Impressionable children everywhere were introduced to a large smelly, green ogre 15 years ago. He mouthed off in a questionable Scottish accent, had a parfait-loving Donkey sidekick, and a badass princess love interest.
The year was 2001. The movie was Shrek.
And just to make you feel really, really old, here is a glimpse of what was happening in the world of pop culture when Shrek (Mike Myers) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) set off on their quest:
Lizzie McGuire aired its very first episode; the Backstreet Boys won Favorite Pop/Rock Band/Duo/Group at the American Music Awards (*NSYNC won Internet Fans' Artist Of The Year); Wikipedia was born; Jay Z’s name was still hyphenated and he introduced us to “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)"; Apple released the iPod (the original!); Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint told Emma Watson to “sort out her priorities” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; and Frodo and Co. set off to destroy the one ring in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
So, yeah, it’s been a while. But while the references may be dated — we’re looking at you, Matrix slow-mo kick — the movie holds up.
One character in particular stands out. Before Merida kicked ass in Brave or Princess Anna cracked wise in Frozen, Princess Fiona proved that a damsel need not be in distress.
We first meet Fiona (Cameron Diaz) as part of a Dating Game-style montage for Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), undersized ruler of Duloc, who is looking for a princess to marry. He wants to be king, you see. Given the choice between a "mentally abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away" (Cinderella), a "cape-wearing girl from a land of fancy" who "lives with seven other men — but she's not easy" (Snow White), and a "fiery redhead from a dragon-guarded castle surrounded by boiling hot lava" (Princess Fiona), Farquaad declares himself in love with the latter, shutting down the mirror on the wall before he can hear the catch: Every night at sunset, Fiona turns into an ogre (more on that later).
Lord Farquaad is obviously not going to rescue her himself, so he decides to host a tournament to find someone dumb (I mean, valiant) enough to do it for him. This is good news for Shrek, who, upon discovering every single fairy-tale creature imaginable camping out in his backyard after being banished from Duloc (Farquaad hates fairytales), heads to the city to negotiate with its ruler. There, he stumbles into said tournament — and wins (because duh, he's a strong ogre). In exchange for a stay of execution (Farquaad is none too pleased to see an ogre in his city), Shrek agrees to rescue Fiona from the dragon and drag her to the altar. Farquaad also agrees to give him back his swamp, sans fairy-tale creatures.
All these men making decisions about a woman's future without her knowledge, consent, or physical presence should all make for a very un-feminist plot. And yet, of all the fairy-tale princesses out there, Fiona is the one that strikes me as the strongest. Let us count the ways:
She can defend herself
Apparently, the lonely dragon tower doubled as a dojo, because this girl's got some moves. In all seriousness, it's nice to see a fairy-tale female protagonist who doesn't have to rely on her male partner to save her. In fact, Fiona battles two "male saviors" at once: Robin Hood, who thinks he is rescuing her from Shrek; and Shrek, who wants to keep her from Bro-bin Hood and his gang of merry Frenchmen. With a few well-placed karate chops, Fiona shuts down Hood's advances and saves Shrek and Donkey faster than you can say "bonjour."
She defies traditional princess stereotypes.
I am almost 101% sure that neither Belle nor Ariel ever burped in their respective films. Despite her spiel about waiting for her prince to give her a true love's kiss, Fiona is a real person. She's goofy, resourceful, and makes birds explode with her singing voice.
She has no problem telling Shrek he's being an asswipe.
Fiona speaks her mind. That's no small feat in a fantasy movie culture that usually has women pegged as either the sexy vixen or the doe-eyed damsel. Just take a look at Fiona's Disney counterparts. According to a study conducted by two linguists who analyzed dialogue from Disney movies, men still hold the majority of onscreen speaking time.
As we wrote back in January, "Men made up 68% of all speaking in The Little Mermaid, 71% in Beauty and the Beast, and 76% in Pocahontas. Mulan — a movie about a woman trying to assert herself in a man's world — featured women speaking only 24% of the film. And Aladdin was dominated by male voices at a whopping 90% of the one-hour-and-thirty-one-minute run."
Even in Frozen, often held up as the new feminist Disney standard, the female characters hold less than 50% of speaking time.
Fiona doesn't exactly hold equal speaking time with Shrek (the movie is about him, after all), but when she does speak, it's usually to put him in his place.
I cannot stress this enough. Being a fierce, independent princess is hard enough without trying to run through the forest in heels. If Jurassic World taught us anything at all, it's that stilettos and jungle do not mix.
She accepts herself for who she is. Spoiler alert for those who missed this important cultural milestone: Fiona has a big secret. Every night at sunset, she is cursed to turn into an ogre. Ashamed of her "ugly" appearance, she manages to keep this fact under wraps throughout the movie, save for one night when she confesses the truth to Donkey:
"By night one way, by day another
This shall be the norm.
Until you find true love's first kiss
And take love's true form."
Despite her love for Shrek, Fiona is prepared to marry Lord Farquaad before the next night sets, because, as she puts it: "I'm a princess. And this is not how a princess is meant to look." Like too many women, she is willing to go to absurd lengths for that "perfect" appearance.
In one of the last scenes of the movie, after Fiona has revealed her secret identity and Farquaad's death by lady dragon, she and Shrek share "true love's first kiss" and she takes "true love's true form:" an ogre. In other words, she defies our traditional Beauty and the Beast expectations and remains in her "beast" form. In this case though, the "beast" is beautiful.