14 The Princess Bride (1987)

Genre Subversion and Representation in The Princess Bride

by McKinnon Gutt


“Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. Doesn’t sound too bad, I’ll try and stay awake.” –The Princess Bride, 1987

A dashingly brave, white, tall, blonde, and presumably heterosexual man rescues a helplessly beautiful, white, stereotypically shapely, blonde, presumably heterosexual woman before riding off into the sunset with a solid romantic undertone. All of the above is normal for a Hollywood movie, and it is precisely what the 1987 film The Princess Bride is about. If all of that is true, then why is this movie important? Why should anybody care about it? Why has it become the cultural icon widely lauded for its subversion of many of Hollywood’s more problematic tropes? The answer is what this essay seeks to uncover. Romance, comedy, drama, and fantasy are relatively common genres, each with overlapping stories that often look more like a misshapen blob of a Venn diagram than individual genres. These genres are all relatively well-trodden and have all been more or less accepted by both Hollywood and the audiences it caters to; that is to say, they often exhibit many of the same problems common among these widely accepted genres. Blatant sexism, ableism, and racism, among many other problematic themes, are pervasive in Hollywood films that feature romance, comedy, drama, and fantasy. The Princess Bride features all of these problematic themes but not in the way one would expect, often using those themes as the crux of gags that point out the absurdity of those problematic themes. The movie gives a fascinating look into many of these themes and how they are portrayed in fun and nuanced ways. It highlights the problematic parts of the genres it hails from.

The film is set from the perspective of a grandpa reading his sick, and in the beginning, thoroughly uninterested grandson a book his father read him when he was just a boy. The story follows the lives of Westley and Buttercup, two separated lovers. Westley was presumed dead, and Buttercup was forced to marry the prince of her kingdom. As the story progresses, Buttercup is kidnapped and ferried to the border of a neighboring land to be killed and spark a war between the two countries by a crew of three men, two of whom will later become allies of the main couple. Along the way, a mysterious stranger is tracking the crew and Buttercup as they make their way to the border with the crew one by one facing the stranger and challenging him in battles of endurance, swordsmanship, strength, and cunning, all of which he succeeds. After he finally beats the final of the three kidnappers, it is revealed that the mysterious stranger is, in fact, Westley, after which the two lovers try and run away together before getting captured by the prince. During their capture, it is revealed that the prince was the one who orchestrated the kidnapping and attempted murder of Buttercup. To get Buttercup back, the newly mostly dead and recovering Westley teams up with the two remaining kidnappers. The two remaining kidnappers are shown to be good at heart throughout the movie, and they all go to rescue Buttercup before she is forced to marry the prince and is killed on her wedding night. The ending has the boy thoroughly invested in the story and bridges the generational gap between the boy and his grandpa. The Film was originally a novel written by the movie’s screenwriter, William Goldman, and it had a few different framing devices; however, the story itself was roughly the same. As stated by Eva Alfonso and Marta Frago in their essay, The Adventure Screenplay in William Goldman: the Playful and the Ironic in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, “Goldman has repeatedly stated that he never wanted to write a parody, just a fairy tale for his daughters .” The filming was a delight for all those involved, as stated in an interview with actor André René Roussimoff, who played Fezzik in the film. André says in an interview with Josh Rottenberg in Entertainment Weekly, referring to Rob Reiner, the director. “Every time Rob would say ‘Cut! Print it,’ my heart would sink because it meant we didn’t get to do that part again”. The film was according to Alfonso and Frago in their paper The Adventure screenplay in William Goldman: the playful and the ironic in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride was “well received at the box office and had a long run at the home video market,” It is important to note that while the film was well received it wasn’t a smash hit.

screenshot of The Princess Bride
screenshot from The Princess Bride

How is the difference portrayed in the film? The Princess Bride focuses on a diverse cast of characters that often display many different, if not explicitly stated, gender identities, disabilities, and sexualities; however, many of these differences are frequently played for laughs in one way or another. One of the film’s main villains, Count Rugen, has polydactyly and is often referred to as “the six-fingered man.” While this difference is not implicitly tied to the character’s cruelty or villainy, it is their defining feature. The torture henchman of Count Ruge, who is named “The Albino” in the film, is depicted as a hunchbacked man with albinism and fungus around his lips. They play a surprisingly positive role in the movie, with the character subverting the classic husky voice by talking in a husky voice before coughing and clearing their throat to reveal a relatively normal voice. They indicate that their job is to heal Westley’s wounds while being thoughtful and thorough, even if it is because Count Rugen likes those he tortures to be healthy before he breaks them. The shot composition and music take care to use “the albino’s” albinism as a satire of other fantasy stories and films that feature torturers or jailers who are othered from society and are inherently evil. The film even has “the albino” being relatively peacefully knocked out instead of killed or otherwise injured to showcase this. Nowhere in the movie is a character othered by the narrative that does not serve a purpose in satirizing, subverting, and highlighting the problems with making assumptions about others due to their differences.

A great example is the main hero, Westley, who starts the movie as the subservient farmhand dressed in rags. He spends the entire second half of the film either comatose or mostly physically immobile, where the challenges he faces are shown not to be flaws of his character but things that he needs to work around and something that other characters should be considerate of. Buttercup experiences a dream a few days before her wedding about her self-doubt regarding her leaving Westley behind in exchange for his safety. The dream includes an “old crone” who shouts at her and scolds her for how she left her true love when he was right there with Buttercup, trying to argue against her but to no avail. The crone is an obvious example of the filmmakers portraying Buttercup’s ingrained contempt for those that would look like an old dirty crone as she is depicted as being explicitly “other.” Perhaps it shows Buttercup’s fears for how she will eventually view the ordinary people or those less fortunate when she is forced to become queen, but it is never stated. Overall, the film is quite nuanced in its depictions of difference in its subversions and occasional reversion to common problematic depictions of difference.

screengrab from The Princess Bride
screengrab from The Princess Bride

Power is an exciting subject in The Princess Bride, as the movie often plays with it in exciting ways. The leader of the kidnapper trio, Vizzini, is shown and explicitly stated to be the weakest physically of the trio; however, he clearly has the most power in the group due to his intellect and quick wits. The character that gives Westley the cure to bring him back from being mostly dead, Miracle Max, is depicted as a crazy-haired, bitter old man fired by the prince. He holds power over the remaining kidnapper characters, Fezzik and Ingo Montoya, by saying he is first closed for business and then doubting their reasons for wanting to revive the comatose Westley. Miracle Max finally relents and makes medicine for Westley, but only after his wife Valerie nags him into doing it because he refuses to believe Westley needs to live because of true love. Valerie is shown to be highly capable herself, being an instrumental part in creating the pill that revives Westley; however, the narrative does not call attention to this. It shows Miracle Max and Valerie as roughly equals in their interactions instead of giving her credit for saving Westley, which is one of a few times where the film does not acknowledge women’s work. The film has many problems with sexism, most of which surround Buttercup, namely that she is primarily put in positions where she is shown to be the hostage that needs to be rescued or has in some way fallen into a trap because she isn’t as wise in the ways of the world. The film sticks to its genre roots in these ways: Buttercup even contemplates and threatens suicide near the climax of the movie if she is forced to marry the prince as a way of escaping. According to Dupont in The Women Are Telling the Truth: sexism and The Princess Bride, “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.” All of the things noted by Dupont are true, but as later stated by Dupont, “There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right at this moment because Buttercup decides, “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters constantly 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.” Something integral to Buttercup and Westley’s relationship throughout the film is the start of their romance and the dynamics of Buttercup’s true romance with her fake one with the prince. Westley starts the film as a farm boy working for Buttercup; he is at her beck and call. The only thing he ever needed to hear was the word please, and he would do it, simply responding with a gentle “as you wish.” this phrase is the throughline for their romance in the movie and is frequently called back to. The phrase “as you wish” remains one of the most prominent markers of Westley’s everlasting love for Buttercup and his acknowledgment that Westley will always be there for her, putting her above himself in power. This relationship opposes the fake love of the prince, where he holds power over her every chance he gets in every way possible, both due to his personality and status as a prince. According to Dowd, Crabtree, and Cannon in an article in the Journal of gender studies titled “Movies, gender, and Social Change: the Hollywood romance film,” differences in power in romance films are pretty standard. “romance films are tales of upward social mobility, typically the mobility of a woman who enters a relationship with a more economically secure and typically older man. Less likely to be noticed in these films is their embrace of the ideological understanding of upward mobility as an individual accomplishment for those who demonstrate the necessary merit.” The juxtaposition between the two romances and their power dynamics strike a powerful throughline in the film that hangs over its entire runtime. Power is often played with in film with all its characters in interesting and progressive ways, even if they may sometimes fall short.

Oppression and discrimination are two sides of the same coin. Both are similar in status as things widely accepted as harmful. However, it can be hard to discern in film where one is at play and not the other or if they are both taking part in the narrative. Are oppression and discrimination being used by the narrative, or is the narrative a way to project and compound societal oppression and discrimination? These are the questions we will be asking about The Princess Bride. In the film, the Giant Character Fezzik is written in ways often associated with mental differences in ability. Film portrayals of differences in ability are essential for representation; however, they must be handled with care due to the many easy stereotypes that surround those whom society ordains to be less than fitting, barely suitable even for menial labor. All of that is to say, why is Fezzik’s mental disability repeatedly used for laughs? At 26:58, A confrontation occurs between the still-masked Westley and Fezzik, where they engage in hand-to-hand combat. The musical motifs used for Fezzik in this scene entirely consist of a slow oboe, an instrument often associated with being stupid or dim-witted, a common association for those portrayed as having a mental disability. Why is Buttercup just an object to be sacrificed in the prince’s ascension to the throne and war with the neighboring country? Buttercup’s place as the damsel, an object that needs to be acted upon, is mainly used as something subversive by the narrative to oppose it to other films in the genre; however, that is not the case with the prince’s treatment of her as a person. His plans for her are flat, reduce her, and are blatantly discriminatory, something that the narrative does not see fit to point out. Why is the thieves’ forest being cleared out with a “brute squad” in a clear allegory for governments using force to remove undesirable people played as a joke? The order to clear out the “thieves’ forest” is something that is taken lightly by the narrative, something to bring two of the characters back together and to be played for laughs as the dirty, undesirable “thieves” are hauled away with no other apparent plot significance. All of the above are valid criticisms of the film due to how easily apparent they are and how easy it is to miss how the film uses all of these things to subvert the classic Hollywood tropes. Fezzik is shown in many scenes to be quick-witted with clever quips and even more clever replies to those who hold themselves as supposed intellectuals. The princess, being little more than a political tool for the prince, eventually leads to his downfall due to his arrogance and growing frustration over Buttercup acting on her own. The brute squad is shown to be cowards at every turn, both when rounding people up and guarding the way to the castle, being scared away by the clever use of a fireproof cloak and a fairy tail legend. Almost all of how the film uses oppression and discrimination in its story might come off at first glance as crass or similar to generic Hollywood films; however, it cleverly uses those tropes to subvert the status quo and show us a new, different perspective.

screengrab from The Princess Bride
screengrab from The Princess Bride

All of these themes come together to create a film that stands as a lone Hollywood film that makes efforts to show the folly of many of the familiar problematic tropes that plague Hollywood to this day. It stands as an unsung beacon in the dark wood of movies that merely conform to social dogma, but why is it essential in the broader scope of things? An article titled “The Joy of the Hate-Watch,” written by Sarah Miller, a writer for the New York Times, begins with an anecdote.

“‘The Princess Bride” debuted on my 18th birthday — Sept. 25, 1987 — but did not find its way onto my radar until 10 years later, when suddenly everyone was running around saying, “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Oh yeah, I’ve never seen ‘The Princess Bride,” I would say.” Have you ever seen ‘The Princess Bride’? You must watch it immediately!”

The article goes on to discuss Miller’s personal distaste for the film, but what is important is how Miller views the film before they watch it and especially how it is described to her. It is merely something that needs to be watched, something from which you can get fun and witty quotes, which is a sentiment that Miller expresses in the article.

I cannot remember the first time I watched The Princess Bride. I remember being terrified of the fire swamp scene whenever my family watched the film as I grew up, and I generally thought the movie was quite funny and witty. Now that I’m older, I can appreciate the film more. It most likely influenced my perception of what a good male role model should look like. It influenced the way I see my body concerning those around me, and finally, it influenced how I perceive my lot in life. Unlike in many other stories, somebody who could be subservient to others, to those whom society often says they shouldn’t serve while still maintaining true dignity, Westley. Somebody who acknowledges their size and strength while still recognizing that using that size and strength for good is not a bad thing, Fezzik. Finally, there is somebody I empathize with on a level and for reasons I still cannot articulate to this day: Buttercup. The movie holds both fond memories and important life lessons for me. Again, in an article by David Crow for Den of Geek titled “Why The Princess Bride Is a Perfect Fantasy Movie,” the focus is squarely on the fantasy and the comedy that is clearly described. In contrast, the subversions of the typical Hollywood tropes get barely a passing glance: “For over 30 years, children have been as awed as their parents were amused by the Rodents of Unusual Size, and have been collectively smitten with a love story that considers tumbling down a mountainside an act of romance.”

The Princess Bride is a comedic movie that perfectly satirizes many of the standard tropes in romance, fantasy, and comedy in mostly progressive ways that highlight the failure of many of its contemporary films while reaching out and touching the lives of many people worldwide. How the film shows what genres it hails from could be just as crucial as its central themes of friendship, cooperation, and true love.


Works Cited

Alfonso, Eva, and Marta Frago. “The Adventure Screenplay in William Goldman: The Playful and the Ironic in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride.” Communication & Society, 01/01/2014 2014, pp. 1–15. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.15581/

Bradshaw, Peter. “The Princess Bride Review – Golden-Age Throwback Glows Brighter than Ever.” The Guardian, 23 Oct. 2017. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/23/the-princess-bride-review-rob-reiner.

Crow, David. “Why The Princess Bride Is a Perfect Fantasy Movie.” Den of Geek, 25 Sept. 2019, https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/the-princess-bride-perfect-fantasy-movie/.

Dowd, James, et al. “Movies, Gender, and Social Change: The Hollywood Romance Film.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, Feb. 2023, pp. 201–14. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2021.1979479.

Rottenberg, Josh. “The PRINCESS Bride.” Entertainment Weekly, no. 1176/1177, Oct. 2011, pp. 76–85. said, Adelaide Dupont. “The Women Are Telling the Truth: Sexism and ‘The Princess Bride.’” Chavisory’s Notebook, 22 Oct. 2020, https://chavisory.wordpress.com/2020/10/22/the-women-are-telling-the-truth-sexism-and-the-princess-bride/.

“The Joy of the Hate” Document – Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints. https://go-gale-com.ezproxy.libweb.linnbenton.edu. Accessed 23 Feb. 2024.


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Difference, Power, and Discrimination in Film and Media: Student Essays Copyright © by Students at Linn-Benton Community College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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