If you grew up a forward-thinking woman, it might be hard to stomach the idea that Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride was actually secretly feminist. Though The Princess Bride is a savvy spoof of fairy tales — delighting those who loved "kissing books" as kids and also those who hated them, the movie's leading lady is still ostensibly a damsel who needs saving. She's also the only main female character among a male dominated ensemble. On the surface, the movie isn't exactly pushing the boundaries of what female characters can achieve. But, dig a little deeper, and actually The Princess Bride is feminist on a rudimentary level.
It's worth noting that the 1973 novel of The Princess Bride upon which the movie was based was written by William Goldman for his daughters. In an oral history of The Princess Bride by Entertainment Weekly, Goldman said:
I had two little daughters, I think they were 7 and 4 at the time, and I said, 'I’ll write you a story. What do you want it to be about?' One of them said 'a princess' and the other one said 'a bride.' I said, That’ll be the title.
As such, the story is just as loving, sweet, and simple as it's point of inspiration is, and clearly The Princess Bride was written with the enjoyment of two specific young girls in mind. But it also teaches some extremely serious and important lessons among all the fun and frivolity of the story, too. The movie unravels the tropes of fairy tales and celebrates their unbridled optimism, while also pointing out that in the real world, life sadly doesn't share the same beats as a fairy tale does. As Westley tells Buttercup before she discovers his true identity, "life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something."
This in itself is a subversive message for a fairy tale to give to it's audience, but it's also a crucial one. And it fits the manner with which Princess Buttercup, and her complicated love story with Westley, plays out within the movie. For starters, Buttercup and her dearest farm boy, don't enjoy the sort of elusive love at first sight romance of many fairy tale narratives.
Instead, she gradually falls in love with Westley over time, as people do in real life. And though he evidently has feelings for her which she doesn't immediately reciprocate, he never forces the issue or makes her feel uncomfortable. Instead, he treats her with respect and grants her the space she so dearly thrives within. His only communication with her is the simple utterance of "as you wish," in response to her daily demands.
Before we're even introduced to the idea of a great love happening between the two, however, we're also shown Buttercup enjoying her life on her own terms. She doesn't have anyone to obey while living on the farm, and as such she's free to be herself, to ride horses, to gleefully order Westley around, and to basically do whatever the hell she wants. Love doesn't even appear to be on Buttercup's trajectory when we first meet her. She isn't presented to us as a character who requires the love of a man in order to be content, because she already is content.
All of which is hugely significant for the way in which the movie immediately acknowledges Buttercup's value — not just as a woman, but as a person. In the same way that "as you wish" becomes an agreeable short-hand for "I love you," so too does granting Buttercup her freedom to enjoy her own space and the autonomy to make her own decisions also become an act of love. In The Princess Bride, a woman's autonomy and independence is presented as having immense value. And, like true love and Buttercup herself, the movie frames them as ideas worth worth fighting for, and saving.
By the time we meet the wretched Prince Humperdink we see the complete opposite enactment of this idea. Believing Westley to be dead, Buttercup herself wishes for death, and Humperdink presents himself as a viable "alternative to suicide," by making her his bride. He controls every aspect of her life in the process and also, as we find out, wants to take control of her death too. Humperdink doesn't value Buttercup as a person, but values the political gain that her murder could grant him in legitimizing his desire for war.
He truly is a "miserable, vomitous mass," as Westley later calls him, and his character personifies an outdated patriarchy that seeks only to restrain women, and to use them for male gratification. The contrast between Buttercup's two suitors is obvious, of course, but they also represent two vastly differing beliefs regarding what a woman's role in the world is.
Humperdink treats women as objects to be used for personal propriety, and whose lives should be strictly governed to reflect that. Westley, on the other hand, represents the progressive idea that women deserve freedom of choice and the opportunity to dictate their own lives and identity however they damn well please.
When Buttercup is imprisoned at various times throughout the movie, she also embodies this idea. She's powerless, sure, but she isn't passive about it. Instead, she's intrepid, cunning, outspoken, and daring. She exhibits resistance even when she knows that overall, her efforts may be futile — because there's power in expressing your disdain over what is happening to you, even if you can't do much to stop it.
The feminist message is subtle in The Princess Bride, but it's nonetheless still there. Buttercup is the damsel that needs saving, but the fight is also for maintaining her freedom and to help her realize her strength in being able to survive the pain of life (just as true love can survive death.)
Buttercup may not have been a groundbreaking feminist character in many respects, but she represented some of the most basic feminist principles that any young girls, like Goldman's daughters for whom the story was originally written, could learn from a fairy tale. That women of all ages should be allowed to call the shots on their own lives, and live exactly as they wish. And that's surely not too inconceivable a concept for even the Humperdink's of the world to get behind.