Shrek is the story of a lovable but grouchy ogre who, seeking to protect his swamp, mistakenly stumbles upon heroism and true love. There is a special charm about this surly green ogre, so much so that he has become a well-known meme on the internet these days. Though the story of Shrek has much humor, it seems to me that this story has much to say about human nature when it comes to love, economy, and true fulfillment. Aside from the irony of Dreamworks intentional lampooning of Disney and the musical accents of Smash Mouth, Shrek catches our interest because it contains the themes of at least two common archetypal stories: love outside of social class (in particular the woman of the higher class and the man of the lower) and the princess/dragon quest romantic hero theme.
The story of the rich princess and the poor pauper boy isn’t a new one. Whether it be from classical literature such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or lighthearted Disney adaptations like Aladdin, this particular theme tells us that the love between a man and a woman is powerful enough to bridge economic gaps. Yet, in the real world, this phenomenon is actually extremely rare. (Look Here To See What I Mean) It is a well-established pattern in the social sciences that women tend to choose mates based upon hypergamy, which is a natural tendency to improve or at least preserve one’s status within social economic strata. In other words, most women will not marry men that aren’t at least their economic equals. (And yes, this is a major cause of income inequality. Rich women only marry rich men, which means money tends to stay in the same families).
The story of Shrek and Fiona is so captivating because it breaks the pattern of hypergamy regarding the choice of the woman. Think about it – Shrek is interesting because on paper Lord Farquaad offers Fiona the whole world: a magnificent castle, a royal lineage, and an easy, responsibility-free life. Fiona could have had the high life and flirted with the divine but instead, she chooses to live out her days as a cursed ogre. This is a powerful idea, because in the culture’s eyes, she didn’t stay in the same social caste. She actually chooses “down.” Fioana’s decision to fight the urges of an easy life absent of true love is a break in the pattern; it is a glitch in the matrix.
Shrek himself follows the archaic story line of slaying the dragon, not because of his heroism, but because of his own selfishness of wanting to preserve his beloved swamp. The irony here is that he is only made responsible when he has to be – it is mere circumstances that motivate him to save the princess. In doing so, he falls in love with a human in Fiona, whom he feels he is not good enough for. Ironically, as mentioned before, she winds up holding a curse that turns her into an ogre at night, and through this curse, she comes to love Shrek. The fact is that most of us are much like Shrek. We don’t become heroes until we have to. Shrek goes on to save Fiona, and he never even has to slay the dragon because the dragon becomes infatuated with Donkey. In some ways, Shrek’s greatest fear wasn’t the dragon itself. It seems to me that the feminine manifestation in Dragon points to the idea that Shrek’s real dragon was a devalued sense of self, and therefore an inability to love and give love. Shrek’s pressures were internal, but Fiona inspired him to embrace his strength and uniqueness.
So what does this all mean? I think it means that despite the numbers, love can transcend the gap between class and heroism (or lack thereof) and that deep down, that is what we all hope for. This is why we love Shrek and Titanic and Sleeping Beauty and all of the other romance stories that break the normal pattern of finding love within your own social strata. In regards to heroism, Jordan Peterson has said, “Slay the dragon in his lair before he comes to your village.” This is wise even if our original motivations to visit the dragon where he lives are driven by our own self-interests. In the end the dragon has been slain, the village has been saved, and the lesson has been learned.