By lampooning Disney princess movies, Dreamworks’ 2001 film Shrek created a princess with an impressively subversive storyline. Princess Fiona starts off wanting to lead a traditional princess life, except she’s not traditional at all; rather, she’s been shamed and forced into hiding the untraditional parts of herself.
Although Fiona’s quest towards self-acceptance is also wrapped up in a lot of weird messages about “ugliness,” it was still radical at the time, especially when compared to the lessons that Disney had been dishing out previously.
[Ed. note: The following contains full spoilers for the 20-year-old film Shrek.]
From its opening shot, Shrek established itself as an explicit Disney princess parody. Just like the opening of Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), Shrek begins with a slow zoom in on a picture book that provides some backstory about Fiona. The rest of the movie follows similar beats; similar to Snow White, Fiona’s beauty gets foretold by a magic mirror, and like Sleeping Beauty, Fiona has been trapped in a tall tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Fiona also has a curse that can only be broken by true love’s kiss — except her curse is that she isn’t a human woman at all. She’s an ogre, and at the end of the movie, her true love’s kiss with Shrek forces her to face that truth.
- The picture book about Princess Fiona from Shrek (2001) Image: Dreamworks
- The picture book from the opening of Disney’s Cinderella (1950) Image: Disney
- The picture book from the opening of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) Image: Disney
- The cover of the picture book from Disney’s Snow White (1937) Image: Disney
By the time Shrek 2 rolls around, Fiona has accepted her ogre self and firmly rejected the Disney princess paradigm. The second Shrek movie opens with a honeymoon sequence that features Fiona dragging a facsimile of The Little Mermaid’s Ariel away from her spouse. Given that Ariel’s story involves her changing her body into something much more mundane for the sake of accommodating a man, it’s fitting that Fiona would reject everything Ariel represents.
If Fiona were a Disney princess, her quest to find her “true” self would involve an expression of traditional physical beauty, and her beauty would qualify her to become a member of the ruling class. Meanwhile, “ugly” characters would trick her and try to prevent her from entering that world. At the outset of Shrek, Princess Fiona is just as classically beautiful as her Disney princess peers; she’s thin, pale, and hourglass-shaped. Although her royal status is what her would-be husband Lord Farquaad really wants, Princess Fiona’s beauty also matters to him, since he cares about appearance to a fault.
Shrek doesn’t skimp on the short jokes about Farquaad. This may seem contradictory for a movie that’s purportedly about inner beauty, and it certainly seems hypocritical for Shrek to mock Farquaad’s stature when Shrek struggles with his own insecurities. But unlike Shrek, Farquaad has not accepted his appearance. From the paintings he’s commissioned of himself to his wedding cake topper, Farquaad depicts himself as a tall man, rather than embracing and accepting the way he actually looks. This, combined with his quest to remove all non-normative “fairytale creatures’’ from his kingdom, reflects his obsession with a “perfect” version of reality that cannot ever exist. The kingdom of Dulac is as pristine as a Disney theme park; the result is cloying and lifeless.
Fiona, too, has fallen prey to this line of thinking. When we first meet her, she talks to Shrek in faux-Shakespearian language, putting on airs to seem as princess-like and perfect as possible. When she realizes he’s an ogre and not Prince Charming, the cracks in her facade begin to form, but she doesn’t have a real moment of realization until she overhears Shrek say: “People take one look at me and go, ‘Help! Run! A big stupid ugly ogre!’ They judge me before they even know me. That’s why I’m better off alone.”
After that, Fiona takes off the proverbial ogre mask by burping in front of Shrek and then showing off her martial arts skills. Traditional gender roles fly out the window from this point forward, with Shrek cooking dinner for Fiona and offering to cook for her any time she visits him. Not-so-perfect princess Fiona is the big strong defender who sits back and enjoys her rotisserie-style weed rat, with Shrek nursing an arrow wound and a crush.
Shrek’s feelings for Fiona are not about her physical appearance; this is not a story of beauty taming the beast. Instead, he puts it this way: “I saw this flower and thought of you because it’s pretty, and well, I don’t really like it, but I thought you might like it, because you’re pretty. But I like you anyway!” This stands in contrast to Farquaad’s proposal to Fiona in the following scene: “Will you be the perfect bride for the perfect groom?”
In a traditional Disney princess movie, being the perfect bride for the perfect groom would be the ending. Characters who look “ugly,” like long-nosed witches and sneering stepsisters, get cast out in favor of more beautiful people (who just so happen to be rich, powerful, and apparently deserving of a kingdom to rule). These are dark lessons, but they’re lessons that Fiona manages to escape.
In the movie’s final moments, when Fiona learns that true love’s kiss with Shrek has kept her an ogre, she says, “I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be beautiful.” Shrek tells her, “You are beautiful,” and the credits roll on a much less formal wedding reception with the movie’s fairytale creatures partying in Shrek’s swamp. It’s a triumph for societal rejects who’ve carved out a place for self-acceptance.
The portrayal of Princess Fiona still has some obvious problems. She spends the entire movie describing her ogre self as “ugly,” and it’s never entirely clear if that’s more about her green skin or her larger waistline. It’s heartbreaking that Fiona is still the only mainstream animated princess with a body type bigger than a Barbie doll, and that the explanation provided for this is that she is literally not human. Fiona’s expressions of physicality are supposedly what make her an ogre; she eats, she burps, she farts, she fights, and she relishes in all of it. As a princess, she was dainty and passive, relying on a mythical stranger to save her from the luxuries of being an ogre —luxuries that look a lot like the best parts of being human. But these are the aspects of her personality that she refers to as “ugly,” over and over again. That repetition isn’t exactly counter-balanced by the one assurance from Shrek at the movie’s end that these are, in fact, the things that make Fiona “beautiful” —especially since it’s the movie’s male lead who has to reassure Fiona of this truth, rather than her coming to the realization on her own.
Despite these shortcomings, Princess Fiona was a new kind of animated princess in 2001, a reflection of a future for female characters in kids’ media who acted like human beings. Unfortunately, she had to be an ogre in order to achieve that.