‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the Minority Feisty

There is a lot to love and admire about “Wreck-It Ralph.” In many ways, both conspicuously and more subversively, the movie challenges gender stereotypes. That said, the gender matrix– a sexist framework that dominates animated films made for children– remains intact. Watching “Wreck-It Ralph,” for me, is like reading the Greek Myths; there are strong, complex females to admire but they are only permitted to demonstrate their power within a firmly established patriarchy.

Vanellope von Schweetz is such a cool Minority Feisty. She is smart, funny, daring, talented, compassionate, and vulnerable. She kicks ass but also has a huge heart. Vanellope is voiced by one of my favorite comedians, Sarah Silverman, and let’s just say, those two have a lot in common. Icing on the cake: Vanellope saves Ralph’s life with her speed and smarts. The cross-gender friendship between Vanellope and Ralph is the heart of the movie.

Vanellope is not the only Minority Feisty to love in “Ralph.” Sargeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch, also plays a complex and cool role. She is a fierce military woman but also passionate with a strong moral fiber.

A third Minority Feisty is Moppet Girl who hangs out at the arcade. Though her gender is a minority in the arcade crowd (I know, I know, that’s how it is is the “real world”) she is there and delivers the key line in the plot. Moppet Girl tells the arcade owner that the Fix-It Felix game is broken. She is also the character who provides the plot bookend, giving a fist bump to Vanellope at the end of the movie when she returns to her rightful position as ruler. It is a rare scene in animation to see two females interacting with each other, expressing power and victory. To put that scene in perspective, the awesome Minority Feisty of “Puss in Boots,”  Kitty Softpaws, never meets any of the other 4 females in the movie.

More coolness: One of the crowd scenes– in Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush– is female dominated. The trio of girls who actually get to speak in that crowd are a stereotype, the trifecta, of mean girls: one bitchy leader flanked by a pair of followers (as seen in “Mean Girls,” “Heathers” “Never Been Kissed,” and many more “chick flicks”.)

But still, females dominating a crowd scene– a crowd scene of race car drivers, no less– is nothing to sneeze at. Those cars may be made out of cookies and candy, the drivers may have names like Taffyta, reminiscent of “My Little Pony” but, still, progress noted.

There are still more depictions of female power in “Ralph.” A few weeks ago, I posted about “riding bitch:” how whether a female in kidworld is on a magic carpet (“Aladdin”) a dragon (“How to Train Your Dragon”) or a hippogriff (Harry Potter), she’s is almost always found behind the male. The message is: the boy leads, the girl is along for the ride. Not in this movie. In “Wreck-It Ralph” Sargeant Calhoun piloted some kind of motorized, flying surfboard and a space ship while Fix-it Felix rode shotgun. Not only was Felix in the passenger seat, but he gazed, admiringly at Calhoun as he watched her do her stuff. Calhoun was shown as attractive and powerful simultaneously. That, my friend, is almost never depicted. Vanellope, herself, becomes a race car driver. She is also shown in the driver’s seat with Ralph behind her. Ralph does teach her how to drive (when he doesn’t know how either) but her skills surpass his and he is shown admiring her for her talent. (I cannot find images on the web of Calhoun piloting with Fix-It Felix by her side or Vanellope driving with Ralph in the back. If you do, please send me the link.)

But here’s the gender matrix. Even breaking all these sexist barriers, Ralph is clearly the protagonist. The movie is named for him. He’s the hero. Fix-It Felix is the “good guy” to Ralph’s “bad guy.” The real bad guy, the villain of the movie, Turbo, is also male. Turbo masquerades as King Candy but when Vanellope is restored to her rightful role as ruler, she is “princess,” not “queen.” In an often used cliche in children’s movies trying to straddle the princess-empowerment image, Vanellope tears off her puffy, pink dress. Later, in  the movie, when she has to wear the dress to attend a wedding, she is uncomfortable and scratches her neck. (I actually appreciated that detail much more than the overused “rip off your princess-dress/ corset” cliche. Another awesome factor: the toys from the movie. As far as I can see, the Vanellope figure is shown in her regular clothes or driving her car, not wearing the princess outfit she hates in the movie, which is, unfortunately, how Disney sells Mulan.)

The Bad Guy Anon meetings were hilarious and creative. I was cracking up watching them but these scenes fortify the sexist matrix.

The whole thesis of the movie is about being a bad “guy.” There was only one female in the bad “guy” group and she didn’t get a single line. It is mostly that cast of characters that made the poster that is all over San Francisco.

The bad female is not on this poster, nor is Vanellope, Calhoun, and Moppet Girl. When I posted earlier about the sexist poster, “Wreck-It Ralph” fans responded with hundreds of angry comments on Reel Girl and all over the web. Their first complaint was that the movie features strong female characters. It does. But the male is still the lead. That is what this poster clearly shows. That is why the poster was created to look this way and why the film is titled for Ralph.

Also, the poster is its own media. Even if you don’t see the movie, your kids see the poster on buses and looming over them on the sides of buildings. And again, if 50% of posters around town featured females, there would be no problem with “Wreck-It Ralph.” But, “Wreck it Ralph” fits a pattern, echoed and repeated, where males star and females are sidelined or missing.

Commenters on that blog post also told me the movie is called “Sugar Rush” in Japan. I think that’s pretty cool, but it’s still not called “The Racer, Vanellope” and it’s the U.S. version that sets the cultural standards here. Also, once again, Ralph narrates, the movie is Ralph’s story. Vanellope is his friend.

Why is the gender of the protagonist so crucial? We are all the heroes in our own lives. Again and again, with these films, girls see that there is a limit, a ceiling, to their potential, and it is marked with a male. No matter how important they are or how big a role they get to play, there is a guy who gets more.

Reel Girl rates “Wreck-It Ralph ***HH*** Take your kids to see this movie!

Update: A commenter tells me one of the 3 mean girls is, in fact, a boy. The one on the left. Beggars can’t be choosers, and I claimed claimed RF in spite of evil ways, but she is a he.

13 thoughts on “‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the Minority Feisty

  1. Ugh, why did I decide to read the comments? Never a good idea. Thanks for your thoughtful review, I watched WIR with my son last night and similarly felt there was a lot of progress unit but ultimately it’s yet another movie with a male perspective. Thanks for your reviews and commentary. Keep it up. Haters gonna hate.

  2. What on Earth is this nonsense?

    The movie is about a guy therefore it’s still sexist what?

    WHAT?

    You are clutching at straws, lady.

    The poster is not sexist. The poster is trying to sell the movie to its target audience – who when they see the movie will be utterly bombarded by how utterly not-sexist the movie is.

    And to be perfectly fair? It’s entirely authentic to write male dominated cultures as being male dominated. This movie shouldn’t be held next to all other Disney movies just so you can make some loosely concluded point about sexism in movies. Fuck you very much.

    • Hi Lilac Pilgrim,

      I don’t understand this sentence: “It’s entirely authentic to write male dominated cultures as being male dominated.” What do you mean “authentic?” Video games are a fantasy culture, it’s a made up, male dominated fantasy world.

      Margot

      • Video games are actually a male dominated culture. If you go on, say, Call of Duty, all you hear screaming at you through the microphone is either twelve year old little boys or grown men perpetuating rape culture.
        Everywhere you go, online, there will be at least more men than women. Almost every game I have come across in my entire gaming “career” of sorts, they have been aimed at either young children or males who enjoy shooting things. Video games are dominated with strong, successful men and scantily clad women to please the male fanbase across the globe. Though, companies have made big and drastic pushes to make it more friendly towards women. It has sparked a backlash.
        Thus, the contents of W-IR. It is mostly male dominated due to the high male character rates of the 1980′s to the present. Plus, the Nicelanders had a good ratio of men to women – I don’t see you praising that.

        • Hi JD,

          So your point is sexist games create and perpetuate sexism? Watch Feminist Frequency’s video. There are plenty of women who want in to the games and there would be many more if they weren’t so sexist and degrading.

          Margot

      • I’m not sure what’s so hard to understand? The video game industry IS, whether you like it/want to accept it or not, highly male dominated. Therefore the movie represents what happens in the real world. However, as you noticed but didn’t expand on or congratulate Disney on, they also represent the movie’s arcade, our real world, the way consumers react to the industry. Though the industry is geared towards selling to demographics, people outwith those demographics were playing and interested in certain games. Two males were playing Sugar Rush. Moppet Girl played Hero’s Duty. Therefore the movie represented the fact that, while in the real world the vg industry is heavily male-oriented and still insist on making games they can sell to EITHER girls OR boys, the consumers of games will often differ from the expected demographic.

        I’m sorry if the above confused you somehow. But you are a woman who claims to know about video games, but you don’t seem to know how either the industry works or how movies work.

        Movies are not about pushing YOUR pet issue. Disney are storytellers. And they told a story based around the ACTUAL, VERY REAL videogame industry. I don;t know how to put that in simpler terms.

        • Hi Lilac Pilgrim,

          Is Wreck-It Ralph a real guy who goes around and wrecks things? Or is he made-up? And if he is made-up, why not make up a fantasy world where women and men are treated equally? I don’t know how to put that in simpler terms.

          Margot

          • Why did you deliberately ignore the point I made? The movie is based upon the very real arcade gaming industry. The filmmakers studied arcade games very hard to make this movie. And guess what? A good majority of the games featured in Litwak’s arcade ACTUALLY EXIST. And a majority of those games have bad guys who are male. And Fix-It Felix Jr. is based heavily on? Donkey Kong. Whose protagonists and antagonists? Were male. They were trying to represent gaming for what it was, not what you want it to be. It’s based in an arcade that is in our real world, with real games containing most of the characters you see onscreen. They wanted to sell a gaming movie, so they catered it to gamers, who would recognise and appreciate the research they put into it.

            This movie simply represents the gaming industry for what it actually is. If you want to change the gaming industry? Go to them and complain there. Actually change stuff, get involved, encourage women not to be deterred instead of griping about how sexist everything is. This movie pretty much told you the truth about gaming in the real world and you just don’t want to hear it.

            To me, the movie said that the world of gaming IS male dominated. But women in the game consistently prove they’re just as powerful if not more powerful than, their male counterparts. If that strikes you as being a bad message which means we’re moving backwards then I have no idea what to say to someone so stubborn.

  3. I have to ask for a movie based on retro video games (and their villians) how many female characters were available other than maybe the surprise hero Samus from Metroid – but certainly not any well known villians. Your positive statements about Wreck It Ralph are simply overshadowed within the context of its shortcomings. I have to ask, if you’d rather a film sacrifice authenticity (and yes, I know we’re talking about video games), and lose the wide appeal that will get its positive messages seen by the most viewers, in order to fully meet your standards and risk a producers unwilliness to break convention and push gender stereotype boundaries for future films. With all the criticisms your review holds, your endorsement of the film feels unnatural. Wreck it Ralph is a great step forward and while constructive criticism is important, balance in the message is even more so.

    • Hi Jason,

      I blog a a lot about the issue you bring up of “authenticity.” The issue is, be it the Bible, the Greek Myths, or Marvel comics, throughout history, most narratives are written by men and therefore star men. Every time I blog about girls gone missing, commenters write “You can’t change Tintin, the Lord of the Rings” on and on and on. Are we just going to keep recycling narratives where girls go missing forever? Not surprisingly, even when Hollywood takes a minor character and makes a new movie, it’s a male: after 3 Shreks, Fiona doesn’t get her own movie, but Puss In Boots does. Now Disney is coming out with a movie on the life of the Wizard, Oz, instead of the fascinating Ozma, who had her own book in the L. Frank Baum series. When I complained about no female pirates in “Pirates” commenters said they were just trying to be “authentic.” Animated films show who rats who can cook and lions who befriend warthogs, but all of a sudden, when it comes to gender equality, everyone gets concerned with “authenticity.” If you ask me, that’s sexist.

      MM