What if “happily ever after” is only “happy” for us baby loving women? (A review of Shrek 4)

*warning: spoilers

Fairy tales rarely move beyond their tidy endings into the realm of what they promise will be a “happily ever after.” As many end with marriage, one can presume that the “ever after” for the likes of Snow White, Cinderella, et al would likely include children. Shrek breaks with this fairy tale model in its latest installment, moving beyond “first love’s kiss” into that realm where days often are more monotonous than happy –the parenting of young children.

In the clever opening scene, Shrek and Fiona spend a blissful, carefree day parenting their triplet ogres. Fiona, at day’s close, says “I wish every day could be like this.” Then, in Groundhog Day fashion, the film whizzes us through numerous repititions of this same type of day with the triplets crying more loudly, the diapers becoming more toxic, and Shrek becoming ever less happy with the daily grind of raising children.

The film frames Shrek as missing the days before family responsibility. Fretting to Fiona, “I used to be an ogre, now I’m just a jolly green giant,” Shrek yearns to live his pre-dad days again. Thanks to a gleefully evil Rumplestilksin, he is given “One Day as an Ogre” – a do-over of sorts that places him in an alternate world where Rumple rules Far Far Away as tyrannical dictator and ogres are banished to an underground life of toil.

In this alternate reality, Fiona leads “The Resistance,” fighting for the freedom of ogres everywhere. Though the day Shrek is given by his deal with Rumplestilskin threatens to erase his former existence (and thus his marriage with Fiona and his three ogre babies), Shrek is excited to be back in the world of causes and adventure. And herein lies the moral of the story – “happily ever after” is not all it’s cracked up to be – at least not for male ogres. Offering revolution as an anecdote to suburban ogre life, the film speaks to what Betty Friedan might have called “ogre mystique.” Shrek, like the women Friedan discussed in 50s era America, feels trapped within his domesticated sphere. He needs more than mud baths for a purposeful life, more than one eyeball martini at the end of the day to relieve his stress.

Speaking to the more egalitarian approach to parenting many households in the U.S. now attempt to enact, Shrek is experiencing the loss of identity in much in the same way as the “housewives” Friedan studied. Though this plot is explored with the visual humor and zesty wit we have come to expect of the franchise, it also falls into another expected – though less desirable – reiteration, that of focusing on male interests and desires.

Granted, the name of the series is Shrek and we can thus expect his dilemmas to drive the story, but this time around, the lack of focus on Fiona stood out to me particularly. Yes, she got to be a rocking Ogre-Revolutionary, leading the resistance with aplomb – but ONLY in the alternative universe (which the film jettisons at the end, safely ensconcing her back in domesticated bliss). What of her dissatisfactions with domesticated life, her yearnings for adventure? If she has them, they remain un-named. Instead, she is presented as all-too-blissfully wearing the mantle of wife and mother, a problematic representation that perpetuates the notion women are happy and well placed in the private sphere of domesticated happily-ever-after, while men shafe within its narrow confines.

Though I enjoyed the film, I would have enjoyed it even more if it offered a bit more egalitarian focus, and one that was more realistic in its portrayal of mothers. Instead, we get what Susan Douglas calls “the new momism,” where mothers love ever second of their hyper-helicopter parenting, in green ogre form.

I love Fiona, but she is one female character among a slew of males, and one whose story is sidelined.  As revealed by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, this unbalanced gender phenomenon in children’s media has changed little since the 1940s.

Surely it can’t be easy being the lone green female lead in a fairy tale world that loves it’s suave fighters (Antonio Banderis asPuss n Boots), its sidekick comic relief (Eddie Murphie Donkey) and its  jolly green giant (Mike Meyers as Shrek) so much more than its cursed human/ogre Fiona (Cameran Diaz) – just as it can’t be easy for all the girls who have to watch movies where there stories are either absent or in the background.

Yes, there is the cadre of witches this time around, and other Shrek iterations have involved kick-ass princesses, but this franchise, like most animated films, still puts males front and center. Here’s hoping that soon some of these happily ever after tales will focus on a female who longs – like Shrek – for adventure and purpose rather than merely “true love’s kiss.” Or, as Geena Davis puts it, here’s hoping for the day “when gender equality is no longer a fairy tale