Updated: Sep 8, 2022
A Male Seductress in Shrek 2
The Shrek franchise was successful for a number of reasons: Its double entendres that entertained children and adults alike, unique spins on classic fairy tales - not to mention the rather star-studded cast. Shrek also had some pretty incredible messages, the most notable being that true beauty and substance come from within, and that physical beauty is subjective and therefore irrelevant to a person’s value. Or something to that effect, anyway.
Another reason the Shrek films are so trailblazing are their big, flamboyant middle finger to traditional gender roles, especially those which accompany many classic fairy tales. In Shrek, we have a princess who kicks ass, a big, terrifying dragon who happens to be a lovely lady, and, who could forget, a cross-dressing Big Bad Wolf. A particularly interesting case of Shrek’s tendency to toy with gender roles is in the sequel film, Shrek 2, in which we meet the character Prince Charming.
The Ugly Stepsister wasn’t wrong in calling Prince Charming a “pretty boy”. In a world that codes Fairy Godmother as a wicked mob boss with dirt on everyone, Charming, as her son, is a sort of Odile figure: in Tchaichovsky’s famous ballet Swan Lake, Odile, or the Black Swan, is the rotten daughter of the ballet’s villain Rothbart. By masquerading as the story’s heroine Odette, Odile tricks Odette’s true love Prince Siegfried into pledging his love to Odile instead. This is almost a perfect mirror of Prince Charming’s own characterization, as well as his actions as he attempts to seduce Fiona away from Shrek to win the throne.
First, let’s unpack Charming’s relationship with his mother, Fairy Godmother. In true Shrek fashion, the altruistic fairy archetype is turned on its head; Fairy Godmother is now a master manipulator, hellbent on placing her son on the throne of Far Far Away. While she does dote on her son (in quite a disturbing, coddly manner, mind you), presumably this move is another grab for power. As her name implies, the film likens her to the head of a mafia and all the dirty dealings in Far Far Away, so securing her son a place on the throne only increases and further legitimizes her own authority.
One can also assume, due to Charming’s sore lack of intelligence, that once he had assumed the throne, his mother would have been the one calling the shots anyway. Functioning as the primary antagonist (and a major helicopter parent) Fairy Godmother is the brains behind the entire operation; the scheme to break up Fiona and Shrek was hatched entirely by her. Prince Charming adds nothing to the actual conception or planning of the coup, except, quite literally, his body. Just as Rothbart sends in his daughter to seduce the prince in Swan Lake, so does Fairy Godmother move Prince Charming around like a tall, blonde piece on a chessboard. With no cunning or manipulative skills of his own, Prince Charming has only one weapon of his own in his arsenal: his sex appeal.
This type of objectification may look familiar to you, with a few alterations. Usually, it’s tailored to the female body, and the ensemble is labeled “femme fatale”. However, in Shrek 2, it’s been measured and fitted just for Prince Charming. In the same way that the typical femme fatale weaponizes her own beauty and sexuality against male protagonists to serve her own motives, Charming attempts to work the same type of magic on Fiona when masquerading as Shrek’s human form.
At first, he attempts to seduce her with his looks and charm (although his endeavors are mostly foiled by the fact that Fiona finds him to be completely repulsive in mind and personality alike). To ensure the seduction comes to fruition, Fairy Godmother also whips up a love potion that will make Fiona fall in love with Charming after they share a kiss. In addition to being very gross and non-consensual, this act also functions a kind of perversion of the True Love’s Kiss that Fiona and Shrek shared in the first movie. This is another characteristic of the archetypal femme fatale; any sex or other romantic relations a femme fatale has with a male protagonist is considered to be a falsehood or a perversion of a “true relationship”, because it is based on giving into sexual desire, manipulation, and selfishness, rather than love and mutual respect between two people.
Although it takes the entirety of the Fairy Godmother’s rendition of Holding Out for a Hero, Prince Charming manages to sweep Fiona off her feet with an admittedly skilled, sensual tango, complete with the rose between the teeth. (This is most likely because dancing doesn’t require any talking.) Before Shrek storms in on his white steed to save the day and inform his wife of the charade that has been keeping them apart, Charming had almost secured a kiss from the princess using his physical prowess and sexuality (and Jennifer Saunders’ otherworldly vocals).
Charming’s use of physical beauty and sexual allure, as well as supernatural magic, in order to fool Fiona and lead her heart astray is almost textbook femme fatale seduction. The fact that all of his dastardly efforts fail in the face of True Love only clinches his role as a seducer, because it invalidates his sexuality as a cheap trick, as well as a villainous act that makes him vile and unforgivable. This wouldn’t be particularly novel if Prince Charming was Princess Charming, because the rather insulting depiction of a brainless bimbo whose only means of gaining respect or power is her sexuality, resulting in the subsequent and simultaneous objectification of her body and invalidation of her personhood by the audience and other characters alike, has, quite literally, been done to death. (Seriously. Put the stick down. The horse is dead.)
However, it is precisely because Prince Charming is a man that his role as a shallow, self-obsessed seducer is so delightfully horrid. Think of how many times we’ve seen the pretty boy win. How many times have we seen the spoiled, handsome rich boy go after sexual conquest after sexual conquest, and the plot does not hold it against him? The narrative goes that he was a playboy because he was sad, or because he hadn’t found the right girl yet - see? Oftentimes, even when a man is engaging in a gratuitous amount of sex or using sexuality to make himself more powerful, the narrative places the fault on the women around him for not being “right” in their own sexuality.
But in Shrek 2, Prince Charming is not only openly objectified by female characters and the female gaze, he is so entrenched in his own toxic sexuality that there is quite literally nothing else to him.
I don’t mean to say that owning your own sexuality, regardless of gender, is a bad thing at all. I’m just saying: The Shrek franchise does a mighty fine job of putting the shoe on the other foot.
About the author: I'm Briana Gonzalez, word nerd and card-carrying theatre kid. Writing is just a more accessible form of talking, so it's no wonder I can't stop doing it. Check out my lit blog on Instagram @what_that_book_do!