Jaws and the Male Gaze: What Defines Masculinity?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Author: Bryan S. Ghingold

Laura Mulvey’s influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” discusses film spectatorship through her concept of a “Male Gaze.” Stating that


“The scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object) and, in contradistinction, ego libido (forming identification processes) act as formations, mechanisms, which the cinema has played on” (Brooker & Jermyn 141),


Mulvey conveys a sense that film assumes a masculine audience, where the male spectator “…projects its phantasy (sic) onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (137). If then, the shortcomings of Mulvey’s argument aside (what about the female spectator? What about men as sexual objects? She addressed these concerns in a follow-up article ‘Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”’ (128)), we can assume that the generic film audience is comprised of scopophilic males watching women who have been stripped of control, what happens when there is a film with no central female characters? Mulvey’s solution is the ’buddy movie’, “…in which the active homosexual eroticism of the central male figures can carry the story without distraction” (137). Steven Spielberg had a different solution which he explored in his 1975 film Jaws. He used the characters in his film to challenge traditional gender roles and play with the notion of the Male Gaze. In this paper, I will argue that the film Jaws challenges traditional gender roles through the use of the shark as an “über-male,” the overall theme of metaphorically castrated or weak men, and a specific look at the three types of “masculinity” represented in the three main characters Brody, Hooper, and Quint.


At the very onset of the film, we are introduced to the shark via a point-of-view shot, aligning us with his gaze. At this point, the spectator doesn’t know the story or the characters, but they understand what they, as the shark, want. They are on the hunt, and they want food. The minimalist non-diagetic score by John Williams uses a building tempo and volume to communicate the urgency and ill intention of the shark’s desire to eat. The rising tempo and volume also serve to make the spectator anxious. As the tension builds, it is quite abruptly interrupted by a hard cut and change in music. Spielberg gives us a panning shot of drunken teenagers around a campfire. Since our gaze was just aligned with the shark, there is a brief instant where we are meant to view these fun-loving teens as food. This is not by accident; the score changes from non-diagetic to diagetic music, and the tone changes from building tension to “relaxed” (teens playing harmonica around a campfire), to clue us in to the teenagers’ naïveté about the primordial hunger raging in the ocean but a few feet from their midnight party. Two teens decide to go skinny-dipping, and it is no accident that the male passes out while the female enters the water. Spielberg is satisfying the Male Gaze, as Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) has no idea that by skinny-dipping, she is putting on a show for the theatergoing audience.


However, to subvert this traditional notion that the male audience is the keeper of the gaze, Spielberg introduces the shark as an “über-male”. It is the shark, and not the audience, who decides on what terms the voyeurism exists. By giving the shark the Male Gaze, it becomes extra-predatory and the spectators’ relationship to it changes. By subverting the spectator’s male pride, the shark gains control over the viewer, and it is the shark that controls the viewing experience. This can be seen in the opening sequence when the tone of the scene changes in an instant from highly sexualized (a naked woman swimming in the ocean) to terror (fear for and loss of a human life). This is a very key moment in the film for Spielberg; he decides this is the point to break our alliance with the shark, and instead makes us watch Chrissie’s horrific and ultimately moot struggle to keep her life. Had he kept us in a POV the whole time, or even made Chrissie’s death less painful to watch (her head simply disappearing under the water), we would still feel in control of the gaze.


The shark’s designation as “über-male” is seen throughout the film. In addition to its size, which has been exaggerated to the brink of caricature, it is the most phallic representation in the film. The shark’s body is itself phallic, and at its head is a frightening and domineering power, represented by its mouth. There are several moments in the film when the shark is implied to be sentient and malicious, and it is even hinted at that this shark may be hundreds of years old when early in the film Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is discussing shark facts with his wife. Until the point in the film that Chief Brody kills the shark, Spielberg makes it very clear that it is in control.


This notion of the shark as an über-male wouldn’t work if the rest of the men in the film were Rambos and Schwarzeneggers. They are therefore crafted very carefully to be weak in one way or another, but not lose their identifiability, likability, or dimension. One of the best characters to analyze using this model would be Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). We are first introduced to Mayor Vaughn when Chief Brody decides to close the beach following Chrissie’s death. Wearing a blazer embroidered with miniature anchors, it is immediately clear that this man loves his town, and feels a sense of ownership and protectorship over it. This is Mayor Vaughn’s weakness; his priorities are skewed to the point that the town’s needs and interests supersede his people’s needs and interests. This is of course, a logical fallacy, because it is in the interest of the town to have its people protected. The point of Mayor Vaughn’s metaphorical castration comes in a scene shortly following a shark attack which leaves a fourth victim dead. In the hospital where Chief Brody’s son has been treated for shock, Mayor Vaughn has a nervous breakdown, and begins babbling incoherently. He tries to rationalize his devotion to the town’s interest with his duty as a human being and as a parent, as he exclaims to Chief Brody, who does not believe the mayor is sincere in his willingness to do what it takes to make the beach safe again, “Martin, my kids were on that beach too!”


The mayor is not the only example of a metaphorically castrated male in Jaws. When we first meet Deputy Lenny Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), he isn’t acting very “manly.” When he discovers Chrissie’s remains off camera, he urgently blows his whistle to summon Chief Brody. As Brody and Tom Cassidy (Jonathan Filley), the young man who was supposed to be swimming with Chrissie the night she died run to join Hendricks, Spielberg cuts to the deputy plopping down in the sand with a pitiful look of horror and nausea on his face. Wiping his mouth, which has amassed a pool of saliva being agape for so long, he looks more like a child than an officer of the law, a notion reinforced by the next cut. As Brody and Tom reach him, he dejectedly punches the sand, evoking imagery of a child having a tantrum. The three main players of the film; Chief Brody, Matt Hooper the oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss), and Quint the shark hunter (Robert Shaw) are not excluded from this theme of metaphorical castration. Rather, they are such important examples of this theme that Spielberg put them on a boat together and we followed them for the entirety of the third act.


Despite his title as police chief, Chief Brody is the least masculine male character in the film. He is police chief of an island town, but has a deep-seated fear of the open water. Throughout the film, the mayor, the coroner, and the townspeople constantly undermine his authority. Out on Quint’s boat, he is little more than a deck hand.


Matt Hooper, the oceanographer, is perhaps the least dimensional character in the film. He fits the Jungian archetype of “the scientist” without any deviation. He wears glasses, has incredibly expensive equipment, his intellect and ego bring him into conflict with the more emotional thinkers of the film, he has socially awkward personality traits, and he is not addressed as a being capable of sexual interaction, save for one drunken comment where he jokes about his broken heart. While perhaps some cultures might revere a character like Hooper as the pinnacle of masculinity, such is not the case in American cinematic psychology.


Lastly, there is Quint. The alcoholic shark hunter with a troubled past, Quint overcompensates for his shortcomings by surrounding himself with the symbolically masculine jaws of several sharks he has hunted and killed, and a large boat; the only thing he can truly lord over. His sailor’s mouth and hermit-like lifestyle assures his de-sexualization and continued solitude.


The telling scenes I shall focus on to demonstrate the futility of all three of these characters come late in the third act when the shark attacks Quint’s boat, “The Orca.” Quint responds to the attack by shooting two harpoons tethered to floating barrels into the shark, with the intent to chase it out to sea, as though he was playing a game with it, as though the shark challenged him. Rather than the quick, pragmatic approach, he wants his victory to be earned. At the same time, Brody responds to the attack by pulling out his six round police issue pistol, and shooting at the shark. He wants to kill it as quickly as possible. It isn’t about pride; it is about killing the shark. Hooper on the other hand, does nothing beyond steer the boat, and watch Brody and Quint attempt to subdue the shark. The reason Hooper doesn’t act is because, as “the scientist,” his preferred method of engagement is immersion into the shark’s territory. Later in the film, Hooper submerges himself in a diving cage in order to inject the shark with strychnine. This lack of synergy between the three men creates futility in their actions, and it is only after Quint dies and Hooper is assumed to be dead that Brody is forced to overcome his fear of the ocean, and kill the shark.


One possible counter-argument to my assertions would be the presence of seemingly strong women in the film, particularly Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary). While she is not particularly progressive, it could be argued that her role in the film is not that of “object to be gazed upon.” For the most part, this claim would be correct, however I would disagree and refute it by reminding those who disagree with me that our first introduction to Mrs. Brody finds her lying in bed with a very low v-cut nightgown, talking in a breathy voice to her husband. This sequence doesn’t serve to establish anything except that the Brody family is new in town, and I can think of several ways to convey that without subjecting Ellen Brody to the Male Gaze.


The film certainly has more to stand on than a statement about gender roles alone. It redefined Hollywood and is credited as being the first summer blockbuster. Debates have gone on since its release about its address of spectacle versus narrative, and as the film ages, new arguments emerge; such as the comparison between what spectacle meant in 1975 versus what it means now, and can Jaws still be considered a cinema of attraction? The film has a depth almost as great as the ocean it takes place in, but hopefully I have shed some light on Spielberg’s approach to gender roles and the Male Gaze as demonstrated by the shark as an “über-male,” the overall theme of effeminized or weak men, and a specific look at the three types of “male” represented in Brody, Hooper, and Quint.







1.Brooker, Will and Deborah Jermyn. “The Spectator and the Audience. Shifts in

Screen Theory.” The Audience Studies Reader. Ed. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. New York, Routledge, 2003. 127-31.

2.Jaws. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Perfs. Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss.

Universal Pictures, 1975.

3.Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Audience Studies

Reader. Ed. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. New York, Routledge, 2003. 133-42.


Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit





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