case he had realized toward the end of this thoughtless diatribe that he was wrong and it was time to apologize profusely.

He stuck to his guns.

“I wish that you would not write of sharks in such a sensationalist way because everyone would greatly benefit from not fearing or hating sharks,” he wrote. “It may seem harmless, but the manner in which you classified the sharks as human killers could in turn provoke humans to expect killing sharks as a norm. Remembering what happened after Jaws is a perfect example. In brief, if we were to fish the sharks to extinction the seals would eat all of the fish that we eat. Being that the ocean supports more than three-fourths of our planet it would cause wide starvation and possibly the end to the human race.”

YES! End to the human race! Now we’ve got our apocalyptic movie. Now we’re talking, Kevin Gizara!

“To conclude, when we enter the vast waters of the oceans we enter a world where creatures thrive in different and sometimes frightening ways. The white shark is a magnificent creature. I believe the way you wrote about them sensationalized the fear of sharks. We need to value them, not turn them into something a child would see in a nightmare.”

OK, whatever man. Back to my scathing response.

Except, Gizara had a point. I was contributing to the unfair stereotype of sharks as toddler-munchers just to sell a few lousy newspapers. I was guilty. He was right. So I wrote him back:

“You’re right,” I wrote, after some long-winded blather about why I did what I did. “Sharks are misunderstood and it does potentially mean that people will care less about protecting them if we carry on the stereotype that they’re somehow evil creatures. To that extent, it was irresponsible for me to cast this great white in the light I did and perpetuate the stereotype, whatever the scene and whatever my reasons for doing so might have been.”

A few months after that, I bumped into a former reporter from the paper who told me he actually knows this Kevin Gizara—knows his mom, that is. He was in high school at the time he wrote, and he’d gotten my letter and was quite pleased with the response. I got schooled by a high school kid, in other words.

So think about all that, both the snarky hipster half of America and the other half all excited to watch your shark disaster movie tonight. Think about the fact that sharks are awesome, beautiful creatures who almost never eat toddlers and who are as important to the planet we all care so much as you are, if not more. Also, pass me the popcorn.