The Alterhuman Media Project

To Be or Not to be an Onion: An Alterhuman Review of Shrek

 Shrek is ready to start his day

The 2001 animated film Shrek has become so well-known that it barely needs an introduction. This irreverent yet sincere movie about an ogre and his swamp has been delighting audiences of all ages for over 15 years, with its songs and sayings even attaining meme status. Though Shrek is largely loved for its comedic value, and certainly not meant to be taken too seriously; I would like to take a moment to review the movie from an alterhuman perspective, and compare it to a film that I reviewed before, David Cronenberg's rendition of The Fly (tokophobia and body horror cw at the link).

Fiona and Donkey have a heart-to-heart chat
In Shrek as in The Fly, a major character is cursed (by magic or by science) to be a human-nonhuman hybrid being. Both characters (Princess Fiona and Seth Brundle) struggle with their hybrid identity, often rejecting the nonhuman aspect of themselves. However, while in The Fly being a hybrid- and ultimately becoming totally nonhuman - is portrayed as increasingly negative; in Shrek, nonhuman identity is more complex. It does help that Shrek takes place in a fantasy setting, where sapient nonhumans like ogres and talking donkeys exist; however, even in this magical world nonhumans are often marginalized, especially those viewed as unintelligent and dangerous, like ogres.

onions have layers
So, both Seth and Fiona are cursed to become nonhuman, and be outcast from human society as a result of their unacceptable states. Ogres and giant man-flies are both seen as lacking the virtues of humanity- kindness, compassion, intelligence, warmth- and capable only of the viciousness their ugly appearances might suggest. In The Fly, this assumption turns out to be true- Seth, in his transformation, becomes cruel and selfish. In Shrek, however, this is consistently shown as a shallow perspective that does not capture the complex layers of our nonhuman protagonists.

Why the stark contrast? It could be due to a difference in genre- Shrek largely being a comedy and The Fly a horror film. It is better for the shock of horror if something bland and familiar warps into a heinous monstrosity. Yet comedy doesn't always hinge on characters having hidden depths and overcoming others' prejudices. I think that a big reason for the difference in the treatment of hybrid beings in these two films, beyond just genre, is the ways they are willing to portray the nonhuman. Cronenberg's Brundlefly becomes inhuman, and thereby inhumane; while Shrek's outlook seems to be the opposite- that human morality and perspectives are not the only ones worth valuing.

Ogres can be beautiful, tooThis idea can be seen incarnate in the form of the villain Lord Farquaad. Entirely human himself, he disdainfully seeks to remove any nonhuman fairy tale creatures from his kingdom. He sees them as nonhuman in the sense of The Fly- not just other than human, but less than human as well. When Fiona transforms in front of him, he becomes disgusted; by being even partly nonhuman, she is unworthy of his respect, attention, or love. When Shrek kisses her and breaks the curse, turning her permanently into an ogre, he assures her that she is beautiful the way she is. Even if ogres are ugly from a human perspective, from an ogre's perspective they are not; one need not be human or share their values to feel love and lead a meaningful existence, worthy of respect.

The moral of Shrek, I think, can be summed up in a quote from the ogre himself: "I don't care what everybody likes, ogres are not like cakes." Cakes may be many-layered and well-loved by others, but sweet and popular isn't how Shrek lives his life, or wants to. He is a humble, smelly onion, and I have nothing but earnest praise for this goofy movie with the guts to let Shrek and Fiona stay themselves: complex and monstrous.

Ugly Ever After

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