I have a deep love for Shrek, and growing up with this franchise I never expected in my adult life that connecting with a green ogre – that deeply needs therapy – would partake in my awareness of what it means to be human, whilst a frog king taught me how deeply flawed we are as people – especially in our attempts to attain perfection. Perfection can never be attained because of how intricate our emotions are, we realise that understanding who we are as individuals requires people, love, and getting what we need and what we want. Being excruciatingly honest, bold and vulnerable with ourselves gives us freedom, because when we remove ourselves from the expectations, judgement and perceptions that the outer world, and our people, have of us, it gives us the chance to simply be without having to perform to a certain standard.
Writing about what you love is hard. I’ve been wanting to do this for so long, but giving justice to how two ogres, their babies, a donkey, a dragon, a cat and their weirdly mismatched family make me feel is hard, and explaining how they make the red blood thing in my chest feel is honestly unexplainable, but I’ve tried my very best to do them justice.
One of the most amazing things about the whole Shrek franchise is Shrek and Donkey’s beautifully chaotic friendship. It’s literally the definition of opposites attract, but importantly it’s a warm example of how much we really need people because no man is an island, and sometimes other people’s strange nature and audacity bring out the best in us, even when we may not want it to. Shrek has issues – we can all agree with that and move on – and whilst loving him where he’s at, and empathising with his fear of not belonging and forming a friendship, it’s intrigued me how often he leans into his identity of being an outcast and deeply relies on the stereotypes and views that others have placed on him to survive, as it’s way easier than letting people in. So, when sledgehammer Donkey comes breaking his green friends’ walls down, it’s a beautiful depiction of how intimate, freeing and irritating friendships can be. How? Donkey and Shrek are so brutally honest with one another from the get-go, that it works and no matter how much they may irritate the other, they genuinely love and appreciate the other being entirely, especially in their mess. And, despite Shrek’s fear of holding people close to his heart and giving way for openness, Donkey is vexingly persistent (and simultaneously patient) in his own weird way, and sometimes we really need a friend like that. Someone that will ask us the hard questions, whilst loving us where we’re at.
The thing is, despite how much of an amazing friend Donkey is, he is also a problematic friend who in their greatest attempt to understand us, may unknowingly conform to norms because that’s all they’ve known. The best example I can give is when Shrek delivers his famous line about ‘ogres being onions’ and ‘ogres having layers’, Donkey goes on about parfaits and cakes (both layered foods, and delicious as onions, in my opinion) and how ‘everybody loves cakes’, which isn’t a lie, but how quick Donkey is to try and fit Shrek into something he’s not, confirms Shrek’s innermost fears. And Donkey definitely isn’t doing this on purpose, because we see him trying really hard to understand Shrek in a way that makes sense to him, instead of simply trying to understand Shrek as Shrek, not Shrek through Donkey’s eyes (which can be really hard). To be real, Shrek does the exact same thing with Donkey, but their ever-growing friendship and forced time together gives both of them the time and space to understand the other. Their friendship has taught me the beauty of being ok with who you are within friendships, and even if you love those closest to you with all your heart and wish they understood you, there comes a point where you don’t always have to explain yourself to them. It’s not always your job to try to defend who you are, why you love the things you do, and why you do the things you do the way you do them – it’s ok if people just don’t get that part of you.
Explaining ourselves away can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication because we’re always in fight mode with the world. When really, security within ourselves teaches us that people will learn things in time because boundaries are a beautiful thing, and they give space for us to genuinely have the capacity to be open with those we love. As it comes from a place where mutuality and understanding can be reached, whilst still giving room for deep love and respect for one another even when we may not understand all parts of who they are. A beautiful example of this is that bridge scene where Shrek feeds into Donkey’s fear. It always pulls at my heartstrings because we really think Shrek is being his mean and vindictive self, and by being himself he’s doing more danger to Donkey because one, they’re still building trust in their friendship at this point and two, although rational, Donkey’s fear could’ve wasted so much time for them and it would’ve made sense for Shrek to save Fiona on his own. Instead of leaving Donkey outside alone, Shrek decided to irritate his friend into doing something he was terrified to do, whilst unknowingly protecting him and literally helping him cross to the other side of his fear, with love and grace. It’s such a beautiful example of friendship and understanding your people whilst giving yourself the freedom to be who you are.
Assumptions are another huge part of Shrek. Assumptions of other people, assumptions of ourselves, assumptions of curses from witches’ spells, you know, all the normal things. I briefly mentioned above how often Shrek leans into people’s expectations and assumptions of him, as it protects him and keeps him safe in a bubble so that life is easier to navigate without him having to always defend or explain himself. He’s an Ogre, and he’ll act as people expect Ogres to act because doing anything else could get him killed from people’s hate, ignorance and bias. All those things tend to be human nature and are so prevalent in our world because we often fear what we don’t know, and tbh, something I’ve noticed in my monthly viewings of Shrek is, Dragon is so similar to Shrek. When she’s approached with the prospect of admiration and not fear, it genuinely caught her off guard, but unlike Shrek, she actually welcomes love (in a slightly problematic way…) and I honestly, love her for that and love that for her.
Tangent aside… assumptions and perceptions and conformity; we fear what we don’t know, and fear makes us either: lean into others’ assumptions of us which, even whilst wholeheartedly accepting and knowing yourself, can make it hard to fully live a life of freedom as you’re always on the defence (like Shrek). Or it makes us hide and worry about what others will think when they see a part of us we’ve hidden for so long, and have deemed ugly due to what we’ve been made to believe our whole lives, especially when the ‘ugly thing’ is something you have/deal with and having the option to show ‘it’ to others feels terrifying (like Fiona). Shrek and Fiona’s personalities and their love makes my heart do many things, and it’s so cute and they make me cry because it’s hilarious watching how similar, yet different they are, but also how terrified they are to fall in love with the other because of others’ perceptions of love and their unorthodox lifestyles, and what people would have to say if they ever were a thing. Which is hilarious, considering how strong-headed, upfront, and not giving a f*** they are as individuals. It’s a lesson to be gentle with ourselves, whilst also making an effort to take time to understand why we fear difference.
Because even in our security and healing, we may find things that we’ve buried, or things that we do, that we may not entirely understand why we do those things or how burying them has hurt us, and digging all the mess and the vulnerability up and can be super yuck and take so much out of us, because it’s hard and healing isn’t linear and it’s not easy. Like, literally nobody wants to end up like Lord Farquaad – he’s forever attempting to attain perfection to the point of definitely compensating for something, by having others do his dirty work to hide his own deep insecurities, even though HE HIMSELF DOESN’T FIT INTO SOCIETIES STANDARDS. To the point that he’s made himself an ideal, seemingly appearing confident and self-assured, but sadly not understanding that what he seeks is exactly what Shrek seeks too.
Farquaad chooses Fiona because she’s beautiful. He doesn’t listen to the mirror, because he’s seen her and he wants her, and that’s that. I love the detail in Shrek (if you haven’t noticed). Fiona could easily have been another princess that is beautiful and has many skills, but the prince comes to save her and they live happily ever after. But that doesn’t happen (!!) because throughout the first film Fiona’s standards of beauty change. It’s funny to me, because I’ve had endless conversations with people who don’t get why Fiona had to become an ogre instead of staying human and still be with Shrek; but also, why not? And it may seem slightly misogynistic if we think about it from one perspective, as it can lead us to think, ‘Why does a woman constantly have to change for a man?’ but, Shrek 2 shows us that Shrek was also willing to do the exact same for her!! That’s not my point here, the important thing is that in Fiona becoming a full-time Ogre, it’s a physical portrayal of her acceptance of herself, and her ridding herself of the assumptions and opinions of others, or what she thought was ‘meant to be’, and how doing this gave her so much freedom and a chance to openly love the parts of her that she feared, boldly and continuously. Fiona’s curse (“By night one way, by day another. This shall be the norm until you find true love’s first kiss and the take love’s true form.”) spoke about taking true love’s form, and yes it was a curse and to her, it was the worst thing and a burden to the point that she was so ashamed of who she was.
The thing is, the worst part of Fiona, was entirely who Shrek was and the difference was he couldn’t change himself (we will come to Shrek 2 another time!!). Fiona had fallen in love with someone who it didn’t make sense for her to fall in love with, and choosing Farquaad was the easier option that made sense because, well, she’d be human and no one besides her, her family and Donkey would know of her shame, of what she believed to be the worst part of her. It’s honestly laughable that she thought Farquaad could be her true love, and it’s interesting that she assumed that true love would look and be one way – because being human being and not an ‘ugly Ogre’ was the default, and I understand and empathise with Fiona’s fear at times – when really, falling in love forced her to address what she had been taught to believe and always thought ‘ugly’ was. Loving Shrek made her see herself and understand that sometimes love will have us looking like a fool to others, and it may not make sense to us entirely, but it is worth it because what you go through with that person, your person, makes up for the struggle, and learning what love is within the context of your relationship with them can bring so much peace, joy and laughter in ways that you may never have known possible.
If you take anything from this jumbled, overly enthusiastic word vomit of my adoration for Shrek, it’s that it’s ok to be messy and not fully fleshed out. It’s ok to continually be figuring things out, and realise that everyone’s trying to do their best, literally, nobody is perfect, and we can’t put people on a pedestal. Nobody in Shrek is perfect, even if we think they are, it’s a cold hard fact that they aren’t and that’s what makes Shrek so different from other fairy tales. It shows us that the mess and weirdness, the embarrassment, of being human; that in our differences we are beautiful because when you don’t fit into what others want of you, it creates a new sense of freedom that comes from entirely being able to exist as an entity that’s void of expectations. Yes, Shrek completely captures this, and I will not let anyone tell me otherwise.
You see how fear, conformity and assumptions can really hold us back from who we’ve been called to be? From love and joy? From developing relationships with people? Shrek really did that, and nobody can tell me the whole franchise isn’t anything less than a cinematic masterpiece.