Is it hard to reach the heart of Shrek in a world of “Fair and Lovely”? Before finding out the answer of this crucial and complicated question, it is needed to focus on the traditional animated films that deal with fairy tales. Animated films, especially the fairy-tale categories have a certain kind of format which has been followed blindly for years. The story always begins with “Once upon a time……” when there is a damsel in distress, eagerly waiting for a Prince Charming to come and rescue her after fighting with horrifying and dangerous dragons or witches or ogres or other hideous villains so that they can “live happily, ever after”. Taking any Disney animated film about fairy-tales would show that there is actually no difference in form, character, themes or presentation in Snow White, Rupunzel, Tangled or other “Barbie” movies. In all these animated films, the characters and situations are presented in such a way that the children unconsciously absorb the age old ideologies about white concept of “beauty”, gender discrimination, role of women and race relation through the politics of representation. All the traditional animated fairy tale films present that a helpless princess is waiting for her rescuer which indicates the presentation of women as “other”; a powerful King or Prince Charming who stands for the “so-called” male chauvinism; and a dragon or an ogre or a witch who presents race relation as the subaltern. This paper is going to place DreamWorks’ animated film Shrek in a critical context for analyzing its characters and style, revaluing the themes presented in it and reinterpreting them through cultural reading of discourses and ideologies and to explore how Shrek touches critical, crucial and complex issues like white idealization of “beauty”, gender discrimination and “Lilliputian” ideology of male chauvinism and its exercise of power along with race relation.
Deconstruction through the portrayal of characters
Shrek attempts not only to deconstruct but also to re-construct the naïve idealisms of society through the character of Shrek. Shrek, the green “ugly” ogre is the main protagonist of the movie. The name “Shrek” has derived from German and Yiddish word “Schreck” or “Shreck” which literally mean fear and terror. So “Shrek” is indeed the perfect name chosen for an ogre in the context of a fairy tale as traditionally, he is supposed to be violent, dangerous, terrorizing, horrific character that would push the beautiful, helpless damsel in distress. In the very beginning of the movie, it is seen that Shrek is frightening the village people and telling them that they are supposed to run away as an ogre is harmful for human beings. Indeed it is a traditional “perfect” portrayal of an ogre but this incident lets the audience know that Shrek is completely different from other ogres. “Ugly”, horrific ogres do not tell people to run away, to escape from them, rather they eat people up without wasting time; where Shrek is the ogre who lets people go because he is noble and come and far away from being violent. Thus, the audience is charmed by him and starts falling for him because of his sober and sound attitude which is totally opposite to his root, his “usual” characteristics. Shrek makes the audience forget their traditional view of an ogre who seems to be a villain.
Next, Shrek meets the talking, irritating, comical Donkey in the jungle and rescues Donkey from the army of the King. Once again, the viewers get to see the disposition of an ogre. Donkey becomes grateful to Shrek for saving him and follows him to the swamp. During their journey to swamp, it is seen that Donkey is not presented as a “beast of burden” which is dumb and docile. In fact, Donkey is witty in his conversation with Shrek and he thinks and speaks with reason. This Donkey also sings and in spite of being so irritating, he becomes able to befriend Shrek. So, not only Shrek but DreamWorks also represents another character which is completely opposite to the ideology that all the beasts are useless and brainless creatures.
As Shrek is made as a replica of traditional fairy tale movie, so next the rise of action is presented through the journey of Shrek and Donkey to Duloc which is “the perfect world” of Lord Farquaad. Lord Farquaad is the king of Duloc who lives in a stereotyped fairy tale castle of Disney. Farquaad is a “Lilliput” in size and stands for all the “Lilliputian” ideologies of Disney as he believes in male chauvinism and exercises power violently but is afraid to face off problems by himself and follows the white concept of beauty. Thus, he chooses Princess Fiona as her queen by using the “magic mirror” of Snow White. As mirror tells him that Princess Fiona is imprisoned by a dragon and Farquaad has to rescue her, Farquaad is seen afraid and finally send Shrek to rescue her for him.
So Shrek, along with Donkey, starts his journey to rescue Fiona for Farquaad. During this journey Shrek opens up to Donkey and the audience get to know more about Shrek. Shrek explains how much he is hurt about people’s attitude towards him due to his outlook. He exclaims that “Ogres are like onions. They have layers” which indicates that Shrek wants people know him first before judging him on the basis of outlook. After a long and tiring journey, they reach the dragon’s place where Fiona is imprisoned. For the first time, Fiona is presented on the screen and her representation is just like a perfect, traditional damsel in distress. Even her dialogues after being rescued by Shrek is more like Snow White’s or Repunzel’s. But the audience is shocked and surprised by striking image of the “lady” dragon with large eye-lashes and red lipstick who tries to woo Donkey.
Another shock comes when the viewers get to see the real Fiona who is brave, martial art expert, independent rather than helpless, not that much sophisticated, and more like a common human being who even burps and farts. Even Donkey states about her that she is as nasty as Shrek. Fiona is the woman who is not the “other” in any sense rather she is the “one” who can take care of her all by herself without taking any help from Shrek and moreover, who can fight with the team of Robin Hood all alone. Fiona is totally different from all the other Princesses of Disney who are meek, weak and feeble.
Ideologies: Same thing in a new packet? Or something really new in an old packet?
What does Shrek show and tell the viewers? Is it the same product in a new packet? Or is it really a new product which is wrapped up in the same old packet? Indeed Shrek is different in its portrayal of characters and presentation of themes. First of all, let us focus the light on the hegemonized concept of beauty which makes people judge others on the basis of their outer look without knowing what they really are. In this movie, Shrek is seen lamenting because he is constantly judged by people the minute they meet him, even before they get to know him. He tells donkey “They judge me even before they know me.” Thus, he thinks and decides that he is better off alone. Shrek tells the viewers that it is all about the politics of representation which is discussed by Michel Foucault. It is because of the politics that people judge Shrek by his outer look. It is because of the ideology that people think an ogre is always ugly and harmful. Children learn from the early childhood that ogres, dragons and witches are destructive characters and there is no other way around. In contrast DreamWorks has presented Shrek in such a way, breaking all the age old naïve ideologies about Ogres, for which not only Princess Fiona but the viewers also fall for Shrek instead of falling for Lord Farquaad. Though Lord Farquaad should be taken as the Prince Charming because he is a King but just like his pigmy size, his behavior, thinking and everything else epitomize “Lilliputian” ideologies for which the viewers are never attracted for him. DreamWorks shows that an “ugly” ogre can be a better “person” than a Prince Charming in every possible way.
Shrek is presented with emotions, feelings, and even with finer feelings. It will not be wrong to say that through Shrek DreamWorks wants to show that discourses have other sides as well. In traditional fairy-tales the ogres and other beasts like dragons are always portrayed as ugly, mean, frightful, and dangerous creatures. They are presented to make people hate them for their look, behavior and everything else. Shrek shows that these issues can be presented in others ways too.
Shrek laments for being judged by people only on the basis of his look, but he never laments for being an “ugly” creature but in contrast to Shrek, Fiona is seen as a soul believer in the white ideology of “beauty”. That is why when she turns into an ogres after the sunset during their journey back to Duloc, and Donkey finds her like that, she tells Donkey “This is not how a Princess is meant to be… … … . .. Princess and ugly don’t go together.” Her statements show that she has internalized the concept that a princess has to be beautiful and charming and it does not matter what she is deep inside. Moreover, she can not accept her turning into an ogres after the sunset and to break the spell of the witch, she is ready to marry Lord Farquaad without knowing him. Even when she meets Farquaad for the first time, she seems to be disappointed and she seems to feel nothing for that guy. Still she becomes ready to marry him only because she wants to get rid of the magic spell which turns her into ogres every night which shows how desperate she is to be a beautiful princess for ever. She wants to have the form of true love which would make her beautiful. After taking the form of true love in the end of the movie when Fiona and Shrek both accept that they love each other and thus, kiss each other, Fiona turns into an ogress and says “I’m supposed to be beautiful.” and Shrek replies “But you’re beautiful” which shows that beauty lies not only in the eyes of the beholder but also in the “inside” of being. Fiona is beautiful in her inside and that matters more for Shrek. In this way, Shrek represents that all the fairy tales need not to end like the story of Beauty and The Beast where the kiss of pure love would turn the “Beast” into a Prince Charming and only a beautiful Princess and a prince Charming can “live happily ever after.”
Like all other fairy tales, Shrek follows the sequence of stability-problems and disruption-stability throughout the movie but it breaks all the stereotypes through the characters, dialogues and presentations. Shrek is not the Prince Charming but he is still the hero, Lord Farquaad is the King who fits as a villain, Princess Fiona is not a damsel in distress like Snow White. Thus, Shrek turns the tradition upside down but the turn over is done in such a magnificent way that it seems to be realistic and rational.
“Myth” of Disney is seen upside down in DreamWorks
What has Disney fed the viewers? All that the audiences get to see is a complete happy world in which a “beautiful” white Princess got a huge castle to live in with her parents. A princess, who is so weak and feeble and has nothing but only feminine beauty, and that princess possesses only beauty and lacks the brain. She only waits for her Prince Charming who will make her life meaningful. In the mean time there appears a villainous ogre or giant or witch who disrupts everything. The helpless princess is seen crying for help and then comes the Prince Charming who epitomizes Victorian chivalry. He fights with the villain and kills it and rescues princess. Then they sing a song and starts living happily ever after. In short, Disney stands for the “Lilliputian” ideology.
Recently, Disney even makes “working” Barbie movies but even here, the working Barbie is nothing but a replica of damsel in distress. This Barbie is a white blonde one who is unnaturally beautiful with blue eyes and other typical feminine features. Though she works and is independent but still, she needs someone, to be more specific, a male character to support her in every way. In contrast to the Disney princesses, and “Working” Barbie girls, Princess Fiona is the one who can fight with the hooligans in the middle of the jungle in Matrix style and is able to save herself, and take care of herself without depending on Shrek for safety and security. Moreover, Fiona is portrayed as a princess who acts more like an ordinary girl who even burps and farts. So, Shrek thinks out of the box of “Disney-an” myths.
Why animated form? Is this form used to tickle only as a slapstick humor or to slap the naïve ideologies?
Shrek is produced in the form of an animated film and there can be two possible reasons behind it. First, animated film is the best way to convey the message to the children. Animated films are very catchy and interesting not only for children but it also entertains the elders. Not only kids but the parents also watch these types of movies. It is always very tough to change and manipulate the age old vision, ideology and idealisms of elderly people but to manipulate the point of view of children is easier. A matured person will not be able to change his perception of “beauty” or gender discrimination at a matured age. But a child is ready to accept anything and everything it sees or hears unconsciously. Watching movies like Shrek or How To Train Your Dragon would make them accept that ogres and dragons can be friends. They will know that a girl is not always helpless and there can be girls like Princess Fiona who can manage her safety and security all by herself and without any help of a man. Moreover, it would be possible to change the perception that nothing is “fixed” and there is no certain code that an ogre or a dragon has to be bad and “ugly” and a king would always be “charming”.
Secondly, when Shrek says about people around him that they judge me even before they know me and about himself that ogres are like onions and they have layers; it is quite easy to understand that Shrek wants to give some message to the viewers. Shrek expresses his feelings which touch each and every heart who watches it and unknowingly the viewer falls for the “ugly” green ogre. This is the message which the animated movie attempts to convey that knowing without judging is wrong and there are layers left to know than what one sees from outside. Under the veil of a parody movie, Shrek reveals the idea of existential authenticity and absurdity created and caused by the politics of representation. Thus, Shrek not only deconstructs but also re-constructs the hegemonic idealisms of society and slaps the myths through the use of slapstick humor.
It will not be wrong to say that if Toni Morrison’s Pecola got to see Shrek then probably she started thinking differently instead of dreaming about the bluest eyes which epitomized the only standard of beauty for her, and Claudia would have not destroyed her “white baby dolls”. Instead they would have celebrated their own beauty like Shrek and Fiona learnt in this movie.
All the four major characters of Shrek stand for some specific ideologies of society and all of them manipulate those ideologies. The theme is same, even the setting and form is also replicated perfectly. No doubt, it is a movie which can be regarded as a gold mine of parody and irony. What makes Shrek different is its use of parody and irony is not only entertaining, rather they are also enriching. This movie can make one able to see out of the box and question the idealisms. Thus, Shrek can be awarded as the ogre who is able to achieve people’s love and heart. In a world of “Fair and Lovely”, Shrek makes people love him though he is green and “ugly”.
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