Vicky Vásquez is a Moss Landing Marine Labs graduate student under the Pacific Shark Research Center. Her Master’s thesis focuses on the soupfin shark population of San Francisco Bay. Before beginning her graduate program, Vicky worked in marine education for over 7 years with groups like the Ocean Discovery Institute and the Marine Science Institute. This work has fostered Vicky’s passion in outreach education with a special interest in working with at-risk students and under-served communities. She has continued this work as the founding Deputy Director of a new non-profit in San Francisco Bay, the Ocean Research Foundation (ORF). You can follow Vicky on Twitter @VickyV_TeamORF and get updates about ORF through their Facebook Page.
Was anybody else bothered by Shark Week’s King of Summer campaign? I wasn’t at first. I thought it was hilarious! I found this light-hearted commercial of a guy riding two sharks to be on par with the ridiculousness of SyFy shark movies like Sharknado or Ghost Shark. It’s just too silly to take seriously. More so, I was just relieved they finally moved away from their Snuffy the Seal theme which vilified and eventually killed a shark for eating its natural prey of seal. However, after watching the subsequent versions which include Bob the Shark and Rob Lowe, I couldn’t help but get a annoyed. What is with that freaking mermaid?!
So men are kings and women are mermaids?
Perhaps some of you may think I’m spoiling the fun of Shark Week by bringing this up, but the Be the King of Summer promotion reflects my point. People were asked to insert their own faces into this add. Although women did participate, they most commonly posted their faces as the mermaid at the King’s knees. I understand that this is all in good fun and obviously those women did too. However, very similar to this mermaid persona, is the growing number of women whose shark conservation work has been recognized for their sole approach of being sexy while swimming with large sharks. Despite that sounding like a jab against them, it really is not. My concern is that there is an equal number, if not more, women who are protecting sharks through research. For instance, there were 60 female scientists that presented research at the 2014 Sharks International Conference. Nevertheless, Shark Week predominantly features white male hosts and researchers despite the slowly growing number of women (as well as people of color) in the science and engineering fields. I therefore can’t help but wonder, where are they on TV?
The women of Shark Week.
In fact, the only Shark Week program I could find to feature a female shark scientist in its program description is the Great White Highway. The show aired in 2012 and follows white shark researcher Dr. Barbara Block. Looking through Shark Week’s Netflix programming, which includes episodes from 1998-2012, I found American Shark. This episode includes a segment with Dr. Michelle Heupel who helped coordinate the first ever Sharks International Conference. There were also two other programs, Perfect Predator and Dirty Jobs: Greenland Shark Quest that each included a female PhD student. When including all women (not just scientists), I only found three more that were predominantly featured. Two of those women are best known for the legacy of their last name, Cousteau and Benchley. As mentioned earlier, this point is not a jab to these other women, my concern is where are the female scientist? I had to search through all of the 34 Shark Week episodes on Netflix to find these few examples.
Lack of women is the tip of the iceberg, but don’t give up!
As many have pointed out, the biggest issue with Shark Week is the scientific content. As funny as the King of Summer is, the Discovery Channel is not supposed to be on par with the ridiculousness of the SyFy channel. Many scientists and shark enthusiasts have become so jaded that they have done away with Shark Week all together. I don’t think this is the answer. My intention here is not to dissuade you from Shark Week. As the good folks of Upwell have pointed out, Shark Week is an opportunity for all of us on “Team Ocean”.
I think the solution to all of these concerns is the same and therefore not above what Shark Week producers can handle. For those of us that want more science, for those of us that want more female hosts and let’s even take it a step further and include those of us that want more people of color represented, the answer is the same, SPEAK UP!
Here are 5 Things You Can Do To Improve Shark Week 2014
1) My research lab, the Pacific Shark Research Center, reflects the changing face of science. We have a large female presence as well as several Latino members. Two of these women, Kelley Van Hees and her undergraduate intern Breana Machuca have filmed a segment for Shark After Dark. It hasn’t aired yet (but maybe it will by the time you read this). If you would like to see it (or you already have). TWEET your support to @SharkAftrDark and make sure they get recognized.
2) Our labmate, Paul Clerkin has been featured on Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss. If you want programming with more scientific content, then watch this show. You can also check out the graphs from Upwell (founded by a woman) and blogging scientist Christie Wilcox that map out the programs with scientific value. Don’t worry if you missed an air date, Shark Week runs these shows multiple times giving you the chance to air your opinion.
3) The Gills Club is an organization dedicated to highlighting female shark scientists so that young girls do not have to search so hard for these role models. How perfect is that?! They and the people at EDNA have similar concerns as I do about Shark Week, so they’ve come up with their own campaign featuring Female Shark Heroes.
4) Now back to King of Summer and that freaking mermaid! On closer inspection of all three commercials, it appears the mermaid is played by the same actor (though at times she is wearing a red wig). I think that’s great! So why not give the mermaid character a chance to grow by becoming the Queen of Summer? (If your counter-argument is that she can’t stand due to her fin, note that they figured this out with Bob the Shark). It would be a great way to include women for this year’s programming.
5) Use Twitter and other social media sources! Get Shark Week’s attention with these hashtags and people’s Twitter handles but be polite and positive:
#QueenofSummer -Lets make this a thing and see the mermaid riding the sharks!
@SharkUniversity- Paul Clerkin from Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss
@joshwolfcomedy – Host of Shark After Dark
@LaurieGoldberg -She is the group EVP, PR for Discovery Channel, Science & Velocity.
For more on the issue of women in science: