The Princess Bride Review: A Feminist Reading

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Those of us in PS have been having this conversation a lot: name a strong female character…

If I don’t think long on it, I think Xena; a little longer and I think Lady Macbeth; longer still, and I nominate the ladies of Mad Men and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. But Xena first. And why not? It’s the word “strong” that prevails, not “character.” I think of physical strength instead of a complex woman and I think that’s what’s weighing the masses down. Every movie and television series tries to recreate a Xena (or Wonder Woman) in some form. It’s their way of saying, “Look, we have strong female characters because they can do what men can do.” But ignoring sex isn’t much better than being “color-blind” to race.

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Lost Vikings, anyone?

And in William Goldman’s abridgement of The Princess Bride, I initially thought, ‘What dated principles!’ The princess in the castle needs to be rescued; the tried and true fairy tale formula that Disney has made a killing on, and now, in the 21st century, doing everything it can to redact (see Brave, Frozen, Maleficent, etc.). But Goldman’s narrator interruptions are a staple of postmodernism. And his semi-fictitious editorial notes resemble Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and of course, Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Was Goldman – or for that matter, Morgenstern – ahead of his time? Goldman brought us the Spark Notes before Spark Notes existed – though I suppose Cliff’s Notes were around. Regardless, I had a boss tell me once that he never reads a book “linearly” anymore. Granted, he primarily read non-fiction and business books, but some of my fellow English grads would be late to start the required reading of Hemingway and jump to the chapter needed for discussion before going back and reading the rest. And indeed, while I have not reread a book yet, I can imagine skipping portions should I ever go back.

All this is to say that Goldman may have been (and still be) onto something and worth a look beyond the surface. He wrote the novel for his daughters, purposefully choosing silly names like “Buttercup” and “Humperdink” for their giggles. I don’t consider his principles dated anymore, if anything, Buttercup will now join the ranks of my go-to “strong female character” argument. Here’s why:

Buttercup is her own person when she’s living on the family farm. She enjoys playing, riding horses, ordering people around. She doesn’t care for dressing up or obeying her parents, she enjoys herself — and that’s crucial.

Buttercup doesn’t day dream of a prince charming or finding the love of her life. She loves her life, she’s confident and content with herself, she doesn’t need anything — that’s the mark of a strong character. This is also why it’s so humorous when she realizes she’s in love with Westley, the stable boy. She’s aghast; she doesn’t understand what’s happened, much less why. But it does and she’s thrilled!

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Westley confesses his own love which reinforces her own self-confidence and worth because someone else loves her for who she is — and she already loved herself. This reinforcement has her grow more beautiful because she wants to be — not because anyone demands it of her. She wants to comb her hair and keep her dresses clean. She sees value in it of her own accord, not anyone else’s.

And when she receives word that Westley has “died”, she doesn’t kill herself, but resigns to live out her days on her own, never loving again. That’s a commitment. She doesn’t need love as evidenced by the fact that she was secure in herself before. And she’s not going to go off looking for love because it happened upon her, it changed her, but she doesn’t need it. She’s true to herself.

She’s also intelligent. when Humperdink asks for her hand in marriage. She refuses. When he says he’ll kill her if she refuses, she reconsiders and negotiates her own terms. She lets Humperdink know that she’ll never love him and wants to go about her own business, and he promises her riches, servants, and a great deal of freedom. She sees the perks and so long as love is not involved, she pragmatically accepts — sounds more fun than death.

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In addition, when Buttercup is kidnapped and told she’s going to be killed, she makes a valiant effort to escape, going so far as to risk life and limb to swim among the sharks. She’s not idle in her captivity. Moreover, the Sicilian vowed to kill her and she has no reason to believe anyone is going to rescue her in time, so naturally she weighs the two deaths.

Most of the story from then on however is Westley’s journey to save her… but it’s not about Westley. Westley goes through obscene lengths to save Buttercup — that’s the control she has over him. He climbs the cliffs of insanity with his bare hands, bests a wizard swordsman Spaniard, thwarts a giant, outwits a Sicilian, and even comes back from the dead for Buttercup. Realistically, Westley could’ve had a perfectly good life as the Dread Pirate Roberts, but he puts everything on the line for Buttercup. Buttercup is his driving motivation.

Similarly, the only way for Humperdink to become king is with Buttercup. He needs her consent for total control. In a role reversal, Buttercup is like the King in Chess, she doesn’t move much (from the castle), but is the ONLY piece that matters. Westley is more akin to the Queen in Chess, being extremely versatile and a force to be reckoned with, but the game doesn’t end if the Queen is taken.

And you don’t need to make Buttercup and action-icon for her to be interesting and a “strong” character. It’s one of the key differences between male and female characters. Males — following their phallic symbol — have an outward journey; females — following their yonic symbol — have an inward journey.

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When you think of strong male characters, they’re very action-oriented. They have to journey, climb, fight, and overcome their foes. There’s some self-doubt, but they project their insecurities, doubts, and fears onto their obstacles. It’s why King Macbeth rushes into battle and Lady Macbeth whispers into his ear.

As an aside: In my opinion, this is also why Xena works as a strong heroine. She’s not simply a female action-hero (like Wonder Woman — as many are wont to point out), she’s a cowboy. The entire first season — albeit repetitive — is Xena’s redemption. She was originally evil and thoughtless (morally that is — she was always very cunning). Despite being an action-oriented hero, it’s still an inward journey — it’s a journey for redemption.

It’s also why a character like Lady Sif in Thor is not a strong female character. She’s playing a man’s role.

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The best example of Buttercup’s journey is when she decides to kill herself if her Westley doesn’t return. She dabbled in suicidal thoughts when Westley died, but convinced herself not to. It was the classic, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” However, with Westley alive and all the impossible obstacles he overcame to win her favor, she decides love is worth putting your life on the line. Westley certainly did for her. This makes Buttercup’s thoughts of suicide take on a new form. She decides love is worth dying for… but it’s not because of Westley that she decides this. Remember too that Buttercup overcame all the outward obstacles Westley did. She scaled the Cliffs of Insanity, she challenged the Sicilian’s wit, she manipulated Humperdink. Westley’s trials are simply a manifestation of what Buttercup goes through internally.

It’s why the “Princess in a Tower” cliche actually works to successfully mirror the phallic and yonic symbols. The man must climb the tower, the woman is inside it — such is their journeys.

Buttercup is a strong, female character that’s not bogged down by the connotation behind “strong”. The story emphasizes her strengths and even at the end, her beauty is what saves them all against Humperdink’s army — her voice rings into the ears of the townspeople to let them through, and people are slaves to beauty. She reaches their ears.

When Buttercup considers death, it should never be viewed as weakness — which I’m certain many are wont to do — since men do the same thing in their action adventures. How often has a man gone on a “suicide mission”; a one-way trip. Our male heroes frequently take the sacrificial route, even if they don’t complete martyrdom. Just look at Captain America, where Cap decides to drown himself or Captain America 2 where Cap decides to go down with the ship. Or Avengers where Iron Man takes a nuke into space or any Mission Impossible.

We view their dance with death as heroism because, for most of them, it’s their “will” that wins, not their strength. Buttercup may not have conquered physical (outward) obstacles, but the journey is no different. If anything, what makes her journey stand out against Westley’s is, I’m sure there’s a part of Westley that thinks he’s unstoppable, that good (love) will triumph, Buttercup has no such delusions. She’s a strong, female character who never draws a weapon except to kill herself. That’s badass.

The Princess Bridge by S. Morgenstern
Abridgment by William Goldman
1973
Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

For more reviews and analysis, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

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