Thursday, June 3, 2010

Monstrous Musings: Is it better to be feared than loved? White ogre identity in Shrek 4

This is a guest post from Natalie Wilson

I am a literature and women’s studies scholar and author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. I am currently writing a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective. My interest in vampires and werewolves dates back to my childhood fascination with all types of monsters.

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Shrek is obviously rife for gendered critiques, but it also speaks a great deal to race. While others have touched on how the Shrek series can be read in relation to cross cultural marriages (as here), to feminism (here), and to its exploration of cultural norms/boundaries (here), I have not been able to dig up many posts that focus on Shrek as an ogre-of-privilege.

I don’t know why this writer sees Pinocchio’s wearing of women’s underwear as “objectionable,” but I do agree with Melissa McEwan of Shakesville that the Shrek franchise plays on negative racial stereotypes. However, Shrek’s character ( indeed playing into Scottish stereotypes), is coded as white. He has a lot of power (so much so that all the fairy tale creatures run to him for help in the first film), he has quite the invisible knapsack of privileges (brains, brawn, humour, a bevy of sidekicks to help him), AND he gets the white/green princess-ogre in the end.

Donkey, in contrast, variously plays (as argued here) the native, the slave-figure, and the clown. As Daren C. Brabham argues,

    “through the character of a donkey… blackness rings loud and clear, conveying historical, stereotypical ideas of black experience to the audience. Furthermore, Donkey is a sidekick, an unwanted chatterbox accompanying Shrek in the historically white narrative of fairy tale.”

Though I agree that Donkey’s character plays into racialized tropes, I think there is a definite element of satire that cannot be overlooked. Eddie Murphy, as the voice of Donkey, exaggerates Donkey’s “blackness” if you will – making it clear he is playing (and making fun of) a type. What seems more problematic to me is the lack of color – other than green – which is really white – in the films.

If Disney is anyone to go by, green is the new black (as in The Princess and the Frog). Yet, even though Shrek is a cultural outsider, he (and his green love Fiona) are white in their human forms. In fact, all human characters in the film as far as I can recall are depicted with white skin. Far Far Away also seems pretty damn white ( but, to be fair, it is displayed as sickeningly materialistic -via Farbucks Coffee, Pewtery Barn, etc -  perhaps this is why Shrek and Fiona prefer life back at their less pretentious suburban “swamp”).

So, why is it that animation, a genre that relies on COLOR, can’t include a wider diversity of SKIN COLOR? I imagine that, as back in early Disney days, most animators are white males. And, judging by the majority of animated films, it seems we have not come all that far from the jive-talking monkeys and crows of The Jungle Book.  
However, what does all this have to do with monstrosity?

Well, ogres seem to have their origins in Northern European folklore, and are usually depicted as excessively hideous, devouring creatures that enjoy feeding on humans. Shrek of course twists this, making the ogre an endearing, funny being and turning the humans (for the most part) into rather unlikeable beasties. Flipping “Otherness” on its head, the film encourages us to route for this green Other. Alas, when we take into account that Shrek is in fact a very white character (voiced by Mike Meyers) whose animals-of-color sidekicks are not given the same narrative  chance to rally against oppression, it seems that Shrek plays into the “I am oppressed as a white person” meme.

This is where my title comes in – in the 4th instalment of the saga, Shrek is quite annoyed that no one any longer fears his ogre monstrosity. After a Hollywood style tour bus takes to putting his home on their daily sightseeing trip and a young boy keeps insisting “I wanna hear the roar” at Shrek’s triplets birthday party, Shrek has had it. He longs to be, Machiavelli style, more feared than loved.

If we read Shrek as a white-middle-class ogre (as his accent, house, etc convey), what does his desire to be “feared” convey? He seems to be suffering from the malaise of the privileged white male, bored with his eyeball martinis and suburban life. He longs to be all swampy again. It’s SO HARD having a nice home, healthy kids, a wife who loves you. While his dismay is rendered understandable in the film, might we read his desire to be feared as analogous to the white kid adoption of Ebonics or hip-hop style (as theorized so well by Michael Kimmel)? Shrek, a sort of ogre-Eminem, wants to get his “tough guise” back.

Alas, the alternative universe Shrek enters after his shady deal with Rumpelstiltsken allows for a more nuanced exploration of racism and minority ogre status. Yet, the ogre revolution is sidelined and our focus is turned, predictably, to the white Rumple, his white Pied Piper, and his cadre of black-wearing but greenish-white-skinned witches.

Don’t get me wrong –  I quite like the Shrek films. What I fear is that their cleverness cloaks quite a bit of racialized stereotyping and a message as old as the ogre myth itself, that whiteness is to be protected, championed, and lionized – even when it’s green.