Jules Does

Jules Does Films: Feminism and ‘The Princess Bride’

Posted on: November 26, 2014

Sometimes growing up is hard. You learn new things about yourself and the world, things that mean you often have to revise what you thought was ok or good in the light of new information. This can be a good thing, a pleasant thing which makes you appreciate the things you’ve loved better. Alternatively, as so often happens, we find out something unpleasant that makes us reconsider our fave. We can behave in several ways here.

1. Reject the new, unpleasant information and go about your day, believing what you’ve always believed in an unproblematised way.

2. Absorb the unpleasant information and reject everything you liked about the thing you loved.

3. Find a way to reconcile the two.

In some cases, Number 3 isn’t possible. However, we must do our very best not to let scrupulousness stain our enjoyment of things that gave us pleasure – it is still possible to believe certain things deeply while also loving things that might conflict with that belief. This cognitive dissonance is how many of us get through our daily lives with anything like enjoyment.

Case in point: The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen this movie, I am basically begging you to find a copy and watch it. It is maybe the best movie ever, and it’s family friendly (with the exception of one word towards the end) and generally utterly beautiful and thrilling – swordfights! giants! true love! Come back when you’ve seen it and we can talk.

The plot of The Princess Bride revolves around Buttercup (played by Robin Wright, the best actress ever), a beautiful girl living on a farm in the country of Florin, and Westley (Cary Elwes), a farm boy who works on her farm and loves her, always saying ‘As you wish’ to her requests, while secretly meaning ‘I love you’. *Siiiiiiiigh* However, the lovers’ relationship is complicated when Westley goes to sea to seek his fortune and is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never leaves captives alive. Buttercup then becomes engaged to the loathsome Prince Humperdinck, but who are these strange people trying to stop the wedding? And who is that man in black? The plot is related by a grandfather, who is reading the story as a book to his poorly grandson (don’t worry, it’s just run-of-the-mill illness, not some horrible disease).

First things first: I adore this movie. I genuinely believe it might be one of the most perfect films ever made. Much of that is down to the fact that The Princess Bride, along with Beauty and the Beast and My Fair Lady, formed a cornerstone of my childhood film consumption,  and why not? Beautiful people, dashing men, swordplay, a great deal of humour and some really excellent lines combine to create a gorgeous story about love, and who wouldn’t love that? Westley may also have been my first crush, although I earnestly believed that he wasn’t actually a real person, but a Disney Prince come to life (I still kind of stand by this).

Tell me I’m wrong.

However, from a feminist standpoint, the film is far from perfect. Much of this is, predictably, connected with the portrayal of its titular character, Buttercup.

Problems With Buttercup

1. She speaks to another female character (unnamed) only once, and appears on-screen with another woman in only two scenes. With the exception of those two scenes, the other women in the film do not appear with or speak to any other female character either.

2. The film certainly does not pass the Bechdel Test, as when Buttercup speaks to the woman they only discuss Westley, and the other woman is unnamed.

3. Even though Buttercup is the titular character, she is more or less at the mercy of the male characters’ actions and, apart from once or twice, shows very little initiative or spirit. Even when Westley is being attacked by a giant rodent, she stands there uselessly until the rodent turns on her; only then does she think to pick up a club.

4. While others have a talent like physical strength, cunning, or power, her talent just seems to be her pretty face, which motivates people to do things.

5. She is defined by her relationship to a man, specifically Westley, and apparently has no other friends or family.

I’m sad too, Buttercup.

Hmm, yikes. It’s not looking so good. However, I can’t leave my favourite film high and dry without making some arguments in its favour.

Things About Buttercup That Are Awesome

1. Buttercup does, on occasion, show initiative, even if her impulses are a little misguided.

  • She has the presence of mind to jump off of the ship when Vizzini, Inigo and Fezzik are distracted (even if it is into eel-infested waters).
  • She takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’ distraction to push him down a hill (even if that was a bit of a bad plan).
  • She tells off Roberts for mocking her pain, not letting him grind her down by telling her she’s a liar.
  • She tries to save Westley’s life rather than allowing him to be killed in the forest after they leave the Fire Swamp (even if that did backfire because Humperdinck is awful).
  • She sees through Humperdinck’s ruse about the ships, and insults him to his face.
  • She really is going to kill herself rather than be Humperdinck’s wife (I’ll grant that this is not necessarily a win).

2. Early in the film she’s quite defeatist, but after her adventures with Westley in the Fire Swamp, she retains a firm and unwavering hope that Westley will save her. This state of readiness seems like a positive to me; she’s not just sad and locked away in some castle – she tries to communicate with Westley and uses the limited resources at her disposal to do so.

3. In his new book As You Wish, Cary Elwes, the actor who played Westley, points out that the role of Buttercup is actually fairly difficult. Other characters are allowed comic moments, but she is essentially ‘the straight man’ for the entire movie. If we’re being generous, we could say that maybe this ‘straight’ role limits her character development.

4. Her character does develop. She is quite bossy and prissy at the beginning, but towards the end that bossiness is used to destroy her enemies, and she does develop a strong sense of trust in Westley, especially when compared to the beginning, which is something. I don’t think any other character truly develops in the same way that Buttercup does, with the possible exception of Westley, although it’s hard to get a sense of him, since he’s only in the movie briefly as his normal farm boy self before disappearing off.


Here’s the key thing though: many of the problems with the depiction of Buttercup are down to the story’s very format. William Goldman, in both the book and the film, uses narrative devices that allow him to skip “the boring parts” like a lot of character development and motivation. The story becomes fairly simple really – the only real motivations are astoundingly simple and pure: true love, revenge, greed. Nothing complex. Buttercup isn’t complicated because none of the characters are complicated. Inigo only wants revenge, Humperdinck only wants to start a war, Count Rugen only wants pain, Westley only wants Buttercup, Buttercup only wants Westley. Some of the characters don’t seem to want anything – Fezzik is a good example.

The character with the most back story is unequivocally Inigo.We know the story of the murder of his father, the swordmaker, and we hear (and eventually see) that he’s a “slobbering” drunk. Hell, he’s the only character with a surname! By contrast, we know exactly nothing about Vizzini apart from that he’s Sicilian, and nothing about Fezzik beyond the fact that he sometimes fights gangs for local charities and was once “unemployed in Greenland”. Sure, Westley has a story to explain where he’s been for five years, but that information doesn’t necessarily inform his character any more than knowing (as we did already) that he is motivated to do anything and everything by his love for Buttercup.

The crux of the problem: The Princess Bride is a story about the true love between Westley and Buttercup, a love which is rare in its strength and purity. The plot has us acknowledge that true love is “the greatest thing in the world” (next to a really good sandwich), so as a result we have to acknowledge the centrality of love not only to the plot but also to the two protagonists. Fundamentally, Westley and Buttercup are people who are in love with each other. This is their key attribute. The disruption of their relationship inspires Buttercup to give up on life, while Westley apparently trains and prepares for their reunion by learning swordplay, wrestling and building up an immunity to poison. Westley comes out of this situation the more interesting and dashing character, but both are motivated more or less exclusively by love. Certainly, love sometimes takes the form of obedience to your loved one, and Buttercup often does do what Westley tells her, but far and away the most enduring image of obedient, almost servile, love in this movie does not come from Buttercup, but from Westley’s celebrated “As You Wish”.

Pictured: love.

I am not going to pretend that The Princess Bride was a tremendous win for depictions of women in movies or that it shouldn’t be tempered with better media for children focussing on women who can actually make their own decisions. Yes, perhaps in the perfectest of perfect worlds, Buttercup could have escaped her kidnappers all by herself, run away from Humperdinck and set herself up in the Thieves’ Forest or as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Maybe she could have become a Miracle Worker! However, given that the film purposefully sets out to tell a deliberately simple story, in which people are motivated by pure expressions of certain cardinal impulses and provided with extremely limited backstory, it absolutely achieves its goals and doesn’t pretend to do otherwise. Is there a general problem with underdeveloped female characters in cinema? Yes. Does this film address that balance by having *all* its characters be underdeveloped? Maybe, maybe not.

So. Can you be a feminist and like this movie? I don’t know man, I’m not in charge of feminism. Like it or don’t, it’s up to you. Personally, I think that the film stands up to closer scrutiny, and although it’s far from perfect, feminism-wise, I’m not going to sit around waiting until the most feminist, balanced, fun movie comes out, because I’ll be waiting for ages. In the meantime, I’m going to go watch The Princess Bride Again. It’s true love.

dread pirate roberts the princess bride gif


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