The Unexpected Movie That Destroys Toxic Masculinity

Photo credit: Paste Magazine (https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/shrek/shrek-soundtrack-vinyl-reissue/)

Yesterday, I watched the movie Shrek for the first time in almost a decade.

I’ve always loved Shrek, and found myself perpetually entertained by it, so unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the experience of viewing it again.

This time, though, I was enjoying it for quite a different reason.

I realized as I was watching how feminist this movie truly is. For one, Fiona, originally portrayed as a fragile, distressed princess, is later proven to be a strong fighter with a stubborn, self-assured spirit. And for another, Shrek, the beloved main character, is totally destroying toxic masculinity.

Allow me to elaborate.

Shrek starts out as this solitary, macho, defensive dude who is interested in nothing but gaining his property back (his swamp). He lives alone, has terrible hygiene, and is gruff and cranky most of the time. Most of his traits are stereotypically “manly” traits that society encourages too often.

As the plot thickens, though, Shrek’s journey and character development— from meeting Donkey to retrieving Fiona from the castle to standing up to Lord Farquaad — begins to slowly juxtapose his originally grumpy, guarded, tough persona. He must learn how to coexist with a companion (aka Donkey), which he finds difficult at first, but slowly learns to adjust to, and he even confides in Donkey as the story continues. Next, he falls in love with Fiona, but perpetually doubts his self-worth and discourages himself from pursuing her because he feels that he’s not good enough for her. This experience forces him to confront his insecurities and face the troubles that he is plagued with by not fitting the ideal image of a “Prince Charming,” or even an average man. And when he and Fiona grapple with a gigantic miscommunication, he is quick to place the blame on her, though this is arguably just a protective instinct, and he later on learns how to meaningfully communicate with another person and gently hear other perspectives without the assumptions.

One of the most touching and progressive moments in Shrek was the moment that he and Donkey sat together on some rocks at night, looking out at the nature. Fiona was inside, presumably sleeping, and Donkey confessed that he thought Shrek and Fiona might have feelings for each other. Shrek begrudgingly admits it, but refuses to share his feelings with Fiona, carrying the belief that he is too ugly for her and that she wouldn’t choose to settle for someone like him. When Donkey asks why, Shrek says, “Well, she’s a princess and I’m…” and Donkey suggests, “An ogre?” and Shrek agrees, “An ogre.”

Finally, at this moment, Shrek has learned to confide in Donkey rather than continue being annoyed by him. He finds solace in trusting his friend, and for the first time, he abandons the idea that his life needs to be a companionless, solitary existence. And what’s more, Shrek finally admits how he’s really feeling. It’s like he’s letting down his shield. He leaves his tough, impenetrable exterior at the door and lets his friend into his true feelings. For once in his life, Shrek doesn’t pretend to take pride in being gross or huge or masculine. Instead, he reflects on his feelings, his insecurities. He feels that he isn’t good enough — will never be good enough — for Fiona. He finds that Fiona has gripped his heart in a way that no one else has, and yet he still feels that he can’t measure up. Usually, we’re used to seeing women suffer these internal conflicts in the media and not men. But for Shrek, love has no boundaries. It even means he’ll defy gender stereotypes to understand himself and her, which is such a wonderful, progressive part of who he is.

And Shrek aside, the movie itself portrays masculinity in a way that is quite antithetical to American ideals of masculinity. For once, the buff, muscular, brooding man (Shrek) is faced with insecurity over being seen as a second choice, while the seemingly ideal, handsome, sought-after man is a tiny, weak, dependent person who has long hair and shoes the size of my hands (Lord Farquaad). In most societies, people like Shrek are the ones who are idealized and people like Lord Farquaad are the ones who are so often singled out, marginalized, or doubted. Society’s ideals of masculinity often include strength, large size, toughness, and an absence of emotion that even borders on apathy. This movie, though, intelligently creates a plot that is almost exactly the opposite. I can’t help but wonder if the Shrek producers did all of this on purpose.

And there’s quite a few other societal stereotypes that Shrek knocks down. When Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey are traveling together and encounter a group of armed men, Fiona is the one to fight all of them off, kicking them and hitting them and plunging them to the ground while Shrek and Donkey sit there rather helplessly, in awe of Fiona’s strength and courage. And when she finishes fighting, neither of them mutter some useless bullshit like “Wow, you fight well for a girl,” or, “I didn’t know girls could do that.” Shrek just smiles at Fiona. He admires her strength, but he doesn’t act surprised by it. He doesn’t let any preconceived notions get in the way of how he sees her.

And at the very end, one of my personal favorite parts, Shrek and Donkey break into Fiona and Lord Farquaad’s wedding. It’s just before sunset, and Fiona is set on getting married before the sun sets so that she can use “true love’s kiss” to prevent her from being an ogre for the rest of her life (she turns into an ogre every evening at sunset). Shrek and Donkey completely stop the wedding. At first, Fiona is livid with Shrek because all she wants is to break the ogre curse. The sun finally sets, though, and Fiona turns into an ogre and disgusts Lord Farquaad. He tries to kick them all out of his castle, but Shrek confesses that he knew Fiona’s secret and that he loves her no matter what. After Lord Farquaad gets eaten by a dragon and she and Shrek kiss, Fiona looks at Shrek defeatedly and says that she just wants to be beautiful for the rest of her life (the curse didn’t reverse even with a kiss with Shrek, because Fiona is still an ogre). Without missing a beat, though, Shrek says, “But you are beautiful.”

And I know he didn’t have to say that — of course, Fiona could develop an appreciation for her own beauty rather than relying on someone else to proclaim it for her — but by saying that, he’s defying a handful of other societal norms. He’s being vulnerable to her. He’s confessing his feelings — a man to a woman — without the woman having to be the one to march up to him in the rain, crying, and pleading forgiveness and love. He’s seeing her beauty, even though she is an ogre, even though she is not the woman he thought she was. He is choosing to see what’s inside of her — the fighter, the good chef, the articulate voice, the ambitious spirit, the fast thinker, the kind soul — rather than just the outside.

Maybe I’m just a hopeless Shrek fan, but for 2001, this movie was pretty damn cool. I think we can all agree that we’re tired of the damsel-in-distress, big-guy-saves-her-but-preserves-his-manliness-in-the-process type storyline that we see all too often.

And Shrek is anything but.

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