Wreck-It Ralph is one of my fave movies ever, but since it came a year before Frozen, it kind of got forgotten amidst all the hype. When Frozen came out, so many people praised it as being the most feminist/progressive Disney film ever. After awhile, a lot of people emerged saying it was the opposite, and I’m one of them. While I do like the character of Elsa, I don’t like how she was handled, and I don’t like how the rest of t he movie was handled either. And while I won’t harp on people who find some empowerment in the film, I want to implore people to give Wreck-It Ralph the credit it deserves, because…
1) There’s actual gender equality—and a little gender subversion
Despite Wreck-It Ralph being about and named after the male lead, the female leads are just as memorable, well-developed, and dynamic. There are four main protagonists, two male (Wreck-It Ralph and Fix-It Felix Jr.) and two female (Vanellope Von Schweetz and Sgt. Calhoun), plus the male antagonist. Each character is important to the story, and there are some additional female characters (including Moppet Girl and Taffyta Muttonfudge) that help play a pivotal role in the plot as well. The female characters aren’t just there for fanservice or tokenism, they all actively serve a role. Vanellope’s role is just as large or even larger than Ralph’s.
What’s more, each of the four protagonists don’t fit neatly into a gender binary. Felix is a successful handyman but is polite, petite, soft-spoken, innocent, emotional, and not aggressive in any way and even vulnerable. Yet he is never shown as ‘inferior’ or a joke. Calhoun is very tough, militaristic, dominant, and has a lot of traits associated with a man (mainly the tragic backstory) but can still be feminine when she wants to. Ralph looks like a manly man but is actually not. He’s very expressive and emotional, as well as very caring and loving towards Vanellope. And Vanellope herself is a tomboy who doesn’t like femininity but doesn’t actively put it down either, and is very sharp-tongued.
By contrast, the characters in Frozen are kind of stuck in the gender binary. Anna and Elsa are both very girly and often need to be rescued (no, the movie does NOT teach that girls don’t need a man to save them, as Anna depends on men throughout the whole movie and only saves herself at the very end, and Elsa is constantly in danger), and Kristoff is very manly and gruff. His caring attitude is kind of rushed and comes out of nowhere.
Onto a related point…
NUMBER TWO: The female characters are all distinct and expressive
In regards to Frozen’s character designs, there was (and still is) a lot of controversy of how the designs of Anna and Elsa are Rapunzel knockoffs and their facial expressions are very stiff. This has been talked about endlessly by people who are way more versed on this type of topic than me, so I won’t go into too much detail. One thing I will say, though, is that what really bothers me is that BOTH girls look like clones of their MOTHER. Apparently the father’s gene didn’t factor in at all. In addition to having similar facial features, Anna and Elsa are all thin, white, youthful (Elsa looks a touch too young for Idina Menzel’s voice) and conventionally pretty. Whereas in the background, you get to see women of all different shapes, sizes, and colours. This arises all sorts of questions about our main heroines’ designs. Why couldn’t they have made Anna and Elsa biracial? Why couldn’t they have made one of the sisters a little wider around the midsection? Why not make Elsa more gaunt-looking in order to symbolize that she is a woman who is cold, restrained, and depressed? Why not make Anna more muscular (the movie demonstrates that she has amazing physical strength, after all)? The possibilities are endless, and instead they look very, well, safe. The women of Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, took a look at those requirements of what makes a female character appealing and went “fuck that shit”. Calhoun, while still attractive, is clearly a WOMAN. Her features are more mature and better defined. We see her look proud, determined, distraught, horrified, displeased, angry, and happy throughout the film. She’s actually allowed to snarl and look harsh. Anna and Elsa are more limited to happy, tearful, and awkward expressions, at least for the most part. Elsa looks restrained even when her sister is frozen solid. The female Sugar Rush racers (including Vanellope), while they do have a similar ‘chibi’ (large heads on tiny bodies) mould, all have distinct features (they all have different faces, in addition to different skin tones and eye shapes) save for the recolors (which are INTENTIONALLY made to look alike). Nobody is mistaking Vanellope and Taffyta for twins. And whereas Elsa gets to express joy in her “Let It Go” sequence, we see complete, utter, unabashed enthusiasm and ecstasy whenever Vanellope is close to achieving her dreams, and all her other emotions (from sassy to snarky to angry to determined to miserable) all look and feel real. Plus, we have Moppet Girl, who looks like an actual Average Jane (complete with glasses and imperfect teeth) and even the female Nicelanders, in all their roundness, have distinct looks to them that tell them apart. Obviously there are still some problems with the main heroines being, well, white-passing and thin, but there is definitely a vast difference between how expressive and distinguished they’re allowed to be versus how Anna and Elsa have to look.
Now let’s get to the female characters as actual characters…
NUMBER THREE: Vanellope is disabled, and damn proud of it
Elsa and Vanellope are both coded to have a form of disability (Elsa is meant to have anxiety and depression, according to writer and co-director Jennifer Lee, and Vanellope is often read by viewers as having autism and/or a form of physical disability) and face shit for it. You can look at my “Your Fave is Autistic” category for more of my thoughtson these characters, but while neither representation is perfect, I would argue that Vanellope’s disability is done in a more tasteful manner. You see, one thing that really pisses me off about Frozen is how, whenever Elsa gets a chance to truly express herself and be relieved of her mental woes, she’s constantly held back. After the “Let It Go” sequence, the rest of the movie is basically how the entire world brings her down. Elsa is harshly reminded everywhere she goes that she has done something wrong, but nobody tries to help her calm down and deal with the situation properly. Like she has to believe everything is her fault, but there’s no form of relieve or reassurance offered to her. Her boundaries are very often violated, even by her own sister. Elsa is left in a state of utter depression and doesn’t get a chance to redeem herself until the very end of the movie, AFTER Anna sacrifices herself and we’re suddenly shown that “love will thaw”. After that, Elsa’s powers are best put to use…making an ice rink and rebuilding the castle (in other words, she has to express herself in a way that’s socially acceptable). Maybe it’s just me, but I constantly got the message that Elsa’s powers (and by extension her disability) were something to be ashamed of and carefully controlled. This is why I can say that, whereas Elsa’s representation left me feeling empty and wanting more, I felt really and truly empowered (yes, empowered) by Vanellope’s representation. Rather than have her conform to society in order to be accepted, society has to learn how to accept HER for who she is. Ultimately, SHE’S the one who takes control of her glitching—while at first she is lead to believe that she HAS to stop glitching altogether, she soon realizes, on her own, that she can use them for awesome purposes—using them to their full potential in a way that makes her powerful without causing the amount of destruction everyone believed she would cause. In fact, it’s her glitching that helps save the day in the end! Throughout the entire movie, Vanellope knows exactly who she is, what she wants, and who she wants to be—she KNOWS she is capable of greatness despite what people tell her, and is determined to prove that she’s more than just a glitch, and won’t let her oppressors bring her down. Whenever someone gives her grief because of her disability, they are proven very wrong indeed. In the end, Vanellope fully embraces her glitching, becomes fully comfortable with herself, and is beloved by all because of who she is, and there is absolutely NOTHING holding her back. She keeps her glitching in the end because there is nothing wrong with her being a glitch. Ultimately, whereas Vanellope’s glitching is at first seen as something purely destructive and she’s not entirely proud or confident about it, throughout the entire movie Vanellope learns to embrace her powers, and herself, to their full potentials. Elsa’s powers, on the other hand, are constantly reinforced as beautiful but dangerous and she can only use them for the most benign things. While it would have been fine if it was part of her recovery process of starting slow and simple, the problem is that she’s supposed all better at the end. Which leads to…
NUMBER FOUR: The recovery process is natural
At the end of the movie, Ralph didn’t get EXACTLY what he wanted, but it’s not all that bad. He says that he’s going to start taking life “one game at a time”. We see that his position in life is gradually getting better (the fact that he’s finally acknowledged as integral and important to his world is the biggest thing), but we, the audience, can infer that, if things make a turn for the worst, he has places to go and people to turn to in order to cope. While it’s not perfect (as many might argue it’s better for Ralph to just leave the Nicelanders entirely if the situation allowed it), the point is things will improve with time. This is a realistic message. Frozen, on the other hand, implies that love is the be-all, end-all, instant cure for all your troubles. The minute Anna is thawed, Elsa is instantly better and quick to unfreeze the kingdom and we soon see that everything is fine and dandy in the kingdom. There’s no point where Anna and Elsa have a conversation, even a short one, where they say that everything will be okay, and that they’ll start rebuilding their relationship and make things better bit by bit. The movie just sort of ends with everything being okay, no questions asked. Since Elsa is supposed to have anxiety and depression, this is not a really good message; dealing with these two ailments are a long (almost lifelong) battle, and recovery processes need to be taken slowly and with care. I should know. Love will help, but it takes more than that in order to properly heal.
Finally, and most important of all…
NUMBER FIVE: The relationships are genuinely HEALTHY (and genuine)
Oh yes. I will actually fight you over this, but I stand by my beliefs: the relationships in Wreck-It Ralph are much better handled than in Frozen. Kristoff and Anna spend so much time bickering and arguing and Kristoff makes it clear that he thinks Anna is annoying…but then suddenly when they’re chased out of the ice palace, they’re attracted to one another? And he really cares about her? And they fall in love? What? What’s worse is Anna and Elsa’s relationship. For a movie praised for being about sisters, those said sisters barely interact with each other, and when they do, it’s not happy or healthy. Elsa is either constantly shutting Anna out, or Anna is forcing herself upon Elsa. Worse still, when Elsa kicks Anna out of the ice palace, Elsa doesn’t bother looking for Anna even though it’s pretty clear she knew she froze Anna’s heart, and Anna pretty much leaves Elsa behind. But then, at the climax, oh wait! They do love each other more than anything! And love will thaw all! No, I’m sorry, that does not work. You can not have these two sisters estranged throughout the whole movie and then suddenly have them hold hands and be all loving with each other at the end.
But with Wreck-It Ralph, even though Ralph and Vanellope know each other for about a day, their friendship feels very real. They are both misfits who want a better life, and decide to help each other out with it. They routinely save each other’s lives and while they do tease each other, it’s not serious, and you can see how as the movie progresses their bond gets stronger. They ultimately helped each other, and will continue to see each other whenever they can. Felix and Calhoun have a better romantic relationship because Felix genuinely adores Calhoun and she realizes he isn’t so bad, and when she asks him to leave, he respects her wishes. I could’ve had a little more development, but it’s pretty clear that they both respect each other and that Felix is helping Calhoun move on from her dead would-be-husband and they make each other happy, and that in itself is great.
Overall, Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney’s most progressive films and it’s a shame it’s not getting the recognition it deserves. It’s a good film for children of all genders to be empowered with and teach them good messages, and I would certainly recommend it over Frozen any day.