“I’m gonna wreck it!” has been a cry regularly heard in my household over the last several weeks. You see, Wreck-It Ralph has recently become the favorite movie for my young daughters and we watch it ALL THE TIME. As is often the case, for me anyway, repeated exposure to the current favorite has given me the chance to really think about the content we’re watching or listening to. Sometimes that leads to the development of theories about these fictional universes (I have a pretty compelling argument for why Paw Patrol and Star Trek exist in the same universe) and sometimes it leads to a more serious feminist critique of the content. The latter is true of Wreck-It Ralph – don’t worry, I won’t subject you to my Paw Patrol / Star Trek theories here. Just ask if you want to talk about that.
There is a secondary character in this universe that I have been interested in since my first viewing of this movie. I’m talking about Sergeant Calhoun, voiced by Jane Lynch. Calhoun has been programmed with “the most tragic backstory ever.” She met a great fella, fell in love, and on their wedding day (the MOST IMPORTANT DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WOMANTM) she neglected to do a perimeter check and her beloved was killed by a Cybug. In the narrative, Calhoun blames herself for the death of her true love. After all, she’s the one who neglected to do a perimeter check.
Here’s my wild thought. It wasn’t her fault. I don’t mean that in the sense that we usually say when people blame themselves for the death of a loved one. I mean that in the sense that I, and I hope maybe you too, blame her squad.
We live in a culture that does not allow women to ever take a break from the physical and emotional work that comes standard with being a functioning adult human. I think that Calhoun is such an interesting character because she really embodies what this looks like in the lives of real women, military or not. We all have our own metaphorical Cybugs we’re fighting. I imagine that Calhoun, having risen through the ranks to become a sergeant, realized very quickly that she could not delegate tasks to the men beneath her. They simply wouldn’t get done unless she engaged in a level of emotional labor that was unsustainable for her to encourage her team to get the job done. How would things have been different for her if one of the men had thought “Hey man, it’s Calhoun’s wedding day. Maybe someone else should do the perimeter check” and then actually done the perimeter check? Done it without being asked because he had the emotional awareness to know that Calhoun was focused on her life outside of work that day.
Calhoun, like many of us in “real life”, are laboring under social norms that (generally speaking) mean that women are the project managers and men are the project executors. Both are a lot of work, but because the work of management is often invisible (particularly when done well) the project executor feels like he is doing all the work. It is those times when the project manager says:
- Thank you so much for keeping the laundry going
- I really appreciate that you answered those emails in our department inbox
- That diaper was really gross, thanks for changing it
All the while she is doing her own invisible work.
You may think that the answer to the question posed in the title of the episode is that it’s the fault of men. I realize that this post may come across as the worst kind of feminist tirade. But no, the status quo that you, I, and Calhoun contend with is the fault of all of us. Emotional labor is important, everyone benefits from being the recipient of praise or empathy or love. More visible work is also important, we all benefit when the dishes are done and department emails get answered. However, we are at a place where the visible work is valued while the emotional work is not because it can’t be seen with our eyes. We need to recognize that it is dominantly women doing the work and men benefiting from the work and endeavor – through our flawed human psyches – to see and value that work.