#Oscars2013 – Why ‘Wreck it Ralph’ is Even More Brave Than ‘Brave’

Disney’s “Brave” has been touted as a the boldest stereotype-busting kids’ movie in cinematic history, but Joanna Schroeder thinks there is another Oscar-nominated animated feature that has been overlooked for its brave portrayal of gender.

When the fantastic Disney Pixar animated feature Brave was released last year, it was touted as the bold anti-princess film parents and feminists had been waiting for. Red-haired and armed with a bow and arrow, Merida is a princess who rebels against her parents’ demand that she must marry the man of their choice. Merida would rather be in the woods, hunting and exploring and riding horses. She’s definitely a tough girl, and more of a role model than most of the Disney princesses before her, who have done little more than perpetuate the myth that the only thing a woman needs in her life to be happy is for a man to want to marry her.

The Very Awesome Merida

It was definitely brave of Disney and Pixar to create a strong narrative about a girl that isn’t about romance, but rather about finding the balance between rebellion and embracing family traditions. And it was a necessary change, but it was sort of expected.

Disney’s animated feature Wreck-It Ralph, however, was the unsung hero of gender in animated films last year. The movie features Ralph, a hulking behemoth “bad guy” from an 80s-era video game, who is really bummed about the way the world has pigeon-holed him into his role as the one who wrecks everything, just so the diminutive hero Felix can come along and fix it. Just once, Ralph wants to be the hero.

When Ralph jumps games in an attempt to be a hero in a first person shooter game, he hopes he can change his destiny. Instead, he unleashes a viral cybug into an overly-sweet race car game called Sugar Rush. Upon following the bug into the game, Ralph discovers his destiny in a spunky little outcast, a “glitch” named Vanellope Von Schweetz, whom he has to help sneak into a race, so she can finally rejoin the game.

Vanellope Von Schweetz – My Favorite Disney Princess

Vanellope is sassy, smart and sees in Ralph something no one else does—his earnest, heroic nature. (She’s also, without a doubt, the best Sarah Silverman has ever been on screen.) The two of them, together, become the type of side-by-side heroes we’ve never before seen in an animated feature. Along with Felix and a female military hero badass named Calhoun, two males and two females join together to save the most popular game in the arcade. Calhoun and Ralph save the world with their muscle, Felix with his natural skill to fix stuff, and Vanellope—one of the best heroes in the history of children’s movies—uses the glitch that made her an outcast to save Ralph and the game. When Vanellope embraces her glitch and becomes the hero, she not only inspires little girls to live fearlessly and compete at their highest level, she also shows all kids that the thing that makes them different is often what makes them valuable.

Both films are nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Animated Feature category tonight. And while Brave challenged the traditional princess narrative and inspired girls to forget the marriage fantasy in favor of building a happy life for herself, Wreck-It Ralph took gender equality a step further, into a post-feminist gender utopia where a girl can be a badass military hero or an adorable spunky princess, and a guy can be both a brawny hulk and deeply sensitive at the same time.

Kids need to see a wide variety of female heroes in their cartoons, ones with different dreams and skills, ones who fall in love and ones who don’t. But they also need to see a wide variety of male heroes they can identify  with, ones who are heroes for more than just the status or security they can offer the heroine. Heroes who sometimes need help, too.

Don’t get me wrong, aside from the heartbreaking capture scene that left my family in blubbering tears, I loved Brave and hope to see many more films like it. But while Wreck-It Ralph may not have been touted as a stereotype-busting film the way Brave was, it seems to me that Ralph pushed even further past the stereotypes promoted in traditional kids’ movies, showing our kids a future we hope we can build for them—one where girls and boys can be heroes… together.


About Joanna Schroeder

Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and editor with a special focus in issues facing raising boys and gender in the media. Her work has appeared on Redbook, Yahoo!, xoJane, MariaShriver.com, TIME.com, and more. She and her husband are outdoor sports enthusiasts raising very active sons. She is currently co-editing a book of essays for boys and young men with author and advocate Jeff Perera. Follow her shenanigans on Twitter.


  1. First thank you for the analysis. I think that both characters have something special , Merida challenges the concept of fairy tales princess,and Vanellope a princess who belongs to a new magic world (video game),there is a shift from the classic princess , even in previous production like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.I think what is important is what these characters can teach the children .

  2. I took my nieces to see Brave, and although I found Merida as an inspirational role model to them, I wonder why they couldn’t have put one, single, intellectually and emotionally capable male in there? Instead of just bunches of stupid brutes with nothing but fighting and eating on their minds…?

    • FlyingKal: “I took my nieces to see Brave, and although I found Merida as an inspirational role model to them, I wonder why they couldn’t have put one, single, intellectually and emotionally capable male in there?”

      I don’t know. I found the father a very funny, likeable, and relatable character and was in awe for the devotion he shared to his daughter’s well-being. In fact, the mother was more the antongonist in the movie.

      Though I have the same opinion as well: All the other males were thick-headed barbarians.

      • Eagle35.
        Agreed. His devotion to his daughter’s well-being was second to nothing.
        It was more the “It’s all fun and games until you poke an eye out”-attitude I reacted to.
        But yeah, I admit I might have painted with too broad a brush here 🙂

    • The two are related, really. When you want to show an ’empowering’ female heroine, one easy (and lazy, and stupid) way to do it is to have her beat on a lot of clueless immature males.

      It’s hard to find a good role model for girls who DOESN’T rely on mocking, humiliating, or all-out attacking stupid-evil males, frankly. Which sends a nice toxic little message all its own, now doesn’t it?

  3. Shawn Peters says:

    Think you nailed it on this Joanna. Definitely enjoyed “Wreck It Ralph” more than “Brave” as a movie fan, but as fodder for this site, it offers quite a bit more as well.

    When you say “post-feminist gender utopia” I think it’s dead on. In the entire movie, the women are already comfortable with who they are, and even when they find out they’re someone else, they can handle it because they are so sure of their identity.

    Meanwhile, it’s the men who are struggling with who (video game) society wants them to be. The 12-step program is full of male villains, and while Ralph is the only one willing to act out and refuse to the bad guy, they’re all in there dealing with issues, allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

    And the men (just like little “glitch” Vanellope) do eventually learn that they don’t have to BE someone different to change, they just have to use their innate characteristics towards a new end. Men don’t have to stop being strong or physical … they just have to be their authentic selves and listen to their voice inside them.

    Great message and very insightful piece.

    • Shawn: “And the men (just like little “glitch” Vanellope) do eventually learn that they don’t have to BE someone different to change, they just have to use their innate characteristics towards a new end. Men don’t have to stop being strong or physical … they just have to be their authentic selves and listen to their voice inside them.”

      I’d be all for that if the movie didn’t also condone a supporting male character getting a beating from a female character to solve a problem.

  4. Sofia Alexandra says:


    I much preferred Wreck-It Ralph to Brave, and one thing that made me really happy was how Vanellope reacted when she found out she was a princess. I had time to think “great, another Disney princess” – and then she said she’d rather be a constitutional president AND superpowered racing driver. I almost punched the air right there in the cinema. 🙂

    • Joanna Schroeder says:


      I tried not to spoil it in the piece, but you said it exactly as I would have!

    • Ha ha, well, the only thing I didn’t like about that ‘president’ thing was how she says it’ll be a constitutional democracy but then just declares herself president on the spot. So…it’s a dictatorship and NOT a democracy after all?

      Not a big deal, really…. I loved the movie (and I love Joanna’s take on it here). But that was the one thing I found odd in the whole film. Why even bring up the whole constitutional democracy concept if you’re going to squash the idea in the VERY next line?

  5. Anime has had badass women for years, I find the variety of characters in that quite interesting and from what I can see there are quite a lot of anime with significant amounts of female characters. I guess Disney and the west is catching up?

    • Female characters on anime usually are just another sexual objects for men. Not all of them, but most of them are always pretty, have big boobs, and wear revealing clothes. Examples are Nami ( One Piece ), Tsunade ( Naruto ), female characters on Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, GANTZ, etc. Maybe I’m wrong because I’m not really an anime fan ( I’m more a manga fan, and its only One Piece and Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue mangas I contantly read when theres new chapter coming out ), but I rarely find real badass female characters compare to just another male sexual objects.

      • That is the downside of anime with quite a bit of emphasis on sexuality although being sexy doesn’t make them an object. The women are overly sexy, the men often hugely muscled is the popular theme in a lot of media but when the character is dressed sexy but has an important role to play, is more than just eye candy then I wouldn’t call them a sex object.

  6. “And also that our men can still be masculine heroes without being slaves to the traditionally male trope of using violence and destruction as our primary means to an end (as Joanna has quietly alluded to in this article).”

    Violence and destruction isn’t a male trope. Women are capable of inflicting equal amounts towards people. It’s just we’re having a hell of a time recognizing it without making excuses for their actions.

    Which brings me to my next point: Wreck-It-Ralph.

    Sorry, but I don’t fully agree with Wreck-It-Ralph being brave in breaking gender tropes. Mainly because it falls into the same trope of embracing “Violence against male characters as humorous, especially when female characters do it”.

    Case in point: The scene where Calhoun slaps Felix when they’re trapped in the Nesquiksand and the Laffy Taffy vines respond to it with laughter. Felix gets the idea that if Calhoun beats him more, they can eventually grab the vines to get out so she does.

    I’ll give it points for making Calhoun reluctant to do so but still, the sequence just by reading it makes me uncomfortable since I can’t help but think of how this reflects the acceptance of females hitting males in real life. Granted, I haven’t seen the movie but still…

    Sure, it gets it right in one area but seriously wrong in another.

    • To say that something is a trope is to say that it’s a “common or overused theme or device” in storytelling. Much of Hollywood’s storytelling is built around the theme that men use violence, or the threat of it, to get things done. In the last movie I saw in the theaters, I counted over 60 instances of murder in the previews alone. In every single instance, it was a man killing another man. Yet, better than 99% of us will go through our adult lives without committing a single act of violence. I’ll stand by my assertion that, in Hollywood, violence and destruction are male tropes.

      I agree with that the emerging theme of women using violence against men as a comedic device grinds my gears as well. What grinds them even more is that many feminist, who claim to be supporting “gender equality” are violently opposed to the theme of men using a violence against women as a means of a behavior control, but then turn around and laugh or our dismissive when women use violence against men for the same purpose. That’s some special kind of “equality” we’re shooting for….

  7. Having not seen either of these movies, I still have to agree with the basic premise of the article. Few things are more hackneyed in modern culture than the “previously-weak-female-turned-badass/ass-kicking-superhero” trope of recent years. When will Hollywood learn that watching women doing a weaker but more fashionable impression of the stuff men having been doing in action movies for decades isn’t all that interesting to men or women? I guess, though, they don’t appear to be completely enamored with the idea themselves. Invariably the women in these moves are scantily dressed in tiny bikinis, bra-less wet t-shirts, or skin-tight black leather one-pieces in order to bring a certain sexual appeal for the male audience. And they’re always toting the highly impractical bow-and-arrow or a dual-weld pistols as their weapons of choice, as anything larger or more destructive than invariably comes off as being far too masculine.

    I’m sure I sound an awful lot like some old curmudgeon at this point (though truth is, I’m only in my early 30s), but I think it’s sad that one has to travel back nearly twenty years to Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 or Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley in Aliens to find a truly badass heroin (although the young girl from True Grit certainly deserves at least an honorable mention). In both cases, the heroins are motivated by a natural feminine instinct to protect their young children and were willing to do anything to do anything… including — ahem — picking up and firing off more than a few rounds from assault rifles along the way. (I’m not a gun advocate in any way, I just think it interesting that despite these characters being more feminine in nature than our modern day super-heroines, they were still seemingly more comfortable using more traditionally male tools of destruction to achieve their end goals. Irony abounds.)

    Considering how these two women consistently top the charts of the two best heroines of all time, I’m not clear why it is that Hollywood has forgotten that we truly desire for our heroines is that they be more badass women (who occasionally adopt some of the better male traits and values), not scantily clad she-men. And also that our men can still be masculine heroes without being slaves to the traditionally male trope of using violence and destruction as our primary means to an end (as Joanna has quietly alluded to in this article).

  8. Great analysis. I actually don’t think Brave was *that* great. It started and finished strong, but the middle of the movie is kind of a mess. Wreck-It-Ralph is one of the best CGI animated movies ever (I’ve got it on my Mount Rushmore, along with Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Up). I particularly liked your point about how Vannelope embracing her glitch encourages us to embrace what makes us unique. When I watched the movie, I was sort of ambivalent on this point. It wouldn’t have bothered me if she was no longer a glitch. But reading your article, I realize that they did the right thing. It’s basically the opposite of what Shrek did when it threw away a great story with a bad ending. The entire point of that movie was that Shrek and Fiona loved each other despite their differences. Well, if that’s the case, why did she change into an ogre at the end? So their differences *did* matter after all, huh? Ugh.

  9. William Hancox says:

    Loved Wreck-It Ralph.

  10. Joanna Schroeder says:

    I didn’t even cover how amazingly the incorporated all of the different types of animation, so that every video game was distinct and genre-specific.

    So many beautiful, genius elements of this movie!


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