Anyone who knows me personally will know that I have complex feelings about The Princess Bride. It was the film my parents saw on their first date and the book that led me out of the teen section and into the world of adult fiction. I loved the film before I read the book and then criticized the film to no end once the book became my bible. I worked at a summer camp and would spend days reciting the story of The Princess Bride to my campers.
Then I found out that the classic tale by S. Morgenstern and abridged by William Goldman was actually just written by William Goldman. S. Morgenstern does not exist. This was earth shattering to someone who was legitimately planning on finding a way to get to Florin (the city Goldman claims to be real) and seeing the museum where we could actually see Buttercup’s wedding dress and the six fingered sword.
Just a quick summary of the story for those who don’t know. Buttercup is the most beautiful woman in the world and lives out on a farm. She and a farm boy named Westley fall in love and he leaves to seek his fortune in order to marry her. But he is killed at sea by pirates. The Prince of Florin, Prince Humperdink, finds out about Buttercup’s beauty and decides he will marry her, even though he knows she doesn’t love him.
But on the day her engagement to Humperdink is announced, Buttercup is kidnapped by a hunchback named Vizzini, a Spanish man named Inigo, and a giant named Fezzik. Her captors plan to kill her and blame it on the neighboring country Guilder in order to start a war. But they are being followed by a man in black who rescues Buttercup through a series of sword fighting, hand fighting, and a battle of wits.
The man in black turns out to be Westley who was never actually killed and the straight white couple is re-united. Then, Prince Humperdink tracks the lovers down and Buttercup makes a deal that she will go back with Humperdink if Westley is allowed to live freely. Though Humperdink agrees, Westley is not spared and is taken into Humperdink’s Zoo of Death (Pit of Despair in the film if you’re more familiar with the movie version) to be tortured.
Humperdink kills Westley, but Fezzik and Inigo bring him back to life with a miracle pill and they storm the castle to stop Buttercup’s wedding. In the end, Westley and Buttercup ride off with Inigo and Fezzik and true love conquers all.
I know I’m leaving out Inigo’s storyline and tons of stuff from the book (for those of you already familiar), but this is the main plot condensed as best as I can condense it.
For the past two years I haven’t touched the book or the film because of my anger at William Goldman. But last night I watched the movie with my room mate who had never seen it before and I realized that this was the first time I was watching it as a feminist.
It is such a heteronormative story! It is such a sexist story!
I knew even before I would even consider touching the word feminism that Buttercup does nothing and gets everything she could ever want. And what she wants is Westley. Her arc, if we’re generous and want to call it an arc, revolves around her love for Westley. What is she without the male protagonist? She is beautiful. The most beautiful woman in the world. Why does Westley love her? For her beauty. Her looks are all anyone ever mentions of her in the book and it’s all that Westley ever talks about in regards to her. Granted there isn’t much else to talk about. William Goldman makes it a point actually to emphasize that Buttercup isn’t very smart: she named her horse Horse and used the world syllabub instead of syllable. This just shows that Goldman is sexist and thinks that writing comedy involves making fun of women’s brains in order to highlight their beauty.
Hilarious, William Goldman. Hilarious.
The whole idea of a couple where the woman is just prized for her looks reminds me of this scene from The Swan Princess:
Even when I liked the book, I never liked Buttercup. It’s a shame to hate a female character just because she is written as flat as a piece of cardboard. But the strange thing was that even though I hated Buttercup, I envied her and perhaps that was the source of my hatred. A shallow part of myself wanted to be Buttercup because she does nothing and gets everything she could ever want. She is the stereotypical princess, except that The Princess Bride was writte in 1973 during the Second Wave of Feminism. William Goldman had to have been aware of what he was doing in writing this “perfect woman” who had all the beauty in the world and none of the brains.
Westley on the other hand has both looks and brains, because the two go hand in hand in men, but not so much in women, right? Westley is also perfect, but where Buttercup is a Mary Sue, Westley is amazing! He scales the 1,000 feet of the Cliffs of Insanity (part of the way not even using a rope), he duels the greatests swordsman alive, beats a giant in hand to hand combat, outsmarts a schemer and rescues Buttercup at every possible moment where she is in danger. Buttercup exists to be rescued by perfect Westley and this is called true love!
There is such a double standard here. When Buttercup is brave and stands up to Prince Humperdink expressing her love for Westley her bravery is framed in words. She has the regal bravery of a queen who commands in words though not in actions. She is and always was passive. When Westley is brave he is undergoing torture and not crying out because he is removing himself to think of Buttercup’s beauty. As Westley says to his captor Count Rugen, “We are men of action”.
I don’t care if this book and film were meant to be a comedy because it takes the theme of true love very seriously as being the through line of the plot. And Goldman’s idea of true love is the limited one of a straight white blonde couple where gender roles match up like puzzle pieces. Comedy is never funny when it is at the expense of any group of people. If someone believes in true love more power to them, but true love is not just between a man and a woman. True love is not just between “beautiful people” and true love is not based on gender roles.