CULTURE

My Darkest Secret Crush: Street Sharks

The ideal male body has a dorsal fin.

Mattel

As a young boy growing up in the mid-90s, I spent many an afternoon preoccupied with the fantasy of transforming into an anthropomorphic shark.

While Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might have been the era's predominant "group of teenage animal-man crime fighters" cartoon, turtles aren't nearly as cool as sharks. Why would any kid want to mutate into a slow, boring turtle wearing a bandanna when they could mutate into a powerful, vascular shark oozing sex appeal in skin-tight pants? These are the thoughts that 6-year-old me didn't possess the language to express but undoubtedly understood on a primal level.

My first exposure to Street Sharks was in the KB Toys (remember that, '90s kids?) at the Freehold Raceway Mall in Freehold, New Jersey, and yes, I do agree there's something profound about discovering Street Sharks in a New Jersey mall. There in the boys' toys aisle, hidden amidst the Power Rangers and Transformers, I caught sight of a box designed to look like a cage with the bars bent open and a warning label that read: "WARNING: JACKHAMMER HEADBUTT!" In retrospect, that was not a warning. That was an invitation.

Street Sharks Jab Mattel

There in the box stood a particularly jacked shark-man with pants patterned like the "Jazz" paper cup graphic, 6-pack abs, and, well, the head of a hammerhead shark. Pushing down on his back fin caused his giant shark teeth to gnash, and pulling his arm extended his hammerhead in a JACKHAMMER HEADBUTT, just like the warning label promised. It didn't matter that my soft, undeveloped brain had never heard of "Jab" until seconds prior. In that moment, I knew that I needed to own him with every ounce of my being.

Street Sharks, like most major kid-oriented franchises of the '80s and '90s, revolved around the prime directive of selling toys–and sell toys, they did. The back of Jab's box introduced me to the rest of the Street Shark crew. There was Big Slammu, the whale shark in football pants; Blades, the tiger shark with roller blades; and my personal favorite, Ripster, the great white shark who wears tight black jeans. There was also a lobster man named Slobster, but he looked like a loser, so I didn't like him as much. In time, I would come to own them all, even Slobster, because the Street Sharks needed someone to beat up.

Street Sharks as Ideal Masculinity

For many children, the toys they play with during influential periods of development can have a huge effect on their understanding and expression of gender. Little girls who spend their formative years playing with dolls and cooking toys are more likely to internalize stereotypical female gender roles regarding cooking and parenting. Meanwhile, little boys who spend their formative years playing with Street Sharks are more likely to form their notions of masculinity around the desire to transform into a very buff shark.

To this day, I actively suffer from the repercussions of my upbringing. I hate to admit this, but in my addled brain, this is what I believe the ideal male body looks like:

Street Sharks Ripster Mattel

With enough hard work, the lower half is achievable. But what use is a ripped core and form-fitting black jeans when I can never develop the face of a blue great white shark? Logically, I realize my desire is absurd. In fact, I'm fairly certain that most people would find me visually repulsive if I were to actually transplant a great white shark head onto my face. That said, the physical ideals we hold on a pedestal are not necessarily dictated by logic or reality. After all, Barbie doesn't have realistic proportions either.

As such, it's fair to say that I have a crush on the Street Sharks, albeit not a sexual one. Rather, my crush on the Street Sharks is ideological and aspirational. Kind of like a man-crush.

When I look at Ripster, I don't just see a cool teenager who was turned into a shark-man by an evil gene-splicing scientist (this was the official canon, which I later discovered in the one, admittedly very bad, Street Sharks VHS tape I owned: Street Sharks: Gene Slamming Begins). In a much more real sense, I see an example of everything a man can be–perhaps even a father figure.

My human father and I have always had a difficult relationship. As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that I spent much of my childhood latching onto powerful male cartoon characters as a coping mechanism for feeling like I was missing a loving father. While some kids looked up to their dads as they developed their interests in sports or fishing, I looked up to a hairy mutant in bright yellow spandex, a tremendously buff anime space alien, and, yes, a man-shark wearing tight black pants.

Through these fictional characters, I found a beacon of the warm, masculine energy I so strongly desired. Here were men who cared about justice and protected the weak, who supported their loved ones in spite of their rough exteriors. They didn't need to be real to be real to me. And so, as many men carry their father's lessons throughout their lives, I carry Ripster's with me, too. I aim to lift up those who have been pushed down. I keep my loved ones close. And sometimes, I think about how cool it would be if someone genetically spliced me with a shark.

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Karens. Even if you don't know them by name, you know who they are.

Karens have been asking to speak to managers all over American suburbia ever since Kate Gosselin debuted her infamous reverse-mullet on Jon and Kate Plus 8 in 2007. "Karens"—the collective nickname for middle-aged entitled white women who love nothing more than being pains in your ass—have been walking among us for quite some time, but as shelter-in-place orders and mask mandates have taken over the world, the presence of Karens has become even more apparent.

Last weekend, a Karen went viral in a since-deleted Tweet for a reason only Karens would empathize with. Jason Vicknair, a 40-year-old man from Allen, Texas, was just trying to enjoy his first date night out in three months with his wife at a Tex-Mex restaurant called Mi Cocina. Things took a turn for the worse.

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Image via GQ

Pharrell Williams is evolving.

In a new interview with GQ, the singer, producer, and fashion innovator discussed personal and political evolution, spiritual warfare in America, and his newfound appreciation for the fact that we live in a "chauvinistic" culture—an appreciation he gained through criticism he faced for the lyrics of "Blurred Lines," the 2013 hit he cowrote with Robin Thicke.

When that song first appeared, it was quickly criticized for its "rapey" implications and coercive lyrics that pushed the boundaries of consent. Williams defended the song at the time of its release, and he told GQ that when he created it, he believed the song was actually a tribute to women's independence and sexual liberation. Also, the fact that some women enjoyed the song somehow led him to believe it would be enjoyable for all women. "I didn't get it at first. Because there were older white women who, when that song came on, they would behave in some of the most surprising ways ever… So when there started to be an issue with it, lyrically, I was like, 'What are you talking about?' There are women who really like the song and connect to the energy that just gets you up." (Because older white women are obviously the arbiters of all women's sexual preferences).

Fortunately, his views and understanding changed over time. "I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn't matter that that's not my behavior. Or the way I think about things," he said. "It just matters how it affects women…. I cared what they were feeling, too. I realized that we live in a chauvinist culture in our country. Hadn't realized that. Didn't realize that some of my songs catered to that. So that blew my mind."

While Pharrell's comments are indicative of a lifetime of ignorance, they actually reveal something that should be praised more: a growth mindset.

Most men, and humans in general, are not born with innate knowledge of what is acceptable and what is not in terms of sexual consent, and a great deal of media and social norms (like hit songs like "Blurred Lines") only serve to rehash distorted perceptions of what is acceptable and what is not, perceptions usually shaped by the very chauvinistic culture that they help perpetuate.

Although Pharrell's comments on "Blurred Lines" might make us cringe, at least he's realized that consent isn't something people should be coerced into, that women often have different ideas of what constitutes consent, and that desire should always be clarified and re-confirmed prior to each sexual act. If more people were like Pharrell, open to learning about what it actually means to be a feminist and willing to listen to others' voices, then we would be living in a very different world.

GQ.com

This doesn't mean we should be willing to forgive inappropriate behavior or provide abusers with a cushion of forgiveness. Too often, men who are implicated in #MeToo cases are willingly reintegrated into society and allowed to continue with their careers, while research and follow-ups with women who reported assault cases reveal that these groups often suffer, in terms of their careers and mental health and other aspects of their lives.

So instead of being preemptively forgiving of willful ignorance, we should be willing to embrace people like Pharrell who reshape their worldviews after learning from their past mistakes. Most of the interview finds Pharrell speaking with a highly tuned sense of moral and ethical responsibility as well as a strong feminist ethic. He openly supports women's leadership and criticizes white male-led masculinity while addressing the fallout that is resulting from the downfall of this ancient and destructive hierarchy. "Man, what would the world be like if women held all of the highest positions worldwide?" he said.

He also addressed the fact that gender politics can't be extricated from other issues like race and class. "If you ask me, when we talk about masculinity, it's also very racial, this conversation," he said. "Because the dominant force on this planet right now is the older straight white male. And there's a particular portion of them that senses a tanning effect. They sense a feminizing effect. They sense a nonbinary effect when it comes to gender."

It does seem like he's had thick blinders on for a very long time. For example, he states that he "just read the Declaration of Independence the other day" and his "jaw dropped" when he saw that the document "[refers] to the Native Americans as merciless savages." On the other hand, while these ideas might be well-known in progressive circles, much of America still celebrates Columbus Day. To collectively grow, we're going to have to be open to a lot of people having these kinds of revelations, which are of course too little too late, but are better than nothing.

GQ

Maybe the wisest thing Pharrell says in the whole interview is, "I don't think my opinion is everything. I don't know anyone else's plight." As Socrates once said, "All I know is I know nothing, and I am not quite sure I know that." These ideas are the polar opposite of the message of "Blurred Lines," which is, of course, "I know you want it."

That's not to say that we should forgive people who disregard others' rights to exist or walk safely in the streets, or that anyone should be expected to corral their anger when faced with bigotry. But instead, maybe we should be more open to those who have done the work and grown and changed, and allies should never pretend to be authorities on others' experiences.

The Internet's algorithm may thrive off dissent and snap judgments, and nuance and active listening may be lost causes in this age of polarity, but change and evolution are some of this life's only constants. In light of this, we need to be more comfortable with growth and with admitting that we've done wrong in the past. We need to listen to the voices of others and accept discomfort and criticism instead of resisting them.

Recently, the actress Jameela Jamil faced heat for stating that she only recently learned of the extent of George W. Bush's war crimes in Iran, and in response, she started the hashtag #ProgressNotPerfection in order to emphasize the importance of being open to learning, to questions, and to changing our minds in order to change the world.

So in the spirit of #ProgressNotPerfection, here's to Pharrell speaking the truth and denouncing "Blurred Lines" six years after the fact. It would've been nice if that happened before the song's release, and if we could've been spared the collective trauma of watching Miley Cyrus twerk on Robin Thicke—but that's in the past. Today we're living in the era of flying cars, hopefully a female president, and finally admitting that we don't know a damn thing.

GQ