Sexualized Saturdays: Then I Saw Her Face, Still Not a Believer

shrekYou’ve all seen Shrek, right? Stars an ogre and a talking donkey on their quest to parody some fairy tale tropes? The princess of those movies, Princess Fiona, is cursed to be a human by day and an ogre by night, and only love’s true kiss will make her take “love’s true form”. At the end, she takes the form of the ogre rather than the more stereotypically beautiful human, and it’s because of this that Fiona is thought of as a positive, feminist example of the modern-day princess. But in fact, Fiona is not as subversive or as effective a character as you might think.

Spoilers for all the Shrek movies below.

When Shrek starts, the first thing we find out is that our titular character lives in a swamp and enjoys living alone so that he can do whatever he wants. Although he dislikes how the villagers are frightened of him and often behave cruelly towards him, he also revels in his ogreness, as it allows him to act rudely towards others and behave in ways that society would term unpolite—burping, farting, etc. (I do think it would be interesting to look at this franchise from a racial perspective, but that’s for another post, potentially.) Eventually, a bunch of fairy tale creatures arrive in Shrek’s swamp, saying that they’ve been forced there by the evil Lord Farquaad. Shrek goes to Farquaad to reclaim his land, and learns that in order to do so, he’ll have to rescue a princess from a dragon-guarded tower: the aforementioned Princess Fiona.

So Fiona takes a long while to appear in our narrative. When she does, she’s at first very traditionally a fairy tale princess: she talks in flowery language, tries to give Shrek a handkerchief to carry as a token of her gratitude, and wants to know his name and see his face. Even when she finds out that he’s an ogre, she likes him, and Donkey remarks delightedly that “she’s as nasty as [Shrek is]”. During their journey back to Farquaad and Duloc, Fiona’s able to show that she has some fighting skills, some healing skills, oh, and she can sing. For all that the writers tried to make her not a damsel-in-distress, though, she still had no agency, and spent the first movie the passive recipient of mens’ desires. Her father (as we later find out) is the one who locked her up in her tower, Farquaad sent Shrek to rescue her, Shrek took her to Farquaad when she’d have preferred to stay with him, and Shrek comes to take her back from Farquaad when he realizes his mistake.

shrek the thirdThe second Shrek movie is no better—Fiona, Shrek, and Donkey go to Far Far Away so that Shrek can meet Fiona’s parents, but Shrek and Fiona’s father spend much of the movie fighting with each other over who knows best for Fiona. Fiona is forced into a pseudo-relationship with Prince Charming, who wants to marry her to take control of the kingdom, and although Fiona clearly doesn’t like Charming, it’s her father and Shrek who come in to save her from a situation that they themselves created. In the third movie, Fiona’s father dies, and Fiona is pregnant. Instead of staying to help his wife with her grief and with ruling the kingdom, Shrek freaks out and runs off to fetch Arthur Pendragon, a distant relative, to rule the kingdom in his stead. He (and Donkey and Puss) get to have the adventure, while the wife is stuck at home with the baby. Though, again, the writers are careful to give Fiona a few scenes of asskicking in each movie, she still has no weight in the overall narrative. This is especially clear in the third movie, where Fiona gets to save Shrek from Charming’s shackles, but it’s Arthur Pendragon who gets to save the kingdom, and it’s Shrek and Arthur who have the touching emotional connection at the heart of the movie.

Shrek Forever After, the fourth and last movie, is a little better to Fiona—Shrek is tricked into signing a contract that erases himself from his own timeline, and in this new timeline, Fiona gets herself down from her tower and goes to rescue her own kingdom. Because no “true love” came to save her, she was forced to take action on her own. However, this had the message, however unintentional, that women can only act if there are no men around to fulfill their “natural” roles as the protectors. What does it really say about the Shrek franchise that in order for the so-called anti-stereotypical princess to shine, the male protagonist had to be literally deleted from the narrative?

Not only does the first movie reinforce a false dichotomy—that Fiona can’t be both a thin, stereotypically attractive woman and behave in an ill-mannered fashion, or, if one looks at it from the other way around, that Fiona can’t be fat and green and still be a princess who lives in a castle—but the rest of the movies go on to deny her agency at every turn. Fiona isn’t a feminist character but rather is more of a Strong Female Character, in that she doesn’t get to do anything but be Strong. And the worst part is, this franchise’s selling point was that it would be an irreverent, fun look at fairy tales that supposedly spun the whole concept of fairy tales on its head. Unfortunately, it only seemed subversive for Shrek, who got to save the day and get the girl while not looking or acting like what one might expect from a proper “fairy tale prince”. Look at the roles Fiona got to play: damsel-in-distress, pleading wife, expectant mother. Those don’t sound very revolutionary to me.

For a much more in-depth look at this point, check out this excellent paper by Maria Takolander and David McCooey.

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