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.
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 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.