Series: Disability in Children’s Animation
Spoiler Warnings: Wreck-It Ralph
Trigger/Content Warnings: PTSD. I will also be talking very briefly about bullying.
Image Description: Wreck-It Ralph theatrical poster
Yesterday, I talked about Finding Nemo. Today, I’m going to talk about the much more recent (but in my opinion, not nearly as good) movie, Wreck-It Ralph.
Wreck-It Ralph came out in 2012 from Walt Disney Animation Studios (NOT Disney Pixar). IMDB gives it an estimated budget of 165 million dollars and a US Gross of about 189 million dollars. They give it about 471 dollars worldwide. Not too shabby as far as profit goes. The movie was also nominated for awards, and even won a few.
And don’t get me wrong, it’s a decent movie. I actually quite like it. The characters are good, and the acting is solid. The world design is nice, too. There are some plot holes and things that don’t quite make sense, but it’s overall, it’s pretty decent.
The basic premise of Wreck-It Ralph is that arcade game characters are alive, kind of like a cross between Toy Story and Tron. It follows the story of Ralph, the bad guy in a Donkey Kong style arcade game, as he tries to get a medal and become a hero (or at the very least, move out of the dump). As far as disability representation, there are two examples in this movie. Neither are the protagonist, but they’re both very important, and a huge part of the movie. If Ralph is the first-tier protagonist–it’s his POV and his story–Vanellope is a second-tier protagonist, and Sergeant Calhoun is a side-kick. In Vanellope’s case, the writers give her a fictional disability: she’s a glitch. In Calhoun’s case, however, we are looking at a disability that is very, very real: PTSD.
Image Description: A picture of Sergeant Calhoun, from the shoulders up. She is a blonde woman with short hair, and she wears futuristic armor. Image from Disney’s website.
Sergeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch, is a battle-hardened soldier. She comes from a first-person shooter, where the player fights giant alien bugs that eat everything. She is also programmed with a tragic backstory: the death of her fiance on their wedding day. (Which, to be honest, is kind of refreshing. That’s the kind of tragic backstory male characters usually get, while female characters usually have something tragic happen to them. Or to their mother, if we’re talking about anime.)
It’s clear that this experience has affected Calhoun a great deal. In fact, we first find out about it when Ralph asks one of the other soldiers why she’s so cold. We don’t get into disability territory, however, until much later on.
Eventually, Calhoun and Felix, the good guy from Ralph’s game, go looking for Ralph. The follow him to Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game. Felix falls hard for Calhoun, in his sweet, earnest way. And shortly after they escape from one of the hazards of candy world, Felix makes his feelings clear. He tells Calhoun that she is one “dynamite gal”.
Her reaction is immediate. The phrase sends her into a wave of flashbacks, from when she met her fiance to when he died. When she comes out of it, she is screaming.
Image Description: Calhoun screaming as she comes out of her flashbacks. Felix is beside her, looking concerned. Between her distress and the fact that she is the one piloting the ship, this is not a surprising reaction.
I’m pretty happy with the portrayal of Calhoun. They show that Calhoun is a character with triggers, but that this doesn’t stop her from being a hero (or even a soldier, since evidently her triggers do not include things like gunfire). It gives a pretty decent example of what a trigger can be like, although this is by no means the only possible response. It brings up the idea of triggering phrases and subjects, and how to deal with them: after this, Felix doesn’t call her a “dynamite gal” again (at least, not while she can hear him).
I haven’t really seen triggers addressed in kids movies before. It’s nice to see an example here. Our culture seems to be becoming more aware of things like this, which has opened up discussions of how to deal with them, like the recent arguments about whether trigger warnings are appropriate in a classroom setting. I think a lot of people who argue that they aren’t don’t understand the pain that being triggered can cause, or how suddenly it can happen. I myself do not typically experience full on flashbacks, but I do get panic attacks. When I am triggered, these often happen so fast that I cannot remove myself from the situation without assistance (and I am unlikely to be able to acquire assistance unless it is arranged beforehand). Given the general ignorance about what triggers do, it’s good to see something that will introduce kids to the concept early on.
Other than that, we don’t see much of Calhoun’s disability. I say that it’s PTSD only because it’s a “typical” PTSD style flashback, but we have no way of knowing if she experiences any other symptoms. And I don’t think it’s really important for us to know, either. Showing more of the symptoms would require a bigger focus on Calhoun, and while I, personally, would be happy to watch an entire movie about her, that isn’t this movie. Saying right out that she has PTSD would be pretty unhelpful, since kids are unlikely to understand what that means. By going this route, they could show instead of telling, and they could tackle a single part of a much larger disability (and a part which is not necessarily limited to that disability).
Vanellope Von Schweetz
Image Description: Vanellope, a little girl wearing a sweatshirt, with candy in her hair. She is grinning.
So, question of the day:
Does it count as disability representation if the disability being represented is fictional? Is it helpful? Unhelpful? Ableist even? What is the merit of fictional disabilities?
Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman, is a little girl in the Sugar Rush game. When we first meet her, she steals Ralph’s medal so that she can use it to get into a race. You see, what Vanellope wants more than anything is to be a racer. As it is, she is ostracized, and not allowed to race. Why?
Because Vanellope is a glitch.
At one point, Vanellope says that she’s “not a glitch, [she] just has pixlexia”. Which may be meant to cement the comparison between her condition and real disabilities. The other kids make fun of her for glitching, mimicking her while they destroy her race car. Glitching causes her to lose control of her body. It’s sort of like a seizure, except instead of her body convulsing, it disappears and blinks into another area of space. Sometimes she moves only a few pixels over, sometimes meters away.
Now, the handling of Vanellope’s “disability” is not awful. It’s not the best, either–I’d call it mediocre. They figure out how to cure her in the end, which I have at best mixed feelings about, but she refuses the cure because her glitch is part of who she is. On the one hand, I kind of like the message there. On the other hand, once she calls it a “superpower” it starts veering a little too close to the disabled artist trope for my tastes–you know, the mentally ill artist who takes medication and loses his creativity, so he stops taking medication (or, usually, receiving any treatment at all)? Also, while she does refuse to get it fixed, the part of it that is a disability has basically already been fixed. She can control her glitching now.
But what about the disability itself?
Well, from the bullying scene it seems like they were going for something like seizures, or another disability that causes you to lose control of your body. So they are at least trying to draw parallels between this and a real disability. And this does allow them to make points about disability that are plot relevant and fit with in the world.
At the same time though, using fictional disabilities instead of real ones raises the question of “why”. Why not use real disabilities? If she had actual convulsions, it could still be made to fit within the world. It could still be caused by a glitch, since she has no physical brain, but it would be a more true-to-life representation.
In some ways, using a fictional disability, particularly in a children’s movie, feels a little like a suggestion that real disabilities aren’t appropriate for this audience. Or that disabled characters can’t be part of a movie without it turning into an after-school special. This movie manages to avoid that implication fairly well because of the presence of Sergeant Calhoun, however.
Fictional disabilities also get into an area of mixing disabilities and metaphor that is potentially very tricky. Using metaphors when talking about disabilities is not necessarily a problem, but using disabilities as metaphors for other things is.
One last problem with fictional disabilities: They’re fictional. Disability is a very real thing that affects a lot of people, and which is often erased in our culture. Personally, I feel that fictional disabilities kind of feed into that erasure.
I don’t think characters like Vanellope are a bad thing, exactly. I did like her, although as I said her ending could have been handled better. And I thought the way they showed her getting bullied was good, although at the end, the other kids don’t seem like they learned anything. They stop bullying her, because she’s a princess and not a glitch. But they don’t learn that they shouldn’t bully people for being glitches in the first place.
What I do think is that it’s important that we don’t accept these characters as the end-all-be-all of representation. They are not enough.
So, overall, I give Wreck-It Ralph 3 stars out of 5 for disability representation. (Note: That’s how I’ll be scoring things from now on, rather than thumbs up/down) It has some good points and some bad points. For the most part, the good points are slightly more good than the bad points are bad.
All pictures from Disney wiki unless stated otherwise.
Thank you to my wonderful mother who volunteered to proofread for me.