“I’ve tried to be fair to you creatures… now my patience has reached its end! Tell me or I’ll—”
“No, not the buttons! Not my gumdrop buttons!”
“Alright then, who’s hiding them?!”
“Okay… Do you know the Muffin Man?”
“The Muffin Man?”
—Lord Farquad and Gingy, Shrek (2001)
This iconic scene from an equally iconic childhood movie, Shrek, has always made me uncomfortable. The jokes are fun; the animation separates reality from television; yet, the torture is still there. It’s hard to miss the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that Farquad employs. Am I to ignore it?
Children’s animated entertainment depicts torture as a means of comedy, theoretically separating violent reality and the film’s playful usage of torture. I argue that this fails: torture’s portrayal, perhaps unintentionally, condones the ideas of surveillance, xenophobia, and acceptable violence for a young, impressionable audience. In this way, children’s entertainment industries are promoting militaristic ideology and the use of torture through exposure.
Shrek, the tale of forcefully displaced fairytale creatures, is overflowing with storybook, including the well-known Muffin Man lines. This create an intertextuality that separates and desensitizes the audience from the reality of the scene. We laugh as Gingy, a talking gingerbread cookie, un-ironically uses this nursery rhyme in a confession. Farquad, ignorant of the rhyme, completes it: “Yes, I know the Muffin Man… Who lives on Drury Lane?”
But Gingy’s situation is really no laughing matter.
Comedic value undermines the torture that is the basis of this interaction. At the start of the scene, a shadow shows Gingy repeatedly being dunked into milk— a parody of waterboarding. He is then slammed onto a cookie sheet, choking on milk, gasping for breath, and missing legs. Farquad holds out the cookie-limbs, taunting Gingy before smashing them to crumbs, saying “I’m not the monster, you are—you and the rest of that fairytale trash…” He demands information, threatening to pull off Gingy’s gumdrop buttons unless he complies.
Then, with the nursery rhyme, the horrors are brushed away; the audience laughs; all is well.
The reality is, there’s not much different between this scene and any interrogation from 24.
Shrek isn’t an isolated example. In one episode of Spongebob Squarepants, the title character and Mr. Krabs pressure Plankton to confess where he hid the Krabby Patty formula using forced endurance of sensory abuse. In another episode, Spongebob and Squidward suspect Krabs is a robot; referencing a book called How to Torture, they tie up Mr. Krabs, taking turns questioning and slapping the suspected robot for a confession. In Monsters, Inc., Randle nearly manages to put both Mike, the hero, and Boo, a child, under the scream extractor, a device similar to a Frankenstein-ed vacuum-and-electric-chair. In Toy Story, Sid burns a hole in Woody’s forehead, asking ominously, “Where’s the rebel base? Talk!”
Comedy follows or is a part of these scenes. Spongebob is an idiotic torturer. Mike cracks wise-guy comments as he begs for release. Woody runs in circles, screaming as smoke wafts from his burn.
But comedy cannot hide that these scenes of torture exist.
In Shrek, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story, a villain interrogates a good guy, presenting a xenophobic “where are your kind because we don’t want them” approach to torture as well as instilling the idea of surveillance via higher powers for the greater good of ridding the community of contaminants (Farquad and fairytale creatures; Randle and children; Sid and the rebels). Us versus Them. They need to be found. They need to be disposed of. These children’s movies capture the same dichotomy that society uses against terrorists.
I doubt that these movies intend to promote torture and xenophobia. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, villainous actions and values do not always translate to children. Children are intelligent enough to realize torture is bad. These characters, not heroes, do not represent what the moral of the story should be. The torture isn’t intended to be harmful.
Because it is humorous, no one cares. As Heidi Tilney Kramer states in the essay, “Monsters Under the Bed: An Analysis of Torture Scenes in Three Pixar Films,” children’s films use comedy to keep the torture scenes “’under the radar’ of critical commentary.”
But truth be told, it does not matter the alignment of the character or what the movie meant to do.
What matters is the exposure.
Kramer argues that “animated torture amid [militarized values] ‘condoned’ in post 9/11 discourses communicates that these ideologies are acceptable.” Similarly, in the article “Does Hollywood try to have it both ways regarding torture?” author Hollie McKay argues that “content creators glorify torture in the reel world but condemn its use in the real world,” a contradictory, hypocritical attitude that still leads to promoting torture and related ideas.
Torture scenes are uncensored and uncriticized because of humor and animation hide the atrocity. Yet, in children’s movies, whatever their intent, they are dangerous. They promote wartime ideology, such as torture, xenophobia, and surveillance, simply because they allow children a view of torture. Despite children’s ability to differentiate between good and bad behavior, they are still getting a view of torture that desensitizes them to the acceptable view of torture. It exposes children to ideas that are much more mature than G-rated material should be.