October 22, 2020

The women are telling the truth: sexism and “The Princess Bride”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:30 pm by chavisory

I did not get to watch the Princess Bride virtual reunion recently; I was elbows deep in a copy editing situation on the night of the event, but I followed along a little bit on Twitter, and much like any number of sporting events I was not listening to but could pretty much tell what was happening from the enthusiastic noise of my neighbors, I could basically tell where in the script we were by the state of Twitter at any given moment throughout the evening. Like most people my age, I’ve seen that movie so many times I can more or less recite it from memory with very little prompting.

Though I have encountered assertions of the movie’s sexism before, I have tended not to entertain them seriously, and was a bit taken aback when one appeared in the course of the event.

And while I can entertain the possibility that like other works I loved in childhood whose faults were brought to my attention later, it’s possible to be so familiar and so in love with the Princess Bride as to have become oblivious to its deeper problems. On reflection, though, in this case, I don’t believe it’s the case here. While there are a lot of criticisms of his movie I think we can fairly make in this day and age, that it is sexist is, I thought, a one-dimensional or at least insufficient assessment.

People love this movie the way they love it for more than the exceptionally quippy dialogue, after all. And they didn’t turn out in the numbers they did to watch a table read, over Zoom, for a state-level Democratic Party fundraiser, 33 years after it came out, for a movie that’s just irredeemably sexist.

But I decided to examine the issue closely, at the end of which, not only did I not conclude that the Princess Bride is a sexist movie, but I wound up loving it even more deeply in ways I had never quite articulated to myself.

*

While I’ve never felt much commonality with Buttercup, I’ve never really felt, either, that she’s useless or just “silently beautiful,” and I think that’s because closer examination reveals it not to be true.

In fact, she does, more than once, try to effect her own escape. She doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t simply wait for rescue, either, and I think what many people mistake for her passivity or inaction is actually her judiciousness in awaiting opportunities in which she even has a chance. She takes those when she has them, and when she doesn’t think they’ll only result in injury to someone else she cares about: when she first tries to jump off the stern of Vizzini’s boat and swim to freedom while his back is turned, and when she takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s distraction with the approach of the Prince’s search party to just shove him down a hill.

Yes, Buttercup spends a lot of the movie being carried around by men. But then, on reflection, so does Westley.

Image is of Westley being propped up on a castle rampart by Inigo and Fezzik, too weak to support himself because he’s been mostly dead all day.

It is often noted that the few prominent female characters in this movie inhabit certain stereotypes about female characters: The beautiful but largely decorative princess in need of rescuing, the shrill and demanding wife, and the old hag.

Admittedly, this is not Buttercup’s action story. She is not an adventurer or a swordswoman or a particularly ambitious person. But that she is not those things doesn’t make the character or the movie sexist, and to understand what Buttercup is in this story, I think it actually helps to compare her to everyone else in the ensemble.

The Princess Bride looks like a fairy tale you think you know. It has all the familiar characters: Prince and princess, pirate, giant, scheming trickster, swordsman, magician. It goes through many of the same motions. But it is not telling the same story.

And the characters of the Princess Bride inhabit familiar tropes, but they do not accept helplessness within those tropes. All of them are resourceful, all of them make use of the knowledge, and the power, that they have access to.

In some cases, that is not a lot. These are not the people most valued or empowered within their society. Nineteenth-century Florin is a beautiful country, but it is not a progressive one.

A friend mentioned resenting Buttercup getting the Penelope treatment, and while on one hand I think that’s a very fair thing to be annoyed by, on the other, I also think it’s kind of implicit in what the movie is doing. The story of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the resonances being played with in this one. We’re supposed to resent it. Westley, for all his good-heartedness, doesn’t seem to grasp in certain ways that Buttercup doesn’t have a choice in the position she’s in. None of what’s happening is her fault, and we should be annoyed for her when Westley questions her faithfulness because he doesn’t 1000% understand how little power she really has in the situation, how vulnerable a woman of humble birth is in his own society. It is annoying, but I think it’s more a statement about sexism than it is an expression of it, even though it’s not explicitly called out in this moment.

Buttercup occupies a constrained social role within the world of Florin and Guilder, but that is no more the movie’s stance about her than it is about any of the male protagonists, as I think we’ll see.

What all of the protagonists say in some way is “This story does not have to go the way somebody else already decided it has to go for us.”

I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time recently (I was slightly too young for it when it first came out), having heard a friend say (interestingly enough, in a discussion of the depth of influence of Richard Matheson on American storytelling), that given the ludicrousness of the premise, it works because the funniest possible choice was made at every single opportunity. And the Princess Bride is now such an immensely familiar movie that I think it’s possible we’ve all lost sight of it—but it is the movie it is because at every single opportunity, somebody makes the most unexpected possible choice, which all turn out to carry vastly more power than the choice they were expected to make in the fairy tale we assume we’re in, and sometimes that the characters themselves assume they’re in.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“I didn’t have to miss.”

“We’ll never survive.
Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

What does Buttercup ever do that’s useful? Well, if she doesn’t stop Westley from dying for her right when she does, there’s no rest of this story. The first truly powerful thing Buttercup does isn’t an act of physical prowess, but it’s utterly in line with the actions of the male protagonists in this way. She fundamentally alters how we all assume a story like this is supposed to go. Including Humperdinck and Westley, to the extent that her interjection “Will you promise not to hurt him?” into their first confrontation prompts them both to exclaim “What was that?!”

There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right in this moment because Buttercup decides “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters always undermine how the story supposedly has to go for people like them, either because it’s what’s expected of them or because it’s what somebody more powerful decrees.

*

In truth, I felt a new respect and empathy for Buttercup when I rewatched the movie most recently. (Unbelievably, I think I hadn’t actually seen it for at least 16 years, since that’s how long it’s been since I last had access to a VCR at home.)

I never really knew how to identify with Buttercup. I wasn’t pretty growing up. I’m not now. Nobody was ever going to cross an ocean for my beauty, or even for my love.

Humperdinck, of course, doesn’t love Buttercup, but it turns out he doesn’t even desire her for her beauty. He’s holding her up as a symbol to Florin’s populace before he sacrifices her to his own political whims as leverage to go to war with Guilder.

And she as an individual has so little power in the face of Count Rugen and Humperdinck’s machinations, but it still matters that she makes use of what she has. She can’t free herself from Humperdinck, she can’t free Westley from Rugen, but that she refuses to let Westley die for her in the first place buys time until all the other threads of the story can come together. In that moment on the other side of the Fire Swamp, she personifies not destroying what you hate, but saving what you love. Westley will ultimately make the same choice. When he could kill Humperdinck, he instead leaves him impotently, comically, tied to a chair. (And in another interesting parallel, it’s Buttercup who forestalls an actual duel between Westley and Humperdinck near the beginning of the movie, and Westley who does it at the end–once again because he’s in a situation in which he cannot succeed with superior violence.)

We, like Buttercup, in this moment, are being abused by a regime of utter self-absorption and capriciousness for its own wealth and glory, which enjoys using the American people as a symbol and excuse for its abuses of power, but cares nothing, in actuality, for our lives or well-being. And there is so little that she, individually, can do about it, but she still does it, even when it’s only to call Humperdinck out for being exactly what he is—and even though she has no hope of succeeding on her own, it still matters that she does. It matters that her stalling helps buy time for Westley to get into the castle. Even when Humperdinck severely abridges the formalities of their wedding ceremony to attempt to effect their marriage without her consent, it matters in the end that she didn’t just go along and say the words—that she didn’t consent. It matters that the combined effects of her stalling and the friends’ assault on the castle force Humperdinck to dispense with even the appearance of legitimacy of their marriage.

“You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it,” Westley notes, somewhat redeeming himself from his earlier suspicion of Buttercup’s loyalty. She and Humperdinck aren’t married; she’s legally free to abscond with Westley if she can get out of the castle with him. She couldn’t free herself by herself but it mattered until the last minute that she would not provide her assent to what was happening.

“Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark about continuing to act against climate change even when it seems already too late to prevent or reverse it entirely, because the difference between the worst case scenario and a merely bad one can be vast, and the future is not known. That continued resistance in the face of probable failure increases the chances for success of an eleventh-hour effort, or at least mitigation of damage or destruction.

*

The villains in this movie are all fakers: Vizzini fancies himself the cleverest man alive; he is far from it, as it quickly turns out. Though we know he doesn’t really love her, even Humperdinck’s desire for Buttercup’s beauty isn’t real. While he convincingly portrays himself as an upstanding ruler, he’s actually planning to plunge his nation into war. Count Rugen, while genuinely probably the cruelest character, only turns out to be unflinching as long as he’s facing a child or an incapacitated man.

The heroes, on the other hand, all inhabit duality in that while all of them are extraordinary or even freakish in some way, they succeed, actually, when they make choices in line with their humanity, their conscience, their ordinariness. Westley/the Dread Pirate Roberts, with a reputation as one of the most feared and murderous pirates on the high seas, is also just fundamentally decent enough not to kill two henchmen who aren’t actually the people he has a gripe with in his pursuit of Vizzini and Buttercup, and they turn out to be his salvation.

The men in particular, Fezzik and Inigo, who would be the sidekicks in any other movie but to whom the bulk of action in this movie belongs, specifically undermine typical expectations of male heroes grounded in toxic masculinity. We love them for their vulnerabilities, their humor, kindness, sense of fairness, and open affection for each other much more than for their physical strength or skill with a sword or capacity for violence.

And what are the women in this scheme?

All of the prominent women in this story—Buttercup, Valerie, the old hag—are the truth-tellers. And moreover, they tell the truth about who the other characters are.

Buttercup doesn’t hesitate to name the Dread Pirate Roberts for who he is when she realizes, though he’s known as one of the most dangerous and deadly pirates of the seas. Once she realizes that Humperdinck has lied to her about looking for Westley, she calls him out unsparingly for the exactly the cowardly slimeball he is. She doesn’t even realize she’s probably saving her own life here; she has no real reason to think she’s in mortal personal danger from Humperdinck himself, as opposed to him just being a possessive, entitled coward (indeed, she’s very openly planning her suicide). For all she knows, it would be safer to remain beautifully quiet. She doesn’t.

Valerie gets Westley’s life saved by refusing to tolerate Max’s dissembling and avoidance of the situation at hand and by telling the truth about what Humperdinck did to Max.

The old hag of Buttercup’s dream (or “the Ancient Booer,” as she’s credited) is a more difficult case. She isn’t real, for one. She doesn’t turn out to be a powerful fairy, evil queen, or trickster goddess as in other familiar incarnations of such a character in other tales. She’s Buttercup’s nightmare, and she isn’t actually right. She is what Buttercup fears about her true character and her motivations.

But what she does accurately is call out the ugliness and corruption underneath a seemingly beautiful public façade. She’s not right about Buttercup but she’s honest. And Buttercup does go to the Prince, tell the truth about her feelings for Westley, and try to call off the wedding, if not for which she never would’ve detected Humperdinck’s lie about having returned Westley to his ship, or having sent the four fastest ships in his armada to retrieve him.

The women are all telling the truth about who other characters are and about the corruption of a situation that no one else is willing to acknowledge or deal with. It is such a consistent pattern that while the spoken thesis statement of the movie is “Death cannot stop true love,” the unspoken one could virtually be “The women are telling the truth.”

And I am forced to think about Christine Blassey Ford, Stormy Daniels, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren, whose testimony mattered when they told the truth about the character of a man, even when they couldn’t stop what was happening from happening anyway. Although in at least one case it did:

And if “The women are telling the goddamned truth” isn’t a sufficient message for a progressive movie in the 21st century, it seems to be one we could still stand to learn.

*

I also feel the need to return to an issue I noted before, in considering the alleged ableism of The Shape of Water: The character espousing the views often attributed in criticism to the movie is in fact the villain. Strickland, who devalues Elisa because of her disability, femaleness, lack of beauty, and poverty, who sees her and the Amphibian Man as monstrosities who don’t belong to this world—is the bad guy.

Prince Humperdinck, likewise, is the bad guy in this movie. His views are the ones that we are supposed to challenge, not accept. And he is he one who believes that Buttercup is nothing but a pretty but passive and empty-headed girl who won’t raise a finger in her own defense. We’re not supposed to.

Humperdinck also discounts the possibility that she’s important enough to anyone else that they might come after her and spoil his plans. After all, there’s not that much special about her aside from her beauty.

That’s part of the point. Again, all of these characters are coveted by someone else because of how they’re extraordinary. They become important to each other in the ways that they aren’t, and not merely as a means to an end.

And Westley loves Buttercup, and that’s enough that he would go to the ends of the earth to rescue her.

*

I didn’t realize initially just how appropriate and timely the choice of a reading of the Princess Bride specifically was to this present political situation, as opposed to just being fun, nostalgic, and also guaranteed to draw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from people of a certain age who otherwise are not the most enthralled with the Democratic Party or Joe Biden as a candidate. But it’s the story of a very imperfect collection of faulted people coming together to defeat a cruel and petty despot because of their willingness to help each other reach an intertwined set of goals.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump in this past week’s first presidential debate, as is the sham and failure of Humperdinck’s rule because of who he is, and in a sublime and subversively beautiful way, the happy ending of the Princess Bride is what it is because its central characters are exactly who they are.

The stubborn and the stupid can work the weirdest miracles if we just don’t think too much.

And while in many ways it is not a particularly groundbreaking or innovative story as far as its portrayal of women, but neither does it consider them inferior or helpless, rather than central to the conscience and thesis of the film, and so, in my estimation, anyway, I have a hard time considering it fundamentally sexist.

And on that note, given the season, I’ll just leave you with this sentiment.

1 Comment »

  1. Adelaide Dupont said,

    Hi!

    I had not heard so much of THE PRINCESS BRIDE before late 2001; when there was a climate of subversive fairy tales in the filmic air [eg Shrek].

    Perhaps someone had shared it for their Christmas viewing.

    And I know it was indeed in the context of lots and lots of quotes like the “Mawwiage” one.

    Only watched it last year on Netflix.

    I read about THE PRINCESS BRIDE on a site called FEMNISTA a few days or a week ago and the contributor pointed out that the book and the movie were a frame tale.

    Or as the people on Freedom of Fanfic [Tumblr] say “reality affects fiction which affects reality”.


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