Food for Thought: fish are food, not friends



When I was younger, the only movie my family owned on DVD was Finding Nemo. I’ve probably accumulated days of time where I was glued to the screen, internalizing three key messages:

1.  Just keep swimming

2.  P Sherman 42 Wallaby Way Sydney

3.  Fish are friends, not food

As I grew, some messages sat better than others.

Just keep swimming is an idea I hear repeated in every environment, from school, to work, to relationships, to movies. It’s a constant reminder to persevere with a cute tagline. Typing this, I can hear Ellen’s voice in my head. I can also hear her repeating an address that I learned before I learned my home address. The difference now is that I know it’s most likely not a real dentist’s office, and I have yet to meet a dentist who collects their office fish themselves.

However, the last iconic message has not aged well.

Bruce, the ringleader of what I imagine is a group of friends bound only by circumstance and geography, brings Marlin and Dory to a club meeting where they learn that the sharks are trying to change their image. They recite a pledge that culminates with the classic “fish are friends, not food.”

Let that sit.

These three sharks are changing their behavior because they want to change their public image. They are rebelling against millions of years of evolution because they feel like they don’t fit in. They deny their most basic instincts so they can have a better relationship with other aquatic life.

As a story told from Bruce’s perspective, Finding Nemo becomes a sinister reminder that to conform is to be complicit in one’s own subjugation. Why does Bruce feel the need to change his image? Because no one accepts that his way of life is not inherently evil. Marlin is not terrified of Bruce, but rather is terrified of Bruce’s lifestyle. The sharks starve themselves to be able to mingle with the supposed polite society. Unless they abstain from feeding on fish, they are shunned, pushed to the edges of society.

When Marlin and Dory fight over the diver mask they find, Dory is smacked in the face, and a trail of blood leaves her nose. As soon as Bruce smells the blood, his eyes turn black, and he snaps. He has repressed his instincts such that, when they do come through, he is an extremist. He is no longer able to determine whether the fish are friends or food.

At the end of the movie, we see Bruce in the reef for the first time. He has presumably regained Marlin and Dory’s trust after The Incident, and is following the program. This physical ostracizing from the suburbs of the ocean is telling. It is a constant reminder that the sharks do not belong when they are themselves. They do not belong unless they pretend to be something they are not. The open ocean is considered a cold and unforgiving place by most, but perhaps the most unforgiving place is the reef itself.

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