"The Princess Bride" is unrepentantly sexist

November 3, 2019

(Originally published July 25, 2011)

Rob Reiner’s 1987 film, The Princess Bride, has become a modern classic thanks to its clever wordplay and twists on timeworn fairytale tropes. But what sets it apart from even the most irreverent and challenging modern children’s entertainment, such as Shrek or Harry Potter, is that it risks putting its characters in truly frightening situations with malice in the air, rather than cartoonish, bloodless, or off-screen mayhem.

For the most part, those risks pay off. To children, Inigo Montoya might be just a swashbuckling swordsman with a fantastic mustache and a desire to avenge his father’s death. However, there’s an implied horror to Inigo’s story about the six-fingered man killing the elder Montoya and slashing eleven-year-old Inigo’s face that only adult viewers can fully appreciate. And when Inigo finally confronts the six-fingered man and disarms him, he forces the villain to beg for mercy before thrusting a sword through his chest and calling him a son-of-a-bitch. Name another children’s movie featuring a vengeance execution. That Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman pull it off without a screeching shift in tone is a testament to their skillful storytelling.

However, the movie fails in one important respect which, once I noticed, ruined much of it for me: The Princess Bride is unrepentantly sexist.

Lest you think its sexism is merely one of the aforementioned twists on timeworn fairytale tropes, it isn’t. Rather, the movie makes clear that women’s value lies in how much men, specifically, value their beauty and loyalty, not their character. Worse, it makes clear that when a woman acts affirmatively on her own behalf, she will be punished. Harshly.

Buttercup, the only significant female character, has no practical agency. She exists to be desired, to be protected, and either told what to do or forced along; in every one of her scenes, she is subordinate to men in every way. For example, in the Fire Swamp alone:

1 — Her dress catches fire, and Westley extinguishes the flames.

2 — Westley carries her through some particuarly tough terrain as she asks him questions about his adventures at sea. Does he ask her about what she’s been doing with herself? New friends? New experiences? Of course not. All he cares to know is that Humperdinck has chosen her for a bride, that she might be taken from him.

3 — She doesn’t look where she’s going and slips into a sand pit. Westley dives in and saves her, pulling them both out by a vine.

4 — Westley makes clear that the terrors of the Fire Swamp are common knowledge, and Buttercup’s question about the Rodents of Unusual Size makes it clear that she, too, knows what they are. Yet, just minutes before, she’d been the one who acted the klutz and took no precautions whatsoever to avoid those pitfalls.

5 — When Westley is attacked by a Rodent of Unusual Size, she stands to the side, cowers, and screams. Once, as the rodent nips at her feet, she pokes at it with a stick, but as it claws and bites Westley, she merely watches with a concerned look on her face.

There is no moment when Buttercup contributes positively to a situation’s resolution. Even in action-free scenes, she bends to men, and on top of that, she is insultingly dense, to boot. Take her “wedding” to Humperdinck. She honestly believes she’s been married to the prince, even though she doesn’t say anything during the ceremony, and subsequently plans to kill herself over it.

When Westley tells her the marriage didn’t happen, because she didn’t say, “I do,” it’s presented as an a-ha moment, equal to the moment Westley reveals both wine cups were poisoned. There’s a key difference, though. The poison scene is a tasty bit of chicanery for both adults and children, testing both Vezzini’s and, more importantly, the viewer’s capacity to make assumptions and trust the rules of narrative. The lack of, “I do,” is a glaring omission that any sentient person thirteen or older would notice, and a “twist” that doesn’t rely on the viewer’s ability to ask probing questions of the movie’s text, but instead relies on the viewer’s knowledge that an agreement to wed requires active consent.

Worst of all, there are three instances when Buttercup rebels against male authority, and in all three instances, she is proven utterly wrong and punished for her insubordination.

The first time, she jumps off Vezzini’s ship and attempts to swim to safety, only to find she’s jumped into eel-infested waters, and needs Fezzik’s strong hand to save her from being eaten. Vezzini makes sure to bind her wrists once she’s back onboard. The second time, she shoves one of her captors down a steep hill, only to discover as he’s tumbling that she may have just killed Westley, the farm boy she considers the love of her life. The third time, she tells Humperdinck in a defiant tone that her true love will save her from marrying him, prompting the prince to lock her in a room, rush to a hidden dungeon, and kill Westley.

Taken by themselves, one might brush off those plot turns as, “sometimes, bad things happen to good people.” But taken as a whole, as a pattern, it’s difficult to ignore the unironic punishment doled out to Buttercup precisely because she questions or defies men.

Set aside the screenwriter’s decision to have Buttercup nearly eaten by massive eels, and his decision to reward her principled stand against Humperdinck with having the prince kill her lover (requiring magic to bring him back to life). Let’s examine the harshest sequences of the movie, when Westley physically pushes her around, threatens her with more physical violence, casually demeans all women, and revels in mocking her. For a movie dedicated to the proposition that a story of adventure and true love penetrates even the most guarded cynics, Westley is an awfully cynical dude.

After stealing Buttercup away from Vezzini, Westley, still wearing a mask so that Buttercup does not recognize him, takes her prisoner and continues hustling her away from Humperdinck, who is in hot pursuit of his stolen property. Resting for a moment, he throws her to the ground.

She begs him to release her, saying Humperdinck will pay any ransom. He chuckles and says, “And what is that worth, the promise of a woman?”

What does that even mean? It’s an unprompted attack on women that doesn’t serve any purpose. 

Westley decides to test her, asking her if “your dearest love will save you.” She sniffs out the implication and vehemently denies that she loves Humperdinck. He continues pushing, accusing her of being incapable of loving another person. Understandably, she’s indignant that this stranger would accuse her of such a thing, and she blows up, yelling at him, “I have loved more deeply than a killer like you could ever dream!”

Stop. Westley could probably reveal himself at this point, and they could fall into each other’s arms. He knows that she thinks he’s dead. He tests her to find out if she’d fallen in love with another man in the five years after his “death” — a perfectly understandable development to non-insanely-jealous people — and finds that she had not. His work is done. In a sane world, he would take off the mask, tell her she no longer has to mourn, and they would run away together. That’s not what he does. 

When she raises her voice to him, he cocks his hand and makes her flinch as he threatens to hit her, saying, “That was a warning, Highness. The next time, my hand flies on its own. Where I come from, there are penalties when a woman lies.”

Again with the unprompted attack on women and on Buttercup’s dignity. What about when men lie? Westley grabs her and they hustle off again.

The next time they stop, he manhandles her to the ground for a second time. She guesses he is the Dread Pirate Roberts, which he admits. She tells him, “You can die slowly, cut into a thousand pieces!”

He replies, “Hardly complimentary, Your Highness. Why loose your venom on me?”

She says, “You killed my love.”

Stop. Yet again, why doesn’t Westley tear off his mask then and there, and reveal himself? She’s told him that Westley is her love. For civilized people who respect each other, that would be enough. He might even be able to explain his cruelty as a ruse needed to find out if she ever actually loved him. Instead, he goes on with the charade because, as he continues to reveal, for some reason he doesn’t trust her, even after she tells him, explicitly, that she loves him.

He tests her one more time, saying the girl Westley loved had “surpassing beauty and faithfulness” — how telling is it about Westley’s character that he cares most about her surface appearance and her fealty to him, even after death? — but that she obviously isn’t that same girl anymore, if she ever was.

She finally reacts physically, taking a momentary lapse in his concentration to shove him off a cliff, temporarily freeing her from male control for the only time in the film. She’s standing alone on the cliff, free from Vezzini, Inigo, Fezzik, Westley, and Humperdinck. As he tumbles down the cliff to a possible death, Westley reveals himself. Buttercup throws herself after him because, as the movie makes clear, there is no other choice for a woman; Buttercup is to define herself by the man who desires her most. She is not to stay on the cliff. She is not to escape both the cruel Westley and the egomaniacal Humperdinck. She is not to wonder why in the world her lover assaulted her upon returning from the dead. She must not consider Westley an untrustworthy scoundrel himself, for toying with her. She may only devote herself entirely to him, because her life is pointless without the right man.

Perhaps it’s telling that The Princess Bride’s framing device is a grandfather telling the story to his grandson. Florin and Gilder are a boy’s fantasy world, a place where girls have one prescribed role and the boys have all the fun.