With Disney's "Wreck-It-Ralph" slated to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD March 5, let's reflect on the ways the film changed how we think of the "Disney Princess," (and with it their "Princes") and the steps that Disney has taken to achieve this goal, from the line's inception, to unlikely video game properties, to their latest: a badass space marine and a tomboy princess kart-driver.
We live in a post-"Sleeping Beauty" world. Gone are the days of sitting down to a Disney animated feature and enjoying that the good guy will win, the bad guy will lose, the damsel will be saved, and they will all live happily ever after. We now sink into our sticky-floored, questionably-stained theatre seats expecting to be entertained not for what is on the screen, but rather for the failings of those who produced it, who, with their ever-patriarchal views, still “just don’t get it.” It is easy to demonize companies like Disney for their chauvinistic depictions of women throughout their filmography, this argument becoming as stereotypical as the evidence that supports it, yet we are in a new age, and with Disney taking active steps, with films such as 2012‘s "Wreck-it-Ralph," in moving away from the archetypical knight in shining armor coming to save the damsel in distress, in favor of a more ambiguous, and through this more well-rounded, approach, we must take a step back and perhaps give the company credit. At least they’re trying.
In "Wreck-it-Ralph," we see a character taking control of his life, told through a video game bad-guy not wanting to be a, well, bad guy. Turning standards on what it means to be a hero or a villain on their head, Disney’s latest property introduces ideas of autonomy and determinism, whereby we see Ralph going against his “programmed” existence in favor of a more take-life-by-the-horns, choose-your-own-adventure, attitude. With Ralph, Disney has strayed from the typical Prince Charming cookie-cutter hero to a more innovative, dare I say Pixarian, approach to storytelling.
Disney first introduced us to their idea of the ideal heroic male with The Prince in 1937’s "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." This was royalty, and all its supposedly inherent good, embodied. They then expanded the character to Prince Charming thirteen years later in "Cinderella" (1950). Now we not only know that this guy is royalty, but also a little more about him-- he’s not a bad guy, pretty charming actually. "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) and "The Little Mermaid" (1989) named him, Phillip and Eric respectively, while "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), in true "Wreck-it-Ralph" spirit, gave him depth, as well as a spot in the title, albeit second-billed. With 1992’s "Aladdin" we see the shift of focus to the male, both in eponymous acknowledgement, as well as character development. You don’t have to be a prince to save the princess, though it’d help if you pretended to be one for a bit. The aristocracy was shocked.
The focus shifts slightly with the proceeding historical pieces: "Pocahontas'" (1995) John Smith (that’s Sir John Smith to you) and "Mulan’s" (1998) Captain Li Shang acting as more modern, militaristic embodiments of a hero. Still, the characteristic princely form, a chiseled jaw and chiseled morals, is evident, though the title is not. The new kids on the block, "The Princess and the Frog" (2009) and "Tangled" (2010) return us to Disney’s roots, but with a more self-aware approach to the typical princely hero in "‘Frog’s" Prince Naveen, in the form of a frog for the majority of the film, and "Tangled’s" Flynn Rider, shockingly not a prince, in true "Aladdin" fashion. With this evolution of princes in the ‘Disney Princess’ line of films, where, if anywhere, can we fit in "Wreck-it-Ralph’s" lumbering protagonist and, let’s be honest here, badass heroine, Sergeant Calhoun?
"Wreck-it-Ralph" features an oversized anti-hero ("Beauty and the Beast"), striving to break through social strictures ("Aladdin"), while an armored and empowered female ("Mulan") and her diminutive cohort ("The Little Mermaid") attempt to break a curse to awaken the princess and save the land from a common enemy ("Snow White," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Princess and the Frog"). This seems to fit all of the criteria, right? "Wreck-it-Ralph," then, becomes the eleventh in the line of Disney Princess movies, twelfth if we count, and we must, the Disney and Square-Enix’s "Kingdom Hearts" (2002) video game series. But wait, one might say, how can this be? "Wreck-it-Ralph" is about the epitome of masculinity. It lacks a “princess.” Enter Vanellope von Schweetz and, more specifically, Sergeant Tamora Jean Calhoun. Gone are the days when Disney could get away with a damsel in distress, waiting to be saved by her fearless, faceless, hero. Princesses no longer sleep, they grab their guns and take control. "Wreck-it-Ralph" is the next logical step in the direction Disney has been taking its princess properties, importantly allowing us to make our own decisions on the nature of their characters, just as those in the film question their own.
Through their “Princess” properties, we see the role of the female develop from one who needs saving to the one who saves themselves. In earlier works, specifically "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," the driving mechanism was to endanger our princess, allowing the prince to ride in and save the day just in the nick of time. Deus Ex Charming. With 1998’s "Mulan" we saw a shift toward a more autonomous role whereby the lead female takes charge of her life, albeit only achieving this by impersonating a male. "Mulan’s" progressive attitude toward gender roles is grounded by the historical attitudes present in the piece. When the veil is lifted and her identity is revealed she is stripped of rank and masculine power, forcing her to find strength from within, rather than without.
In "‘Ralph," we again trade in flowing dresses for battle armor, and as if on the digital rails of a shooter arcade game, never look back. Sergeant Calhoun heads a battalion of battle-hardened, NPC soldiers. In her we find characteristics of a leader, an alpha, and yet at the same time those failings stereotypical of all “princess” characters. We are told that Calhoun was programmed with the “saddest backstory of all,” losing her love on the day of their wedding, and thus becoming this callous soldier. The device of “programming,” and through this the act of superseding it, in "‘Ralph" serves to illuminate the idea that though the writers of the film have given you a specific character, and the medium of film does not allow for any direct altering of this character, we are still active in our interpretations. We come to respect Calhoun’s resilience, perhaps even pitying her a bit, and in a way are disappointed when she ends up relinquishing power and falling for the much more archetypical Felix. With her as heroine to Felix’s hero, we are hardly surprised when this union happens, and let’s be honest, what alternative do we have? When would a beautiful woman ever fall for a hulking beast of a man? Uh...
Fix-it-Felix Jr., the protagonist to Wreck-it-Ralph’s “antagonist,” both in name and function, acts as both a typical and an atypical masculine presence in the film. Felix uses his tools, specifically his hammer, to fix literally every problem facing him. The “Golden Hammer,” handed down through patriarchal rules of succession from his father, Fix-it-Felix (Sr. one would imagine), is Felix’s way of tackling any obstacle, no matter how big or small. The hammer acts as the perfect embodiment of what it must certainly mean to be a man: blunt force power to show domination, yet delicate and specific enough to show skill and refinement. Princely.
Despite his royal attributes, however, Felix is not, in fact, the hero of the story, in the way that he is the hero of his own game. As is the case in the initial Princess films, Felix’s Charming plays second fiddle to others, specifically Calhoun and Ralph. He acts more as a plot device, a tool, a fix-it hammer, than an actual character; just another guy with a white-knight complex with a hard-on for fixing the world. As the Disney Princes (where’s THAT line of toys?) are all arguably designed to be typical pretty boys, the captain of the football team, Felix is presented to us as a bit effeminate. Though his Midas hammer improves the condition of whatever it touches, Felix is for all intents and purposes a bit of a wimp. Felix is a beta-male, to Ralph’s alpha-male, something not uncharacteristic in the realm of video games.
By nature, video game protagonists, that is the characters that the player controls, are betas, while the antagonists embody the alpha role. On the surface alone, Ralph, and those seen in Bad-Anon, the video game villain support group Ralph frequents, are seen as rough, tough, manly men. It is interesting to see Disney choose the selection of villains that they did, shunning the more effeminate characters typical of Japanese franchises in favor of the more robust, typically masculine villains, largely hailing from fighting games. As a rule in the vast majority of video games, the hero is controlled, the villain autonomous. The hero is reactionary, the villain catalytic. The hero follows the villain through the narrative of the game, as well as the world he inhabits, while the villain blazes the trail. Felix would have nothing to fix without Ralph, he would have no purpose. Video games allow their players to break free from a beta role, and lead a character around a fictitious world, in an attempt to overthrow the established alpha, thus becoming it themselves.
As Ralph is taken to new and unusual game worlds, Felix is forced to follow him, and in doing so ends up intercepting and following Sergeant Calhoun. The succession of alpha to beta continues to the world of "Sugar Rush," a "Mario-Kart" style racing game, where we are given a character who more closely resembles a typical Disney Princess, but in a bizarro kind of way. Vanellope von Schweetz is a princess who, after being put under a “spell” has forgotten who she is. She is a tomboy, and is seen as flawed because of this (glitched, if you will). It is refreshing, then, to see her revoke her royalty and what she was initially programmed as, in favor of who she has found herself to be.
The role of the female in Disney’s ventures into video gaming have displayed a similar progression to that of their film franchises, though we must be less forgiving of these as they do not have the crutch of “that was a different time” to lean their chauvinism against. The "Kingdom Hearts" series, first introduced in 2002, the love child of Disney and Square-Enix (then Squaresoft), blended Disney worlds with Square’s "Final Fantasy" characters. We follow protagonist Sora’s adventures to find his missing childhood friend Riku, and childhood love Kairi. From the onset of the game Sora is seen as beta to Riku’s alpha. From an initial footrace we see the two boys in a constant state of friendly competition: Riku the favoured victor, lest the game’s player exhibit exceptional skill. When Riku’s ambition sweeps him away to distant lands, and Kairi’s heart goes missing, effectively under a sleeping curse (Disney, you dogs), Sora must venture out from the comfort of his own world into the unknown to rescue his friends.
As the series progresses, we see Kairi gaining more and more power and autonomy, by 2005‘s "Kingdom Hearts II" she is given her own weapon, and in the more recently released prequel, "Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep," her predecessor, Aqua, is given seemingly equal billing to her two male cohorts, with the player allowed to choose from the three to control from the onset. Though the catalyst of that game remains the Riku, the Ralph, the (in this case) Terra in an alpha role, questioning his surroundings and venturing out into the unknown, forcing Aqua to follow, "KH:BBS" makes us question the nature of the heroes we have been controlling and the role gender plays in these decisions. Is this a female acting as masculine beta, or have our successive male protagonists been feminine in their follower status?
In "Birth By Sleep," Aqua, as is unfortunately stereotypical of most female video game characters, is relegated to the position of mage, lacking in physical prowess and instead finding power through the arcane. This seems to reflect back on a more medieval view to masculinity and femininity whereby feminine power can be derived from malevolent wiles, and is therefore seen as a threat to masculine dominance based on physical prowess. Mages, can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Sergeant Calhoun, then, acts antithetical to this, displaying physical prowess and masculine dominance, while maintaining a typically feminine physique. Bull-dykes unfortunately still do not sell toys. Calhoun is given a commanding role in a militaristic game, "Hero’s Duty," presumably designed for little boys who like to blow up aliens and bugs (in this case a combination of the two). Her role within the constructs of the game is to lead the human player, on a pre-programmed set of “rails,” acting again as leader to the player’s follower. It does not matter that the player experiences the game in first person, essentially stepping into the shoes of the main character, the same constructs of player as beta are still present. It is interesting for Disney to choose a little girl as playing "Hero’s Duty" in the film, where one might expect a more typical gun-crazed boy (we are later presented with two boys monopolizing the decidedly more feminine "Sugar Rush"). Did Disney choose this because they were more comfortable with the idea of a female leading a female, versus the idea of a female leading a male, or was this an attempt to stick with the film’s motif that preference is not relegated by programming?
It is hard to say if Disney succeeded in creating a more empowered female lead. "Wreck-it-Ralph" is about a blue-collar male. The title character is a male, and we primarily follow this male throughout his journey of self-discovery; this is no "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," "Pocahontas" or "Mulan." Yet despite her supporting role, we still should consider Calhoun a princess for the modern era. Calhoun teaches us to let the girls take the reins, to let them lead instead of follow, not to wait, asleep, for their prince to come put his quarter in (uh...), but to take control of their stories. We’ve come a long way from the idea of the inactive sleeping beauties, with each of Disney’s princess movies a step toward that end, yet it was the medium of the video game that ultimately allowed us to achieve this goal.
The premise is simple: give the power to the player and let them decide what to do with it. Let them decide the role their character will play. Though Calhoun takes on the role of the alpha, leading both a battalion of NPC’s, as well as Felix, the embodiment of both an alpha in design and a beta in execution, she still falls into the traps typical to a Disney princess. It is up to the viewer, the player, to interpret her character, and in a post-modernist world where everything is scrutinized, Disney properties specifically, this is probably the best we’re going to get.