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Shrek or Ogre-Drag

By Romy Shiller, PhD


New? Not.

I have been thinking about the Shrek films and Ogre-Drag. The Shrek films do not subvert gender and are not feminist.

I looked at the first four films: In Shrek, the familiar set-up is established: the beautiful princess is rescued. The twist is that he is an ogre. Not only that, but at sundown, she becomes an ogre as well. In a very fairy tale way, they find "true love" with each other. 

Is a “feisty” female and “shy” male really subverting gender? No.

The thing about gender that is overlooked in the Shrek films is that gender circumvents black and white definitions.  There are butch women and femme men. (butch=a hyperbolization of traditional male traits and femme=a hyperbolization of traditional female traits) The blurring of traditional notions of female and male behavior does not suggest the subversion of a gender model.

I performed with The Greater Toronto Drag King Society as a fun part of my research. I did female drag and I am female. I did not cross over to another gender. I was interested in how female behaviour can be learned by the same sex. Speaking of which, "sex" is defined as being physiologically male or female-although this is definitely complicated by trans-sexuality, which I am not discussing here-and "gender" involves the meanings we give to those categories.

 In Shrek 2, they begin on their honeymoon and travel to the kingdom of Far Far Away to see Princess Fiona’s parents, the king and queen, who are planning a big celebration for them. The evil fairy godmother wants Princess Fiona to be with her son, Prince Charming.

Shrek the Third sees Shrek negotiating fatherhood and the possibility of being King.

Shrek Forever After finds Rumpelstiltskin as an evil ruler who tricks Shrek into being altered in a new time-line.

I really wanted the movies to be innovative and different. To me, they were more of the same-worse because they appeared to "subvert" traditional fairy tales:

On Facebook a friend said, “For size acceptance, it's a rarity nowadays to find anyone in a film who is not built like an Olympic athlete. I am not saying everyone should imitate him but he is (mildly) counter-discursive, at least compared to other Disney princes & princesses. The rest of them are walking ads for bulimia & anorexia. Shrek says it's okay to be plus-sized...” Sure, but look at what he is eating.

Women are often with "less desirable" partners, especially in fairy tales. Women are supposed to be good looking. Take Beauty and the Beast or the film Beastly, for example. A beautiful woman can be with a beast. She cannot be the beast if he is good looking.

To me there is nothing new about having a male partner who is an ogre.  In Shrek 2, Princess Fiona says, "I want what any princess wants - to live happily ever after...with the ogre I married."

Princess Fiona is a good-looking ogre. She is still an ogre though. It is interesting that she is both cute and an ogre. She fits a good-looking standard for women in fairy tales and she can be an ogre because he is. What I am trying to say is this: an "ugly" female can be with an "ugly" male, but an "ugly" female cannot be with a handsome man. In this case, he has to be an ogre.

In Shrek, the following dialog takes place:

Shrek: Fiona? Are you all right?
Princess Fiona: Yes. But, I don't understand. I'm supposed to be beautiful.
Shrek: But you are beautiful.

The beauty trope is excessively foregrounded in the Shrek films; image is everything. The gorgeous Cameron Diaz plays Princess Fiona. She is the referent. The dazzling Michelle Pfeiffer plays the wicked, ugly witch in Stardust on a quest for beauty and eternal youth. Kendra Hilferty, the vengeful witch in Beastly, is played by the alluring Mary-Kate Olsen. You get the point. The "sacrifices" these women make with respect to how they look refer back to them as beauties. Big surprise.

The aforementioned women are good examples of how supposed “ugliness” transforms the evil into the good. If these women are “really” beautiful then they are “really” good:

This practice goes as far back as the ancient Greek expression "Kalos Kagathos," abbreviation of "Kalos kai Agathos,” which means "Beautiful and Good.”

There is a tradition in many fairy tales of the monster with a heart of gold but Shrek is “really” an ogre and the beast in Beauty and the Beast is “really” a beast. These referents speak to an “essential” way of being in all cases. Crossing over to a different look or behavior solidifies the “true.”

Cross-Anything is not Drag

To me, that which is leaky or excessive is full of potential for subversion. In a few of my works I present some of the following ideas: I do not believe that cross-dressing is the same as drag-to me they are different terms. Cross-dressing, for example, is often seen as the performed manifestation and answer to the “construction” of gender, by performing gender on a “wrong” body.

It is misleading to imagine that dressing up a story differently, re-telling well-known stories, is anything but a wolf in sheep’s clothing in certain cases. Telling gender stories differently must, in some way, effect a destabilization of gender:

Cross-dressing, the traditional exchange of women’s and men’s clothing onto the bodies of the opposite sex, is frequently based on an essentialist position or expressive model; that is, that by dressing as the opposite [sex] the true body beneath signals a correct gender in inappropriate dress. That original interior essence, [conceived of as inherent femininity or masculinity], when crossed, is believed to subvert gender…by expressing what is perceived to be its opposite. While drag makes use of cross-dressing, cross-dressing alone does not signal drag. Removed from the arena of cross-dressing, drag entails notions of layering and combining.

To cross-dress is to buy into an idea of an other, what is usually perceived as an "opposite" gender. Conventional parodic cross-dressing is based on making fun out of the original by attempting to pass as the original and is subsumed in origins. Female impersonation is likewise often read as the aim to achieve seamless perfection where the impersonator attempts to come as close to looking like the “original” as possible. Examples of this type of female impersonation can be found in the performances of drag queens lip synching as their favorite star; Cher, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe to name a few. The goal is not to fool the spectator into believing the performer is the star, but to imitate the star believably. Drag is more about layering codes.

Codes can be pretty much anything, but here they suggest dominant belief structures. My feeling is that drag plays with these codes and subverts them. I do not believe drag has to be about clothing, but it often is. Clothing can be an incredible marker of gender. In the Shrek films the “apparel” is the ogre physique.

I believe we have to revise the meanings for the words "man," "woman," "gender," "sexuality" and "species," just to name a few. To me, "identity" is about expressing oneself; drag seems to articulate this. When “cross-dressing” is brought into the realm of drag there is not so much a crossing effect as a layering effect, an amalgamation of the codes by which the meanings of female and male, femininity and masculinity are interpreted.

Moving drag off of a model of male-female clothing exchange (cross-dressing), into one which includes clothing exchange, sartorial crossing or an ogre physique, but is not limited to an expressive model, drag takes the notion of incongruity onto a different playing field of meanings where glamour or garbage or skin is woven into a heightened sense of playing with gender expectations and the meanings of identity. Identity is no longer supposedly stabilized by the call for the true referent, the body, upon which or “in” which true gender is said to reside. Through gender play new stories are told.

Drag is concerned with incongruities which aggravate conceptions of wholeness and which mark resistance to fixed positions and self-identity. Drag repeats the process of identification with a fixed gender by appropriating gender in a form which transforms and liberates it by foregrounding the incongruity of the appropriation. The incongruity of the appropriation is not limited to crossing-over to the opposite sex.

Many people assume sexuality is aligned with drag. It can be, but I do not believe it has to be.

People often use the expression of being "trapped" in a body. To me, the body is fluid. Likewise, I feel most categories and definitions are blurred, including sexuality. Most everything is on a spectrum. Some people identify with a category strongly. There is no right or wrong in all of this, but it is necessary to look at the role ideology plays.

There is no separate "inside." The ideas of inside and outside the body are conventions to me.

The connections and assumptions about cross-dressing and expressivity have profound ties to the traditional meanings of costume in film that affects notions of gender performance. They are binaristic, not layered. For example, in classical Hollywood cinema, there was a tension between costume and narrative that produced “storytelling wardrobes” (Gaines, Jane. 1990. “Costume and Narrative:  How Dress Tells the Woman’s Story.” Fabrications:  Costume and the Female Body.  Ed. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog.  New York & London:  Routledge.  180-211).

Clothes functioned to reinforce the narrative and fitted characters like a second skin, akin to an ogre manifestation, “working in this capacity for the cause of narrative by relaying information to the viewer about a ‘person’” (181). Jane Gaines’s analysis focuses primarily on black and white contemporary dress drama in Hollywood film. It makes some points, however, which are significant with respect to how the perception of an inside can be brought outside sartorially or in our case, by becoming an ogre, where costumes or skin index psychology and represent interiority. Costume had to serve the narrative by “restating emotions the actress conveyed through gesture and movement. Stepping into costume was like stepping into a role. Costumes, furthermore, were expected to express the same feelings . . . called for in the part” (184). While Gaines notes that the assumption is that the costume goes with as opposed to against the character, the notion of “personhood in operation here . . . assumes continuity between inner and outer;” the personality of the wearer can be known through dress (184).  Clothing, with or against, is based on expressing a true, coherent inner core on a sexed body that is the fixed referent. In this case, Fiona is not “really” an ogre but is a beautiful princess. That is, the notion of the “wrong body” for a type of clothing or manifestation fixes that body to an appropriate gender or modality. Models of expressivity are embedded into a medium that upholds the popular notion that the clothes or flesh-toned skin make the man or woman or species, reinforcing the binaristic positioning of man/woman and human/species.

Identity and Drag  

Drag is resistance to societal norms. It is an effective way to make a point. Most people who perform drag do not recognize that they are doing this. They really do not need to-it is what they signify that is important. It also helps if they are read appropriately. I like that drag shakes things up. Drag foregrounds expectations and presumptions. It resists dominant forms of being. It is quite radical. Whether you like it or not, it puts things we take for granted into question.

Difference is something that most people avoid. Fitting in becomes a goal. Personally, I think difference is valuable. It is the "same" that irks me. Variation is not the same as inconsistency. One can be incredibly multi-tonal and consistent. That is what I mean by "layered."  

Drag intervenes with identity. Gender seems to be a focus.

Shrek is shown to be living a stereotypical “female” existence in Shrek Forever After. He cares for his triplets and changes their diapers. His agenda is to return to his “true” ogre self (read: stereotypical male behaviour.) Appropriating a typical female role apparently is so full of contention here that he must enter an altered reality to change this.

It is nice that Fiona is the leader of the “ogre resistance” in the altered timeline but Shrek’s aim is to return to the previous existence and ultimately Fiona is a domesticated-a good wife and mother.

More Identity and Drag

Many identities would be effective tools for a discussion and exploration of gender and drag. For instance, I have a permanent shunt in my head to drain excess fluid off my brain. I am taken out of the realm of being human into a new world, occupying cyber territory. I am now a cyborg. To me this is cyborg-drag. I am layering the meanings for being human.  I am human but the shunt addition creates meaning, a new category and identity.

Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in her ground breaking book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, develops a political myth around the image of the cyborg, “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (1991, 149). By regarding the cyborg as a myth about identity and boundaries I am embracing “the possibilities inherent in the breakdown of clean distinctions between organism and machine and similar distinctions structuring the Western self” (Haraway 1991, 174) She says, "Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess" (Haraway 1991, 181). Like Haraway’s quote, myths that destabilize “origins” feel appropriate to me. Where does gender or identity reside when the body is comprised of technological extensions and interventions?

As before, I did not ask for a shunt, but I do have it. I am not making light of my situation by calling it drag. The confusion arises because "drag" is often considered silly. It is serious to me. The idea of foregrounding identities by practical means is substantial. It is critical.

 Drag is a stew of ideas. It can be very tasty if we are open to new flavours. This means we need an open mind; we might need to acquire new tastes. It is challenging but incredibly worthwhile.

Alternative Stories or, Feminism Sheminism 

Drag is very layered and as such is full of potential for interesting contradictions. It is about "difference." It involves change and it "is concerned with what might be called a philosophy of transformations and incongruity" (Newton, Esther. Mother Camp. Female Impersonation in America. Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 1972, 105). The move from standard looks to alternative ones is compelling, to say the least. In the case of all four Shrek films, it could be truly amazing, but the standard parameters for the fairy tale that are upheld belie that. There is no going against the grain here. Sorry. Even though there is "transformation," a hallmark of drag, codes remain as they were. If there was a combination of the new or if the films created something new, well, that would be special.

In Shrek 2:

Shrek: A cute button nose? Thick, wavy locks? Taut, round buttocks? I'm-I'm...
Maiden #1: Gorgeous!
Maiden #2: I'll say.

There is a prevalent idea about what constitutes feminism.

There is so much potential in the Shrek films to challenge dominant ideas about women.

It is cool that there are contemporary references in the Shrek films. For example, in Shrek 2, there are references to the films Mission Impossible and Flashdance. The fairy godmother hands out her business card. The Gingerbread Man has a Starbucks coffee. If anything, the modern references suggest a new way of thinking.

In Shrek the Third the following dialog takes place;

Snow White: Right! Ladies, assume the position!
[Sleeping Beauty falls asleep, Snow White lies down, and Cinderella seats herself on the floor gazing at nothing]
Princess Fiona: What are you doing?

Snow White: Waiting to be rescued!

It is commendable that the characters are shown to know the rules, but they still conform to them. Even Princess Fiona in the first film acknowledges that, "she knows how it goes," but she is still rescued. Knowledge and action do not link up.

It might seem contradictory to say that the apparent discrepancy between the fairy tale characters and their referents’ falls into the same ballpark as expressivity or conventional cross-dressing. If they are playing roles against “type,” there might be a case for drag. Rather, this is an example of how the film makes use of drag’s fundamentals without being drag itself. The iconicity of well-known fairy tale characters in relation to the roles they are playing does not constitute the type of incongruity that resonates with drag because we are nonetheless brought to a field of meanings that restricts the movement outside myths of origin and imitation. There is the expectation that Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella, fixed in the popular imagination, will remain as they were, comforting any anxiety about displacement. As such, the performances do maintain the standards familiar to most spectators. In the case of this film, the form depends on the assumption that the fairy tale character is coherent enough to challenge any disruptions.

In the first Shrek, Donkey says, "Blue flower, red thorns! Blue flower, red thorns! Blue flower, red thorns! Oh, this would be so much easier if I wasn't color-blind!" Sometimes we are blind to what is right in front of us.

A revision of the fairy-tale. A contemporary way of envisioning women. Old hat. Nothing new in all four Shrek films.

Championing the new or different is commendable, but recuperating dangerous notions is, frankly, deplorable. It is very good to validate difference, but when that is couched by hidden ideology, it becomes suspect. It ends up validating old concepts. It ends up doing the opposite.

 © 2015 by Romy  Shiller. All rights reserved.

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

Avenir Light is a clean and stylish font favored by designers. It's easy on the eyes and a great go-to font for titles, paragraphs & more.

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