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The Shrekoning: How three events in the mid-2010s marked Shrek's meme evolution

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Jun 11, 2021, 4:44 PM EDT

A lot can change in 20 years. Shrek, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, went from “scrappy, brash comedy” to, according to some, “the pinnacle of human creation.” Over the past two decades, Shrek became a movie, a franchise, an unstoppable meme, a cruel god, and a generational symbol of love, life, and togetherness. How did it become so strangely ubiquitous and weirdly potent? DreamWorks, the studio behind the film, certainly put a lot of effort into making sure their star ogre was everywhere, but a triumvirate of Shrek-related happenings in 2013 and 2014 might just mark the moment when the fans picked up Shrek’s momentum — for better or worse. 

After the 2001 film that started it all, DreamWorks made sequels, spinoffs, and TV shorts, most of which couldn’t live up to the original. Between every new release, Shrek’s corporate masters saturated the market with (mostly awful) video games, costumes, and birthday party kits. Then, things got weird. In a strange display of early crossover culture, Heinz and DreamWorks dropped green Shrek ketchup. Shrek Twinkies oozed “Ogre Green Creamy Filling.” If they could make it green, they made it Shrek. In retrospect, the marketing strategy resembled nothing more than multi-million dollar memes, saturating the public zeitgeist with an image until it becomes overbearing. Eventually, though, the internet’s artisan memers took over the franchise. The people who once only played a passive role as consumers literally had a field day with their favorite ogre. 

Granted, people had been having fun with Shrek before the 2013-2014 tipping point. Tim Heidecker and Erik Wareheim dedicated a notable amount of time to satirical Shrek the Third promotions on their Adult Swim program, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! After that, the history of Shrek’s obsessive online fandom is already well documented. In 2009, Shrek talked to fans in the first person on “his” Facebook page, marking the slow transfer of ownership from DreamWorks to fans calling themselves "brogres." Shrek art and fanfiction spread across the web. The memes became stranger, darker, and more obsessive with each passing day. In the mid-2010s, they hit a fever pitch with three distinct branches of franchise fandom.

 

The first — and most infamous — development was 2013’s Shrek is Love. Shrek is Life., the story of a young boy who prays to and is then sodomized by Shrek. The original post came from an anonymous 4chan user, but the story picked up popularity over the next few months. People wrote increasingly devotional and sexual iterations of the tale. Then, video-makers created dramatic readings and animated adaptations using 3D models of Shrek. 

Shrek is Love. Shrek Is Life. took the internet by storm when the React series, a YouTube show dedicated to capturing people’s live reactions to internet oddities, had popular YouTubers watch the videos. It became a cult-like cultural moment that spawned what became known as “Shrekism.”  While we can regard this era as the franchise’s cringy angst-filled preteen period, it was fundamental to Shrek culture’s future development. The Shrek is Love. Shrek is Life. movement solidified the ogre as a perennial figure on the internet. Fans memed it for good, for evil, and everything in between.  

Luckily, not all Shrek fandom would be as graphic as Shrek Is Love, though many would carry on the same ironic spirit — at least initially. On Jan. 24, 2014, a group of gamers created a subreddit, for a nearly decade-old fighting video game called Shrek Super Slam. When the game came out in 2005, it was widely criticized for being unpolished “shovelware,” or money-grab software made without much care for content or quality. In an interview with Vice, one of the game’s managers, Paul Culp admitted that Shrek Super Slam wasn’t quite a passion project for his crew, although he says they put more work into it than the most ardent critics thought. “The rest of the team could have easily phoned it in and moved on but they didn't,” Culp told Vice. “A lot of love and attention to detail went into that game.” 

It may have taken fans years to fully appreciate the effort, but eventually, the Shrek Super Slam developers received appreciation for their work as Super Slam turned into a highly competitive (and highly ironic) gaming scene. 

Super Slam picked up popularity when dedicated fans found ways to manipulate the game’s sloppy mechanics into skillful technique. The scene mirrored Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. community. Fans created Shrekboards similar to Smashboards, an online hub for competitive players to discuss guides and tournaments. Players shared tips and tricks for moves like “grab releases” and “crumpet dashing.” While the community never received too much mainstream attention, its members definitely showed dedication to their craft. It takes one type of fandom to revive an old, unappreciated movie tie-in video game. It takes another to become really, really good at that game. 

Today, while the Shrek Super Slam community isn’t at its peak, the Discord channel still organizes weekly tournaments. The group struggles to maintain engagement for a game that’s main pull is its poor design. Of course, nothing on the internet ever really dies. Players’ love of the game showed Shrek’s power to bring people together to revel in the strange, quirky, and uncanny. It also marked a maturation of the internet’s relationship with the character.

The same year gamers started r/ShrekSuperSlam, Shrek fandom proved it could flourish outside the dark recesses of the internet. Just as the fairy tale refugees made their way to Shrek’s swamp in the first movie, every year a growing number of Shrek fans make the pilgrimage to Madison, Wisconsin, for Shrekfest. 

“It has expanded from a small picnic event to a true festival with a sound system, bands, a large projector, and more people every time we throw it,” Shrekfest co-founder Eric Nitschke tells SYFY WIRE. At the free event, attendees dance and listen to live music. The more-dedicated participants compete to see who has the best costume, can roar the Shrekiest, or eat a raw onion the fastest without throwing up. As a grand finale, everybody comes together for a Shrek watch party. It truly is a celebration of love and life. 

For more than half a decade, Shrekfest has been a (mostly) earnest celebration of the movie, but it’s fitting that it all started with an ironic joke.  

“The way Shrekfest got started was that there was a fake Facebook event that tricked my friends and I,” fellow co-founder Grant Duffrin tells SYFY WIRE. “We were crushed because we were so excited to attend this event called Shrekfest that promised an onion eating contest, a roaring contest, a costume contest, a Smash Mouth cover band. You know, the works. So when we found out it was fake, I started making the calls that I needed to make this a reality. I saw there was an event that had a ton of people responding to it online so it made sense to make it real because there’s a demand for it.”

The demand continued to grow as around 1,000 people celebrated Shrekfest in 2019, and even more joined virtually in 2020. 

“Shrekfest is important because of what it gives the people who attend it”, Nitschke says. “Namely, acceptance and freedom to be completely goofy. People really come out of their shells at the fest, and for many, this is the only time and place where that can happen.” Whether it be dancing to “All Star” in the rain or singing Shrek’s closing hymn of “Hallelujah” in imperfect harmony, what was once a concerning joke religion on the fringes on the internet has become deeply impactful for so many annual attendees. “It can easily be another religion. It feels like a religious experience,” Duffrin says. 

With fans arguably more behind the wheel of Shrek’s onion carriage than DreamWorks at this point, it's only appropriate that the movie gets a reboot that fully encapsulates the internet’s relationship with their beloved ogre. In 2018, Duffrin and his team at 3GI, the group behind Shrekfest, produced Shrek Retold, a crowdsourced shot-for-shot remake of the original movie. Different creators produced every acne to make what an earlier SYFY WIRE article described as “the pinnacle of human creation.” Duffrin says, “That was a project that was able to exist because of people’s love for Shrek. I don’t think that would be able to happen with any other movie.”

After rumors of both a fifth sequel and a total reboot under Illumination studios, the official future of Shrek is unclear, for now. However, the internet’s Shrek has a bright path ahead of it. 3GI plans to release Shrek 2 Retold soon. Shrekfest will also continue strong. After the COVID-19 pandemic moved the annual gathering online last year (and probably this year), Duffrin and his team hope to make future iterations a hybrid event so people far and wide can join in on the fun. 

In the 2010s, a generation of young people used the internet to find their voices. Shrek became a familiar face for them to channel pent-up creative energies. The path wasn’t exactly a pretty one, but what in the world of Shrek is? After 20 years, Shrek went from DreamWorks’ breakout franchise to the internet’s beloved symbol for love, life, and the rejection of normalcy. From the depths of internet chatrooms to the open fields of Madison, brogres created a testament to people’s collective power to find inspiration and build something beautiful. Shrek memes, Shrek Super Slam, and Shrekfest all managed to forge communities out of nothing but what they had available and some deep nostalgia for a big, stupid, ugly ogre who taught us that we’re all better off together.