Subverting the Monster

Reading Shrek as a Disability Fairy Tale

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2828

How to Cite

Alice, J., & Ellis, K. (2021). Subverting the Monster: Reading <em>Shrek</em> as a Disability Fairy Tale. M/C Journal, 24(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2828 (Original work published October 5, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 5 (2021): monster
Published 2021-10-05 — Updated on 2021-10-16
Articles

Introduction

The blockbuster DreamWorks film Shrek is a play on the classic fairy tale narrative, where the hero, atop his noble steed, rescues the cursed princess from a dragon-guarded tower. Except the hero is an Ogre, the steed is a talking donkey, the dragon just wants to be loved, and, when they finally break the curse, the princess permanently transforms into an Ogre. From the opening scene, the first movie subverts the viewers’ expectations, offering reflection as well as a critique on “some of the cultural conventions that characterise modernity” (Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Dépelteau). As one of the most successful animated films in history (Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Dépelteau) Shrek is an important text to analyse from a disability perspective.

As Amanda Taylor suggests, the film introduces several disability themes that work together to make a social and cultural critique about social exclusion:

there are many social and cultural issues within the movie Shrek that should be addressed when looking through a lens of disability. Shrek and Fiona are the very opposite of what society looks at as a fairy tale, yet they are still so popular. The producers of this movie have tackled social issues in a very positive way. Elements such as obesity and economic diversity are portrayed within this movie that show that there is an alternative to stereotyping.

Taking Shrek as its case study, this article argues that monstrous images offer complex representations of disability that align with the affirmation model of disability. We begin with a review of key literature before starting a disability analysis of Shrek by drawing parallels between the social exclusion experienced by characters within the film and the effects of social disablement identified within the social model of disability and critical disability studies. We then move beyond the social model of disability to follow the importance of interdependence and disability pride throughout Shrek as it culminates in a representation of the affirmation model of disability. Throughout this article we make parallels between monsters, ogres, freaks (as a form of the monstrous), and characters with disability. Each as constructed as having extraordinary bodies—the non-normative.

Reading Monsters through a Disability Lens

Critical disability studies theorists often observe the way disability is used within narratives as a metaphor for something else (Mitchell and Snyder; Quayson; Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies; Garland-Thomson Freakery). For Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, this is particularly illustrative in the figure of the monster in literary narratives:

the word monster — perhaps the earliest and most enduring name for a singular body — derives from the Latin monstra, meaning to warn, show, or sign, and which has given us the modern verb demonstrate. (Garland-Thomson, Freakery 3)

Disability has become a defining characteristic of the monstrous body—“bodies that in their gross failure to approximate to corporeal norms are radically excluded” (Shildrick 2). The field of critical disability studies is concerned with the ways these norms are constructed to exclude certain bodies. Jobling notes that the typical figure of the ogre occurs in folklore across many cultures around the world. The ogre performs the function of “a semi-human monster who commits crimes against the ingroup. The hero triumphs over the ogre, usually by killing him” (Jobling). Ogres, depicted as inhumanly large monstrous characters who eat children, are recognisable as a source of fear. The ogre occupies an important position as a narrative prosthesis (see Mitchell and Snyder) in children’s narratives.

The monster therefore exists within narratives as a representation of something else. Reading monsters through a disability lens has been well researched in the critical disability studies field. Studies show how monstrosity is represented in film through disfigurement, typically in contrast to the normative or non-disabled body (Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies). Feminist theory is often applied to gain an insight into “the meanings attributed to the bodies by cultural representation and the consequences of those meanings in the world” (Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies). While several critical disability critiques emphasise the negative disability stereotypes associated with representations of monsters, increasingly theorists are considering the ways these monsters problematise and critique the social construction of the normate (Smith).

Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Born This Way: Reading Frankenstein with Disability is a notable example of how a monstrous character poses both a critique and representation of society. The Creature forms a “visual identity first from the stares, words, and behaviours of others". She observes “his condition of disability and resulting social exclusion are, as narrated, purely aesthetic in nature, and as such, socially constructed”. Throughout the text, the Creature exemplifies both monstrosity to be feared and vulnerability to be pitied; these are features outlined by Margrit Shildrick as concepts that underpin the non-normative body in popular culture. It is evident that the perception of monstrosity is one that is socially constructed, and is largely negative. Susan Marie Schweik suggests a relationship between this negative representation and the ugly laws.

The ugly laws refer to a set of laws that prohibited ugly people from participating in society during 1860s through to 1974. The ugly laws focus on non-normative bodies, especially bodies that were disfigured. The phrasing of these laws was such that it removed the personhood of so-called ugly people. For example, in the quote “so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets” (Schweik), the people phrasing the law objectify its subjects. These archaic ugly laws reflected a societal view that ugly people were frightening to behold, which manifests in fear of the person themselves. Thus, images of non-normative bodies in film and literature were reflected as frightening monsters. These representations described are the typical depiction of non-normative monstrous bodies.

While monsters have been consistently read through a disability lens, we aim to demonstrate through this article the importance of representations such as Shrek, as they depict a move towards disability pride and an affirmative model of disability.

The Affirmative Model of Disability

The affirmative model was developed as part of the disability arts movement. Colin Cameron (Disability Arts 11) asserts “the affirmation model identifies impairment as an important part of people’s identities, to be owned as part of who they are, and not as something to be hidden or regarded as a source of shame". He locates the negative representations of disability in texts mentioned above as a reflection of the values and assumptions related to the medical model of disability. While the medical model positions disability as a problem within the body, the social model locates this so-called problem in society. The affirmative model builds on but also critiques the social model of disability. The social model has been criticised by feminists with disability as over-emphasising “socio-structural barriers and ignoring personal and experiential aspects of disability” (Cameron Developing an Affirmation Model 24). However, the affirmative model retains the definition of disability as being located in social structures, with the addition of a subversion of the dominant cultural narrative which views disability or impairment as inherently negative.

While there are still heavily prevalent issues with stereotypes in media, and people with disability continue to be invoked in narratives of monsters a serious attempt to work with people with disability on authentic and positive representation is gaining traction. Inspired by the 2020 Oscar-nominated documentary film Crip Camp, Netflix-backed documentary filmmakers with disability organisation FWD-Doc has partnered with social impact company Doc Society to release A Toolkit for Inclusion & Accessibility to positively influence disability representation and media access (Mitchell; FWD-Doc and Doc Society). This inclusion toolkit ascribes to the affirmative model of disability and makes the following recommendations that in films:

  • people with disability are seen as multi-dimensional characters
  • people’s life is seen as valid and valuable
  • there is engagement in the disability community
  • disability pride is shown
  • intersectionality is shown
  • allyship is shown
  • good-quality audio description and captioning is used
  • disability is not seen as tragic
  • disability is not seen as inspiring
  • disability is not used a punchline
  • people overcoming disability are not shown
  • people with disability are not infantilised
  • no ableist language is used.

The following section offers a thematic analysis of Shrek that draws on FWD-Doc’s recommendations. Although almost all these recommendations are achieved in Shrek, this article will focus on the most relevant instances.

Findings: Setting Up a Normative Society

Due to space limitations we have focussed on the first film in the Shrek franchise in this article. However, at the time of writing this there are four films, a few TV spin-offs, and a Broadway musical production. Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Dépelteau suggest that the first three films form a trilogy based on the original book and follow a “high level of thematic unity”, which continues the reflections and critiques of cultural conventions that are outlined in this article. However the spin-offs and fourth film are suggested to have departed from this thematic structure.

The opening scene of Shrek is a fairy tale book being read by a narrator. It is a typical story of a princess being rescued by a handsome knight from a dragon-guarded tower. As the story nears its end, a page of the book is torn out and we hear the narrator say, “what a load of *flushing sound*”. This introduction is setting up an expectation of a film that will subvert the norms, and the film delivers. The viewer is introduced to a multi-dimensional title character who seems joyful, proud, independent, and comfortable in himself. He has hobbies; he paints, cooks, and reads. Despite his looks, he is not at all the typical figure of the ogre.

Although audiences are introduced to this proud character of Shrek, we soon see that the world he lives in does not treat him positively. Shrek encounters a group of townspeople that are coming to kill him. He tries to scare them away but they are frozen in place, gawking at him. This is indicative of Garland-Thomson’s concept of the stare referred to earlier in this article. The stare occurs when normative members of society encounter people viewed as the other, monsters, and freaks. The stare is depicted as something fascinating and potentially horrifying that compels people to be unable to look away.

After encountering this representation of a society that doesn’t accept him, Shrek meets Donkey. Donkey is hiding from people who would persecute him for being different and immediately identifies Shrek as another “freak” and thus an ally. However, Shrek has a harder time accepting that someone might not immediately dismiss him as a monster.

Shrek: Listen, little donkey. Take a look at me. What am I?
Donkey: Uh—Really tall?
Shrek: No! I’m an Ogre. You know. “Grab your torch and pitchforks.” Doesn’t that bother you?
Donkey: Nope.
Shrek: Really?
Donkey: Really, really.
Shrek: Oh.
Donkey: Man, I like you. What's your name?
Shrek: Uh, Shrek.
Donkey: Shrek? Well, you know what I like about you, Shrek? You got that kind of I-don't-care-what-nobody-thinks-of-me thing. I like that. I respect that, Shrek. You all right.

Although Shrek is comfortable in himself, he has built an opinion based on the view he takes from others. Much like Frankenstein’s monster (Stoddard Holmes), this view is aesthetic in nature and socially constructed.

The viewer is then introduced to Lord Maximus Farquaad, who is a fitting representation of someone enforcing the Shrek franchise’s version of the ugly laws. Lord Farquaad frequently objectifies the “freaks”, referring to them as “it” or “that", and he claims that they are “poisoning my perfect world”. The lordship of Duloc he rules over is thus representative of normative society, with a welcoming song that claims Duloc as a “perfect town” and warning “don’t make waves, stay in line and we’ll get on just fine”. Duloc is also represented as a society that follows instructions around societal norms, this is done through the use of cue cards that are shown to the on-screen audience telling them how to react, which they follow. These cue cards also offer a commentary on the constructed nature of this perfect society. Farquaad himself is of short stature and therefore ascribes to Kumari Campbell’s observations about the construction of ability. It is only by establishing and then marginalising disability as other that ability can be understood (Kumari Campbell).

Upon entering the castle, Shrek is discriminated against solely based on appearance. Guards are ordered to kill him as the crowd cheers on. However, as Shrek begins to display physical prowess in the fight, the crowd begins to cheer for him. This indicates a meritocratic society that finds value in Shrek now that he has shown himself to be skilled physically.

Findings: Taking an Affirmative Stance

After the film sets up this constructed normative society, Shrek and Donkey venture out and continue to disrupt the typical narrative. When Shrek accepts the quest of rescuing a princess instead of just destroying Farquaad, Donkey asks him why, and Shrek responds by describing actions of a typical ogre: “maybe I could have decapitated an entire village and put their heads on a pike”. Instead, he likens himself to an onion, because “onions have layers”, which reinforces the film’s idea that he is a multi-dimensional character. Donkey questions why he could not have used an analogy that everyone likes, such as parfaits, but Shrek explains it is not about what everyone likes. This is a notable example of an affirmative stance that values him for being multidimensional even if he is not normative.

Shrek and Donkey rescue Princess Fiona from the tower. From the moment she is introduced, she says “this is all wrong” and “this isn’t how it’s supposed to happen". This sentiment can be read as an expression of the confusion the viewer is supposed to be feeling due to the subversion of the typical narrative. However, Shrek has been wearing a helmet and Fiona has not seen that he is an Ogre, meaning she is still treating him like a brave knight. When asked to take off his helmet, Shrek refuses. This is the first time we see Shrek as vulnerable or self-conscious. Shrek wants to be seen as something other than an Ogre.

The journey back is long and Fiona’s character gains depth. She is portrayed as unconventional, she is not afraid of Shrek, instead she kills birds, eats rats, burps, fights off bandits, and catches bugs for him to eat. The relationship between Shrek and Fiona grows and Donkey advocates for them to be together, however Shrek is convinced that nobody could see him as anything other than an Ogre. Donkey points out that he did not.

Donkey: What exactly is your problem? What do you got against the world?
Shrek: I'm not the one with the problem. It’s the world that seems to have a problem. People take one look at me and go, “Aah! Help! Run! A big, stupid, ugly, Ogre!” (Sighs) They judge me before they even know me. That's why I’m better off alone.
Donkey: You know? When we met, I didn’t think you were just a big, stupid, ugly, ogre.
Shrek: Yeah. I know.

Donkey is demonstrating how their shared experience of being “freaks” meant that he accepted his friend from the beginning. This is a notable example of disability community.

Donkey then discovers Fiona turns into an Ogre at night. After his initial shock, he agrees she is “ugly” but does not show any indication that he cares about it or that it makes her any less valuable to him. This lack of a negative reaction is challenging for Fiona because she harbours self-hatred, similar to the internalised ableism prevalent in some people with disability. This internalised ableism is often based on a desire to be ‘normal’, usually due to a lack of support or exposure to the positive disability community (Blackwater). Donkey tries to help Fiona overcome this internalised stigma, but a miscommunication based on Shrek’s own internalised ableism pulls Shrek and Fiona apart.

Donkey, who is quickly becoming the voice of affirmation for the other characters, is ultimately the one who implores Shrek to confront his internalised ableism, and makes him feel loved and accepted. It is important that this comes from another “freak”, as this represents the power in disability community, rather than an able-bodied hero complex that is common in film. This strength in disability community is another notable example of the affirmative model of disability.

Shrek and Donkey return to Duloc to confront Farquaad and Fiona. We see more representation of a normative society; the cue cards are present again, illustrating the constructed nature of normative society. Farquaad alludes again to the ugly laws of the lordship he rules over when he states “it’s rude enough being alive when no one wants you” to Shrek. When Fiona reveals herself to be an Ogre, Farquaad immediately rejects her, but she has already found community and affirmation with Shrek. Rather than being defeated by the now-hero Shrek, Farquaad is eaten by Dragon who is subverting the monstrous archetype of the dragon, instead being the ultimate defeater (Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Dépelteau). The crowd claps, indicating it was merely going along with the normative societal views that had been enforced on the community. A final rebellion against the normative society is indicated when the guard crosses out the cue card and writes “aww” in response to Shrek and Fiona’s first kiss.

Shrek: Fiona? Fiona. Are you all right?
Fiona: Well, yes. But I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be beautiful.
Shrek: But you are beautiful.

The conclusion is perhaps one of the most poignant representations of the affirmative model. Shrek and Fiona end up back at their swamp where they are free to be Ogres, surrounded by other “freaks” as well as non-freak allies they’ve made along the way. They are flourishing in their proud community, surrounded by intersectional creatures. Although the first Shrek movie is a story about overcoming, it is not about people overcoming their monstrosity/disability. Instead, the film is about people overcoming societal and internalised views that disable them, and embracing a community that takes pride in difference.

Conclusion

Within critical disability studies, monsters are recognised as existing in the realm of hyper-representation. They are used within narratives to represent and reveal something else. As Garland-Thomson explains, monsters take on a semantic distinction to demonstrate the non-normative body. The ogre in children’s literature and popular culture is a monstrous figure used as a narrative prosthesis to incite fear. Shrek, however, takes this construction of the monster and subverts it to critique the construction of normative characters and societies in children’s narratives. To make this critique, the film draws on the affirmative model of disability and embraces disability pride through the personal journeys of its lead characters Shrek, Donkey and Fiona.

References

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Author Biographies

Jordan Alice, Curtin University

Jordan Alice is a Research assistant at Curtin University, researching disability, the arts, media, and culture. She has industry experience as an arts worker for DADAA, an organisation providing access to arts and culture for people with disability or a lived experience of mental illness. She additionally co-founded art workshop business Open Hands Creative which has a focus on sustainability and community building.

Katie Ellis, Curtin University

Katie Ellis is Professor in Internet Studies and Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. Her research is located at the intersection of media access and representation and engages with government, industry, and community to ensure actual benefits for real people with disability. She has authored and edited 17 books and numerous articles on the topic of disability and the media, including most recently the monograph Disability and Digital Television Cultures (Routledge, 2019).