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Subverting the Monster

Jordan Alice, Katie Ellis
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: Introduction The blockbuster DreamWorks film Shrek is a play on the classic fairy tale narrative, where the hero, atop his noble steed, rescues the cursed princess from a dragon-guarded tower. Except the hero is an Ogre, the steed is a talking donkey, the dragon just wants to be loved, and, when they finally break the curse, the princess permanently transforms into an Ogre. From the opening scene, the first movie subverts the viewers’ expectations, offering reflection as well as a critique on “some of the cultural conventions that characterise modernity” (Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Dépelteau). As one of the most successful animated films in history (Lacassagne, Nieguth, and Dépelteau) Shrek is an important text to analyse from a disability perspective. As Amanda Taylor suggests, the film introduces several disability themes that work together to make a social and cultural critique about social exclusion: there are many social and cultural issues within the movie Shrek that should be addressed when looking through a lens of disability. Shrek and Fiona are the very opposite of what society looks at as a fairy tale, yet they are still so popular. The producers of this movie have tackled social issues in a very positive way. Elements such as obesity and economic diversity are portrayed within this movie that show that there is an alternative to stereotyping. Taking Shrek as its case study, this article argues that monstrous images offer complex representations of disability that align with the affirmation model of disability. We begin with a review of key literature before starting a disability analysis of Shrek by drawing parallels between the social exclusion experienced by characters within the film and the effects of social disablement identified within the social model of disability and critical disability studies. We then move beyond the social model of disability to follow the importance of interdependence and disability pride throughout Shrek as it culminates in a representation of the affirmation model of disability. Throughout this article we make parallels between monsters, ogres, freaks (as a form of the monstrous), and characters with disability. Each as constructed as having extraordinary bodies—the non-normative. Reading Monsters through a Disability Lens Critical disability studies theorists often observe the way disability is used within narratives as a metaphor for something else (Mitchell and Snyder; Quayson; Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies; Garland-Thomson Freakery). For Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, this is particularly illustrative in the figure of the monster in literary narratives: the word monster — perhaps the earliest and most enduring name for a singular body — derives from the Latin monstra, meaning to warn, show, or sign, and which has given us the modern verb demonstrate. (Garland-Thomson, Freakery 3) Disability has become a defining characteristic of the monstrous body—“bodies that in their gross failure to approximate to corporeal norms are radically excluded” (Shildrick 2). The field of critical disability studies is concerned with the ways these norms are constructed to exclude certain bodies. Jobling notes that the typical figure of the ogre occurs in folklore across many cultures around the world. The ogre performs the function of “a semi-human monster who commits crimes against the ingroup. The hero triumphs over the ogre, usually by killing him” (Jobling). Ogres, depicted as inhumanly large monstrous characters who eat children, are recognisable as a source of fear. The ogre occupies an important position as a narrative prosthesis (see Mitchell and Snyder) in children’s narratives. The monster therefore exists within narratives as a representation of something else. Reading monsters through a disability lens has been well researched in the critical disability studies field. Studies show how monstrosity is represented in film through disfigurement, typically in contrast to the normative or non-disabled body (Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies). Feminist theory is often applied to gain an insight into “the meanings attributed to the bodies by cultural representation and the consequences of those meanings in the world” (Garland-Thomson Extraordinary Bodies). While several critical disability critiques emphasise the negative disability stereotypes associated with representations of monsters, increasingly theorists are considering the ways these monsters problematise and critique the social construction of the normate (Smith). Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Born This Way: Reading Frankenstein with Disability is a notable example of how a monstrous character poses both a critique and representation of society. The Creature forms a “visual identity first from the stares, words, and behaviours of others". She observes “his condition of disability and resulting social exclusion are, as narrated, purely aesthetic in nature, and as such, socially constructed”. Throughout the text, the Creature exemplifies both monstrosity to be feared and vulnerability to be pitied; these are features outlined by Margrit Shildrick as concepts that underpin the non-normative body in popular culture. It is evident that the perception of monstrosity is one that is socially constructed, and is largely negative. Susan Marie Schweik suggests a relationship between this negative representation and the ugly laws. The ugly laws refer to a set of laws that prohibited ugly people from participating in society during 1860s through to 1974. The ugly laws focus on non-normative bodies, especially bodies that were disfigured. The phrasing of these laws was such that it removed the personhood of so-called ugly people. For example, in the quote “so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets” (Schweik), the...
Keywords: text / social exclusion / critique / obesity / representation / monsters / popular / film / Thomson Extraordinary

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