By Bianca Garner
It seems incredible that Dreamworks “Shrek” is now twenty years old. This cult classic burst onto our screens on the 18th May 2001, with it’s talented cast of actors (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and the awesome John Lithgow), “Shrek” transformed the CGI animated landscape forever. While, many articles and think pieces are analysing the film and its characters as a whole, I have decided to focus on the film’s true hero: Princess Fiona.
The role of the princess in any fairy tale is to be the ultimate prize for the handsome prince charming. The purpose of fairy tales has always been a way of depicting social norms and values. Fairy tales act as a way to get across lessons to children, reinforcing certain gender norms and gender roles. As discussed in the paper “Exploring Gender Ideology in Fairy Tales“, “Children read fairy tales to identify the cultural norms of the world in which they are living. As fairy tales can also be considered as “child’s early exposure to gender identity” so the characters should be portrayed as realistic as possible. (Kukendal & sturm, 2007).” As discussed in “Exploring Gender Ideology in Fairy Tales”, being exposed to fairy tales during childhood, will shape the child’s identity. “According to Kuykandal & Sturm (2007) fairy tales have great influence on the development of children gender identity. Gender and Child Development experts agree that child internalizes gender role expectations through observation and imitation till the age of five, which often terms as child’s socialization process (Novosot, 2007).“
In “Shrek” we see that this is the fate for Princess Fiona (Diaz), a young woman who has been imprisoned in a tower since her childhood and cursed to transform into a hideous ogre when the sun sets. It is only true love’s first kiss which can release her from this curse, and allow her to become her true self. However, “Shrek” dispels of the traditions of the fairy tale, by having Shrek (the hideous ogre) fall in love with Fiona, who also returns his love, and when they kiss at the end of the film, she transforms into her true ogre form. Shrek reassures that she is beautiful, and they live happily ever after. The morale of the film has had a dramatic effect on me , showing the viewer that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Shrek finds Fiona beautiful because of who she is on the inside rather than who she is on the outside. He fell in love with her personality, her wit and her ability to blow up frogs and turn them into balloons.
“Fiona isn’t the type of girl who sat idly by waiting for her prince to come and rescue her, as she puts in her own words, “Well, when one lives alone, one has to learns these things in case…There’s an arrow in your butt!”
Up until “Shrek” princesses in animated films had played a more passive role within the narrative world being depicted on the screen. Although, the likes of Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” were the main characters in their stories, they were limited in terms of their gender roles. At no point did we see Belle suddenly turn around and do a karate kick or pull an arrow out of someone’s butt. When Shrek does get the arrow in his butt and Donkey starts panicking, it’s Fiona who takes control of the situation, sending Donkey away immediately on an errand so he’s out of the way. This shows her quick thinking and resourcefulness. This scene has immediately followed on from Fiona kicking ass by fighting Robin Hood and his merry men, which left both Donkey and Shrek impressed. Fiona isn’t the type of girl who sat idly by waiting for her prince to come and rescue her, as she puts in her own words, “Well, when one lives alone, one has to learns these things in case…There’s an arrow in your butt!”
And, yes while Fiona does in fact follow some of the gender norms of the ‘Princess’ (i.e. cooking eggs for Shrek and Donkey), even when she does these tasks she does them in her own style. She’s not exactly ideal ‘Princess’ material; for example, she steals eggs from the nest of a bird that blew up trying to sing along with her. However, Fiona is not meant to be this ideal dream princess. She’s just human, flawed and magnificent in her own way.
While the Disney Princesses’ existences seems to be close-ended once the stories have concluded and we rarely see their lives after they have gotten married, “Shrek” and it’s other sequels, show us that there is a life beyond the “they all live happily ever after”. As a result, Princess Fiona evolves, she comes to discover the truth about who she really is and why she was locked away in the tower. Diaz believes her character’s personality “shattered” children’s perception of princess characters from the moment she was freed from the tower, explaining that Fiona had always been capable of freeing herself but chose to remain in the tower solely because she was “following the rules of a fairy tale book”. In a way this reflects how many women have felt over the centuries, knowing that they are more than capable of saving themselves but being restricted and held down by the ‘rules’ that society has forced upon them. Princess Fiona’s backstory reflects this, and once she is finally liberated from the tower and meets Shrek and Donkey, she slowly learns how to embrace her true nature.
“Once she becomes her true self, Fiona isn’t distraught or shown to be distressed but shown to be truly comfortable in her skin for what must be the first time in her life.”
Diaz identified the character as “the anchor everyone has attached themselves to”, to whom Shrek looks to for guidance, which she would not have been able to provide unless she possessed the strength herself. In terms of character development and evolvement, Diaz recalled that, despite having been raised in a “storybook life”, Fiona eventually comes to terms with the fact that “her Prince Charming didn’t come in the package she thought he would. She’s learned to have patience with Shrek, accept him for who he his”, particularly going against being taught that her Prince Charming must look and act a certain way.
Re-watching “Shrek” as a thirty-something-year-old woman, I noticed that Princess Fiona’s fear of being seen as her true ogre self is a reflection of women’s insecurities about being seen without being made up. Women are faced with ridiculous beauty standards which lead to many women around the world experiencing self image insecurities, and even eating disorders as a result. Fiona fears that she will be rejected because her true self goes against the norms of the society she lives in, as she confesses to Donkey when he first encounters her in her ogre form, “I’m a princess! And this is not how a princess is supposed to look!” In the end, it doesn’t matter what the rest of society thinks Princesses are meant to look like, because Fiona is accepted by someone who genuinely cares for her. Once she becomes her true self, Fiona isn’t distraught or shown to be distressed but shown to be truly comfortable in her skin for what must be the first time in her life.
“Shrek” is less about the journey of the ogre it’s titled after, but rather Fiona’s journey of self discovery. Shrek may learn to be nicer to people and venture outside his swamp, but it’s Fiona who has the real transformation. And, it’s for this reason, that the film’s real All Star is Princess Fiona.