From The Archives: Wreck-It Ralph Is Flawed, But Still Pretty Feminist

Published November 8, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph Movie Poster

Wreck-It Ralph Movie Poster

I’m an animation geek. You probably know that by now. I also have played video games pretty much my entire life. (I read comic books and play DnD too, I’m basically der Ubergeek) So when I heard that Walt Disney Pictures were releasing a Roger Rabbit inspired movie about video games that would feature cameos from real video game characters, AND directed by Rich Moore, a veteran animation director from Futurama (my favourite show), I just about died. Wreck-It Ralph is one of three movies I was anticipating in 2012, the other two being The Hunger Games (meh) and The Hobbit (stay tuned). And, thank goodness, I wasn’t disappointed. Now, mind you, it’s not a perfect film. There were a lot of things I would have liked to have been done differently. But I was pleasantly surprised not only for the love letter to video games, but how Disney is slowly making progress towards some real representation of feminism. Here’s why.

SPOILERS FOLLOW HERE. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE YET, DO NOT READ FURTHER.

  • I tend to hate movie trailers, as I find them either to misrepresent the film, or spoil stuff I’d rather be surprised on. (How many times has a film put its best jokes in the trailer, leaving only the so-so ones unspoiled?) It must suck for filmmakers to watch their films be marketed so deceptively. So what I noticed with the trailers for Wreck-It Ralph is that they made it seem that the film was entirely about the two male protagonists, Ralph and Felix, and the video game cameos. The two female protagonists, Vanellope von Schweetz and Sgt. Calhoun, have maybe a few seconds of dialogue in each trailer, though at least it’s obvious Vanellope is meant to be a major character. The trailers do misrepresent the film in this case, since there are four protagonists and one villain, and the cameos are just that: cameos. Seriously, marketers, would you knock it off with trying to conceal that films sometimes have women in them? I promise you, a film will not instantly fail if the Girl Alarm goes off. It’s ridiculously stupid that The Princess & The Frog was considered a failure just because it didn’t make as much as Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel did, and the blame was placed on Tiana being a woman. It made over $260 million! THAT’S NOT A FAILURE! You know what IS a failure? A MOVIE WITH THE WORD ‘SQUEAKQUEL’ IN THE TITLE. Anyway. Moving on.
  • The script has two writers, Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston. Hooray! A female screenwriter! And you can tell, since the two female protagonists are really well written. Sgt. Calhoun is my particular favourite, because she does not fall into a traditional gender role. Yes, she dresses in the traditional white wedding gown and veil for her wedding scenes, but for the rest of the time, she’s a no-nonsense butt-kicker. There’s a lot of speculation that she’s based on the female version of Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series, and I can definitely see where that’s coming from. According to TV Tropes, Sgt. Calhoun was originally written as a male character, but Rich Moore thought that would be too boring. And he’s right! Commander Shepard is famously a character you can play as either male or female, but most (enlightened) people feel that “FemShep” is the better written and better voiced character. What both characters have in common is that they are tomboyish military geniuses in positions of leadership (They also shoot aliens a lot too, that’s important), and this is important because most military games (and first person shooters) are so very masculinized. A woman being a leader, especially in a traditionally masculine field like the military, is subversive – how far video games and films have come, but how far they still have to go. But kudos to the film for bucking tradition.
Some racers from the Sugar Rush world at the starting line

Some racers from the Sugar Rush world at the starting line

  • Speaking of tomboys, Vanellope van Schweetz contrasts with her origin game, Sugar Rush, in a very interesting way. Now, notice that Sugar Rush is explicitly a game meant for girls – it’s pink, it’s cutesy, it’s got an almost entirely female roster of players. (King Candy being one of the few males, and not matching the other character designs, is your first clue that he doesn’t really belong there) I see the representation of Sugar Rush as an affectionate parody of how games for girls tend to be designed. My favourite console of all time is probably the Nintendo DS, and anyone who owned that system knows how frustrating many of the “shovelware” games were, most of which were cheaply made games meant for girl players. How can you tell they were for girls? Why, because they were about fashion, shopping, weddings, babysitting, cute pets, and cooking! (Gag.) Anyway, getting back to Sugar Rush, what sets this game apart from other traditional “girl games” is that it’s obviously meant to be really good. And I won’t lie, of all the original games written for this movie, Sugar Rush is the one I wanted to play the most. It’s also a little subversive in the gender role department in that it is a racing game. Some girls like cars too, whoda thunk it?
  • To get into Vanellope’s character, notice how very casual she is compared to the others. Her only real indication that she’s from a candy world is that she’s got a bunch of candy stuck in her hair. This is why she initially appears as an outcast – she’s not traditionally feminine like the others, nor is she explicitly candy-themed. But she loves racing just as much as the others, and not only (re)learns how to race, but how to manipulate her glitching to give her a distinct advantage. At the end, when it’s revealed she’s actually Princess Vanellope, the true ruler of Sugar Rush, she’s regenerated in a poofy pink dress and crown. It’s typical that a girly game like Sugar Rush WOULD have a Princess character. Then she does possibly the most subversive thing I’ve ever seen from a Disney film: She rejects the Princess label. She takes the dress off, saying that her tomboyish outfit with the green hoodie is the real her, and that she’d rather be President than Princess. Now what this is saying is that she’d rather be the leader based on her own merits, not on her birthright (or marriage). And that it’s pretty silly for her still to be a Princess when there’s obviously no King or Queen in the game. And think of it. A Disney film has a character who says she DOESN’T want to be a Disney Princess.

Ralph at the support meeting for video game villains

Ralph at the support meeting for video game villains

  • Another thing I liked in the film is that the gamer in the arcade is shown to be a young girl. Hell. Yeah. And not only that, she has a genuine interest in ALL the games in the arcade, not just the girly ones like Sugar Rush. In fact, she doesn’t even get to play it because there are two teenage boys hogging the game and planning to play it all day. Gee, teenage boys not letting a girl play a video game with them, where have I heard that before? Actually, come to think of it, teenage/adult males usurping entertainment explicitly meant for young girls, where have I heard THAT before? *coughcoughBroniescoughcough* But this same girl plays a retro game like Fix-It Felix Jr., and the modern FPS Hero’s Duty, in the same afternoon. This shows that female gamers play games of ALL types, not just the games designers (and their intended male customers) “think” we should be playing. And they make it clear that the female gamer is a regular at the arcade. How I wish there was an arcade near me that I could be a regular at. It was an obvious choice made by the filmmakers to have the gamer be depicted as female, and it’s such a breath of fresh air because almost every other media depicting video games almost always assumes that the player is male. We exist, people! Get over it already! (And while you’re at it, stop calling us Gamer Girls. The sexist moniker is one instance where alliteration is not welcome)
  • The relationship between the male and female protagonists is also fairly interesting. Ralph and Vanellope are the two main leads, but explicitly do NOT have a romance. At any rate, he’s more than twice her age, so that’d be really gross. What they have is a platonic friendship that has a big brother-little sister dynamic. Hey, a platonic friendship between a male and a female, imagine that! Now, the second leads, Felix and Sgt. Calhoun, DO have a romance. But this is another interesting depiction of male/female relationships, because Felix is almost kind of feminine in contrast to the almost masculine Sgt. Calhoun. Once again, we get a rejection of traditional gender roles. What is also important is how their attraction to each other also defies tradition – Felix is attracted to her almost instantly, marveling at her “high definition” graphics. And, of course, Sgt. Calhoun does not meet the standard definition of beauty. (Apparently she has an impossible hourglass figure, but I didn’t notice it – I do not always have my feminist film critic goggles on) At any rate, Felix likes her anyway, AND appreciates her determination, resourcefulness and mastery of her job. She likes him because he’s kind and caring, and does not mind that she’s almost twice his size. Women dating shorter men is STILL a social taboo for some reason, as if a person’s height has anything to do with what kind of personality they have. So hey, well done once again, movie.
Ralph offers some Pac-Man food to homeless video game characters

Ralph offers some Pac-Man food to homeless video game characters

  • Now as I mentioned earlier, the movie does have a few flaws. We don’t get a Bechdel Test pass, but there is some justification plotwise for this, since each pair of protagonists (Ralph and Vanellope, Felix and Sgt. Calhoun) has their own side story that run parallel to each other right up to the end. Of course, passing the Bechdel Test does not determine if a film is good (and vice versa), nor does it immediately indicate whether a film is feminist or not. EDIT: seaofkittens has rightly pointed out that Vanellope and the other racers (mostly Taffyta) DO have conversations during the second act and the finale. So we do get a Bechdel Test pass, hooray!
  • There are also no racial minorities in the main cast at all, we can only count some minor speaking parts – the black General at the end of the Hero’s Duty game, who only appears in one scene, and if we consider the cameo characters from Japanese games to be “minorities.” That’s kind of inexcusable, movie. This is unsurprising given that it’s a kid’s movie, but there’s also no LGBTQ representation in the movie’s characters. However, we do have LGBTQ representation in the cast via the casting of Jane Lynch as Sgt. Calhoun. (Who was obviously always meant to play her since she looks just like her) And, once again, the main character is a white guy. He’s technically not a human, but he’s still white and he’s still a dude. The script is original, but it’s not really funny. The only time I laughed out loud was the bit with the Oreos doing the Winkie chant from The Wizard of Oz. They also spent way too much time in the Sugar Rush game (something like 2/3rds of the movie) – I would have liked to see other game locales.
  • EDIT: A commenter reminded me that there is one scene in the 2nd act that is meant to be funny but is really very offensive. When Sgt. Calhoun and Felix are trapped in the quicksand, Felix persuades Calhoun to repeatedly hit him in order to make the Laffy Taffy vines laugh so hard they can be used to stretch out of the quicksand. Look, Disney, domestic abuse isn’t fucking funny. It doesn’t matter that he asked her to do it, it doesn’t matter that it’s a woman abusing a man (in fact, normalization of woman-on-man domestic abuse is a huge societal problem), and it doesn’t matter that he can instantly heal the effects. Your audience is young children, and they’re learning that a woman repeatedly physically abusing her soon-to-be-husband is not only acceptable, but funny. Don’t tell me that “woman beats the crap out of man” was the only possible solution to getting out of the quicksand.
  • Offensive domestic abuse jokes aside (let’s have a director’s cut excising that scene), it’s a very well made film, and fellow gamers like myself are basically going to geek out the entire time, so I do recommend it, albeit with some caution. Presuming that there will be a sequel, I really hope they include some minority characters in the cast next time, and never ever include a domestic abuse joke again. It’s 2012, we can do better than this.

A bit of commentary: The observation regarding domestic abuse was a controversial one. You’re free to interpret that scene however you want. I still stand by my statement that normalization of and ridiculing woman-on-man violence is something we need to stop depicting in media.

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