Is Shrek Actually a Libertarian?
As a political text, 'Shrek' is pure chaos.
In theory, the green world of Shrek would provide a path out of the red-state vs. blue-state partisan gridlock of modern politics. When the movie was released in May of 2001, less than a year out from a contentious election in which George W. Bush won the presidency via Supreme Court case, despite losing the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore, and months before the events of 9/11 reshaped American life, it appeared as a fairy-tale oasis of gumdrop buttons, magic mirrors, and ogre farts. Designed as a four-quadrant family blockbuster, Shrek was proudly rude, mildly subversive, and, like many fairy tales, broadly anti-authoritarian in its messaging. But was it political?
For some, the prospect of exploring "the politics of Shrek'' might sound as appealing as bathing in the gloopy mud in Shrek's swamp. Still, fantasy stories have often served as fodder for this type of analysis and close reading, with academics publishing books on the "politics of Harry Potter" and papers on the "politics of the Buffyverse," and the last two decades, with the rise of fan-friendly platforms like Tumblr and YouTube, set off an arms race in the unpacking of pop-culture products for allegorical meaning. From controversial Professor Jordan Petersen's musings on Frozen to Jacobin's recent breakdown of Muncher from the upcoming Ghostbusters sequel, this type of thinking is everywhere, and it's not going away.
Unsurprisingly, the internet provides a nearly infinite number of ways to decode and intellectualize Shrek. In one video I watched, French Canadian artist and writer Jonathan Pageau compares the film to "The Bacchae" by Euripides and explains how Shrek is "one of the most illuminating movies ever made for someone who wants to understand the periphery." In a video offering a Marxist reading of the film, a soft-spoken narrator explains how Shrek is "a personification of every negative stereotype associated with the proletariat," Donkey "represents the revolutionary," and Princess Fiona serves as a stand-in for the "liberal reforms" of the bourgeoisie. Choose your fighter.
But perhaps the strangest, most fascinating area of Shrek study relates to the framing of the character as a libertarian folk-hero and the movie itself as a treatise on private property. One of the best (and most memed) lines in the movie sums up the issue: "What are you doing in my swamp?" To parse the ideological implications of Shrek, we dug a little deeper into the interpretations of the movie, its tangental ties to 20th century psychotherapy, and the character's standing as a symbol of liberation.
Why do people think Shrek is a libertarian?
It's best to start at the beginning. Over the rollicking music of Smash Mouth, Shrek opens with a vision of personal autonomy that's within striking distance of Thomas Hobbes's description in Leviathan of freedom as an "absence of opposition." Emerging triumphant from an outhouse, a green ogre goes about his day exactly as he pleases and with a high degree of self-satisfaction. He bathes in a swamp on his property (brushing his teeth with tools of his own creation), engages in some light yard work (pushing mud out of a hollowed out tree stump), and even takes a break to work on his art (painting a "Beware Ogre" yard sign that he kisses with glee.) Yes, the reactionary townspeople attack him, gathering pitchforks and torches, but he protects his land with a combination of physical intimidation and verbal wit. As the plot unfolds, Shrek's crankiness recedes as love and companionship grow in importance to him—and the movie ends with a dance party on his property—but his love for his swamp remains.
Unlike the 21st century's most famous pop-culture libertarian, the government-hating curmudgeon Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation, Shrek doesn't make his political beliefs known. Instead, one must extrapolate a set of ideas from his behavior, and it requires a bit of (not always terribly convincing) interpretive work. For example, a writer for the website Lone Conservative declares Shrek the "perfect libertarian" because he "judges no creature by appearance, but only by their actions" and "doesn’t put his faith in any uninvolved government." For some people, Shrek's political affiliation is more of a gut feeling. It's a conclusion you don't need to show your work for, like in the case of of one Twitter user who simply observed, "I've come to the conclusion that Shrek is a libertarian," and attached an image of the ogre's head superimposed over a Don't Tread On Me Swamp flag.
Occasionally, Shrek's libertarian leanings are ideas to push against. A blog post from 2011, which contains some analysis of homesteading and violent conflict, notes that, "Shrek’s unilateral decision to expropriate land previously held for the common benefit is a good example of some of the problems with the libertarian romanticisation of private property." More recently, another essay, using a Marxist lens, positioned Shrek as a right-leaning libertarian who achieves "class consciousness when he tries to be a revolutionary." In this reading, the movie rejects the character's politics.
Oddly enough, Shrek is not even the computer-animated film of the '00s that's most often associated with libertarianism. In a 2004 review of Brad Bird's Pixar debut The Incredibles, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott noted that the film "suggests a thorough, feverish immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand." Evocations of the Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead author, and discussions about whether movies like Ratatouille or Tomorrowland peddle the tenants of Objectivism, have followed Bird ever since. In a Christian Science Monitor piece from 2004 about cartoons getting "hijacked" by politics, Shrek goes unmentioned. Maybe critics were simply too busy laughing at Donkey's jokes to notice the film's underlying ideology?
What is the intellectual history of Shrek?
In many of the reviews surrounding its release, Shrek is framed as a product of DreamWorks co-founder Jeffery Katzenberg's lingering resentments towards Disney, the company he worked at in the '80s and '90s. (Critics pointed out that Lord Farquad, the authoritarian leader of Duloc, appeared to be modeled after Disney CEO Michael Eisner.) But Katzenberg was not the creator of Shrek, and neither were the film's two directors or the four credited screenwriters. No, Shrek was dreamed up by cartoonist William Steig, a figure with his own tangled web of cultural and political connections.
Born to socialist parents in Brooklyn in 1907, Steig began drawing cartoons and his clever, darkly funny illustrations were featured in The New Yorker beginning in 1930. He went on to publish books, including acclaimed and influential titles like All Embarrassed and The Lonely Ones, and in his 60s, he began writing and illustrating children's books, including Shrek! in 1990. Though Hollywood clearly saw potential to make money off a Shrek adaptation—Steven Spielberg optioned the book in the early '90s and reportedly considered Bill Murray for the voice of Shrek and Steve Martin for the voice of Donkey—the book is often described as meaner and grosser than the film. In a 2019 New Yorker essay on Steig's work, writer Rumaan Alam noted that Steig's Shrek is "not only ugly but cruel" and that the book doesn't "use the ogre to make some point about inner beauty, or redemption, or grace." Unlike the DreamWorks version of Shrek, Steig's Shrek resists easy moralizing.
A 1997 New York Times profile of Steig—he lived to be 95 and died in 2003—makes no mention of Shrek, but devotes quite a bit of space to Steig's allegiance to the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, a student of Freud's who published texts like The Function of the Orgasm and created the orgone box, a small closet-like contraption one could sit inside and gather biological energy from the universe in "pursuit of the bigger and better orgasm." Reich died in prison after being jailed for mailing orgone accumulators, which the FDA determined to be fraudulent. "Reich is the most neglected genius that ever lived,'' Steig says in the Times profile. ''He was thrown in jail, because every great man is crucified.''
Steig contributed illustrations to Reich's impassioned 1946 essay Listen, Little Man! (Some of Steig's quite funny illustrations and a more thorough breakdown of the book can be found in this 2014 post on the website Dangerous Minds.) It's not difficult to connect the book's view of society to some of the core ideas of libertarian thought; the Wikipeida page for the book notes that it outlined Reich's "libertarian socialist political philosophy." Steig, who reportedly spent a half-hour in an orgone box every day, was hardly the only 20th century artist to find inspiration in Reich's work: A Guardian essay from 2011 dubbed Reich "the man who invented free love," and notes that he was an influence on Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, and William S. Burroughs. Somehow, Shrek goes unmentioned.
So, wait, is Shrek a libertarian or not?
Sadly, outside the context of the original 2001 film, Shrek has waded into more traditional electoral politics. In 2016, DreamWorks TV produced a series of shorts centered around a "Presidential election" in the land of Far Far Away, including one where Shrek and Donkey imitate pundits and discuss the race on a show titled Swamp Talk. Despite the internet's Shrek obsession and the character's enduring popularity, this video mostly flew under the radar. (It currently has a little over a million views.) In one moment, Shrek shows an anti-government stance by decrying Prince Charming's platform, which includes "elf insurance." "He wants everyone to pay for elf insurance," says Shrek, growing increasingly irate. "I'm not an elf. Why should I waste my money on elf insurance?"
Even at just over three minutes, this video, which was clearly aimed at children but also includes a bunch of nods to concepts like "the one percent," is painful. Luckily, the writers stay away from "drain the swamp" references and they don't associate Shrek with the modern Libertarian Party. It ends with Shrek, egged on by Donkey, deciding to run for president because all the other candidates, including Pinocchio and the Fairy Godmother, are unqualified. Another video, a parody of campaign ads, presents Shrek as a candidate battling climate change. (The narrator says he supports "alternative forms of natural gas" and then a loud fart sound plays.) Are these videos canon? Or are they just terrible?
Making a coherent political reading of Shrek requires a bit of projection and some magical thinking—that's half the fun—but it's not off-base or even that wild to recognize big ideas about the social order in the movie's soup of meta-gags, crude jokes, and sentimentality. "There is a class struggle in Shrek between the fairy-tale kings and queens and the common people," Mike Myers told USA Today around the premiere of Shrek the Fourth, the final Shrek film to be released. "I always thought that Shrek was raised working-class." Whether or not Shrek is secretly reading through the work of Ayn Rand or piling up stacks of Reason magazine in his outhouse—or using the wooden structure as his own orgone box—will likely remain a topic of discussion as long as Shrek reigns over the internet.