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This essay will investigate the ways in which the film Shrek, engages with feminism and feminist theory. It is evident that the film supports the feminist movement through the presentation of the characters Fiona and Dragon. Director Mike Myers illustrates the females in the film as strong and independent as they subvert many more gender expectations throughout. However, there are also aspects of the film that present the issues and kind of behaviour that feminists are fighting against.
For example, characters such as Snow White and Cinderella represent the stereotypical weak view of women and shows how they conform to the patriarchal expectations society has of them. What is more, the characters of Shrek and Lord Farquaad highlight the objectification of women and show how they are treated as less than men. One will also analyse the film in light of the theoretical essay ‘The Traffic in Women’ by Gayle Rubin, as she explains her concept of the ‘sex/Gender system’. This proposes that the links between gender, sexual attraction and biologic sex are products of society and culture.
Minor characters within the film, such as Cinderella and Snow White, follow the typical pattern of how females are represented in fairy tales and instil anti-feminist messages. Cinderella is seen to be sweeping the forest floor, where as Snow White is asleep in the glass coffin, guarded by the 7 dwarfs. The character of Cinderella implies that being domesticated is what is expected of women. Similarly, Snow White reinforces this idea cares for the dwarfs and slaves away to keep the house tidy. In addition to this, it is expected that a prince must kiss Snow White in order to wake her from the spell.
The use of the stereotypical princess characters and the ways in which they are represented as women teaches children and young girls that they are weak and must rely on a man in all aspects of life. It also shows how women are still viewed in old fashioned ways and that it is important for women to be house-trained to take care of the house whilst the men go to work. However, Rubin questions in her essay ‘what is a domesticated woman?’ and why is it not the men that stay home and do the house work. In answer to this, Rubin states the Marxist view that a domesticated woman is ‘a female of the species’, yet one would argue that just because women are stereotypically the more domestic of the two genders does not mean that women should be oppressed by this.
This indicates that all women are expected to be house-trained and the depiction of Cinderella and Snow White would support this. Although this was the opinion of women at the time Rubin wrote the essay, to include characters in a 21st century film, mainly aimed at children, that show how women are there only to serve the needs of men is a damaging message for young girls. On the other hand, the depiction of Cinderella and Snow White could also be Myers mocking the expectations of women at the time, suggesting that he believes the way women are treated in society is both absurd and wrong.
These same kind of weak characteristics can initially be seen in Fiona as she too is presented as the typical princess. Ruben states that ‘individuals are endangered in order that marriage is guaranteed’. This suggests that lives are put at risk in order to ensure the chance of marriage, thus further highlighting how important a concept it is within society. This idea can be seen at the beginning of the film when Fiona is placed in a tower by her parents and awaits her ‘Prince Charming’ to come and save her, who she then would be forced to marry. The fact that her life was compromised for the sakes of marriage reinforces the ridiculous expectations of women at the time, as well as showing the desperation of her parents to guarantee that their daughter meets the needs of society. The prominent theme of marriage throughout the film emphasises the notion that women are deemed as vulnerable and incomplete without a man by their side.
Furthermore, Ruben goes on to argue in her essay that ‘women become the prey of men’. The word prey has connotations of animals and helplessness, as though they are unable to resist the attack. One would argue that Fiona is considered the ‘prey’ in this scenario as she remains defenceless in the tower, whilst the men are the stronger, more powerful animals that are hunting her. The phrase ‘blistering winds and scorching deserts’ implies the harsh weather conditions Prince Charming endured in order to reach the princess and win her hand in marriage, similar to the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ analogy. As a result, the film suggests that women are seen not only as prey, but prizes to men.
When Shrek first arrives at the tower to rescue the princess, Fiona conforms to the gender roles of society by being the damsel in distress, as she lays perfectly across the bed. Fiona presents herself as weak and well-mannered as she explains how she is ‘awaiting a knight so bold as to rescue me [her]’. This not only reinforces the belief that women needed a man to depend on, it also shows that this is a moment that the princess has dreamt about and tirelessly rehearsed for. In support of this, Fiona asks Shrek, ‘should it not be a wonderful, romantic first meeting?’ This implies a feeling of disappointment when she realises that things are not going to play out exactly as she had planned.
Consequently, Fiona no longer hides behind the stereotypical female characteristics when she yells, ‘you didn’t slay the dragon?’ This emphasises the fact that Fiona has been conditioned by society to expect her ‘rescue’ to play out in a typical, fairy-tale way but also shows she does have a feisty side. This further indicates that Fiona uses the stereotype of women to her advantage. She primarily played upon the fact that women are seen as weak and helpless, however once she was rescued, was able to reveal her true colours. This teaches the audience that you do not have to conform to the ways of society, women are allowed to be strong and independent. Another example of this would be the Merry Men scene when Robin hood man handles the princess.
Since it was assumed that all women were weak and frail, Fiona was able to play up to this opinion and take them out with the element of surprise. The way she fights and beats the Merry Men demonstrates her strength and power, whilst also symbolising how she has overcome the patriarchy. Additionally, Shrek and Donkey do not intervene. This conveys the progression in feminism and how they knew that Fiona could handle things by herself. Throughout the fight, we see Fiona pause to fix her hair. This implies how easy she finds it when fighting the merry men, yet also shows her conforming to the stereotypical view of women that they are expected to look perfect all of the time.
Fiona continues to defy the expectations of women as she burps in front of Shrek, a typically masculine trait. Donkey yells ‘she’s as nasty as you are’, suggesting that is socially acceptable for men to burp, but not women. As a result of her mannerisms, Fiona may desexualize herself to mainstream society, however, this kind of behaviour is attractive to Shrek. This shows how women will continue to face these kind of pressures no matter what they do.
Another female character that shows strength and independence is Dragon. One may initially assume she is a male character however for a number of reasons. First of all, the power and responsibility she has to guard the castle. Women at the time were not trusted with this kind of authority and control, and were considered too weak to protect something with as great a value as the princess. Secondly, the masculine qualities she upholds, such as strength, aggression and her fearlessness.
Something as dangerous as a Dragon, who we see break down the walls of the tower and breathe fire would not usually be seen as a female character. What is more, the way Donkey cowers away from her out of fear signifies the dominance she has over the males in the film. The directors choice to have a female dragon rather than it be stereotypical male demonstrates why one should never underestimate the power of a female, whilst also showing that women can do just as good a job as men can. Despite initially being presented as a strong feminist character, Dragon does illustrate some conventional characteristics you often see in women in fairytales. Donkey compliments her ‘white sparkling teeth’ and ‘feminine beauty’.
Dragon begins to flutter her eyelashes which suggests that she is enjoying the flattery and allows herself to be seduced by Donkey. Her gullibility and vainness conveys how she is behaving as women are expected to in fairytales and subsequently, forgets about her job to protect the tower and keep the princess captive when she finds herself attracted to a male character. The way Dragon drops her masculine persona and encourages the compliments with her body language infers to the idea that women rely on flattery from men in order to feel beautiful and worthy.
The theme of marriage within the film is another aspect that presents anti-feminist messages. Once Fiona is rescued by Shrek, she asks him, ‘do you not know how it goes? A princess locked in a tower…is rescued by a brave knight and they share a true loves kiss’. This portrays how Fiona been taught that finding and marrying her true love is vital, whilst also showing that she is allowing the expectations of women in society to control her life. The prominent theme of true love and marriage within the film disciplines young audiences and women that marriage should be their top priority and that life cannot be properly fulfilled without the guidance of a man. The scene where Fiona is forced to choose between marrying Lord Farquaad or Shrek demonstrates how important a concept it is within society, whilst also showing that most of the time, marriage is not about love.
Ruben argues that ‘women do not have full rights to themselves’, an idea that is supported within this scene. Although the Princess has somewhat of a choice of who she wants to marry, she could never leave that situation as a single woman. Moreover, she did not have the opportunity to fall in love and marry for the right reasons as she was locked away. Ruben also discusses that ‘the exchange of women…is attractive in that it places the oppression of women within social systems, rather than in biology’, highlights that the oppression of women is not a part of the nature of humans, nor is the need for women to marry. This implies that the view that women are seen as less than men and the expectations imposed upon them are as a result of the society which we live in.
This idea is evident in the proposed marriages that Fiona is faced with, as well as showing how ‘women are transacted as slaves’. Feminism preaches that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities, however both Shrek and Lord Farquaad would gain something from the marriage, whereas Fiona would not, further indicating how women’s’ feelings were not taken into consideration. Shrek would get his swamp back and Lord Farquaad gets to be king, therefore illustrating how women exist in society only to be a slave to the needs of men. It also shows how men have ulterior motives when it comes to marriage, whereas Fiona wants to marry for love.
To conclude, Shrek engages both positively and negatively with feminist ideas. The director creates strong and powerful characters who defy the patriarchal expectations society has on them. This is achieved through their mannerisms, such as Fiona’s burping, and the way both the Dragon and the Princess can defend themselves. However, they sometimes behave in the way women in fairytales are expected to by conforming to standards of beauty and allowing men to have control over them. The film also teaches young audiences that women are there to serve the needs of men and as seen as their pray. Anti-feminist messages can also be seen through the theme of marriage and the way both Shrek and Lord Farquaad objectify and use women for their own selfish needs. At first, the film seems to subvert gender roles and support feminist ideas, however upon deeper analysis, it can be said that there is still sexist and old-fashioned expectations throughout.