Welcome to Jaws Week! When it was announced that Steven Spielberg's Jaws was arriving on Blu-ray, we thought it'd be perfect to dedicate an entire week to the movie that created the summer blockbuster. Every day this week we'll be posting an assortment of really fun features tied to the film, its production, its legacy, its fans, its merchandise and so much more.
Jaws is a story about men – about the weak and strong, the smart and stupid. They battle each other, make dangerous mistakes, and ultimately risk/give up their lives to take down the massive menace. The women are almost an afterthought, female archetypes that offer danger and motivation – the naked, drunk, party-girl swimmer who must die; the angry, vengeance-seeking mother; and the supportive wife. But one of these became much more than just a motivating factor – she was the spark that bred the franchise’s motivating danger, the theme that turned the father of the blockbuster into the great-grandfather of one of the worst films ever made – she is the vengeance-seeking mother.
Jaws begins like any old-school horror film – with the death of an alcohol-drinking, sexy teen, Chrissie. After catching the eye of a boy she doesn’t know, she rushes off into the dim haze of dawn, flinging off her clothes bit by bit to entice the stranger into skinny-dipping. He stumbles and she runs on, diving into the ocean and right into the sharp teeth of the shark. Her mutilated body is found the next morning, which quickly sets up the battle between the worried and wimpy mayor and our hero, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider).
But it’s the second death that is the catalyst for action. A little boy is floating on an inflatable raft when his kicking legs inspire the shark to take a big bite. This time it’s in the water off a crowded beach, in the bright light of day. Little Alex Kintner’s death cannot be masked to protect precious tourist dollars, and the first shark attack becomes public knowledge. Alex’s mother wants her revenge, and by putting a $3,000 dollar bounty on the shark, she starts the four-movie war between man/woman and shark.
Eager for the bounty, fishermen nab a tiger shark, sure that they’ve ended the danger. But Mrs. Kintner is there to reinvigorate the bloodlust. She approaches Brody and blames him for her son’s death – how he knew about the first shark attack, “but still, my boy is dead now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. My boy is dead. I wanted you to know that.” The confrontation provides more than numbers and bodies ever could – it forces Brody to face the emotional impact of his failure. Brody ultimately succeeds, but the success cannot erase Kintner’s words.
Briefly, the series turns to fatherhood for the franchise’s one truly successful sequel. Jaws 2 once again framed itself in posters as the sharp-toothed mouth rising to prey on the young girl’s flesh – this time, a water-skier. Brody’s wife Ellen also appears, but the motivations are primarily fatherly. Brody isn’t just trying to make amends – he must now protect his teen son, Mike, and his son’s friends. Women get to be in on a little bit of the action – Ellen gets an active role, and Marge saves a life before becoming a victim herself – but the film is ultimately the limbo before suffocating motherhood takes hold.
Then came Jaws 3-D.
It wasn’t enough to have a shark with an inexplicably vengeful, blood-hungry motivation. We had to understand why a shark would go to extreme lengths to kill people (this question was, obviously, much more important than giving a good reason why anyone would want to swim in the ocean while a blood-hungry shark is on the loose). The answer: motherhood. The teeth remained on the posters, while the silently-stalked single woman was gone.
The third film moved the action to Florida’s Sea World, where underwater tunnels offer the perfect setup for shark glimpses and future deaths. Son Michael (Dennis Quaid) wasn’t at all deterred from the water after his previous ordeal. He’s moved to Florida and becomes the new hero, helped by female marine biologist Kay (Bess Armstrong). The park begins to be plagued with shark attacks, which they attribute to a small great white. It is taken into captivity, where Kay bonds with it as a pseudo shark mom. But where there is baby, there is also the real mama. The young shark kills itself, and the mother shark is found and wreaks havoc on Sea World, swallowing a grenade-carrying dude whole, wrecking the amusement park’s swank new tunnels.
Whether driven by preternatural revenge or just anger and desperation at the disappearance of her offspring, the mother shark is the danger, stretching the vengeance of the first film into the classically dangerous and unstoppable evil matriarch. Unlike the Disney stories where mom is ripped from the child and the offspring enjoy future happiness or success, or the dead mother that turns the child into a shower-invading killer, the children are dying, unleashing violent desires within the mother.
Motherhood becomes fear and violence, and not simply for a child’s death (human or shark). Jaws: The Revenge makes it personal – not in the way that endears the audience, but in the way that turns the legacy of an iconic film into a laughingstock. Lorraine Gray’s Ellen Brody returns for the final adventure, with motherhood now under attack. Her husband has died, and she was sure it was from shark fear. But the real paranoia lies in Ellen. When her younger son Sean is killed by a shark, she’s sure the shark killed him on purpose. Eager to spend time with her other son, Michael, she flies in for a visit.
Unfortunately, ol’ Mike doesn’t share his late father’s supposed shark fear and lives in the Bahamas, rather than a nice, safe, middle-of-the-country town far from the sea. Even more unfortunately, Ellen’s fear is real. She has an inexplicable psychic link to the shark, which follows her to the Bahamas. Motherhood, which led the attack on the sharks in the first film, is now the victim of the hunt. It would almost be poetic, if the film didn’t stretch the bounds of absurdity in such a sadly earnest manner. After being a better detective than Miss Marple, the shark hunts the Brodys and manages to take out a plane (a feat only be surpassed by the future absurdist Mega Shark) before the heroes finally win.
I’m sure Peter Benchley, Steven Spielberg, and the rest of the original Jaws crew had no idea the groundwork they would set. If not for Mrs. Kintner, would there have been the mama-shark motivation? Would Ellen Brody have ultimately become the target of a ludicrously talented shark? Where the first film fed on our rampant fear of the dark waters and dangers of the sea, the rest fed on an obsession with family and motherhood. It was no longer about the unknown, but rather about the phallic dentata that would rise out of the water like a trained synchronized swimmer, working towards its final fight with Mama Brody herself.
Added reading: The big, real-life woman in Jaws’ world is editor Verna Fields, who won an Oscar for her work and much success and credit for the film.
Final Thought: James Cameron says it was Star Wars that kickstarted him into filmmaking. Was it Jaws that fed his own mother obsession? His first gig was, after all, the Jaws spoof sequel Piranha 2, and that man loves a good fight with mom – on space, sea or land.
Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.