It’s so easy to forget that I am an artist. I get buried underneath the bullshit, the piles of papers to file, the social media momentum to keep up, the correspondence to maintain. I pale. I curl up. I sleep too long. In the midst of all that, it’s so easy to forget that when I step in front of a microphone, I unfold. My trauma is held. My sadness is alive. My joy is palpable. The thing, that core thing, the singular thing I am always chasing, emerges in front of a microphone. It’s not love, or friendship, or even nature that facilitates the unfurling. It’s art. Art is impossible to ignore. It demands. It invites. It needs.
We all watched Shrek and fell in love with the characters, humor, and revolutionary animation style. I saw it for the first time in the theater with my grandfather. I was entranced. It was the first time I’d seen such realistic animation, and I was completely enamored with the fart jokes, hilarious donkey, and tale of fairytale romance. Shrek even introduced me to one of my favorite songs: Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.
I’ve rewatched Shrek many times since then. At first, it was just a nostalgic activity. But recently, it’s turned into an anthropological study for me. What cultural values was the movie pushing? What had I unknowingly absorbed as a kid watching Shrek?
The answer? Shrek was one of the many movies I watched as a kid that normalized, and made light of, abuse.
On the surface, the movie does seem to subvert the misogyny that exists in most classic Western fairytales. Fiona is a strong, badass woman who can take care of herself. She fights for herself, saves Shrek and Donkey from thieves on the road, and finds her own dwellings at night. That’s how I saw it at first too. But, the deeper messaging of Shrek does NOT support that surface-level story. Here are a few examples, taken from throughout the film, that proves the movie doesn’t actually subvert the original misogyny/patriarchal system at all, but supports it throughout.
1) In this scene, Fiona says “who could love a hideous, ugly beast” when speaking with Donkey towards the end of the movie. She truly believes that she is unloveable as an ogre (which is to say, she believes that she is unloveable as she is). It is not until the very end, when Shrek (a male character) tells her that she is beautiful, and that he wants her in whatever form she takes, that she seems to accept herself as she is, in her ogre form.
Fiona does not even have the confidence to assert herself in the conversation with Shrek following her secret discussion with Donkey about her being an ogre. Because of her true belief that she is unloveable and ugly, she assumes he’s talking about her when he repeats her words back to her: “who could love a hideous, ugly beast.” She doesn’t dig deeper into the issue. Shrek confirmed her greatest fear – that she won’t get what she wants (love) because she is not enough. She doesn’t deserve love. She doesn’t deserve desire. She doesn’t deserve a self.
Fiona was NOT, prior to the scene where Shrek interrupts the wedding and confesses his love, confident in herself. She hid this terrible secret, that she was UGLY, from all the other characters, every single night. The fact that she was ugly was shameful to her. The movie depicts a woman who does not have a strong sense of self, and cannot validate her own existence. She only validates herself when a man tells her that she is valid.
2) Fiona DOES have to be saved at the end of the film. When she perceives that Shrek has rejected her, she leaves to go marry Lord Farquad. Because that is what a man told her she has to do. The movie gives her two choices: be with one man who despises you (as she thinks Shrek does) or be with another man who you despise (Lord Farquad). There’s no third option, and it’s very important to realize that the movie does not depict her creating a third option for herself.
At the end, Shrek has to save her from being with Lord Farquad by interrupting the wedding. She made no decisions, except to accept Shrek’s offer. This is key: before Shrek assured her that he thought she was beautiful, she was unwilling to put herself out there to be with the one she loved. She was so insecure that she was resigned to be with a mean, ugly man, rather than get what she wanted: to be with Shrek. She needed a man’s validation to feel she deserved what she desired. In this way, Shrek did actually save her at the end. Fiona did not have agency in their romantic relationship. Shrek did.
3) Who were the other female characters in the movie? There are only three. Princess Fiona, the Dragon, and the Old Woman who sells the talking Donkey. Snow White and Cinderella are not characters in movie 1, since they’re just depicted on a screen for a couple seconds. Princess Fiona is not shown in a community of other women who are equally strong and able to take care of themselves. If she was, I would accept the claim that the movie depicts a badass woman, and therefore subverts the fairytale image of femaleness. However, Princess Fiona is an outlier. She’s shocking. Based on the movie’s depiction of female characters, she could be the only woman of her kind in the history of the universe, and the only woman of her kind in the foreseeable future.
None of the other female characters do anything besides display the regular tropes of weak, untrustworthy, and helpless femaleness. The Old Woman who sells Donkey is not taken seriously by the guards. They don’t believe her that Donkey talks. She is manhandled by the guards and never gets rewarded for the Donkey because he (the male character) saves himself. We never see this woman getting what she wants – money to support herself. She has no agency. Instead, we follow the male character, the Donkey, on his subsequent adventure.
The Dragon is a promising female character, because she can breath fire and goes right for what she wants: a romantic relationship with Donkey. However, she has no agency in her own world, either. She is extremely unhappy, forced to remain chained in the castle all on her own. She is incredibly lonely, and after Shrek, Donkey and Fiona escape her clutches, we don’t see an angry, aggressive female character. Instead, we see a sad one that longs for a life outside of her chains. She is a slave until Donkey comes to rescue her.
In contrast to the lack of female characters, there are MANY male characters, with a variety of personalities and storylines. “Maleness” is very fleshed out in this movie. There’s Shrek, Donkey, Lord Farquad, The Three Blind Mice… the list goes on and on and on.
There are literally no other female characters in the movie. So maybe on the surface, Fiona seems all badass and capable because she can fight and take care of herself, but that’s not the messaging we’re really receiving. The messaging we’re receiving is that she is an unusual case – not the norm. The movie doesn’t normalize her supposedly strong female nature.
4) Take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the Magic Mirror presents three eligible bachelorettes for Lord Farquad to marry. The Mirror makes a blatant joke about abuse, describing Cinderella as a “mentally-abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away,” as if being mentally abused is not something to be concerned about. Then, we hear that Snow White lives with seven other men, but “she’s not easy.” The Mirror’s casual judgement of Snow White’s sexuality normalizes diminishing a women’s worth to her sexual tendencies and sexuality.
Diminishing women to sexual beings makes it much easier to abuse us.
But that’s not all. The Mirror continues, inviting Lord Farquad to “kiss her dead, frozen lips and find out what a live wire she is! Come on!” Then you hear a drum set go “ba dum smash,” which officially turns this image of treating a dead woman like a sex toy into a joke. This image should be disturbing, but the movie turns it into something funny. Once again, Shrek normalizes powerless women without agency: easy targets for abuse.
Disguised in jokes, it’s easy to miss how dangerous this normalization is. Boys and girls watching this absorb the following messages:
1) abused women are funny
2) women are just sexual playthings
3) a woman who cannot consent is fair game for sexual activities
5) In another scene, Donkey and Shrek finally arrive at the castle Fiona is trapped in. Donkey asks, “So where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” Shrek responds, saying, “Inside, waiting for us to rescue her.” I know it’s been discussed a lot, but I have to talk about the problematic message this sends. Shrek’s response assumes that there is a helpless woman inside the castle waiting for a man to rescue her. It takes away agency from women in our culture, showing us that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves. This is dangerous because it gives men permission to control our lives – if women don’t have any agency, we don’t have any right to say no or argue with a man’s opinion/action in our lives. It might be “rescuing” one day, but it could be something much less desirable the next. And what if we don’t need to be saved?
Yes, “rescuing the princess” is a classic fairytale trope. I don’t care. it needs to change. Luckily, movies like Tangled and Brave have JUST STARTED to unravel this dangerous message.
Then, as if that’s not enough negative messaging, Donkey delivers the punchline. After he asks “where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” and Shrek responds “waiting for us to rescue her,” Donkey retorts, “I was talking about the dragon, Shrek.” This joke, laughing at a woman’s needs and display of anger, is so overused and so damaging. It’s the Eve story. Eve gives in to temptation and eats the fruit she’s not supposed to eat. This woman’s desire is the downfall of man. Women are evil. Women are a “pain in the ass,” in the words of Shrek. It’s not difficult to make the leap to “we should hate women” and “we don’t need to take any woman’s needs seriously.” Again, Shrek writers manage to turn “stripping women of their power” into a joke, as if it’s suddenly okay because they’re joking about it.
Shrek paints a truly disturbing image of what a woman is in our society. She is powerless, hated, needs others to validate her experience, and doesn’t need to consent to be touched by you. She is, in other words, extremely susceptible to abuse. This is a MOVIE FOR KIDS. And it’s contributing to abuse culture by NORMALIZING WOMEN WITH NO AGENCY.
I am not, by any means, discounting Shrek as a movie. I don’t believe in cancel culture – I think things are always so much more nuanced than that. The movie really does bring me so much joy, even watching it this new perspective, even after the abuse I’ve experienced at the hands of multiple men.
But. I think it’s important to recognize this dangerous, deeper messaging. Why is it important? Because I know for a fact that it’s watching innocuous movies like this, that hide true misogyny behind a surface-level strong female character story arch, that led to me thinking it was OKAY TO BE ABUSED. Abuse culture is serious and needs to be examined from every angle. Even a movie we all know and love so much. I’ve been rewatching a lot of the movies I watched when I was a kid, and noticing similar messaging popping up in almost every movie. Abuse culture was very prevalent in the media I consumed as a kid, and there was nothing my parents or school could do to reverse that. It was just…there. I just absorbed it.
And I haven’t even started discussing the way “Blackness,” as well as the complete lack of female Blackness, is portrayed in this movie. That’s a whole other conversation and blog post.
On the Bedside Table
I have all these books
on my bedside table that
I never read, but…
beginning to announce
her speechless marriage
sweeping through, screaming
dancing then, after
there is a time to rest
among the soft flowers
whether you are there
Trigger warning: abuse and body image issues.
As I read these two journal entries I wrote 6 years ago, I am reminded of how we can hold so many truths within ourselves at once. How we can be fully in our power, and fully outside of it at the same time. I am especially reminded of the corrosive effect of emotional and physical abuse on a person’s sense of Self and self-worth. How, after consistently being told that one is not hurting enough for the sake of others, even the most vibrant of humans can be diminished to a flickering gloom. When this abuse is paired with sexual violence and constant comparisons to other women in the form of forwarded Victoria Secret ads and pointed remarks, it is very difficult to find a way out of the murk. Add to this the “tortured genius” myth (if a man is an artistic genius, his abuse of others is forgiven – eg Picasso, Woody Allen, James Brown, etc.), and fuck. No wonder I have PTSD, anxiety & depression, and am struggling against dark forces that I wasn’t able to conquer five years ago.
But I can unlearn, relearn, remember, and start sharing my story.
June 21, 2015
In Dosso, Italy. Feel that I have been moody and unpleasant to be around. Feel that I am confining myself in what other people think people should do. Feel that I am literally judging myself for paying attention to these problems because “everyone has them,” which I have translated to “are not important.”
Feel un-stationary and without a purpose, a tumbling rock: not even a floating dandelion seed, because at least he has his mission. Feel deprived of my home, the grass, the lakes, the essence of myself. I am depriving myself of myself. School in the city, travel to Boston, back to school in the city in the fall.
I dislike myself right now.
É molto importante that I regain consciousness: this level of being, this earthy existence, this core of myself.
Feel anxious on each street because I look at other women and only compare myself to them: every inch of skin, each stitch in their clothing, the tightness of their jeans around their thighs. “God, I wish I had bought that style of pant instead of these.” The drape of her wet bikini over her butt: “I should have gotten the string kind instead of the style I have.”
The length of her shirt, the fabric the color her skin her lipstick her hair her knees I wonder how they compare to my knees I am beautiful so hot but look at what I could do with myself. Look how much more beautiful I could look if I just bought her shirt and those shoes and her jacket. Why can’t I wear a blazer over jeans and look clean and pretty and simple like all of them. Why. Why not.
I hate myself.
I hate myself for thinking this way. But I am always thinking this way. How can I improve. How can I look FOR HIM. For him.
“He wants a preppy, classy girl.”
“He likes workout clothing.”
He wants someone who does not look like me.
Then again. I don’t give a fuck what he wants. I know, rationally, that I am SO INCREDIBLY ATTRACTIVE. I am ideal for many, many people, men and women. I know damn well that there is no man or woman who is “too good” for me, but I am worried that he does not want my look.
I am sick of seeing the gap between the women he admires and lusts after, and me. Thin, clean women. Women who spend hours and hours on their makeup and hair each day. Women that really care about what they look like, and market themselves so that they will be liked, loved, and fought for.
I am not naturally like that.
I am trying so hard, and it sucks. I don’t like the anxiety, never feeling like I am living up to his standards. Non è possible.
I feel horrible. Maybe it’s not that I don’t love him right now, it’s just that I don’t love myself. I need to get back to the music, Vermont, and away from all these FUCKING CITIES.
June 23. 2015
A stream of consciousness:
I am escaping fragility. I have been actively avoiding the truth – that I cannot thrive without passion, waves of frustration that I can skillfully overcome. I cannot thrive without improving, working on something tangible, mobile, crazy, almost uncontrollable.
I have not lost that from myself. I have just been ignoring it in order to test out other options. I can see now that those options are not going to satisfy me. They will not allow me to carefully balance myself out. I must be creating.
I must be creating.
This is something that everyone around me has known or recognized when they saw me play piano, or write, but which I had to realize for myself when the time came. There is no other time or moment apart from now. They were all right.
I have greatness in me from past lives, and from this life. I have the ability to command, to move people gracefully, to inspire deep hope. I must not deny myself these qualities by hiding them away because they are more intense, and make less sense, than other machine-symbolic-manageable qualities I see in other people.
Mine are not manageable, and that is exactly-precisely-extensively why I need to bring them to the forefront. So that I can contribute something to the world.
I will resolve every day to never lose sight of them again. I resolve to forget how I have pushed them aside these past five years. I will focus only on what the pushing-away has taught me, and how it is the most important thing I’ve ever had to learn. I will, every day, come to know anew why I am doing the things I am doing, and what is the “right” and challenging path.
I will come to know anew why I am great inside, and how I can be more great.
Greatness ≠ control
Greatness = the ability to know yourself well enough to manifest your understanding into a positive contribution to the world
I have always known this. I forgot through high school. I forgot through intimacy with people who did not understand this truth, who did not grasp the power of my talent, understanding, and healing abilities. I may have lost touch with my healing power, but it is not lost. It will never be lost now.
Nothing is going to fall into place easily. Nothing will ever fit together, and if something does, it is only for a fleeting moment. My purpose in this life is not to fit everything together in order to be happy, but to allow chaos to give me peace, relief, power, knowledge, and focus. To allow passion to be my stability.
This is the truth and I will do it.
I must not settle for anything less.
All this time, I have been settling for the easier road, the least resistance, the social status, the smooth normalcy. That will never be enough for me. Home is a state of mind. A state of being. I will never feel at home if I settle for no passion. I can’t.
As soon as I get home I will start playing a Beethoven sonata, and will bring back the Bartok and the Liszt. I will begin a Brahms intermezzo, and maybe a Chopin prelude. And I will learn a Schumann or Debussy.
I have two months still until school. I once learned a piece in two months, then won third place in a competition. I can get to that place again if I watch my posture, do exercises, use passion, and remember that pain and exhaustion will only make me stronger.
Now I understand why he does not need physical touch and love like I do. His passion is invested in his music and writing, and that is how it needs to be for him to make his contribution. People will not be touched because he held his girlfriend in college when she was sad. People will be moved by his music, his words, his ability to capture a thousand feelings into one moment.
They will need him for that. He must not be needed in any other way, just how I cannot be needed in any other way until the right time.
It’s going to be hard, but I’ll choose the right path, not the result. The auditions are in March. I’m not giving up on myself.
Let’s be real. A global pandemic is not the best for becoming a master of a skill. The underlying anxiety caused by tiny daily decisions like “should I go to the grocery store to buy milk and eggs and risk getting ill and dying” and “I won’t be able to wash my hands until I get home but I need to run multiple errands to save on gas” exhausts my brain and body. The constant transitioning online, offline, online, offline, to stay afloat as an entrepreneur feels like trying to catch a particularly quick chicken. Running, clucking, spreading your hands out in front of you and hoping for the best.
When I can’t make plans for the future, and I truly understand that I don’t have control of anything, it’s hard to aim to master a skill like I usually do. I practice piano, but what am I practicing for? I rehearse with my band, but what shows am I rehearsing for? What tour am I prepping for? I’m saving money to move to a new city, but when will I be able to safely visit the cities I might move to? “Promoting myself” begins to feel like pushing useless art on people. I can’t reach them by performing live, right in front of them, with the sound reverberating around the room, all breathing together and feeling together. So.
I’ve developed the following skills:
Knowing which size Tupperware will work best for leftover pasta, as opposed to leftover stir fry.
Cuddling with my kitten.
Telling friends that I love them, that they are beautiful.
Training morning glory vines to climb up my porch railings.
Clearing out clutter in my house (okay, maybe not every week, but DEFINITELY more than twice a year).
Giving small gifts to neighbors, friends, family.
Giving my partner long, bear hugs.
Noticing signs that the season is changing.
Staring out the screen door at the garden, green, alive with sun, feeling the flyaways around my face moving in the breeze.
Walking at night through the neighborhood, feeling like I’m back in middle school, telling each other all our secrets.
Concocting dank dinners that take me hours to plan, prepare, and execute.