“I am my own boss,” I tell myself as I log into a seven-hour Zoom call about the cultural legacy of Shrek (2001) at 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
I used to have vivid fantasies about being my own boss—creative control, music without headphones, giving yourself a day off for something you call ‘oxytocin methadone clinic.’ All of these things are true, but this logic critically omits the risk that your boss might be a mentally ill person who does not like you. When the little sicko in charge is you, there are no legal repercussions for this sort of retaliation.
This brings me to the issue of quality control. Sure, you may not want to attend “Two Decades of Shrek: An Online Academic Symposium” at 11 in the morning in fucking England, but that’s what the boss told you to do. Says it will do you good, isn’t this the sort of thing you like to do anyways, Jamie, people like reading this kind of stuff, Jamie, don’t be a narc, Jamie, just pop the Adderall and see what the Shrek scholars have to say. That’s just what my boss is like. I can’t stand her.
“20 years ago, a green Scottish ogre tore a page from his book of fairy tales, used it to wipe his backside and—arguably—changed animation forever,” the Middlesex University ticketing page I’m sent by 10 random people (“u like this shit right??”) states. “Received in its time as a bold middle-finger to the Disney-dominated animation establishment, we’ll be using the benefit of hindsight to ask whether it affected lasting, significant change.”
Shrek, in case you do not have an internet connection or a pulse, is a 2001 Dreamworks movie adapted from a children’s book from 1990 by New Yorker cartoonist William Steig. Its protagonist, whose name is borrowed from the Yiddish word for ‘fear,’ was adapted from the fire-breathing monster who, at one point in the story, has a nightmare about being smothered to death by children’s kisses (this is a separate essay, I don’t have time right now) into a Mike Myers-voiced spite vehicle by spurned Disney-turned-Dreamworks-turned-Quick-Bite billionaire Jeffrey Katzenberg. It grossed nearly a billion dollars, spawned three sequels (one of which competed for the Palme D’Or), a Broadway mega-musical whose makeup job on one Sutton Foster has to be seen to be believed, and a so-so theme park ride that’s permanently closing in January. It came out the summer before 9/11. It is petty and weird and, maybe I’m pilled, but it’s pretty good.
That’s not why the randos are sending me Shrek content, though. It’s because of my involvement in the first wave of Shrek internet culture, one of the only internet subjects that has swallowed millennials and Gen Z in tandem, pant and hair part preference notwithstanding (they’re right about pants and wrong about hair, not my business). This wave, which The Ringer’s Claire McNear approximates lasted from the release of Shrek 3 in 2007 until 2015, was steeped in aggressive irony and apathy toward the franchise’s protagonist, a sort of brutal edgelord attitude that thrived in the Obama years and took a turn for the nightmarish afterward. There’s an entire talk about this wave of Shrek culture at the symposium by a baffled Englishman who has carefully documented the fan fiction of extreme sexual violence, erotic fiction, and in my case, selling nudes covered in green body paint at the tail end of 2015.
Which, okay. You had to be there, is what I’m saying. This was the tail end of the first-person industrial complex, a time where you could write a hideous essay about the worst thing that had ever happened to you, sell it to xoJane for $50 that they would never pay, and still have to answer for it on a first date five years later. I raised a few thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood, which I do not regret, and snail mailed 200 framed Shrek nudes of myself across the country using the printers at Playboy, where I worked at the time for $10 an hour, which I sort of regret when someone brings one to a show I’m doing in Cleveland and asks if I still “look like that.” It’s not worth getting into because the praise and the criticism of any of it are all incorrect, if kind, attempts to intellectualize “I am 22 years old and want attention.” I existed then as a dumber and hotter version of who I am now, a person who both needs constant attention and generally wants to be left alone.
Shrek nudes was my first experience gaining any sort of awareness outside of a niche community in Boston (this sounds like a Freemason group but I am talking about alt comedy) and suddenly I was getting clickbait headlines and requests for comment for what was little more than a horny joke. Some Shrek jokes had preceded them, others followed – there was the week I saw Shrek: The Musical every single day, there was the Malibu middle school production I attended where people thought I was either a teacher or a pervert, there was 3GI’s 2018 masterpiece “Shrek Retold.”
So, okay—why Shrek? Why still? 12 accredited academics were willing to wake me up in the middle of the night to try and explain. Allow me to take you through a fever dream.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s still Friday. I’ve slept exactly 25 minutes to put space between the meal I ate with my friends at the Olive Garden earlier in the night, an act motivated by irony as much as it was finding a common budget for the group. It’s supposed to be funny but it isn’t, I get a six dollar cocktail called a Blue Amalfi that is lukewarm Gatorade and three drops of New Amsterdam, I wake up feeling marinated in vinaigrette.
When I log into the symposium Zoom call, it goes without saying that there is someone complaining that they are “more of a Teams person” and don’t know how to share their screen with the audience of 40 Europeans. It’s been painstakingly organized by two honest-to-God Shrek scholars, Dr. Sam Summers (author of DreamWorks Animation: Intertextuality and Aesthetics in Shrek and Beyond) and Dr. Lilly Husbands, who have assembled 12 academics from across the world to, and I think this is a technical term, absolutely go off about a fictional ogre. I love them and hope they will forgive everything I am about to say (“please don’t get mad at me I am very cute!” the writer said, preparing to be rude).
My phone is inches from my face as “You Ain’t Never Seen a Donkey Fly!: Shrek’s Complicated Rejection of Disney” begins from an American academic, who has finally gotten the hang of Zoom and sets the table for the day (night? morning?) by giving a contextual overview of when Shrek was unleashed on the world—less than two months before 9/11, completely out of spite, arguably patient zero for a generation of kid’s films whose humor is more directed at their parents than them.
“You have to ask the question, is Shrek genuinely subverting Disney? Is it genuinely rejecting it? Is it genuinely subverting fairy tale tropes as a whole?” she asks, scrolling through a series of PowerPoint slides. She is a Disney adult, so much so that she went to school about it. Do you ever love a cartoon so much that you get a masters degree? There is a version of me that would, probably.
The comment section comes alive.
“Donkey voice by Eddie Murphy,” one viewer correctly observes as the speaker unpacks the parallels between Lord Farquaad and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Is Duloc Disneyland? “How ‘edgy’ and ‘different’ is Shrek?” Am I awake?
It is important for me to keep an open mind here, because I am a part of the problem. The ironic subjugation of the Shrek franchise is something I feel weird about now, but not guilty enough to shut the fuck up about it—like my ex-boyfriend’s terrible music on Bandcamp, or pictures of my mom letting me wear a t-shirt reading “TOO YOUNG FOR ASHTON” to a fifth grade picture session. Was publicly lusting after a middle school teacher playing Lord Farquaad inherently wrong? Maybe not. I don’t know. I’m figuring some things out right now.
The first academic concludes something that has fueled the Shrek criticism was its ultimate hollowness—Shrek marketed itself as not like the other girls, a true subversion, but it isn’t. The princess still marries her rescuer, the villain is still tossed off a tower, the story still relies on assumptions around gender and race and heteronormativity, no matter how many pop songs frame them. This is a criticism I’ve made over a Mike’s Hard Lemonade in my day, as well, but it’s hard to be mad about before the sun is up. Shrek is a pretty standard-issue fable for kids that reinforces everything that is wrong and boring, it’s just louder.
I decide to shoot my shot in the comments. “Will we be able to watch this Zoom call later in the day? It’s 3:30 a.m. where I am and I don’t want to miss anything!” (They say yes, but no one ever sends a video.)
The next speaker, well, he does not know what he’s talking about. Citing Shrek as a “relatable hero” who feels at ease farting with his wife in a puddle of mud, he looks back to what he fails to realize are a series of completely ironic, sexually charged comments pretending to be children in the comments of a Common Sense Media page. He quotes from accounts like u/bartsimpsoncousin and u/bevhilchihuahua, both of whom claim to be teenagers and whose comments he treats as completely earnest. I want to give him a little kiss on the head! He is so being so incorrect in public right now.
“When he says he was like an onion, I really felt that… ‘All Star’ really set the tone of the movie…I think I am attracted to green men now,” the professor, who I feel compelled to tell you is a leading scholar on children’s animation, said as if it was written in complete seriousness.
“What emerges from these accounts is the sense of impact that the film has had on peoples’ lives,” he concludes, “specifically their conception of their own identity.”
The commenters gently hand his ass back to him—“it can be difficult to discern genuine comments and what they actually mean online,” one says. I want to be gentle and also have poison left in my blood from 2014 when I thought I knew everything. U/bartsimpsoncousin, honey, come on, you know? But I’m Nice Jamie, I don’t sell hard copies of my nudes to strangers anymore and I do not bully men with tiny brains online, except for here, where I’m doing it right now.
With all due respect, during the comparative study of Tangled and Shrek, I am asleep and cannot comment.
I need to start moving. My body isn’t listening, I need to get out of bed. After I went through a breakup I got what I call a canopy but is really a mosquito net with Christmas lights pinned to it and I’ve been sleeping in it for months and it’s outlived its usefulness but it’s too difficult to take down. I can’t tell if I like it, my cat hates it, am I okay? Honestly, yes! I need to get out of bed and I do.
Maarit Kalmakurki, a Finnish costume designer, starts out the next block of talks by revealing the simple choices that give Shrek the edge over its Disney competitors—simple choices like having a woman on the production staff willing to bring up the proportions of Princess Fiona’s human form being objectively non-human. As she unpacks her doctoral thesis on costume modeling in animation, I’m struck by how many legitimate angles there are to approaching one of the most staggering works of professional pettiness of all time. For every misguided interpretation of a mid-2010s edgelord, there’s a genuinely thoughtful academic paper on how characters are framed, or what it means to show a codex onscreen to signify the books the franchise is parodying—our next talk, right in time for the sun to crack the horizon.
“To say that the book of Shrek is a familiar device to poke fun at Disney perhaps underestimates the importance of a book in a film franchise that continually reinstates this lesson to not judge a book by its cover,” says University of Cambridge Ph.D. candidate Jodie Coates in a talk called “The Book of Shrek: Booklike Objects in the Shrek Quartet and Shorts.” She has created a painstaking chart of every single book that appears in the franchise, organized into a scary, tiny-fonted Google spreadsheet titled “Every. Single. Booklike. Object.” Anyone unhinged enough to do something like this and pay a university to give them permission to can kiss me on the mouth—she points out the push and pull of Shrek deriving pleasure from reading, books becoming an integral part of his life as his self-worth and family life expands, all while being trapped within the confines and patterns of one. I feel like I have smoked bad weed, but I’ve actually just had two cold brews and am face-down on a carpet that probably needs to be… shampooed? How does that work? Why do I know what “extra-textual intertextual Easter eggs” are and not how to shampoo a carpet?
The incomparable Bence Bardos is up next, marking a turning point in the day that shaves too closely to my own ogre-inflicted psychic wounds. Bardos is, well, writing a Ph.D. on memes, and his talk on “Shrek Greentexts and Online Participation” takes a direct look at That Shit I Liked At One Time—engaging with Shrek on an ironic level and really thinking you were Doing Something.
There’s no way to talk about online Shrek culture without the biblical text of the movement, a “greentext”—quite literally green Times New Roman, size 12, posted to 4Chan—originally published in 2013. Anyone who was annoying in the year 2013, myself included, will recognize this text as “Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life,” a disturbing poem about Shrek, so, okay, appearing as a Christlike figure to a child and then something very illegal happens. It ends like this:
My dad walks in
Shrek looks him straight in the eye and says, “It’s all ogre now”
Shrek leaves through my window
Shrek is love, Shrek is life
“Right,” Bardos says, sweating, “and at this point, um. Um, Shrek… sexually assaults this child and leaves, um, through the window.” Long pause. “Um. So this text came about without much explanation —”
He continues to describe the years that follow of “extremely popular stories with themes of horror or sexual violence,” spreading to YouTube where users would do dramatic readings and rough animated versions, often racking up millions of views. Bardos has a firm grasp on the sheer volume of perverted Shrek material on the internet, but still struggles with why it exists in the first place.
“It lacks a certain respect that is usually associated with fan writing,” he says, pausing to make eye contact with the rest of the 40-person Zoom audience to make sure we’re all in agreement. No one’s camera is on to reassure him, save the moderators and the Disney adult who has looked physically ill since he read a description of Shrek’s turgid ogre penis out loud.
Bardos posits that maybe, possibly, this work could potentially be considered a critique of fandom and marketing itself. The Tim and Eric parody promoting Shrek 3 is an overt marketing critique, he explains, and anonymous users in greentexts tend to poke at the capitalistic foam that franchises get worked up into, annoyance at the aggressive purity that fan communities addicted to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings can weaponize to make everything less fun for the casual consumer. Still, there’s a part of Bardos that believes that the Shrek meme community and their dedication to being ironically reverent to a franchise with no reward is connected to raw, nasty human ambivalence—you know, the kind that was really popular during the low-simmering centrist everything-is-fine-racism-and-sexism-are-over-please-ignore-the-drone-strikes day of the Obama administration in America.
I don’t think this community’s decline around the same time the 2016 election became a daily topic of American discussion is a coincidence. Shrek meme culture was created on the same websites that would morph into cesspits of hate rhetoric inside of three years following the publishing of “Shrek is Love, Shrek is Life” on 4chan, created to get people’s attention and express annoyance and exhaustion with the expectation to participate with a kid’s movie on its own terms. It’s a performance of loud, shock jocking boredom to different degrees, ranging from people like me going into the real world and engaging with sincere fandom directly to the ilk of u/bevhilchihuahua, writing the nastiest shit they can think of behind a keyboard that is both anonymous, pretty funny, and unclear in its goal. As with all things Shrek, the edgelord spectrum reveals itself.
“Memes and non-memes are inevitably intertwined in an environment of content convergence,” Bardos says, “telling the audience that the difference between love and hate, reverence and irony, mean nothing in this environment, when the same amount of time and commitment is applied to either.”
The difference is, if I may finish his thesis paper for him for free, what you get out of it—a variation on serotonin either way, but one is compounded by the feeling of not just engaging with something, but declaring that you are inherently better than it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a 4Chan community with this attitude that has gone poorly after 2015, right? Don’t get back to me on that.
“I am not a child and not gay and not a loser, I am a proud brogre,” Bardos reads from a greentexted screen before concluding. Thank… you.
Allow me to say without a shred of irony, this is the good shit. If you can make it through the slog of the same five Jeffrey Katzenberg anecdotes on a loop for three hours, you will be rewarded some time around when the sun comes up, right after the half-hour English lunch break / American frantic pace around the neighborhood while morning joggers really rub their sick little lifestyle choice in your face. If you can convince yourself to re-enter the Zoom call, you will be rewarded handsomely—the next section is about the intersection of Shrek and disability, race, and, uh, Mike Myers, okay that last one is boring.
This event is inherently ridiculous, but University of York Ph.D. candidate Jessica Gibson and Professor Christopher Holliday’s discussion on how racial and disability stereotyping enters the animated medium was enough to make it worth hearing the sweaty reads of Shrek greentexts the hour before. Gibson is a strong advocate for the franchise for subverting the standard othering of the disabled, praising the stereotyped and feared ogre for not only surviving the judgement of the society he lives in, but finding love, personal satisfaction and being centered as the morally upright protagonist. She contrasts this with how disability has been represented in animation in the recent past, othered characters who are turned into ‘beasts’ as punishment, then either killed or ‘cured’ by the love of a ‘normal’ person.
Holliday’s presentation, “Man, This Would Be So Much Easier If I Wasn’t Colorblind: Shrek and the ‘Digital Postracial,’” comes in hot by illustrating the ‘colorblindness’ of the Shrek voice cast as an extension of the post-racial ethos of the Obama administration in the U.S. Did you think that President Obama would be the central pivot of one sixth of the Shrek academic conference? I did not.
The speaker mainly focuses on Donkey through the lens of Eddie Murphy’s public persona, and how the franchise codes the character as Black through a series of visual typecasts and extremely watered down dialogue. He expands on the whiteness of the human world of Shrek—Fiona’s family is white, Shrek turns into a white guy (who looks exactly like Wreck-It Ralph) in Shrek 2, while the nonwhite characters are relegated to sidekick roles and infantilized characters that dodge examination under the assumption that they are written to be ‘colorblind.’
“Are they still considered racially coded when they’re being dubbed by an actor of a different race in another language?” a viewer asks once his talk is over. Holliday doesn’t know.
The next talk is a European woman talking about Mike Myers for 20 minutes uninterrupted, and I don’t think I am threatening my status as a feminist by saying it is the most boneheaded shit I have ever heard in my life. She had a slide that just said “comedian comedy!” Go to jail.
I am having a nosebleed of the human spirit. There isn’t anyone to tell me to go back to sleep when a speaker named Irida Zhonga, an animator with nothing but an undergraduate degree in gender studies to her name, starts discussing why Shrek the ogre is a Sick Woman. The more education these speakers have, the worse their points are, so I’m willing to hear her out.
Sick Woman Theory is not, as I thought, the feminine urge to walk down a road with no street lamps to get a KitKat and a margarita in a can at two o’clock in the morning. It is not, as one might think, the tendency to call a psychic and say “haha nice” when they tell you that there’s nothing wrong with you. It isn’t, but maybe it is, but here is what it really is:
The Sick Woman is an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence—or the curelly optimistic promise of such an existence—of the white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country, has never not had health insurance, and whose importance to society is everywhere recognized and made explicit by that society; whose importance and care dominates that society, at the expense of everyone else.
Shit!!! The revelation of this theory, presented by young philosopher genius Johanna Hevda in her 2015 talk “My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It & Want it to Matter Politically” (shit!!!), is worth everything I have endured as a viewer and you have endured as a reader thus far. The theory goes much further, connecting to how chronic illness, including mental illness, affects the politics of the body and ability to move through the world. “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” she asks. How do you throw a plate of ogre slop at a donkey if you can’t leave your swamp? I’m excited.
Zhonga proceeds to make the argument that while Shrek is a white-coded, cis and straight fictional ogre, he embodies many of the qualities of the sick woman—he is not wealthy, we are to assume he can’t just go to a dentist, the inciting incident of the first movie seeks to displace Shrek and his community from their homes (insecure housing), and he has little to no influence on the society he lives in whatsoever. It is Fiona loving Shrek that allows her to more deeply enter the space of the Sick Woman, while sacrificing her status and ability to navigate the world with more ease. Sick Women can fuck and be happy, but they cannot be society’s rulers. I am re-radicalized on a quarterly basis, and am halfway through a Hevda rabbithole when –
Oh my God, I’m still awake. I am feeling Sick in the way that I don’t sleep and am covered in a thin film of god-knows-what, in the way that I have been writing about the Shrek franchise for over six years for reasons that are elusive to even myself. We’re at the last talk of the day, a soft-spoken Mexican poet and art professor named Samuel Lagunas who speaks on “Fiona’s Inversion: Princesses, Motherhood, and Gender Expectations in the Shrek Saga.”
Maybe it’s the six hours of relentless Shrek-driven content or Lagunas’ fascinating charcuterie board of fonts used in his PowerPoint presentation, but I think I fall about 40% in love with him while he gently drones on about Fiona’s “dissident body.” He says that her femininity is empowering and disempowering, with the acceptance of her ogre body leading to little more than motherhood and being Shrek’s waifu in the same way that Shrek’s acceptance of himself still hits the same Big Lesson that the movies the franchise claims to be parodying does.
He asks questions that pop feminism of the 2000s did not—can a woman change the world while still held in the trappings of domesticity (yes), can motherhood be considered an adventure (yes), does Shrek 4 comment on the traditionally feminine plotlines that Fiona was subjected to after her liberation from the tower by letting her dissident body out into the world to experience “the revelation of desire?” Yes! I’m disappointed that he doesn’t seem as concerned with the story opportunities left on the table when she’s removed from the story or inserted into mother and wife, but he doesn’t have time to – he’s too busy getting horny for Fiona in a way that would be weird if it weren’t sweet.
“The Dilemma of True Love’s Kiss,” his next to last slide reads, accompanied by three static images of Shrek and Fiona gazing into each other’s eyes. Lagunas loves their love, thinks that it enhances Fiona’s life and Shrek’s, and that the choice of her bodily presentation and lover is “not to be underestimated.” I have no proof that he has written love poems for Princess Fiona but I know that he has. “Love as a field of women rebellion,” reads his final bullet point. That has to be the name of the poem.
Before the Zoom call ends, the speakers briefly discuss how non-anthropomorphized animals are prejudiced against in the Shrek franchise. This, I don’t want to hear.
“Thank you everyone for coming,” Sam Summers says, “and thank you for behaving yourselves.”
We are released. It is ogre.
Everyone I know is poisoned by nostalgia and it’s getting worse. We saw Shrek in theaters and loved the sound of an ogre fart right before 9/11. We returned to it in college to dump on something that used to make us happy in the same itchy way that Gen X made a million movies about hating their parents who loved them before becoming just like them. It’s a standard cycle, one that’s been capitalized on with near-scientific precision, but the last 10 years has seen a sharp uptick in it needing to mean something. For two relatively young generations that have grown used to a steady pattern of extreme unrest every several years, a consistent cultural punching bag makes sense, particularly when it’s one designed for a world that didn’t exist anymore months after its release.
I feel like I have watched 12 Ph. D candidates paint themselves green for seven hours straight, wanting my attention the same way I wanted theirs. They can have it, but I want them to tell me what I know—that it’s just something for us to do, that there is a part of us that should just get a real fucking job. There is such a massive desire to overanalyze pop culture detritus, one I’ve directly benefited from, that I think we sometimes fail to see that not everything is something. Sometimes you are 22 and want attention. Sometimes you are a grown person with a doctorate who wants to listen to academic white noise for seven hours because it’s funny. We are not watching Shrek anymore as much as we’re watching each other. I don’t want to feel bad about it and I don’t want them to feel bad about it, it’s all fucking stupid. I like it. I’d watch it again. I hope no one ever learns their lesson, that would be so boring.
It’s 10 in the morning when I crawl back into my mosquito net and pull the blackout curtains shut. I have learned nothing today. The boss lets me rest.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer who has had unprotected sex with the snowboard emoji. She lost an Emmy to Forky.