On Shrek

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.

On Limits

When I hit my limit, I often can’t believe how little I could handle. So the next time I push myself past my limit. And then my body puts me in my place and shuts down. Maybe eventually I’ll learn to trust my body every time.

On Love

This is my 22nd consecutive post! That means that after today, I have 8 more days of this daily writing challenge. Pretty proud of that. Today I want to write about something that has befuddled me for along time: “romantic” love.

Specifically, I have to admit that love isn’t what I thought it was! I have heard some ridiculously varied opinions over the past few years of what love should/could be. The one that really gets me, though, belongs to Lori Gottlieb.

Lori Gottlieb wrote this article in the Atlantic way back in 2008, then fleshed out the thesis into a full-fledged book: Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough. I read the book in 2018, and it shook me to the core. Not in a good way.

I was 23. I had been with my boyfriend for a little shy of a year. He was a drummer, and I was a songwriter, and we did wild things like trip on shrooms together and go jazz club hopping in New York. It was going well. We said “I love you” because we felt that way, and we were monogamous, but were we actually committed to each other? I didn’t even trust him to have a bandaid at his place if I accidentally cut myself, let alone trust him with my life. When faced with the decision to move back to Rochester and continue building our relationship, or stay in Boston and break up, he had to think it over for a couple of months. Meanwhile, I waited in agony for his decision, and almost broke up with him in the process. This was all very normal 23-year old stuff.

But then I read Lori Gottlieb. And I started freaking out. I was absolutely terrified by this idea that Lori casually called “settling.” In my mind, I was completely screwed. In my mind, I had to choose: do I want romantic, head-over-heels, obsession? Or do I want a partner who is basically a glorified business associate? And Lori’s opinion? Go with the glorified business partner.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that I felt scarred after reading Lori’s book. Here’s an excerpt from her original article in The Atlantic:

Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go.

-Lori Gottlieb

So yeah. Doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it? Choosing infrastructure over “true love”? I wasn’t obsessed with my boyfriend at the time. It was a calm relationship, not an exhilarating one. It gave me room to grow. But it was built on conscious decisions and choices, not on infatuation. Up until that point, I had been in MANY relationships in which I was completely infatuated. I thought that was where it was at. I would sacrifice all of myself to make the relationship run smoothly. I would stare at the person’s face while they slept and obsess about about having kids with them in ten years. My sense of self completely disappeared when I was with them. I felt I was destined to be with them, and felt a sense of connection so strong that everything else in the universe melted away when I looked into their eyes. I would match my breathing to theirs when we lay next to each other because the synchronicity felt so thrilling. Writing it now sounds creepy af and incredibly unhealthy, but that’s what love was to me at the time.

And because of all the movies, books, and culture I consumed growing up as a woman the US, I saw this obsessiveness as the pinnacle of romantic love. Wild passion and disintegration of self was true love…right?

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong wrong. None of these relationships could ever become sustainable partnerships. There was the Swedish chef who didn’t reeaaaally want to move to the US, when I didn’t reaaaaally want to move to Sweden. There was the Nicaraguan jewelry maker who was only in town for the summer. There was the wannabe writer who wrote really bad prose about fighting in Iraq, which he had never experienced first-hand. There was the drunk dishwasher who took shots of Jack Daniels before every shift. There was the boy who sexually assaulted me when I was a minor. There was the obsessed-with-himself film score composer who may or may not have had a colossal crush on John Mayer. There was the tortured genius who consistently told me I was bad at everything. I was fascinated by these people, and totally into them, but the relationships were not only unhealthy and sometimes abusive, but also built on intense, ever-shifting emotions. They were volatile, and would never give me what I really wanted: a traditional partnership. And kids.

So yeah. I stayed with the drummer, who I wasn’t completely obsessed with and who didn’t have a first aid kit, because he was kind, super attractive, intelligent, and earned my respect every day. We had a lot of potential for a really solid partnership. I’m still with him, and we’ve built a strong relationship together over the last few years.

Is he perfect? No. Am I perfect? Hell. No. Is our relationship perfect? Nooo. Is our relationship what I need and desire? Yes. I don’t think I’m stuck in a binary choice like I thought when I first read Lori Gottlieb: business partner or infatuation. Now I think love is somewhere in between, a potent mixture of trust, decisions, desire, and learning to get your head out of your ass.

As you can see, I don’t have any definitive thoughts on this topic, because it honestly confuses the hell out of me. My sister told me a couple months ago that she believes that she can manifest a partner who is 100% compatible with her. I asked her incredulously if she really thinks there’s a perfect life partner out there for her. She said yes. She just has to meet him at the right moment. I am genuinely looking forward to seeing if she finds that person. I hope she does!

In my experience, though, nobody is truly compatible with me. INCLUDING ME. I am not even compatible with myself!! It’s taken years of work to even BEGIN to integrate all of the disparate parts of myself. So am I missing out on perfect, or is my sister holding out for something that doesn’t exist?

On Settling

I was born in 1995. I’m smack-dab in the middle of the “Millennial” generation. I grew up on VHS tapes, landlines, and tucked-in turtlenecks, but never used a payphone or a record player. I was taught that I was special, that my unique capabilities and personality made me perfectly suited for…something. Whatever that ‘thing’ was, be it a person, a job, or a lifestyle, I was meant to find it, pursue it, and never settle for anything less.

This ‘thing’ wasn’t supposed to pay my rent, or provide a stable life. Nope. Instead, it would supposedly make me happy. It would fulfill my potential. That was the ultimate goal: to fulfill my potential for joy, for being fully human. This ‘thing’ would make me fully myself.

Settling was supposed to feel like boredom, stagnation, or mundanity. Notice a small lack of passion for your partner? You’re settling. Don’t feel quite right all the time in your job? You’re settling. Doing mundane work that doesn’t seem to have a higher purpose other than putting food on the table? You’re settling.

So yeah. It turns out that “not settling” can be pretty confusing. The “not settling” mentality can keep you from actually living fully. It’s making us more anxious, less happy, and just generally less OKAY. It’s as if we owe it to the world, to the universe, to never settle. Because to do that would be to rob everyone else of our gifts. This messaging is constantly pushed down our throats in ads, Instagram posts, and media, generally aimed at us “snowflake” Millennials:

“Don’t stay in a boring job.”

“Follow your bliss.”

“Find your purpose.”

“Be uniquely you.”

“Never compromise yourself.”

“Your perfect person is out there, you just have to make room for them in your life.”

This shit doesn’t lead to happiness or fulfillment. Because we’re never gonna get there. “There” is always changing. We’re always searching, striving for the next best thing, and we’re never gonna feel present. Not only are we never sure if we’re doing the right thing, because we’re terrified of settling, but we’re also just not attending to the miraculous, ordinary shit that’s happening in our lives.

Then, there’s the constant questioning. It takes a toll. It’s exhausting. It’s anxiety-inducing. As my partner Chris wisely said when I mentioned I was writing this piece, “If you don’t settle for something, you never get to enjoy anything.”

Then, there’s the issue where “not settling” can trick you into thinking that you’re moving on to bigger and better things, when really, there you still are. The same ‘you’ that you’ve been dealing with this whole time. You don’t all of a sudden grow wings and a halo because you move to a different house, or meet somebody new, or create a new online business where you print inspirational quotes on stuff.

And, the more I think about it, the more “not settling” feels like avoiding real connection and growth. If you don’t settle into something, you don’t ever have to compromise. You never grow in relation to another person, or in the context of a challenge. You’re an island. You’re holding out for your “best” self, in the form of the “best” thing outside of yourself. You’re a self-perpetuating carousel.

The real question is not, “Am I settling?”

The question is, “Is there something hurting in me that I need to attend to?”

Here’s the heart of it for me: “not settling” means running away from the mundane. But the mundane moments in my life are what make it all worth it for me. My cat jumping up onto my lap while I practice piano. My partner making us egg sandwiches for breakfast. Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. Finding a great radio station on a road trip. Listening to a particularly poignant podcast. Looking out into the trees through the big window in my office, forgetting about my to-do list for a second. This is it. And I’m not selling myself short because I actively love, notice, and cherish those things.

From now on, I want to stop avoiding settling. Fuck it. I’m rebelling against all the messaging. I want to be present. I want to be bored. I want to revel in the absolute miracle that we’re here, on this earth, together, and alive. And I don’t want to do it in Bali. I want to do it in my fucking living room.