How much does cinema shape our environmental ideology?
Updated: Jun 2
We don't usually watch fictional films with the intent to change our ideology on a subject, for this we may turn to a documentary. Anyone can be easily influenced and manipulated by the all-consuming world of cinema. Anthropomorphic stereotypes of wildlife in films like that of the Disney animation collection often skew the public’s perception of different animals and their natural behaviour with oversimplification.
Animals like sharks, wolves, bats and spiders have over and over again been depicted as the “monsters”, creating an irrational fear and overall negative public perception. On the other hand, animals like deer, rabbits, dolphins, bears and monkeys are rarely found to be anything other than giant-eyed, fluffy and cuddle-worthy creatures. They remind us of infant children: innocent and deserving of nothing but affection.
With Society constantly moving further away from nature, neither stereotype has been healthy for conservation, often leaving the audience as a “fan” of the anthropomorphised character rather than the animal itself, and later getting disappointed with the real thing when it does not live up to expectations.
One of the most drastically negative conservation associations to film is Disney/Pixar’s Finding Nemo.
The adorable Nemo kick-started a fan base that nearly wiped out the species it was portraying. The moral of this modern classic is extremely clear: don’t take fish off the reef. Ironically, the film stirred a huge rise in clown fish sales all over the world with a reported 1 million clownfish taken from the reef every year.
They are now rapidly disappearing from both over-collection, pollution and coral bleaching. 10 years after the film was released, people are still after their very own Nemo. Clownfish continue to be picked off the reefs rather than bred. Marine biologists are now discovering, in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef and Philippines, that populations are declining by over 75 percent on the average harvested reef. In some cases, they have completely gone.
UQ School of Biological Sciences PhD candidate and Saving Nemo Queensland Project Coordinator Carmen da Silva said the marine fish aquarium trade was a “major cause of coral reef fish decline, with about 90 percent of marine fish found in aquarium shops coming from the wild”.
Spielberg’s Part to Play
Although not as new as Finding Nemo, the Steven Spielberg film Jaws still has a huge effect on its audience and that of conservation. 1975 was the year all sharks acquired an ominous, two-note cello riff that even those who haven't seen the film will recognise. When Jaws swam onto cinema screens, the film shocked audiences with a terrifyingly realistic monster.
Now, thirty-five years later, the slogan "don't go in the water" has turned into bad press for sharks. Their numbers worldwide have been decimated, partly due to the frightening and false ideas the film has helped spread, even when it comes to governmental policy, for example, the Australian culls.
Before the film was released there was no real record that sharks had ever attacked a human being. There was a reward offered if someone could prove they were bitten by a shark in which the money was never collected. That changed when a rogue great white shark attacked some swimmers along the New Jersey shoreline during the summer of 1916, this being the attack that helped inspire Jaws. As a consequence of this depiction of sharks as devilish monsters with a heinous lust for human flesh, dozens of shark fishing tournaments popped up. This proved to be part of a growing shark hunting trend that reduced nearly all shark species over the following decades. In the waters off the United States, populations of many species of sharks have fallen by as much as 90 percent.
Since Jaws was released, Hollywood has not looked to rectify the damage it created, with sharks still to this date being used as villains in blockbuster thrillers such as: 47 Metres down; Sharknado; The Shallows and The Reef, to name a few.
Conversely, Jaws was not all bad news for sharks. It created a growing awareness for the species and the need and interest to learn more about them.
Rather than scare people out of the water, it even paved the path for young shark-enthused marine biologists. This resulted in numerous scientific symposia that allowed researchers to share their results and collaborate on more ambitious projects. To date, “some 22 of these symposia (including two dedicated to the biology of White Sharks) have been published in English, making a wealth of new data and ideas available to present and future shark researchers” (Martin, 2014). This has been positive for these animals, with protection against the 'Jaws Effect' as a political device based on three themes from the film: the intentionality of sharks, the perception that all human-shark interactions are fatal and the idea that killing the shark is the only solution. The case for the Western Australian Government's current 'Imminent Threat' policy to catch and kill 'rogue' sharks is taken straight out of Spielberg’s handbook of Hollywood fiction.
What can you do to help with sharks bad PR?
When the media describes sharks as monsters, beasts, menacing, lurking, dead-eyed and mindless it only reinforces the Hollywood stereotype and slows conservation efforts. Given that as few as six people die every year from shark encounters, it’s time to set the record straight and invite journalists to balance their reporting and drop the villain label.
If you see an article in print or online or watch a news item that uses monster-like language contact the charity Bite-Back https://www.bite-back.com and they can start educating the press on the real story!