Neither Princess Nor Bride: Why Buttercup Is the Hero of Her Own Story

The Princess Bride is a damn near perfect movie, and contains one of the greatest sword fights of all time, some of the best onscreen chemistry of any love story, and a stellar blend of comedy, action, and romance that is hard to find anywhere else. But… let’s talk about Buttercup. The world’s most beautiful woman. But also so much more. Although she is the titular character (even though most of the action centers on stopping the marriage that would make her an actual Princess Bride—more on that in a bit), she’s often overlooked in discussions about the movie; she rarely gets the recognition she deserves for being a well-crafted female character in a male-dominated story.

Consider: here’s a woman who has no training at all when it comes to weapons, fighting, or self-defense. Yes, a giant rat is going to terrify her, at least momentarily. On the other hand, every chance she has to be defiant, stand her ground, and get in a good insult, she takes. She’s not intimidated by Vizzini, or the Dread Pirate Roberts, or even the prince who could have her murdered as soon as marry her.

And even before discovering that Westley is alive (and hey, even if he wasn’t, death cannot stop true love!), Buttercup shows her mettle again and again. I should note at this point that I am going to be referring entirely to the movie version of the character—those who’ve read the original novel will know that there are some differences between Book!Buttercup and the version brought to the screen by Robin Wright. Although I think William Goldman (who also wrote the screenplay) played Buttercup’s innocence/ignorance for laughs in the book far more than the film does, I still believe he created the bones of a gloriously defiant character in Buttercup, providing a solid grounding for the depths and nuance that Wright developed in the role.

So feel free to do a quick rewatch (those of you who don’t have the movie memorized from beginning to end), and follow along with me as we explore Buttercup’s heroism, scene by scene….

To begin with, there’s this farm boy—yup, another dude who has a crush on Buttercup. Yes, she gives him a hard time at first, but we have to assume she’s had guys hanging around gawking at her for years. Can you really blame her for not taking him seriously the first time he makes eyes at her? But Westley, of course, is different: here’s a guy who’s not pushy, never cruel, not trying to persuade her of anything or harass her into making out in the barn. He’s just there for her, supporting her, even when she’s being silly and bossing him around. And it doesn’t take long before she realizes that she truly loves him back. At which point, she doesn’t mess around. She gets right to flirting, oh, la, good sir, hand me that pot! And she’s not backing away. Look at that flirty smile. As soon as she realizes that she loves Westley, she gets right on that, and—

Wait, wait, is this a kissing book? Well not as much as it SHOULD be, kid. Please note that the story starts with Buttercup. Because she is the hero of her own story. Even if, at the moment, she is neither princess nor bride.

Okay, so Westley takes off, is killed almost immediately, and Buttercup has already lost the love of her life. She takes time to grieve for someone she feels the loss of deeply and truly. There’s no lighthearted “Oh, well, I’m still young!” here. (Perhaps in recent years we’ve all developed a bit more empathy for moments like this, when simply breathing, simply existing, is all one can do.) But Buttercup hardly recovers before….

“The law of the land gave Prince Humperdinck the right to choose his bride…”

Let’s pause here for a moment, shall we?

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

It’s been five years since Buttercup got the news that Westley was dead, and during that time she’s caught the eye of the local royalty. She is beautiful, and that’s enough for Humperdinck to decide that she’s perfect for his purposes. And what else has she really got going on? She could refuse him… or can she? He’s a prince, and—while we might laugh at his scheming because Goldman’s dialogue is really excellent—he’s also a murderous sociopath. And remember that, although they don’t feature in the movie, she’s got parents who will be set for life now. If her own life is meaningless (in her own mind and heart), doesn’t this give her a chance to make something meaningful out of it? Maybe she can be a good princess, become a good queen one day, and look out for poor farmgirls like herself. If nothing else, she’s carrying on as best she can, depressed and grief-stricken but moving forward

At least now she has the freedom to go for a daily ride, reclaiming a bit of joy in her life. We get a tiny glimpse of the kind of queen she might wish to be, stopping to help poor lost circus performers—oof, terrible luck, Buttercup! (Of course it’s not luck one way or the other, but from her perspective, she simply stopped for the wrong travelers.) How many times has she stopped to give directions, or hand out some bread, or simply to have a conversation with the people of her kingdom? We don’t get to know because that’s not what the story is about, but you can see that the woman is both kind and helpful to strangers.

For her pains, she finds herself stuck on a boat with these three clowns, and instead of going into shock, she taunts them—Prince Humperdinck will catch up and have their heads. Of course it doesn’t take her long to realize that her life is at stake here, but again, she doesn’t give up in despair. She waits for an opportunity and then swims boldly toward what might or might not be help—it’s away from “these dudes are definitely gonna kill me,” and that is enough to make it worth the risk.

How anyone can watch her jump in the water and swim toward the slimmest hope, and still think of Buttercup as a wimp, I honestly don’t know.

Of course, she’s forced to return to the boat. There are the damned eels! That was not part of her calculation—and she’s still trying to live. Of course, she doesn’t get eaten by the shrieking eels—she doesn’t even really choose to get back on the boat, of course. Fezzik is there to punch the eel out and grab her. Vizzini has to tie her hands because chances are she’ll still risk her life again to get away from them, if she spots the right moment. And Vizzini now knows that she’s feisty; he can no longer assume she’ll let herself be helplessly dragged along. So she is forced into compliance, or at least not outright defiance, with her kidnappers as they climb the Cliffs of Insanity (pursued by the mysterious Man in Black).

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

The chase continues, and once the Man in Black catches up to Buttercup and Vizzini for the third time, having defeated Inigo and Fezzik, Buttercup’s lost any chance of an upper hand against Vizzini: she’s tied up, blindfolded, and there’s a dagger at her throat. How did she get into this predicament? We don’t know, but Vizzini is awfully clever; I’m sure he found a way to persuade her to cooperate for her own safety. Or perhaps the dagger and having her hands tied were enough—it would be for me! But she’s not exactly zoning out, either, as we discover; she listens carefully to the entire Battle of Wits, drawing her own conclusions and always, always waiting for a chance to get away or find a way to stall and figure out her next step…

And suddenly Vizzini is dead, but she finds herself in a new predicament, with a stranger who isn’t exactly gentle, although he’s not actively threatening her. Still, she’s got a suspicion that she knows who he is, and it doesn’t exactly make her feel comfortable or relax her suspicions…

We get so much out of this conversation between Buttercup and—let’s continue to call him the Man in Black for the moment. At this point, remember, she thinks that she’s dealing with the Dread Pirate Roberts. Who else could defeat a master swordsman, beat a giant in combat, and outwit Vizzini? Only someone whose status is full-on LEGENDARY.

…Aaaand who just happens to be the man who killed her true love. Of course, she’s not certain that this guy is the same person; perhaps he’s a random opportunist who swooped in for an easy payday!  She tries offering him just that… but he only laughs when she suggests releasing her for ransom. So she threatens him with the first thing that comes to mind: Humperdinck’s formidable hunting skills.

The Man in Black taunts her back immediately: “You think your dearest love will save you?”

“I never said he was my dearest love!” Oh, she’s been holding that pain so close, for FIVE YEARS, and this guy has the nerve to throw it in her face?  Now she’s getting mad, and her suspicions are growing.

But Westley—yes, yes, we all know it’s Westley, is also dealing with hurt and betrayal—he’s come back for Buttercup to find that she’s engaged to be married to the richest man in the land. And then she hits a nerve and… he doesn’t… actually… hit her.

But, ouch, this moment hurts to watch.

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

I like to think that there’s nothing Buttercup could say that would make Westley actually physically hurt her, but at the moment he’s committed to being the person she hates most in the world. I’m certainly not the first to call this moment out for being uncomfortable and problematic. You can argue that Westley is simply playing a role, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s legitimately angry at her perceived infidelity and/or indifference—even if he’d never hit her, he’s using his Man in Black persona both to intimidate her and to lash out. He’s terrified that if he does reveal himself, she’ll simply shrug and say, “Oh, that’s nice that you aren’t dead, can you take me back to my prince and my palace now?” He thinks she simply moved on, while he carried a torch for her all those years. But that doesn’t excuse the threat.

Also, “there are penalties when a woman lies”? If anybody’s lying, here, it’s the guy in the mask pretending to be a pirate…

There is a tendency to forget—because The Princess Bride is a comedy—that abuse comes in many forms, and the world in which this movie is set is not one in which women are considered equal to men. Humperdinck doesn’t hit Buttercup; he doesn’t scream at her; he doesn’t even neg her. But you cannot forget the balance of power: Buttercup doesn’t. She knows she’s living with a powerful man who has total control over her life. And as we know, his supposed affection for her doesn’t remove the threat of violence, since he’s planning to murder her in a matter of days—her entire existence at this point in the movie has been precarious at best, subject to the whim of whichever man happens to be claiming possession of her at a given moment. It’s… rather bleak.

Buttercup is the only woman with a speaking role that lasts for more than a few moments in the entire film, and practically the only one we see at all (not that Carol Kane as Valerie isn’t great in her brief scene). She’s certainly the only young, unmarried woman, and look at how she’s treated—she’s kidnapped, threatened repeatedly, held at knifepoint, and now confronted with a raised hand… and this is all in the larger context of Humperdinck’s murder plot. She is constantly told that she is disposable and treated as such, and these threats are generally aimed at keeping her compliant as men callously decide her fate. She understands her place in the world, but she doesn’t accept it—she repeatedly bides her time until she can make her move (whether it be jumping out of the boat, shoving the Man in Black down a hill, or finally getting free of Humperdinck). She’s used to threats, used to being told she’s powerless, but she never stops resisting that narrative. Like so many other women, she’s a survivor.

So when Westley-as-The Man in Black stops to let her catch her breath, she’s more than ready to have another go at him. She confronts him with the suspicion that he’s the very man who destroyed her life, and we get a glimpse of Westley’s pain and insecurity—maybe she doesn’t love Humperdinck, but perhaps her so-called “true love” was another prince, or some other rich guy, from the intervening years. His taunt reflects his own fears, but Buttercup brushes it aside: her lost love has risen to the surface of her thoughts, her rage breaks and she tells the pirate exactly what she thinks of him.

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

He mocks her pain, and she calls him on it—and we get to see what Westley has learned over the last five years: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Buttercup can’t argue with that; it surely matches her own experience.

Westley gets a few more digs in as he tells Buttercup of the “last days” of her beloved and do you see the look on his face when he brings up the memory of “a girl of surpassing beauty”?! The heartbreak in his expression is right there on the surface…and then he breaks off: “Now tell me truly. When you found out he was gone, did you get engaged to your prince that same hour, or did you wait a whole week out of respect for the dead?”

Because of course, she’s left him—and no matter that he left first, because he didn’t leave HER, he left to gain the means to support their life together. Then when he comes home to her, he finds she’s given up on him.

Only it turns out Buttercup didn’t give up on him. When she found out that Westley was dead, she was as good as dead, too. “I died that day!” she declares—and then she straight up tries to murder the man who killed her true love.

Yessss girl, get him!

Okay, as we all know, this turns out to be a SLIGHT miscalculation, but on the other hand, felix culpa, as Humperdinck loses track of them again. Maybe flinging herself over the cliff the instant she realizes that Westley is the Man in Black isn’t the best move, but it turns out fiiiiine. (It’s still a comedy, dammit.)

And can you tell me this reunion isn’t the genuinely sweetest moment in all of cinema:

“Can you move at all?”

“Move? You’re alive… If you want, I can fly.”

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

Buttercup finally gets to appreciate the full scope of Westley’s enduring faithfulness: he’s outwitted pirates and Vizzini, fairly beaten both Inigo and Fezzik, evaded Humperdinck, all to get back to her side. It’s a moment that changes Buttercup. She says she will never doubt again, and as we will see, she truly means it. Sealed with a kiss (again, there should be More Kissing!), and then we move on to the fire swamp.

Buttercup is understandably daunted—she’s heard about the deadly terrors lurking in this place her entire life: Nobody survives the fire swamp. But where Westley leads, she will follow; it’s the first test of her newfound faith. Better to die at Westley’s side than return to Humperdinck. Even so, you can see her entire face calling him out on his BS when he declares the place quite lovely. But it doesn’t go too badly, really, until one of the R.O.U.S.s suddenly appears…

This is sometimes held up as one of her so-called “helpless damsel” moments. We’ve seen that Buttercup is an accomplished horsewoman, a strong swimmer, and a decent distance runner, but no matter how strong or athletic someone happens to be, I defy anyone not to be terrified of a giant rat that jumps out and starts trying to bite you. And to give credit where it’s due, she still has the wherewithal to grab a stick in an attempt to beat the thing while it’s trying to chew her foot off. Fortunately, Westley now has loads of training and practice at fighting, and her momentary stalling is enough to give him a chance to kill the thing.

(For what it’s worth, this is one of the few special effects that I wish could be redone out of an otherwise almost completely perfect movie. I think modern movie magic could make the R.O.U.S.s properly terrifying; we lose something in translation where the rubber rat suit is involved. But allow your imagination to stretch a little and you can certainly understand what Westley and Buttercup were going through in that moment!)

“Now,” Westley says, “was that so terrible?”

And the look she gives him: “Yes, you dingdong! It was awful! But I’d still rather have an awful time with you than a good time with anybody else.”

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

Unfortunately, Humperdinck used the time that they spent vacationing in the fire swamp to race around and meet them on the other side…that canny bastard. He’s got plans for Buttercup, and they don’t include her being kidnapped and whisked away by a pirate. While Westley is busy bantering and putting on a brave face, probably hoping to buy some time, Buttercup watches the guards menacingly surround them.

You can make the argument here that Buttercup is still misreading Humperdinck’s true character, but also keep in mind that for her, Westley died, far away from her, and all she could do for five long years was miss him desperately and mourn his loss. Now they have a second chance and she’s about to watch him die again, right in front of her, and she can stop it. So she’s willing to make the huge personal and emotional sacrifice of giving him up, going back to her empty life in the palace, so that he will at least be alive, somewhere in the world.

“I thought you were dead once, and it almost destroyed me. I could not bear it if you died again, not when I could save you.” Tell me that’s not valiant. TELL ME, I DARE YOU.

Of course she immediately has regrets, and nightmares. Such nightmares. Buttercup feels wretched after leaving Westley, even if it was for the best possible reason. Maybe they could have escaped. Maybe he could have somehow defeated Humperdinck and all his men. Either way, she’s back in an empty, loveless existence, and now she knows that Westley is out there. How can she possible settle for anything else?

As soon as she realizes that truth, she lays it out for Humperdinck: she’d rather die than marry anyone but Westley.

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

Humperdinck immediately twists this around to try to make her doubt her own decisions with lies and some pretty impressive gaslighting. He buys a little time for his own plans, although if you watch her face when he asks for her agreement, you can see a strong flicker of skepticism play across her features.

She’s not willing to give Westley up again, but she’s willing to wait a few days before undertaking any drastic action. After all, she KNOWS that Westley will come for her. Humperdinck underestimates her; he thinks he can play her, stringing her along right until the moment he murders her—he doesn’t know her, and sees her only as a pawn: a simple, foolish girl.

She’s soon tested, directly confronted with Humperdinck’s perfidy when she catches him in an outright lie. But Buttercup is fearless, not because she’s in no physical danger—in fact, Humperdinck could easily overpower her, physically—but because she knows that she and Westley are made safe by their absolute faith in each other. She knows that Westley will come save her from marriage, and so she’s able to defy Humperdinck and call him out as the coward that he is. This leads almost directly to Westley’s death—but that’s only because she’s absolutely right about Humperdinck and, for that matter, about Westley.

A miracle and a lot of luck later, we tune back in on Buttercup, stuck biding her time with Humperdinck before the “wedding,” while the prince carries on with his sociopathic assumptions that everything will go according to his plan. Buttercup does not play along or pander to him, assuring him that she will not be married tonight, whatever finery they put on and whatever motions they go through. Her faith shines, and Humperdinck can’t even see it, he’s so smugly certain of his inevitable victory.

Even through the chaos and confusion outside the wedding hall, she is calmly certain of Westley’s devotion.

Now, would Buttercup have said “I do,” if she’d actually been asked the question? I don’t think so. But she finds herself Man-and-Wifed before she can object. And we see her more honestly flabbergasted in that moment than at any other time: He didn’t come for her, and now she’s, ugh, married to Humperdinck?!

And she knows that the ONLY reason Westley wouldn’t come back for her is he is truly dead. Therefore, she will go to him…

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

You can read this next scene with the dagger a couple of different ways; in fact, my dad and I have argued over it (yes, we have whole Princess Bride-themed arguments in my family). He says that Buttercup would have changed her mind and used the dagger to take out Humperdinck before he could strangle her. I’m not opposed to that theory, but I think there’s something else going on here.

This is, after all, a fantasy, and although there aren’t a lot of dragons or magic spells, there are miracles. I propose that Buttercup is absolutely certain of being reunited with Westley in death. She’s not running away from anything, she’s running back to Westley, back to true love. He’s already shown her they’ll be reunited always, no matter what. In this moment after the wedding when she thinks she’s alone, there’s no fear on her face, only resolve. If Westley can’t come to her, she will go to him.

Luckily for life and love, Westley finds his way back to her side and speaks up before she can take that step. And he has not a moment of hesitation when she tries to beg his forgiveness—he knows that she would not marry anyone else, regardless of circumstances, regardless of how long it took him to come back to her. Even as she fears that she’s betrayed him, he is utterly certain that she hasn’t. He, too, has learned to have faith in her, and learned the depths of her devotion to him.

Together they are fearless, as we see when Westley verbally eviscerates Humperdinck. Buttercup jumps right in to tie up the prince (which I think might be technically treason?). But she is, as I’ve said, utterly fearless now that she is reunited with her true love. Watching her help Westley to the window is almost a more perfect example of their fulfillment than even their absolutely iconic, perfect kiss at the end of the movie: they support each other, emotionally and physically; they are each other’s happy ending.

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

Even as a near perfect movie, The Princess Bride still has its flaws, and Buttercup might not be a PERFECT heroine, but who’s demanding perfection? And what are the standards? There seems to be this weird arbitrary rule floating around, this conventional wisdom that holds that a woman isn’t a strong character unless she’s able to wield a sword and be ready and willing to kick butt. It makes me tired. Buttercup is a heartbroken woman in a situation and culture where she holds very little power and agency, and instead of meekly obeying the men pushing her around, she cuts them (figuratively) to the quick with her words and her courage. She doesn’t have the physical strength or training to challenge her persecutors physically, but she does stand up to them—and when a choice has to be made, she makes the call, bravely putting herself back into the terrible predicament she’d only just escaped in order to save the life of her true love.

Buttercup is all the more interesting to me for not being perfect in every way—she’s written as a vulnerable, isolated woman who is rarely in control of the events around her, and she still manages to strive for freedom, speak truth to power, and display defiance wherever she can.

The Princess Bride could be seen as a story that’s really about all the men and action around the title character, rather than Buttercup herself. After all, “Princess” and “Bride” are both titles and identities that are being forced upon her—it’s how Humperdinck and other outsiders might see her role, but it doesn’t describe who she is. When you really pay attention, it’s clear that the movie recognizes exactly who Buttercup is: She constantly scrounges whatever agency is available in a world that is all about men and what they want (and where she loves the one man who truly cares about her wishes, of course). She makes mistakes, but she’s certainly no helpless damsel who flops around helplessly when she’s able to actively participate in her rescue. She sometimes acts in ignorance but never in cowardice. Buttercup is the true hero of her story, changing more than any other character as she is challenged and tested and learns to have faith in herself, in Westley, and in the bond of love between them. In the end, as neither a princess nor a bride, she gets the fulfillment of living on her own terms, by her own choices. As she wishes.

Rachel Ayers lives in Alaska, where she writes cabaret shows, daydreams, and looks at mountains a lot. She has a degree in Library and Information Science which comes in handy at odd hours, and she shares speculative poetry and flash fiction (and cat pictures) at patreon.com/richlayers.

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