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Symbolic Interactionism in the Movie Shrek

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In this paper, I will explore the theory of Symbolic Interactionism demonstrated in the movie Shrek (2001). First, I am going to discuss the theory itself, and Then I will give a brief summary of the movie and talk about how this movie illustrates symbolic interactionism.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a philosophy of micro-levels that emphasizes relationships, a minor viewpoint on social contacts and links between individuals. It explores the meanings that arise from an individual’s mutual contact with others in the society (Aksan, Kisac, Aydin, & Demirbuken, 2009). The term “symbolic interaction” refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings (Hier, 2005). The most important theory of symbolic interactionism is George Herbert Mead. He believed that symbols establish the mind and are used as a means of message and thought. Blumer, a studen of Mead believes that meaning is a condition that arises as a result of the interaction of group members and not an basic feature of the object (Tezcan, 2005). I believe that there will be no meaning in the world without symbols and relationships.

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The Plot of the Movie

Shrek (2001) featuring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz’s voices, is an entertaining and comedic animated story based on the “happily ever after’ theme with a different twist. An ogre named Shrek lived in a distant swamp whose precious privacy is suddenly shattered by an invasion of annoying fairy tale characters who were exiled from their kingdom by evil Lord Farquaad. To get his swamp back, Shrek must go on a mission to rescue Princess Fiona, who will become Farquaad’s bride. But the princess is hiding a big dark secret. Throughout his journey, Shrek meets a lot of characters who illustrate different features of symbolic interactionism.

Attitudes according to the Meanings

The first illustration of symbolic interactionism in Shrek is humans develop their attitudes towards things according to the meanings that things propose to them (Poloma, 1993, pp. 224-225). In the movie, people are scared of Shrek because he is an ogre. They symbolize and have given the meaning that an ogre is a scary, dangerous and wild beast. Due to their past interactions with ogres, they have perceived him in that way and are applying the meaning of their interaction. The next aspect is Princess Fiona assumes that a brave handsome and gallant knight will come to her rescue. She symbolizes her savior according to a long-established concept. She is rescued by not so handsome but very brave ogre.

Generalized Other

Secondly, When Shrek arrives at Lord Farquaad’s kingdom, the guards instantly attack him. Another aspect of symbolic interaction appears with this event which is known as generalized other. Generalized others are defined as a buildup of negative reactions that gradually reduce an individual to what they perceive him to be (Griffin, 2012). The guards attack Shrek due to the negative stereotypes that ogres have on their land. Even when Shrek tries to explain himself, the guards don’t stop attacking him and they end up getting beaten by Shrek.

Change of Meaning

Thirdly, the movie also illustrates that the meanings given in society can change within an interpretive process (Tye & Tye, 1992). For example, Lord Farquaad who stereotypically would be young, tall and handsome, is quite the opposite of what a mighty prince or warrior is supposed to look like. He is old, thin and ugly. Also, when Shrek initially meets the donkey, he expects the donkey to be afraid and threatened by him like everybody else because he is used to being treated that way. But the donkey is not afraid of him, he clarifies how people also had treated him badly and he would never judge someone by their appearance. Princess Fiona is the symbol of a damsel in distress waiting for her prince charming to save her. It is symbolized in the society that a prince always rescues the princess. But later in the film, she fights for herself and doesn’t wait to be saved. This event breaks stereotypes based on gender. It points out that not every time the prince saves the princess. Sometimes, they save themselves too. Such aspects of the movie tell us that the meanings given in society can change.


Ogres are the picture-perfect illustration of anti-symbolic interactionism since symbols and rank do not matter to them. Shrek (2001) portrayed that no matter how they looked all types of characters could get along. Distinct to the way Shrek was treated by people just because he was an ugly ogre. Most likely they were terrified of him due to their past interactions with ogres. They fail to acknowledge that sometimes things are more than they appear. There are several examples of symbolic interaction in the movie combining the humorous story and basics of fairy tales handed down for ages. It is very fascinating how people are influenced by their environment and assumptions and build their own social realities. Eventually, through this content, people will learn not to blindly follow the preconceived concepts placed by society, but will be able to use their own intellectual capacity to perceive things. As Shrek rightly said, ‘You shouldn’t judge people before you get to know them.’


  • Aksan, N., Kisac, B., Aydin, M., & Demirbuken, S. (2009). Symbolic Interaction Theory. Procedia- Social and Behavioral Sciences, 902-904.
  • Griffin, E. (2012). A First Look at Communication Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Hier, S. P. (2005). Contemporary Sociological Thought. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc.
  • Poloma, M. (1993). Contemporary Sociological Theories. Istanbul: GUNDOGAN PUBLICATIONS.
  • Tye, B. B., & Tye, K. A. (1992). Global Education: A Study of School Change. Albany: SUNY Press.


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