We all watched Shrek and fell in love with the characters, humor, and revolutionary animation style. I saw it for the first time in the theater with my grandfather. I was entranced. It was the first time I’d seen such realistic animation, and I was completely enamored with the fart jokes, hilarious donkey, and tale of fairytale romance. Shrek even introduced me to one of my favorite songs: Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.
I’ve rewatched Shrek many times since then. At first, it was just a nostalgic activity. But recently, it’s turned into an anthropological study for me. What cultural values was the movie pushing? What had I unknowingly absorbed as a kid watching Shrek?
The answer? Shrek was one of the many movies I watched as a kid that normalized, and made light of, abuse.
On the surface, the movie does seem to subvert the misogyny that exists in most classic Western fairytales. Fiona is a strong, badass woman who can take care of herself. She fights for herself, saves Shrek and Donkey from thieves on the road, and finds her own dwellings at night. That’s how I saw it at first too. But, the deeper messaging of Shrek does NOT support that surface-level story. Here are a few examples, taken from throughout the film, that proves the movie doesn’t actually subvert the original misogyny/patriarchal system at all, but supports it throughout.
1) In this scene, Fiona says “who could love a hideous, ugly beast” when speaking with Donkey towards the end of the movie. She truly believes that she is unloveable as an ogre (which is to say, she believes that she is unloveable as she is). It is not until the very end, when Shrek (a male character) tells her that she is beautiful, and that he wants her in whatever form she takes, that she seems to accept herself as she is, in her ogre form.
Fiona does not even have the confidence to assert herself in the conversation with Shrek following her secret discussion with Donkey about her being an ogre. Because of her true belief that she is unloveable and ugly, she assumes he’s talking about her when he repeats her words back to her: “who could love a hideous, ugly beast.” She doesn’t dig deeper into the issue. Shrek confirmed her greatest fear – that she won’t get what she wants (love) because she is not enough. She doesn’t deserve love. She doesn’t deserve desire. She doesn’t deserve a self.
Fiona was NOT, prior to the scene where Shrek interrupts the wedding and confesses his love, confident in herself. She hid this terrible secret, that she was UGLY, from all the other characters, every single night. The fact that she was ugly was shameful to her. The movie depicts a woman who does not have a strong sense of self, and cannot validate her own existence. She only validates herself when a man tells her that she is valid.
2) Fiona DOES have to be saved at the end of the film. When she perceives that Shrek has rejected her, she leaves to go marry Lord Farquad. Because that is what a man told her she has to do. The movie gives her two choices: be with one man who despises you (as she thinks Shrek does) or be with another man who you despise (Lord Farquad). There’s no third option, and it’s very important to realize that the movie does not depict her creating a third option for herself.
At the end, Shrek has to save her from being with Lord Farquad by interrupting the wedding. She made no decisions, except to accept Shrek’s offer. This is key: before Shrek assured her that he thought she was beautiful, she was unwilling to put herself out there to be with the one she loved. She was so insecure that she was resigned to be with a mean, ugly man, rather than get what she wanted: to be with Shrek. She needed a man’s validation to feel she deserved what she desired. In this way, Shrek did actually save her at the end. Fiona did not have agency in their romantic relationship. Shrek did.
3) Who were the other female characters in the movie? There are only three. Princess Fiona, the Dragon, and the Old Woman who sells the talking Donkey. Snow White and Cinderella are not characters in movie 1, since they’re just depicted on a screen for a couple seconds. Princess Fiona is not shown in a community of other women who are equally strong and able to take care of themselves. If she was, I would accept the claim that the movie depicts a badass woman, and therefore subverts the fairytale image of femaleness. However, Princess Fiona is an outlier. She’s shocking. Based on the movie’s depiction of female characters, she could be the only woman of her kind in the history of the universe, and the only woman of her kind in the foreseeable future.
None of the other female characters do anything besides display the regular tropes of weak, untrustworthy, and helpless femaleness. The Old Woman who sells Donkey is not taken seriously by the guards. They don’t believe her that Donkey talks. She is manhandled by the guards and never gets rewarded for the Donkey because he (the male character) saves himself. We never see this woman getting what she wants – money to support herself. She has no agency. Instead, we follow the male character, the Donkey, on his subsequent adventure.
The Dragon is a promising female character, because she can breath fire and goes right for what she wants: a romantic relationship with Donkey. However, she has no agency in her own world, either. She is extremely unhappy, forced to remain chained in the castle all on her own. She is incredibly lonely, and after Shrek, Donkey and Fiona escape her clutches, we don’t see an angry, aggressive female character. Instead, we see a sad one that longs for a life outside of her chains. She is a slave until Donkey comes to rescue her.
In contrast to the lack of female characters, there are MANY male characters, with a variety of personalities and storylines. “Maleness” is very fleshed out in this movie. There’s Shrek, Donkey, Lord Farquad, The Three Blind Mice… the list goes on and on and on.
There are literally no other female characters in the movie. So maybe on the surface, Fiona seems all badass and capable because she can fight and take care of herself, but that’s not the messaging we’re really receiving. The messaging we’re receiving is that she is an unusual case – not the norm. The movie doesn’t normalize her supposedly strong female nature.
4) Take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the Magic Mirror presents three eligible bachelorettes for Lord Farquad to marry. The Mirror makes a blatant joke about abuse, describing Cinderella as a “mentally-abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away,” as if being mentally abused is not something to be concerned about. Then, we hear that Snow White lives with seven other men, but “she’s not easy.” The Mirror’s casual judgement of Snow White’s sexuality normalizes diminishing a women’s worth to her sexual tendencies and sexuality.
Diminishing women to sexual beings makes it much easier to abuse us.
But that’s not all. The Mirror continues, inviting Lord Farquad to “kiss her dead, frozen lips and find out what a live wire she is! Come on!” Then you hear a drum set go “ba dum smash,” which officially turns this image of treating a dead woman like a sex toy into a joke. This image should be disturbing, but the movie turns it into something funny. Once again, Shrek normalizes powerless women without agency: easy targets for abuse.
Disguised in jokes, it’s easy to miss how dangerous this normalization is. Boys and girls watching this absorb the following messages:
1) abused women are funny
2) women are just sexual playthings
3) a woman who cannot consent is fair game for sexual activities
5) In another scene, Donkey and Shrek finally arrive at the castle Fiona is trapped in. Donkey asks, “So where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” Shrek responds, saying, “Inside, waiting for us to rescue her.” I know it’s been discussed a lot, but I have to talk about the problematic message this sends. Shrek’s response assumes that there is a helpless woman inside the castle waiting for a man to rescue her. It takes away agency from women in our culture, showing us that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves. This is dangerous because it gives men permission to control our lives – if women don’t have any agency, we don’t have any right to say no or argue with a man’s opinion/action in our lives. It might be “rescuing” one day, but it could be something much less desirable the next. And what if we don’t need to be saved?
Yes, “rescuing the princess” is a classic fairytale trope. I don’t care. it needs to change. Luckily, movies like Tangled and Brave have JUST STARTED to unravel this dangerous message.
Then, as if that’s not enough negative messaging, Donkey delivers the punchline. After he asks “where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” and Shrek responds “waiting for us to rescue her,” Donkey retorts, “I was talking about the dragon, Shrek.” This joke, laughing at a woman’s needs and display of anger, is so overused and so damaging. It’s the Eve story. Eve gives in to temptation and eats the fruit she’s not supposed to eat. This woman’s desire is the downfall of man. Women are evil. Women are a “pain in the ass,” in the words of Shrek. It’s not difficult to make the leap to “we should hate women” and “we don’t need to take any woman’s needs seriously.” Again, Shrek writers manage to turn “stripping women of their power” into a joke, as if it’s suddenly okay because they’re joking about it.
Shrek paints a truly disturbing image of what a woman is in our society. She is powerless, hated, needs others to validate her experience, and doesn’t need to consent to be touched by you. She is, in other words, extremely susceptible to abuse. This is a MOVIE FOR KIDS. And it’s contributing to abuse culture by NORMALIZING WOMEN WITH NO AGENCY.
I am not, by any means, discounting Shrek as a movie. I don’t believe in cancel culture – I think things are always so much more nuanced than that. The movie really does bring me so much joy, even watching it this new perspective, even after the abuse I’ve experienced at the hands of multiple men.
But. I think it’s important to recognize this dangerous, deeper messaging. Why is it important? Because I know for a fact that it’s watching innocuous movies like this, that hide true misogyny behind a surface-level strong female character story arch, that led to me thinking it was OKAY TO BE ABUSED. Abuse culture is serious and needs to be examined from every angle. Even a movie we all know and love so much. I’ve been rewatching a lot of the movies I watched when I was a kid, and noticing similar messaging popping up in almost every movie. Abuse culture was very prevalent in the media I consumed as a kid, and there was nothing my parents or school could do to reverse that. It was just…there. I just absorbed it.
And I haven’t even started discussing the way “Blackness,” as well as the complete lack of female Blackness, is portrayed in this movie. That’s a whole other conversation and blog post.