(Mis)reading Film: Jaws and The Onion

I enter into evidence a biting satire of analysis run amok:

The Onion has produced a range of very funny videos that provide pseudo-critical responses to popular films, which are as much parodies of their subject as they are satires of the nature of critical analysis itself. In this video from last year, The Onion delivers a potent yet subtle example. The dry and abrasive rhetoric of the video does a great job of highlighting the ease with which films can be (mis)read in the most astounding ways. And yet, the video still leaves us with a question: ridiculous as it all may be, is The Onion actually on to something by suggesting a gay subtext in the movie Jaws (1975)?

Jaws criticismBefore I go any further, I want (and perhaps need) to make it clear that I’m well aware this video is intended only to be a humorous diversion, however, the reason why I draw your attention to it is for the way its content invites a discussion between legitimate analysis and pretentious perversions of intellectualism. That cleared up, here’s your answer: no.

In order for this interpretation to be valid there would need to be some primer contained within the film to alert the audience to this intended meaning; a clue to unlock the subtext embedded by the filmmakers. It’s one thing to read the film in this way (and that goes for any film and any reading), quite another to suggest that the film actually contains enough material to support such a reading. In this instance, there is, at least, no evidence that the film was ever intended to support such a reading. I could just as easily say Jaws is about Police Chief Brody overcoming his destructive drug addiction (which prompted the move from drug-fuelled New York City), and contort the specifics of the case, clip them into some instances to fit the conclusion I’ve proposed – let’s say that the shark alludes to a needle – and so on and so forth. A great deal could be made of all this. Such contortions go back as long as art has required interpretation – but this does not make them any more valid.

I wish to press the significance of this obvious point further since, as an academic, I witness these lapses in critical thinking often. I once read, and was required to grade, an amusing (if wholly unconvincing) essay that alleged Beowulf and Grendl were actually brothers, and that the whole of the text was actually a cunning ruse put on by both men in order to ensure their prestige and legacy. Brothers? Surely they could have simply been friends? Or perhaps lovers? Why stop there, why not make them the same person? You get the idea. It was great stuff, beautifully imaginative, but an utter failure of constructive interpretation. It was wholly without support, and therefore untenable. I’ve also been frequently confronted on a subject much more banal, with jejune and ridiculous misreadings of films like Prometheus (2012), or, more understandably, Kubrick’s 2001 (1968)so let this piece serve to disabuse others of misreading those films as well.

maleficient jaws criticismFor those who might be interested in how it is that academics do what they do, the guiding principle is this: the only valid readings are those supported by indications in the text, not by omissions. The theory of a gay subtext, for example, would have nothing to say – and indeed is essentially negated by – the opening attack in the film (unless of course one wishes to argue it represents the destruction of the feminine to make way for an androcentric viewpoint, but there are enough holes in this theory to make a mockery of parsimony). The theory would be lent some credence, however, if, for example, Brody had looked longingly at a male body on the beach near the beginning of the film, and if that look had coincided with the boy’s subsequent devouring by the phallic shark (suggestive enough), we might have some preliminary foundation on which to support this argument for a gay subtext. Budding directors and writers with a proclivity for inserting subtext take note.

This kind of pseudo-profound rereading of texts can be fun and serve as the basis for imaginative reworkings of old texts. Wicked is a recent prime example, notable for wondering if the villain of The Wizard of Oz (1939) might actually have been the besmirched hero, a trope which now seems to be all the rage in fiction – soon to be regurgitated with Disney’s forthcoming Maleficent. But the point remains: these are little more than humorous asides that do not correlate with the original text. After all, it does no good to go reading conspiracy theories into everything, and worse yet to use these conspiracies as the firmament for any ontology.


About the Author

A grad student scribbling his English Literature thesis lento in-between clandestine snorts of cinema and rebarbative bursts of balladry, Jason Lajoie also chews the celluloid cud over at Digital Didascalia when time permits


6 thoughts on “(Mis)reading Film: Jaws and The Onion

  1. Thanks for taking a bite out of critical (often agenda-driven) misinterpretations! I’d like to suggest you write an article on films that do convey a specific message that critics somehow fail to grasp.

  2. I kind of love the idea that Beowulf and Grendel were brothers, and am half-tempted to write something that would rope in some ideas supporting this (their attitudes towards violence in particular). Despite, you know, one being human and the other being a sea-dwelling monster. Eighth-century plastic surgery to get rid of Beowulf’s gills. Seems legit.

    And everyone knows there was no gay-ism in Jaws. After all, not once did Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider share THE LOOK (a la Clooney and Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm). Case closed.

  3. I like the onion’s movie reviews but this one seemed a bit nonsensical, even for the likes of a satirical website.

    Good post though, I really like all the points you made.

  4. You bring up some really good points about the nature of criticism, Jason–I have to admit, I feel kind of bad that you had to read such bizarre tracts on the subtexts of Beowulf and others! The Onion’s video is definitely a dry joke, but you bring up an interesting point about the need to address alternative viewpoints in cinema today. One of the worst such examples was Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland, which painted the Mad Hatter as some kind of tragic character bemoaning “the frabjous day.” Yuck! It seems like there’s often a gray area between criticism and interpretation, and movies these days may often straddle it. A very fine post, Jason.

  5. I had never seen this clip (or any like it) and found it mildly amusing. It is taking a swipe at the insufferable pretentiousness practiced by many critics, who cannot seem to rest, until they find a hidden meaning (or agenda) in anything. There are many films made with this exact purpose, but I still believe that most films are made for profit, to entertain, and to further careers. Some film-makers are only striving for their art, and they are usually to be applauded.

    For most of us, films need no more interpretation that whether or not we enjoyed them, or if they moved us, made a valid point about something, or had some historical, or cinematic merit.
    Personally, I occasionally enjoy academic dissections and discussions on the whole industry. One of the reasons that I like this site, is because it offers many unusual viewpoints.
    So, thanks for the article Jason, it made an interesting read.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

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