It's been a big week or so for the news, and for the New York Times - yet that damn column about how Shamu can help you in love is still stubbornly on the top of the NYT's most e-mailed list (aka "MEL"). Maureen Dowd was moved to write about it earlier this week - and then that column hit MEL too. What is it about Shamu? Why are readers seeking his wise counsel in droves? Is it because "Shamu" is such a fun word to say, or is there more?
We didn't know, which is why we asked an assorted collection of media, relationship and funny-quip experts for their thoughts on why Shamu has such staying power, what lessons Shamu has for the media and why it might even be more relevant than people naming their kids "heaven" spelled backward. The responses are still rolling in - look for Shamu to flood the zone all weekend! - but experts from Jack Shafer to David Zinczenko to Cindi Leive to "Modern Love" editor Daniel Jones - and more! - help us make sense of the NYT's new affinity for slippery sea creatures and their ilk. With their help, we aim to bust this Shamu story wide open. Their brilliant and incisive responses are below:
Daniel Jones, "Modern Love" editor, The New York Times:
We (wife, kids and I) were visiting my in-laws the weekend the Shamu column ran. That Sunday morning my mother-in-law got up before everyone else (as she always does), read the column (as she always does) and subsequently ignored my father-in-law when he started fussing over something at the breakfast table (as she never does). Soon--or more quickly than normal, apparently--he stopped fussing. "I already tried it and it works," she announced to me happily when I walked in.
I suspect the appeal of the column is as simple as that: everyone's husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend (or child or pet) exhibits annoying behavior, and who doesn't want to find an easy fix? And who doesn't want to share such advice with everyone they know in a similar situation, which is basically everyone they know? Amy Sutherland's piece is funny and wise and chock full of tips you can try in the safety of your own home.
As for Shamu himself (herself?), I honestly don't think he (she?) has a whole lot to do with it, though I do know that one reader, in discussing the piece with friends, was baffled and disturbed to discover that one person she knew had never heard of Shamu, which, contrary to the spirit of the essay, resulted in additional, rather than reduced, levels of annoyance.
Jack Shafer, editor-at-large, Slate:
The Shamu story establishes once and for all that men are the new women. You can now use the New York Times to write the most dehumanizing and insulting shit about them and everybody will laugh in recognition.
I applaud this new cultural switch. Please excuse me while I go shopping for handbags.
Sheelah Kolhatkar, New York Observer:
I'd been eyeing it for days (I noticed it got bumped down the list briefly by that hysterical teen-drinking story) and wondered what it was about. So I finally read it...and while I'm in favor of any alternative to nagging, I can't believe that those methods would actually work. It all just sounds way too easy. (Also, aren't dolphins smarter than the average American husband? Just kidding.)
David Zinczenko, editor-in-chief, Men's Health and author of the upcoming Men, Love & Sex: The Complete User's Guide For Women:
Relationships are complicated, and people are looking for simple answers. And what's simpler than the natural world? If we could only learn a few behavioral tricks from dolphins and whales and Labrador retrievers, maybe we wouldn't have to deal with the really complex issues.
So now instead of anthropomorphizing animals, we've swung to trying to reduce men to cuddly pets. In other words, we've given up on Sigmund Freud and gone right to Siegfried & Roy.
Paul McLeary, reporter, CJR Daily:
The MEL is little more than an insidious exercise in groupthink. As a self- propagating, self-contained organism that plays on one's curiosity to see what everyone else finds so important, it funnels readers toward the mundane and the trite. Either that, or Roseanne Barr was right: husbands is just like animals!
Greg Mitchell, editor-in-chief, Editor and Publisher:
I'd reply but I'm a little busy right now, cleaning up the coffee grounds I spilled on the kitchen countertop (as usual). For some reason, my wife is thanking me.
Ruth Davis Konigsberg, deputy editor, Glamour:
Turning your husband from a killer whale into a cuddly, compliant attraction at Sea World: what woman could resist?
As Dowd noted in her column, communities and social networks are crumbling, causing isolation that can't be cured even by excessive blog and chatroom exposure. As such, the acquisition of a spouse is our last means of ensuring that someone will actually listen to our endless prattle until we're carted away. But once we've landed that life partner, how do we superglue them to our sides for all eternity, ensuring that they'll never ditch us (or, worse, annoy us with their slovenly personal habits)? The answer: Train them. Mold them to our wills like the automaton zombie puppets they are.
To this end, we turn to animals, particularly cute and cuddly animals that make us feel aligned and bonded with the planet that we're systematically destroying — all while ignoring the fact that we lack the right to "train" these animals in the first place. Why should a hyena learn to pirouette on command? Where exactly do skateboarding baboons fall on the evolutionary scale? Training a living being requires control, an ability to dominate both the surroundings and the animal itself. We may feel helpless to stop the corruption of our government or impending destruction of our natural world, but at least we can regulate the little things, from nail-clipping cougars and back-flipping dolphins to the kitchen-crowding, kamikaze-driving, unshaven oaf sprawled in the bed next to us snoring like an ogre across the new 600-threadcount sheets.
Dylan Stableford, Editor, FishbowlNY:
Could it be because parents enjoy huffing paint-thinner while surfing the Web as much as kids do?
I don't know.
Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief, Glamour:
I can't comment personally because on principle I skip the whole comparing-men-to-dogs-dolphins-and-other-animals genre. I always preferred dating humans.
Tune in over the weekend for more Shamu-licious responses from Jessica Coen, Adam Sternbergh, Jared Paul Stern and other people we asked that now we hope will feel pressured into contributing because we printed their names!