Swimming with Sharks
by Seb Manley
It doesn’t seem too hard to me to imagine that if they thought about such things, sharks would be quite displeased by their representations in films, which tend to characterise them as prolific and demonic murderers (I wrote about this stereotype in the first post of this blog, which is here). Swimming with Sharks, the well-received 1994 satire starring an effectively hammy Kevin Spacey, does not contain any representations of sharks; it is about the brutal business of Hollywood movie production and its players, executives who embody a range of vices popularly associated with the upper echelons of big business, in particular sadism, extreme aggression and a cold obsession with getting to (or staying at) the top of the food chain. These executives are the ‘sharks’ referred to in the film’s title, the outlandishly ferocious figures who populate the offices where the main character, Guy (Frank Whaley), a nice guy with ambitions of being a screenwriter, takes a job as a personal assistant to big-time producer Buddy Ackerman (Spacey).
The title seems, then, to belong fairly clearly to a set of usages in English in which the word ‘shark’ is a kind of shorthand for ‘immoral’ or ‘ruthless’, examples including ‘card shark’, ‘pool shark’ and just ‘shark’ (a lawyer) (1). So, would it be reasonable for sharks to also criticise humans, or human culture, for immorally drawing on a stereotype of a distinct group of living beings simply to make a particular point about the terrible behaviour of other humans? More importantly, since no shark is going to accuse us of this or of anything else, would it be reasonable for us humans to worry about such usages, assuming we were humans who cared about animals and humans’ behaviour towards them and things like that?
Perhaps we can start to get to an answer by thinking of an equivalent example from the human world. I’m pretty sure that close to no one objected to the title of Swimming with Sharks on its release, but I think most people reading this would agree that a Hollywood film about the duplicities of the banking sector called something like The Big Gyp would be in some way bad, morally. So why would we think that? I can see two main reasons. First, we might think that using the term ‘gyp’ to mean ‘cheat’ or ‘swindle’ might associate cheating or swindling with Gypsies in people’s minds and so cause them to think badly of Gypsies and be less likely to treat them justly, support their just treatment, and so on. This would seem to be a valid reason to object to the use of the term, if indeed its use did affect people in this way (you might assume that it would if you were committed to a model of language that says language determines thoughts, but perhaps the brain doesn’t work like this; perhaps it simply doesn’t take uses of the term ‘gyp’ as evidence that Gypsies are dishonest, even if it ‘knows’ that the term is a back-formation from ‘Gypsy’ (2)). Second, we might think that such a title is bad because it is offensive. This seems like a very good ground for objection. If people are offended by the term ‘gyp’ because it embodies an ethnic prejudice, then we should not use it.
Does it make sense to apply these two objections to the title of Swimming with Sharks? Well, to an extent, maybe. If the words-affect-people’s-minds objection is valid in the case of humans, then it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t be valid in the case of animals, although we should look to cite evidence that words of this kind do have effects on behaviour (I can’t see that shark idioms have much of an effect on what people think about sharks being eaten, say, or having their fins cut off and being left to bleed to death, but I’m willing to be proved wrong (3)). The second objection, that words embodying prejudice are offensive, seems a bit different when applied to sharks, because sharks cannot themselves be offended by words (or even by direct prejudice). Whether this objection carries any significant weight would seem to depend on the extent to which we take seriously offence felt by people on behalf of a particular wronged group, specifically animals, and more specifically wild animals – which is another way of saying that I don’t really know, though someone might.
So: maybe we need to think about the issue of animal idioms of the ‘swimming with sharks’ variety (4) some more before we can say how much it’s worth thinking about.
1. Dean Crawford talks about the association of sharks with the ‘villainous and despicable traits’ of humans in his book Shark (London: Reaktion Books, 2008); see chapter 4.
2. Pinker rejects ‘linguistic determinism’, the idea that language determines thought. In The Language Instinct (London: Penguin, 1994) he argues, for example, that government euphemism is ‘contemptible not because it is a form of mind control but because it is a form of lying. … Once a euphemism is pointed out, people are not so brainwashed that they have trouble understanding the deception’ (p. 58).
3. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that such words do affect behaviour to an extent, of course, and some studies on the harms of ‘politically incorrect’ language do cite evidence for its ‘real-world’ effects at the level of people’s attitudes; see for example Brian D. Earp, ‘The Extinction of Masculine Generics’, Journal for Communication and Culture, 2:1 (2012), 4–19. Available here.
4. Arran Stibbe, in his article ‘Language, Power and the Social Construction of Animals’ (Society & Animals, 9:2, 2001), offers an interesting overview of the way language (including idioms) seems to reflect some of our attitudes towards animals, but he does not offer any evidence in answer to the question of to what extent particular elements of language affect our attitudes.