Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.
The Princess Bride is a 1987 romantic comedy adventure film about true love and giants and witches and evil princes. Because romantic comedy adventure films are probably my favorite films ever, I loved this movie growing up and even read the book.
I decided to watch the film again for the first time in years, and it occurred to my now-adult brain that the main characters, Westley and Buttercup, are actually both really horrible.
By that I mean, they don't just have understandable flaws that any character should. They are beyond flawed. They are toxic. Westley is an abusive jerk, while Buttercup is an idiot and a doormat to the extreme. This makes their "romance" pretty sickening, and every time they kissed, I found myself wincing and protesting right along with Fred Savage.
Thankfully, the other characters are so good, none of this really matters. But let me explain anyway why I was completely turned off by the "romance" in this story.
Buttercup is a Useless Idiot
When I was a kid watching this film, I failed to notice what a doof Buttercup was. Mostly because I was distracted by how beautiful Robin Wright was in all those pretty dresses.
Now that I no longer have teenage hormones to contend with, I can look at this film with clear eyes and see that Buttercup (man, what a cringe-worthy name) is a pretty worthless character. For all she contributes to the plot, she might as well be a mop in a hat.
Aside from the fact that she's the only remotely important female character in the entire film, Buttercup's largest flaw is that she's incredibly stupid.
When Westley is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) -- which is understandable, I guess. She was alone and had to survive.
The stupid part comes in when she decides to go riding off on her own, without an escort, even though she is now royalty and could have all kinds of crazy protection -- dogs, knights, wizards, trained bears, you name it.
This leads to her getting -- surprise, surprise -- kidnapped. Her kidnapper (Wallace Shawn) takes her on a boat, and she thinks it's somehow smart to throw herself overboard and nearly get eaten by one of the monsters in the water.
Her bad move is played up by her kidnapper as "brave," but it was actually pretty stupid. She's wearing a dress and expects to swim -- where? -- in it? You can't swim fast in a dress with long skirts. Plus, there was no where for her to go. They would have just followed her and dragged her back.
It would have been smarter to wait until they were on land again before breaking away. But Buttercup apparently doesn't have basic reading comprehension skills. Why would she be able to escape three goons?
When traveling through the Fire Swamp with Westley (Cary Elwes), Buttercup can't seem to stay out of trouble more than six seconds. Her dress catches on fire, then she falls into a sinkhole.
Then when a Rodent Of Unusual Size attacks, she just stands there and watches as it kills Westley. Westley's sword is on the ground nearby, but it never occurs to precious Buttercup that she should pick it up and maybe stab the giant rat. It takes zero sword fighting skills to stab a large rat with a sword, and for the skeptical misogynists reading this, I'm pretty sure the sword wasn't so heavy that her thin woman's arms couldn't have lifted it.
And yet, she just stood there watching this hideous thing kill her lover and didn't bother trying to help until it was targeting her. Then she picks up a stick -- much heavier than the sword, I might add -- and makes a weak and flimsy attempt to hit the rat with it.
Of course, in the end, Westley winds up saving her from the rat, even though it had initially tried to eat him. It was the writer's intention from the start that the entire scene would make Westley look strong and masculine. And of course, this couldn't have been achieved without whittling Buttercup down to a hapless moron (sarcasm).
Don't get me wrong: if Buttercup wasn't an important character, this could be played up for laughs. Like Cecile in Cruel Intentions. Instead, Buttercup is one of two main characters in the story, which means she should be helping Westley drive the plot -- not passed back and forth from kidnapper to kidnapper while waiting to be rescued.
Following the events of the Fire Swamp, Westley and Buttercup emerge into the open and are surrounded by the prince and his men. Buttercup makes Westley surrender and is foolish enough to believe that Humperdinck won't harm him.
Because of Buttercup's naivety, Westley is handed over to Humperdinck and then killed.
You could argue that the pair of them didn't have many options, but I don't believe that's true. Westley is one of the main characters, which means he probably could have fought off a couple men, dodged some crossbows, grabbed Buttercup, and been back on his ship in time for tea.
People familiar with the romance comedy adventure genre know this to be true: the macho male lead can always fight his way out of hordes of bad guys. Think The Mummy with Brendan Fraser or The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas or The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis.
And yet, Buttercup doesn't believe in Westley -- a guy trained by the legendary Dread Pirate Roberts -- and wants him to surrender.
I realize that Buttercup doesn't know she's in a story, but why not place some faith in her lover? He already bested a giant and defeated the greatest swordsman ever, fought his way through the dangers of the swamp, and survived the training that made him the Dread Pirate Roberts.
He's the macho male lead because he is a badass. Why not let him be badass?
After turning herself over to Humperdinck, Buttercup makes a lot of defiant speeches about true love that are supposed to make her seem spunky and brave and like a Strong Female Character, when really, they just make her seem stupid and annoying.
The fact that she really believed the prince allowed Westley to walk alive is outrageous. Especially considering Westley was a damn pirate who technically kidnapped her, which should have been illegal even in a fantasy world. I mean, a pirate is literally a bandit.
When she realizes Westley isn't coming, Buttercup decides to commit suicide.
Really? How weak is that? She could have killed Humperdinck and staged a coup, seized power, maybe made life for people in the realm better, so that no woman would ever have to find themselves in her situation.
She could have planned to run away. What happened to princesses who tie bedsheets together?
Heck, she could have run away in search of Miracle Max and asked for his help. It's not like she couldn't have heard about him while living in the castle.
Instead, Buttercup is a helpless idiot, who can't do a damn thing to move the plot forward and must instead sit in her little tower, waiting to be rescued, either by knife or by Westley.
That her immediate reaction was to kill herself is -- again -- pretty weak. She makes Princess Peach look like Queen Victoria.
Westley is a Jerk
I read the book, so I always felt Westley -- not Wesley -- was a big jerk and that he didn't deserve to be with Buttercup.
During the movie, he explains that when he was captured five years ago, it took three years before he became Dread Pirate Roberts. That means that he was leading the pirates for two years.
That's two years that he could have contacted Buttercup and told her he was alive. Instead, he left her to think he was dead and didn't show up until she was nearly married to someone else.
When he did show up, he belittled her with sexist comments, shoved her around, dragged her along by the arm, insulted her, mocked her grief, and continued to hide his true identity while doing so, all so he could see if she still cared about him. When she made it obvious that she did still care, he still didn't reveal his face, instead choosing to keep tormenting her for his own sick pleasure:
Buttercup: You mock my pain.
Westley: Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
The movie tries so hard to be witty in the midst of depicting Westley as an asshat.
Westley basically had the gall to be angry with Buttercup for having some damn agency and moving on with her life after five years of mourning. Buttercup was treated like property. She was expected to wait around however many years it took for Westley to eventually come wandering back and to hell with her needs, wants, and desires.
Westley's sense of entitlement is disturbing. He doesn't know anything about Prince Humperdinck and hates him just because he's marrying Buttercup. But the audience knows the prince is "the bad guy," so it's easy not to stop and realize how crappy Westley's attitude actually is. He doesn't even stop to consider that maybe Buttercup really fell in love with someone else after moving on from him.
Instead, Buttercup is treated like she cheated on Westley -- even though she thought he was dead! -- and Westley nearly smacks her.
In the book, he actually does.
Even if Buttercup had cheated, there's no excuse for a man slapping a woman. Women and men being equal doesn't mean men have the right to go around slapping bitches willynilly.
Men and women are not equal in physical strength but in intrinsic value as human beings. Which means we as people should respect each other as human beings and not be slapping each other. Especially over false accusations of "cheating."
Unless Buttercup was trying to beat Westley to death Fatal Attraction style, there was no excuse for him to have hit her, and William Goldman knows it, or he would have put it in the movie's script.
It's truly sad to go online and see so many people making excuses for Westley. Sad but not surprising.
A rightfully fed-up Buttercup shoves Westley down the hill, and to be perfectly honest, it's the only cool thing she does in the entire film.
Of course, she immediately ruined it by throwing herself after him as penance and then getting all mushy and happy to see him, as if he didn't just insult her, shove her, and threaten to beat her.
Westley was not simply playing a role. He was really angry. There was no reason whatsoever for him to continue on with the nasty kidnapper act except to punish Buttercup for making decisions in her own damn life.
The following conversation is even more cringey:
Westley: Why didn't you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well . . . you were dead.
Westley: Death can not stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.
Buttercup: I will never doubt again.
. . . Sigh. I get that this is a fairy tale-esque story where people come back from the dead with kisses and yadda, yadda, yadda . . . but scolding a woman like a child because she decided to move on with her life after her lover died is . . . disgusting.
The narrative treating Buttercup like a dumb child that needs the parental guidance of her wiser, more experienced lover is also really disgusting.
The story leaves you with the feeling that Buttercup belongs to Westley and is his property. She is not allowed to choose another man or move on when left destitute or survive a male dominated society through marriage to a rich guy.
I mean, Buttercup's not bright and apparently has no skills. What else was she going to do? Become a seamtress? She had to get married. Woman had to eat. Honestly, I can't believe she lasted five years on her own with a peabrain like that.
All in all? Westley and Buttercup deserve each other.
All that being said, pretty much every other character was amazing.
Inigo's (Mandy Patinkin) climatic scene where he kills his father's murderer always resonated with me, and Andre the Gentle Giant was perfect as Fezzik.
Also, who could forget Billy Crystal as Miracle Max and Carol Kane as Valerie?
Overall, The Princess Bride is a hilarious and entertaining story, which is why so many people can overlook how crappy Westley and Buttercup -- the two main characters -- actually are.
See? Problematic things can still be enjoyable. They serve as both wonderful entertainment and as an opportunity to do better next time.
Thirty years later, I'd say we've done marginally better with female characters and misogynistic themes.
But only marginally.
© 2018 Lee
Lee (author) from U. S. on March 28, 2019:
Never said I was sane.
Rachael Lefler from Illinois on August 29, 2018:
This is an interesting take and I more or less agree that Buttercup is an idiot and Westley is a jerk. All that makes this plot work at all is believing in fantasy love.
But, you say,
"The narrative treating Buttercup like a dumb child that needs the parental guidance of her wiser, more experienced lover is also really gross.", right after you've just ranted about how Buttercup really IS dumb and childish. I find that funny. But yeah, the thing that really carries the movie are the side characters being so much more fun than the boring main couple.