Why does Bruce the Shark’s gender matter in “Jaws”?
Although it might seem strange to ponder the gender of a mechanical Great White, parsing out Bruce the Shark’s gender allows us to glean new insights into the overall metaphors featured in Jaws (1975) and its sequels. By examining the gender roles of both Bruce and the protagonists, we can further dissect the film’s central conflict of man (and, by proxy, progress) versus nature and decipher the message Jaws ultimately sends about masculinity in society.
Jaws does not label its finned foe as either gender. However, the 1974 Peter Benchley source novel presents the shark as male. If one were to then infer that Bruce the Shark (named only during the production of the film rather than in any scenes within the movie, jokingly, after director Steven Spielberg’s lawyer) is indeed male, then the narrative of man versus nature shifts from one of human against an external, uncontrollable force to one of modern man against primal man. The plot, outside the shark attacks, is male-driven conflict. Police Chief Brody (who represents judicial power and authority), Hooper (intelligence and logic), and Quint (physical strength and endurance) create a triad of acceptable masculine presences. We might also read the three as class variations on the white American male: Hooper as the upper class, Quint as the working class, and Brody as the middle class man, who is ultimately endorsed by the film as the bedrock of civilized society. Together these three stand against the obstructive authority of Mayor Vaughan (whose lack of concern for his community and greed is coded as un-masculine) and the brute strength of Bruce (who, if male, represents natural, primal man without the constraints of society). The triad’s triumph over Bruce (though at the expense of Quint, who is marked as the closest of the three protagonists to Bruce’s primal state) is a defeat of the natural, untamed world by modern masculine authority.
Alternatively, if Bruce is read as female, the shark encompasses Barbara Creed’s definition of the “monstrous feminine” – a feminine presence that is feared due to its power and “Other”-ness in comparison to Brody, Quint, and Hooper. Especially when paired with Brucetta (the fan-given name for Jaws III, the shark that appears in Jaws 3-D ), the rage and destructive power of a female Bruce is linked to a Freudian conception of maternity. Brucetta’s mayhem stems from the loss of her shark pup to human interference in the natural world (being held in captivity in a SeaWorld-esque enclosure). The threat of a female entity defined entirely by gaping “jaws” that swallow men whole invokes ideas of the folkloric vagina dentata and Freudian castration anxiety. Female Bruce thus returns to the generalized metaphor of the film—progress versus nature—but refocuses it to include anxiety at the potential loss of masculine power to a wild feminine force.
It would also be interesting to note that, if Bruce is read as male, there are strong sexual overtones to Jaws’ opening scene in which the naked woman—the shark’s first victim—is attacked. Her naked silhouette with its defined feminine shape, her perfect leg that she thrusts into the air, are striking images that directly precede our first shark encounter. Does the shark’s urge to destroy this beautiful woman suggest that Bruce is, perhaps, the darkest aspect of masculinity? Does it suggest Bruce from the very start as male? If Bruce is read as female, does this first attack suggest a punishment of the male gaze by violently ripping the suggestive female body from (the presumably male audience’s) view, instantly creating an antagonistic tension between the shark and the audience, rather than concluding that the creature might be simply acting on instinct?
In either gender reading of Bruce, the conclusion of Jaws affirms the dominance of masculinity (and a particular idea of masculinity) as the key to maintaining order in civilization. While women are threatened by, or victims of, the shark menace, the quest to overcome the primal danger and the blind natural instinct of the shark is a male adventure. On the one hand, this may suggest that Jaws tells us men are in charge of forming our modern society. On the other, it may imply that men are most in need of overcoming this reckless primal nature within themselves.