Shrek is hardly a perfect example of systemic racism. However, the ability of a variety of plot lines and scenes of conflict to depict the multiple faces of Shrek’s struggle as an outsider to the human community is a shining example of how easy establishing empathy and introducing conversations about racism can be.
A royal family. A baby. A concern about skin colour.
This situation, although familiar to those who have followed the recent developments in the British royal family, actually describes a recurring theme in the Shrek movie franchise.
Shrek tells the story of an ogre living in a swamp who journeys with a comedic, donkey sidekick to rescue a tower-isolated princess. The rescued princess, Fiona, falls in love with Shrek and starts a family with him. Despite being complicated by various plot points—such as Fiona temporarily, then permanently, becoming an ogress—the films are a modern rendition of a classic fairy-tale trope.
Throughout the series, Shrek is consistently represented as an outsider. Living in an isolated area, he is removed from the society of humans neighbouring his swamp. Although imperfect and inexplicit, many of Shrek’s experiences offers a nuanced yet child-accessible example of confronting and overcoming racism.
When Shrek appears before human antagonist Lord Farquaad at the tournament for winning the right to try to rescue Fiona, the crowd of hopeful knights parts as the candidates back away from Shrek, who approaches Lord Farquaad with Donkey by his side.
Upon seeing Shrek, Lord Farquaad exclaims, “What is that? It’s hideous!”
“That’s not very nice,” Shrek responds. “It’s just a donkey.”
This scene, in addition to being hysterical, presents a clear indication of Shrek’s self-view: unlike human outsiders, he perceives his ogre-ness to be beautiful and normal. It is only once he begins to interact with humans and is repeatedly shunned for looking like an ogre that he is introduced to the idea that his physical appearance is one to be ashamed of.
In the status-quo, this is a situation that many young children of colour face, internalizing racist narratives such as the need to conform to western standards of beauty. The denaturalization of coloured beauty standards, the removal of perceiving coloured skin as beautiful, and the subsequent loss of pride in identity that is so prevalent in our modern society is outlined in this simple exchange between Shrek and Lord Farquaad.
When Shrek meets Fiona’s parents, a hilariously awkward affair, a second example of systemic racism is demonstrated. King Harold, Fiona’s father, expresses clear distaste for Shrek, referring to certain conditions as suitable “for his type.” The most provocative comments arise when discussing the couple’s potential offspring, as King Harold asks, “I suppose any grandchildren I could expect from you would be [ogres]?” He presents the possibility in a snide manner, claiming that it would be no problem “assuming you don’t eat your own young.”
King Harold passive-aggressively demonizes the possibility that his grandchildren could be ogres. The discriminatory practice of seeking a certain racial lineage for a family, so pervasive in systems of power today, is presented in a digestible and empathetic manner in this scene.
This scene also demonstrates the damage of stereotypes, in which child-eating is implied to be practiced by ogres, with the objective of characterizing them as barbaric and unfit for living with humans. Viewers, knowing at this point that Shrek is a caring, selfless individual, are led to be outraged to hear such a trait attributed to him simply because he is an ogre. Thus, this complex concept of stereotypes and the weaponization of false narratives to fuel racism is represented incredibly cleanly within just a few seconds of dialogue.
In Shrek’s eyes, to be a real ogre is to be one able to instil fear in others. As he establishes himself within the human society, he realizes that this intrinsic aspect of himself is being lost.
King Harold, additionally, is revealed to have been a frog-turned-human with the help of the Fairy Godmother. His belief that he could only obtain and maintain power if adopting the appearance of a human acts in tandem with Shrek’s realization that he has done the same thing on a cultural, not physical, level.
The struggle to assimilate
These characters’ struggles in this respect can be interpreted as a rough representation of the impacts of the expectation of assimilation. Historically, as immigrants inhabit areas with clear racial majorities, to be accepted and to access opportunities is contingent on abandoning one’s culture and even values. As viewers follow King Harold’s backstory and Shrek’s turmoil, we are drawn to empathize with the desperation and demoralization they face in this process.
Challenging the narrative
As children, we learn constantly through observation. We watch and mimic the mannerisms of our parents, the play of our peers, and the language of our teachers. In our current context, however, children are influenced more than ever before by media. In introducing media to the children of today and tomorrow, subsequently, we need to be conscious of the narratives introduced about such issues.
If children can emerge from Shrek with a fundamental understanding of stereotypes, assimilation, and alienation on the basis of race, it’s time to re-evaluate our aversion to these hard conversations. A twenty-year-old film franchise should not be better than we are at unpacking the nuance and discriminatory language involved in asking: is your skin too green?
Claire Li is an 11th grade student at Shanghai American School Puxi who is passionate about books, psychology, music, and politics. She loves public speaking, writing, and opportunities to share her interests with others.