Shrek: a cultural icon for our times


I believe that Shrek is the greatest cultural icon of the past two decades. This is not a widely held opinion, but I believe it can be fully justified. To demonstrate my point I will begin with an history of the Shrek franchise, followed by a look at its ongoing impact on popular culture. I will then follow this up with what has been deemed “the Shrek renaissance” (or Shreknaissance) by some commentators on social media. This will bring us to the conclusion that not only has Shrek’s contribution to popular culture been severely understated in the standard historiography, but that his true place is at the very zenith of the cultural pantheon.

A brief history of Ogres

Shrek’s history actually begins with a 1990 book by William Steig titled simply “Shrek!” Not a lot of Shrek fans (hereafter “brogres”) know about this work, and the cultural impact of this book itself is negligible. It’s importance is limited to simply being the genesis of Shrek as we have come to know him.

All the elements of modern Shrek are there in Shrek! – Donkey and Fiona feature for instance. As do Shrek’s parents, who are notably absent in the film adaptation. Shrek’s appearance is similar, but not quite identical. The trademark “bunny” ears are there, and the green skin. But in Steig’s illustrated work, Shrek features an odd bump on his head (modern Shrek has a streamlined, more rounded appearance overall) and wears a rope-tied toga with stripy trousers. Modern Shrek wears the same costume mostly throughout all the films: a simple peasant white gown and brown waistcoast, with some brown stockings and shoes.

The evolution of Shrek is important here. Steig’s Shrek is a terrifying creature, drawing directly from the Indo-European mythological and folklore roots (the exact etymology of “ogre” is unclear and I wouldn’t venture to favour any particular theory here). Modern Shrek is a rather more accessible creature, which at once both exhibits the archetypical ogre features and at the same time explicitly draws them out into the open for satire. Hence, modern Shrek is born out of juxtaposition, which I will elaborate further with the history of modern Shrek.

Shrek on the big screen

The rights for a movie adaptation of Steig’s Shrek! were acquired by Steven Spielberg in 1991. However he neglected to do anything with it, and the rights were reacquired in 1995 by Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks. Why Spielberg didn’t do anything with Shrek is an interesting question, but not one I’ll speculate on (though it’s known he wanted Bill Murray to play Shrek, which I personally would still love to see). We should however note that Spielberg himself clearly saw the value in Shrek. Think on that. One of the most celebrated film directors of all time thought this ogre anti-hero held value. Was Shrek lined up to be the next ET?

In any case, DreamWorks was the new up-and-coming studio at the time. Shrek wasn’t their very first animated outing (that being the Woody Allen vehicle Antz), but it was arguably the first one to have absolute mainstream acclaim. I will now spend some time examining the movie as it came out.

The first Shrek film came out in 2001, six years after the rights were initially acquired. Rather than going down either a traditional animation route (a la Disney at the time, still) or a live-action/CGI hybrid (a la Small Soldiers, distributed but not produced by DreamWorks in 1998), Shrek was fully animated using computer generated images. Today we take this for granted – with Disney/Pixar being the current champions in this arena – but at the time it was a rarity. In this way, Shrek literally bridged the analogue-digital transition and this alone constitutes an important legacy in cinematic history.

The result of adopting this approach was a very beautiful film that audiences were able to experience in a new and exciting way. But I argue that the Shrek-audience connection goes deeper than this. Audiences connected with Shrek at a fundamental, mostly subconscious level. We can see this through an analysis of how Shrek is presented in Shrek.

As stated before, modern Shrek is a much cleaner and accessible character than Steig’s Shrek. Everything about him is rounded out in the character design, despite ostensibly being a disgusting ogre. This extends to other aspects of the character too. Rather than having a disgusting personality, Shrek is shown to instead be an actually rather gentle character who is forced into a charade of meanness by the persecution of a society that fears him. Even his voice is mellowed out; Mike Myers (who audiences already have a connection with from the Austin Powers film et al) reportedly tried out a series of accents before settling on the Scottish voice we all know and love. There is nothing harsh or jarring in this voice, everything comes out smooth and pleasingly – even when he’s shouting furiously at Donkey.

The character of Shrek, then, is a bundle of contradictions. Qua Hegel, we see an exemplar dialectic in action-
Thesis: Ogres are horrible and disgusting.
Antithesis: Shrek is actually nice in all respects. Society is actually “horrid” towards him.
Synthesis: We learn a valuable lesson about how we judge others through the ultimate redemption of Shrek as the hero.

Shrek is the protagonist of the story, a prime example of the anti-hero in action. He’s reluctant to even leave his swamp, let alone take down the villainous Farquaad. All his actions are motivated simply by a desire to get his swamp back, and later his love for Fiona. This provides an emotional core to the character, which – in conjunction with the important learning we receive from the above dialectic -makes us really relate to Shrek on a character level. In short, we care about Shrek.

To elaborate, Shrek is a powerful character because he appeals to our aesthetic expectations in a extremely elegant way. We laugh at his jokes, sympathise with his desire for a simple life and love for Fiona, whilst at the same time having our expectations challenged. Shrek is the least likely hero, but ends up saving the day many times over. Compare him to Luke Skywalker for instance – essentially a flawed character and by no means an outstanding person in his own right (prima facie just the son of a farmer) but one who ends up saving the galaxy. Shrek is at least a hero on the same scale as Skywalker, but he brings with him an important messages cloaked in a fairytale satire. We learn something from him we don’t learn from the Star Wars movies.

On that point, it’s worth mentioning the tone of the humour in the Shrek films, established in the very first Shrek film. We’ve already covered how Shrek is born out of contradictions, but we find that this principle applies to everything else in the film. The setting of the film is Far Far Away, a land where fairytale characters live – but always with a twist. Take Fiona for instance; her story is simply Sleeping Beauty. But the twist is that she’s sort of faking it, not sleeping at all, and gets angry at Shrek for rescuing her when she doesn’t want to be.

The contradiction there is clear: Sleeping Beauty is a classic story of romance and mythology, whereas everything about Fiona is crass and heavily grounded. We’re sneaking dialectics in at every turn, reinforcing the overall theme of not judging things on how they appear (it’s no coincidence that Fiona’s beauty is itself a facade for the ugliness of an ogre underneath).

Shrek therefore can clearly be said to be an excellently effective vehicle for a deeply important message about acceptance and appearances. And its presented in a way that even children are able to accept, not even realising it. We laugh, but at the same time we are enriched. Going back to Star Wars again, the lessons to be learned from that film are of a far more limited scope. Of course, we are excited by the Death Star assault sequence, and the emotional core of Skywalker’s yearning for an exciting life is a strong one, but it falls flat on teaching us a useful message. At most, Star Wars teaches us that good can beat evil, or that we should stand up against tyranny. Shrek not only covers these themes, but covers more themes, and also does it in a more compelling package.

As Shrek himself says, ogres are like onions. Shrek the character, like Shrek the film, has many layers. We don’t immediately realise the full import of the work as we consume it, but it’s built in a way that this doesn’t matter. And this is a key part of explaining the longterm importance of Shrek.

Shrek makes it big in Hollywood

After the runaway success of Shrek, it’s no surprise that sequels soon followed. So far, we’ve had Shrek 2Shrek the ThirdShrek Forever After, some spinoff mini-films in Shrek the Halls, Scared Shrekless, Puss in Boots, as well as Shrek the Musical. Of course, many of these are simply shameless cash-ins, the Hollywood machine in action, but their prevalence indicates an ongoing acceptance and relevance of the Shrek character.

Audiences love Shrek, which I can without hesitation attribute to the reasons outlined above. He’s the lovable antihero that teaches us important life lessons. He fills a gap that is created by the dearth of soulless summer blockbusters, remakes, and unfulfilling superhero movies put out year after year. Think of the most recent film you saw at the cinema. It’s likely an American-made film with high production values. Maybe you laughed, cried, screamed at the scary bits or had your pulse race at some exciting bits. But did it teach you that a grouch can be tender? Or that an annoying upbeat singing Donkey can turn out to be the most loyal friend? Unlikely.

A point I’d raise here more as an aside than anything would be how the humour evolved in the films, though not necessarily for the better. In the first Shrek film the humour mostly derives from the parody of famous fairytale characters. If you can think of a figure from a fairytale story, it’ll be lampooned in Shrek. For example, Big Bad Wolf is not actually big or bad at all, he’s actually quite softly spoken and is unexpectedly friends with the Three Little Pigs.

But in later films, this basic parody principle slightly shifts. The references stop being the original fairytales, but instead modern day things. Shrek 2, for instance, largely takes place in Far Far Away – now a city loosely based on the Los Angeles area. And we get things like a strange COPS parody. It’s a subtle move, but it’s apparent when watching the films with this in mind.

The reason this is relevant to our main argument is that the underlying principle is still the same. Shrek 2 and the later films are still broadly within the genre of parody as the foremost comedic device. And it’s through parody and satire that the elements of Shrek that we’ve identified as important – namely the delivery of the dialectical synthesis via appreciable aesthetics – are effective. So whilst the odd humour of Shrek 2 onwards could potentially have been a stumbling block in my thesis, I’d argue that in fact they reinforce my main points.

I would now like to move onward from the Shrek cinematic works onto his ongoing legacy.

Shrek lives on

I’ve already listed the many sequels and spinoffs that the original Shrek film spawned. But beyond this, Shrek’s indirect influence is obvious through a number of spiritual sequels. Computer-animated films are now the norm. Disney puts out films like Cars, and Wreck-It Ralph (sometimes via Pixar) and it doesn’t raise an eyebrow. Even DreamWorks themselves have ridden the Shrek-wave. Would Kung Fu Panda have been made if it hadn’t been for Shrek? (I think Wreck-It Ralph might be an ever more direct influence, if you examine the relucant hero character traits and even partial character design elements, to some extent).

What these films are trying to do then, is recreate the Shrek magic – with mixed results. Pixar receive a lot of acclaim for their films such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo Up. But none have produced a character with the same ongoing appeal as Shrek. And Shrek still sells, with a fifth film rumoured to be in the works by some sources.

Shrek merchandise can still be bought, even when a Shrek movie isn’t currently out. And he has other influences too; the ubiquity of Smashmouth songs in films of the early 00s (play someone All Star and they’ll likely attribute it to either Shrek or Rat Race) can be directly attributed to a resonance in the collective consciousness (what Hegel himself termed the Zeitgeist) inspired by Shrek. I’m even willing to coin the term Shrekgeist to describe the situation, especially as we come finally to examine Shrek’s evolution into an internet cult figure.

The Shrekgeist cometh

I personally can’t recall where I first read about Shrek on the internet, but it’s apparent that I was late to the party. Inexplicably in recent years, people on the internet began exhibiting a newfound appreciation for Shrek and his contributions to society. They began to revisit the Shrek films, with a cultlike adoration. I’d attribute this to the longterm lingering Shrekgeist. We’d loved Shrek all along, we’d just never stopped to think about it.

A good source of information on the Brogre movement would be the /r/brogres subreddit, which contains many useful resources, most famously the Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life [NSFW] greentext story from 4chan. But you’ll notice it in any online community if you look hard enough. Common elements include references to Shrek’s love of onions, and how anyone who doesn’t like Shrek is a “Farquaad.” The group can hence be legitimately identified as a legitimate movement by the characteristics of an established membership, communal values and shared points of reference. It’s undoubtedly something we ought to take seriously.

On the face of it, of course, the internet’s love of Shrek might look like just another fad. A kind of ironic faux-appreciation for an average early-CGI family film. Granted, this has been true for so many other things – just look at rickrolling. But with this phenomena, the ‘joke’ is that the thing is knowingly bad. We rickroll because we place low aesthetic value on Never Gonna Give You Up. Our protestations to the contrary all become part of the joke. But Shrek is different.

The internet’s love for Shrek doesn’t have this self-conscious awareness of the object of adoration being unworthy. The love for Shrek is real. And there are really only two explanations for why this is:

1. The internet has reached a new level of irony – one that ascends to a pure, unbridled genuine appreciation. But if so, this cannot be called irony at all, as it’s impossible to distinguish from genuine appreciation either externally (the observable behaviours being compulsive watching of Shrek, talking about Shrek, and purchase of Shrek merchandise) or internally (the qualitative experience of loving Shrek).
2. Or, brogres do genuinely have an appreciation for Shrek. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s just that straightforward.

The second possibility seems to me to be the correct one. The age of the average brogre would match up with someone who grew up with the Shrek films during their aesthetically formative years. So Shrek is kind of deeply rooted in the consciousness of the brogre. And it’s not even that far-fetched that Shrek could be appreciated sans irony. The films are funny, Shrek is likeable, and the plot is utterly unobjectionable. If any character is worthy of a true renaissance, it has to be Shrek.

One could draw a parallel with the ‘brony’ movement, which is similar to the brogre movement down to even the name (bronies are grown male fans of the children’s animated series My Little Pony). But the brony movement is laced with an awkward self-awareness that drives it closer to the ‘enhanced level of irony’ hypothesis suggested above. Brogres don’t have conventions.

The brogre movement doesn’t show any signs of slowing. If anything, it’s accelerating everyday.  It’s only a matter of time before this niche internet community goes viral. It’s likely we’ll see the whole thing come full circle and open Shrek appreciation becoming the norm.

Concluding remarks

I’ve set out a narrative that charts Shrek’s rise from a simple children’s book character to viral internet sensation. I’ve provided some insights into why Shrek initially had immediate acceptance, and why these can go on to explain his ongoing appeal to this day.

Shrek is one of the greatest comedy creations of our time (or at least, the past two decades) – that goes without saying. But not so much for anything in particular he said or did; instead, we need to recognise that Shrek has come to form a key part of the collective consciousness that has gone on to impact everything else. The exact mechanisms that this works through are not always immediately clear (I would be keen to see an analysis of the influence of Shrek on the current Marvel run of films such as The Avengers) but are there. Shrek’s always in the back of our minds.

He’s the ogre we deserve. He’s the ogre we need.

5 thoughts on “Shrek: a cultural icon for our times

  1. Pingback: Gregory Smith

Disagree with me:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.