Two Thoughts About Wreck-It Ralph

My usual response to watching kids’ films is one of frustration so my default position is to anticipate that frustration, and look for it everywhere.

This could be about the way female characters, regardless of age always appear to be wearing make-up. It could be gender stereotypes or the aspirational hierarchical organisation of society and celebration of monarchy, amongst many other things. Regardless, I’m on high alert and in preparation for a high state of anxiety.

Whilst Wreck-It Ralph is one of the more tolerable kids films I’ve see of late and would certainly get through my ‘suitability for my children’ filter, it did trouble me in a couple of ways, most profoundly in the way — or rather in the revelations that come out of — it attempts to address the problematics of the representation of women.

First though, I’d like to consider another affect this film had on me, on a purely visual level or at least in the way it visualised the ‘innards’ of the World Wide Web. The film’s core characters, Ralph and Vanellope are introduced to the internet whilst on a quest to procure a broken piece of her arcade machine to save it from being scrapped and the game’s characters becoming homeless. The way that the film sees its characters ‘learn’ what the internet is was quite revealing. The intended visualisation of the connectedness of everything drifts, as the film progresses, into a more profound sense of disconnectedness.

Let me explain.

Within this network all things are visible at once in a vast landscape of logos, corporate identities, monolithic structures and avatars. I would suggest that the intention of this is to make us, like Ralph, feel overwhelmed by the size of the thing but also by the complexity of this incredibly useful tool we have created.

Still from ‘Wreck it Ralph Breaks the Internet’

It pulls on visual influences from a range of things, from Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wander above the Fog’ to Blade Runner and the endless lights and signage of Las Vegas. Despite these links to historical dystopian visions of uncertain futures, in contrast this feels positively celebratory.

It is this which creates a sort of unease as I watch, because the citizens of the internet, represented by avatars, are very clearly caught in a struggle for meaning; a struggle they appear to be oblivious to and which must by proxy extend back to their real world selves. The celebratory feel of these scenes kind of normalises this struggle.

All things here cease to make meaning because they exude all energy competing for attention. All people cease to have meaning because the competition for their attention creates a relentless distraction rendering them incapable of seeing thoughts or ideas through to any kind of conclusion.

Now, to be clear, I do believe the internet to be fundamentally good and a useful tool for connecting people and ideas. But Ralph’s internet has nothing to do with connectivity in the useful sense. All channels of communication have been filled with logos, corporate identities, pop up adverts and shady characters pursuing our credit card details, legitimately or otherwise. All channels are open to social interactions or to seek information in an infinite archive of information. But at a price.

What is more concerning is that it becomes apparent that Ralph’s internet is exactly like ours. Ralph’s internet is also very similar to our physical world; the two seem to overlap like an augmented reality. Our online lives are full of distractions, which we accept as a penance for the usefulness of the tool — but online is no longer isolated online, it pervades, like an augmentation of actual reality; it drips into our social space and personal lives.

‘The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity… Social space is blanketed with ever-new layers of commodities’ (Debord, 1967)

The distractedness of the avatars in this film are distressingly famliar; I can count the number of meaningful conversations I’ve had with my partner, parents, friends or family over the past decade or so on a single hand. With fingers to spare.

Thus, our estrangement — represented by the avatars’ wanderings through Ralph’s internet, unable to walk from A to B, to see through a thought, without being whisked away to view a sneezing panda or some other pointless monetised content — breaks down our ability to define ourselves socially, psychologically and politically. Monetised content merges and overlaps with news media and appears to be almost identical, confusing our ability to rationalise ourselves in relation to the world around us, whilst ubiquitous commercial sign production urges the formation and shedding of multiple identities as we consume. These two symptoms of our contemporary economic and social milieu spawn a form of schizophrenia as defined by Frederic Jameson

‘schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the “I” and the “me” over time’ (Jameson, 1983)

Jameson’s definition continues to talk about the ‘perpetual present’ linked to a lack of identity; the postmodern inability to know a history or (to build on that) to conceive a future condemning us to a breakdown in the signifying chain.

‘personal identity is itself the effect of a certain temporal unification of past and future with one’s present’ (Jameson, 1983)

Lenin spoke about imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism (or as a special stage of capitalism) in terms of the inevitable collapse of the free-market into monopoly. However, I would argue — as I understand Guy Debord to — that imperialism, rather than the monopoly stage of capitalism and domination of a single corporate entity, to in fact be the domination of the ideology of capitalism itself.

Which leads me back to my initial point. The reason I was so troubled by the scene in this movie which shows all of the Disney Princesses, maligned as they are by decades of (recently intensifying) critique and debate about the representation of women, uniting to become man’s saviour.

I have had many debates with friends and family about this over the years, even banning my two daughters from watching Disney movies — before eventually capitulating and resorting to throwing insults at the telly… — and trying to encourage them to seek out more positive role models to watch or read about.

This is in part to do with the tedious ubiquity of hierarchical social models in films and television aimed at kids (there is always a monarchy) but more about the representation of the female. So imagine my initial delight when the princesses, in slacks rather than dresses, come to the rescue of Wreck-It Ralph!

‘Ladies, a strong man needs our help!’ (Wreck-It Ralph, 2018)

I look over to my partner and two young girls who are, like me, delighting in the usual narrative being turned on its head. Then the cynic in me ruins everything; of course, Disney hasn’t had some epiphany, they haven’t realised the error in their ways, no. Like the Iceland commercial about palm oil, or Dove soaps promoting positive body image this isn’t ‘good’ prevailing over bad. No. it is simply the market reflecting demand, and nothing else.

This isn’t to say that good can’t come out of this; what it effectively suggests is that a capitalist economy will do good things if a profit is to be made from it, and through the medium of the material saleable object or marketable service it will reflect the liberal values of a people, should that be what the people want. Look at the rise in veganism, ethical living products and environmentally conscious services like energy providers or technologies like electric cars. I warn the reader against unreasonable optimism however. Let’s be clear, we are not cared for by the market; it will provide, uncritically, anything the consumer demands; love, war, symbols of hope, symbols of hate, weapons, useful tools and, at its apogee, slime-shitting collectable unicorns.

It has no ethical codes, it is not inherently good or bad and it is certainly not very clever. Indeed, it will probably mass produce, package, advertise and sell back to its murderer the very weapons used to eventually kill it.

Representation of female empowerment in a Disney movie is another example of this and, with only an unreliable past - shattered by the relentless critique of post-modernist thought - and an uncertain future as reference points, in my schizophrenic present it is hard to know whether I should embrace it or run at it with a pitchfork.

Lecturer at UCW, writing about politics, art, photography & culture.

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