This month marks the 20th anniversary of Shrek, the movie that launched a thousand memes. On Saturday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s podcast about internet culture, hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher chronicled the family comedy’s surprisingly rich and strange online afterlife. In this transcript, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, they explain why Shrek was primed from the beginning to go viral, and then they run through two decades of green ogre–inspired online content, from the funny to the downright creepy.
Rachelle Hampton: From the very beginning, Shrek seemed designed in a lab to become an internet phenomenon. It was this kind of anti-Disney movie poking fun at the eternal franchising of successful properties and these overused tropes. It then became the very monster it was making fun of. But I don’t know how many people know about the kind of development hell that Shrek was in for so long. I think it started to be produced around 1993, 1994. It eventually premiered in 2001.
Madison Malone Kircher: Which—animated movies take a long time to make, we should be clear—but this one was especially prolonged.
Hampton: So the movie premieres, eventually, after all of this kind of stopping and starting. And kids love it. Critics love it. Angsty teens love it. The movie is insanely popular to the point where the sequel makes close to a billion dollars worldwide. And so the movie and the franchise—at least for the first two movies—kind of combines all the most important elements you need for a meme: which is cultural ubiquity; just like a whiff of sticking it to the man, even though the man is ultimately making a billion plus dollars off of it; a kind of—I’m sorry to Shrek—ugliness, which we love in memes; and then, funny words. Like Shrek is objectively a funny word.
Kircher: Shrek just kept rolling out sequels until the sequels stopped being good or making money. It also got a Broadway musical in 2008. So that’s sort of Shrek as it might have been, were it purely an entertainment phenomenon. That’s where the story begins.
In 2009, Dreamworks launches a Shrek Facebook page. It no longer exists, but shoutout to the Daily Dot, who, several years ago, archived a number of the posts. Keep in mind this was 2009, so by then it’s been nearly a decade—eight years—since the movie came out. And the bit on the Facebook page was that Shrek himself would post little notes to fans.
Hampton: One point I don’t think either of us have made yet: The movie soundtracks are fucking incredible.
Hampton: And again—are part of this internet cultural legacy because the Shrek movies were the first animated movies to use existing songs as the soundtrack, instead of an original score or original music. And there’s this way in which the capturing of a specific mood with a song that already has an emotional resonance with the audience just reminds me of TikTok.
Kircher: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. Another way to put it is that myself and a generation of children learned about “Hallelujah” as that sad song from the low point in Shrek.
Hampton: Yes, exactly. Which is a meme in and of itself. So Dreamworks rides this wave to the very end, and they’re clearly trying to figure out how to capitalize on this giant, unwieldy fandom that it could never have anticipated. And so they created a Facebook page. And that was maybe the closest they got to harnessing the power of the internet, which sprawls out beyond their control into very weird territories very, very quickly.
In 2010, as they’re promoting Shrek Forever After—which will be the only time we mention that movie in this show, because it does not exist. I don’t acknowledge it. But as they’re promoting this unnamed movie, Dreamworks and Paramount decide to let this kind of indie magazine do a photo spread involving Shrek. The magazine is called VMan. And they really take a kind of creative approach to this spread, which is they pose Shrek and—
Kircher: I feel like I don’t want to know this.
Hampton: I’m so sorry. They pose Shrek and co., including Puss-in-Boots, and Donkey—animals, let’s keep that in mind—next to a bunch of models in these suggestive poses, which really feels like a perhaps unintentional overlap with what would come to define the Shrek internet fandom. In fact, it seems so intentional that Paramount and Dreamworks animation eventually told the Hollywood Reporter that they regretted allowing the magazine to feature characters from a family-friendly franchise in such a compromising position, which is deeply hilarious but also describes how much Paramount and Dreamworks were not ready for what would come.
Kircher: In 2012, we take a little bit of a turn when a website called ShrekChan officially launches.
Hampton: Oh, God.
Kircher: A community-based image board is probably the best way to describe it, akin to 4chan, but, ideally, with more Shrek heads and fewer Nazis. So ShrekChan becomes this place where Shrek takes on its own life. Ogres become sort of saintly, is maybe a good way to put it?
Hampton: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s this way in which internet communities align themselves with this kind of dark horse of a series. Ogres are misunderstood but ultimately good. They have layers. And the only reason that people think they’re evil is because people don’t want to understand them, which is really the perfect kind of antihero for teens on the internet.
Kircher: There’s a lot of discussion about the swamp where Shrek lives. Swamp becomes sort of a metaphor for a safe space. They’re opposed to all things “Farquad,” who is the villain in Shrek.
We should also mention that there were made-up characters that become part of this universe, namely Drek, who is Shrek’s mortal enemy. And it’s just Shrek, but he’s blue.
Hampton: The creativity of the internet knows no bounds. And unfortunately it sometimes gives us things that we wish it did not. Case in point, the next milestone in the Shrek internet canon.
Kircher: We’ve entered the Shrek-tacious era.
Hampton: In 2013, over on real 4chan, a copypasta, known infamously as “Shrek Is Love, Shrek Is Life,” emerges. And if you know about this, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And if you don’t, I’m also sorry because we’re about ruin whatever nice little bubble you’ve been living in.
Kircher: We should mention a “copypasta” is an internet text meme that gets reshared and pasted over and over again. A good example is, if you’ve ever gotten a chain email like, “If you don’t send this to five people, you’ll have bad luck for …” That’s a copypasta.
Hampton: And this one is extremely NSFW. And honestly, I’m just going to give a big old trigger warning for literally everything.
Kircher: Just TLDR, in case you want out now. It involves child abuse, homophobia, a kid being sodomized by Shrek.
Hampton: I hate this.
Kircher: Remember when the people who invented the internet thought it was going to democratize the world?
Hampton: This is not the democracy we needed.
Somehow this text post gets turned into this extremely haunting animated video. I’ve seen it exactly once, but it’s seared into my brain for the rest of my life. So you would think in a normal world that this video, and this copypasta, would exist, and people would immediately be like, “Ha-ha-ha. No.” But no, it becomes this entire meme that people are sharing in the same way people shared, like, “2 Girls, 1 Cup,” also intensely disturbing.
Kircher: Wow. This show is just foul today.
Hampton: Yeah, honestly, I’m sorry. The “Shrek Is Love, Shrek Is Life” video becomes its own cottage industry in that there are just a shit-ton of videos of people reacting to it, including one by none other than the Fine brothers, who have this series of famous YouTubers reacting to viral videos. The one reacting to “Shrek Is Love, Shrek Is Life” came out in 2014 and features YouTubers like Tyler Oakley, Shane Dawson, and Joey Graceffa, which is a name I haven’t heard in 27 years.
Kircher: This video is kind of like off-brand Sims porn.
Hampton: Yeah. I’m upset at that description, but it’s not wrong.
Kircher: It’s accurate. In 2014, back to our timeline, ShrekChan very abruptly closes down, much to the sadness and just despondence of some of its most loyal followers. Its creator said that, at the time, “spammers and shitposters—as well as the fact that the Shrek phenomenon has been butchered down to nothing—has made it hard for our community to survive.” Which makes sense. Like, we are a podcast in 2021 talking about the 20th anniversary of Shrek and its history of memes, which is as good an indication as any that Shrek memes, at this point, have become too mainstream to actually be good memes, to be edgy, to be weird, to be out there.
Kircher: All this is to say that the meme-ing of Shrek did not end.
Hampton: The ShrekChan chapter ends. And the next one is just, again, this kind of ubiquity where anywhere you turn on the internet, there are Shrek memes. To the point that in 2018, 200 people collabed to make a YouTube re-creation of Shrek, the movie. And they called it Shrek Retold, which, great title.
Hampton: It’s animated in all these different styles because 200 people spent all this time making a spreadsheet, overanalyzing every scene to get in all the same cuts and actions.
Kircher: It sounds like it should still be in this category of weird deep internet meme-ing, but there’s this great Vice piece about the evolution and history of Shrek, and the piece mentioned something that I found really fascinating: A bunch of the people who made Shrek Retold actually had to go watch Shrek for the first time in order to make their segments. Because being a Shrek fan and being into Shrek memes is fully divorced from the movie itself at this point.
Hampton: Yeah, if you haven’t seen Shrek, you have seen perhaps 75 percent of the movie just through GIFs or stills or various out-of-context memes.
Kircher: You might say we’ve reached the Shrek-u-larity.
Hampton: I don’t want to say it.
Kircher: The fact that we’re all still talking about Shrek in 2021 is sort of indicative of both its formativeness and its ubiquity. Shrek is no longer weird. Shrek is for everyone.
Hampton: I mean, I don’t think anything quite proves how egalitarian this movie is like the fact that last year a man reenacted the entirety of Shrek 2 on a livestream while people donated to racial justice organizations. He made $12,000.
Hampton: I mean, the amazing thing about this livestream, besides the fact that almost 700,000 people watched it, is that he’s not even in costume. He’s just in his room, in his home, wearing this orange T-shirt, with the camera positioned in what I call the grandma position, where it’s under your chin.
Kircher: The nose shot?
Hampton: Yeah! So it’s as low-budget as you could possibly get. And yet, it worked to the tune of $12,000!
Kircher: But also, good summation of what Shrek has become. I guess there’s only one thing left to say, Rachelle.
Hampton: Please don’t say it.
Kircher: You know what it is?
Hampton: I do.
Kircher: Shrek is love. Shrek is life.
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