Disability in Wreck-It Ralph5 min read

At first glance, the movie Wreck-It Ralph appears to be a positive step for the role of disability in movies.  The first movie’s depiction of Vanellope being excluded from the fictional society of Sugar Rush because of her “glitch,” and then learning that it is not a bad thing, is much better than having her be “cured” of the glitch would have been.

Ralph being defined as a “bad guy” but not actually being bad despite society telling him that he is certainly resonated with me as an autistic person and could be seen as an allegory for the neurodiversity movement.

However, there are a couple things that the movie could have done better.

Ralph’s mispronunciation of the words “Hero’s Duty” as “Hero’s Doody” being played for humor legitimizes a very real form of microaggressions against people with speech impediments, and Vanellope’s glitch turning out to be a superpower implies that disabilities should be useful or productive in order to be worthy of acceptance.

Speech impediments are a disability, as defined by the Social Security Administration in the United States.  There are many different types of speech impediments– much more than just stuttering, the most well-known speech impediment.

I have a speech impediment that causes me to speak with a strong accent that is not related to any foreign country.  This speech impediment is probably related to being autistic.

When Ralph tries to say “Hero’s Duty” to refer to one of the games that is central to the film’s plot, Vanellope hears it as “Hero’s Doody.” Even after Ralph corrects her, she continues to make crude scatological jokes about Ralph’s mispronunciation– which is a mere annoyance to Ralph but would have been emotionally crushing to me if I had been on the other end of the exchange.

Because for me, it would be like Trump mocking a disabled reporter’s hand movements.  I am always scared of accidentally saying something that sounds sexual or scatological and having people laugh at it.

A quick look at YouTube comments for a video clip of that scene reveals that there are a lot of people who find Vanellope mocking Ralph’s mispronunciation to be funny.  As someone with a speech impediment that causes me to mispronounce words as if I had a thick foreign accent from a country that does not exist, I did not find that scene to be funny.

In fact, I hated it.

Even though Ralph does not really have a speech impediment, the movie sends a message that it is okay to make fun of people mispronouncing words– a direct contradiction of the film’s messages about disability acceptance.

When people have laughed at things I mispronounced, it has always hurt, even if they meant well.  Some of my closest friends who were otherwise good allies to neurodiversity have done it.  I didn’t stop caring about them, much like how people in other marginalized groups often put up with microaggressions from their more privileged friends.

I will do everything I can to avoid talking to strangers on the phone.  The way my voice sounds is one of the reasons I hate the nature of my existence in this world, and one of the most frustrating aspects of social acceptance is getting people to acknowledge that this even matters at all.

There may be some people with speech impediments who have learned to accept others laughing at them, or even laugh along with them.  But I am not one of them, and you should not laugh at others’ mispronunciations any more than you should laugh at the way a disabled reporter waves his hands at a press conference.  Unless they have told you without any pressure that they are okay with jokes being made about it, that is their choice to make, not yours.

As for the movie’s main disability-related plotline, it is heartening that Vanellope’s disability of “glitching” during gameplay was not portrayed as a negative or devaluing.

In my opinion, the movie did well at showing the angst and self-hate she experienced from how others treated her because of it.  However, the problem with Vanellope’s glitch turning out to be a superpower that made her better at racing is that not all disabled people have hidden abilities.

Yes, there are autistic people who are great computer programmers or talented artists.  Stephen Hawking was a great scientist who had ALS and gradually lost control over his motor functions but continued to come up with new scientific ideas with the aid of assistive technology.

But there are also people whose chronic illnesses prevent them from having the energy to keep up with a regular work schedule, and autistic people who are not savants and have immense difficulty finding non-technical jobs because they lack the type of “people skills” that allistic people demand.

Indeed, some autistic people have criticized the stereotype in media that fictional autistic characters are high in the type of intelligence measured by IQ tests, whereas in reality, autistic people are just as diverse in their levels of the trait normatively defined as “intelligence” as anyone else.

For those of us who can turn our disabilities into superpowers, that is a good thing, and I support you in doing what you can to survive in an ableist world, but we should not leave behind those of us who cannot.

To conclude, Wreck-It Ralph is still a good movie that teaches a positive lesson about accepting difference, and I think the world is better off with it than without it.  However, it could have been better.  Despite promoting acceptance of a nonexistent disability like Vanellope’s glitch, Wreck-It Ralph normalizes a behavior that stigmatizes speech impediments, a very real type of disability that has made many people’s lives harder, including my own.

Hopefully one day we can all take a long, hard look at societal attitudes that mock speech impediments and collectively repeat Ralph’s signature line, “I’m gonna wreck it!”

References

Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & Newlin (2019), Are Speech Impediments Considered Disabilities?

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I am an autistic adult who competes in debate and enjoys analyzing the deeper meaning of things in real life and fiction in ways that relate to my lived experience of autism. Buy me a coffee!

3 Comments

  1. I’m curious for a discussion on the sequel.  I feel like the sequel touched on many more trigger situations, like loving some one different than you and even how the least expected differences can be the most powerful (like the glitch but from Ralph’s side.) I think it also establishes Venelope and Ralph’s relationship on a deeper level.  I liked it more than the first…one of the few sequels I can say this about.

  2. I can see why this would be so painful for you, but fwiw, I didn’t take it as a joke about a speech impediment – don’t “duty” and “doody” sound identical no matter who says them?  I thought it was meant as basic grade-school poop humor.

    1. Yes, they do.  “Duty” and “doody” sound identical in an American accent (which is what Ralph used).  So Ralph didn’t mispronounce the word.  And Vanellope likely knew what “duty” actually means, but was being a smartass.  Vanellope does tend to be a smartass a lot.  It’s part of her personality.  So that didn’t bother me.

      That said, one thing that does bother me re: speech impediments and weird pronunciations is the insistence I see in some anti-racist articles that someone pronounce certain names correctly, with “correctly” meaning “correct enough to satisfy the person whose name it is”. 

      Now, I know that it can be a form of racism when one does not bother to even approximate foreign names, and I know it can be hurtful when someone finds that literally everyone they meet outside their direct community always gets their name wrong.

      But these sometimes exacting standards re: pronunciation can be a serious problem for people who either have outright speech impediments or simply pronounce sounds with an ever-so-slight difference most speakers of the person’s own language don’t notice.  Like me.  A as a kid in early elementary school, I didn’t pronounce the short “u” sound the same way others did (couldn’t no matter how hard I tried – it was sort of a weird mix between the “u” from a specific New York regional accent and the “u” from – well, an American accent I perceive as more generic but I can’t say how typical it actually is – and I still don’t pronounce it much differently) and this led me to trouble with a girl with an Americanized version of an Indian name, Sunya.

      I pronounced her name with a short u (and not an o) and she thought I was pronouncing her name as “Sonia”.  I was not.  I tried repeatedly to pronounce her name right, then echoed her “Not Sonia, SUNya” phrase to show her I was trying – no dice, so I even overcorrected and emphasized the “u” in such a way that she thought I was saying “Sahn-ya”.  Again, I was not pronouncing the “u” in her name any differently than I pronounced other short “u” sounds.  And short of pronouncing her name with a deliberate nose wrinkle every time (so as to better mimic the nasal way she pronounced the short “u” sound) I could not physically pronounce her (Americanized) name to her satisfaction.  And even if a nose wrinkle had enabled me to get it, it would have a) been uncomfortable to say and b) been taken as a repeated microaggression, not without reason.  So I knew that wasn’t an option because while I hadn’t yet fully grasped why wrinkling one’s nose at other people was wrong, I knew the idea made me uncomfortable.

      And it did not occur to me simply to offer to pronounce “Sunya” in a bastardized Indian language fashion, as “Soon-ya”.  I could have managed that – not the exact Hindi or Bengali vowel, obviously, but I could have managed a generic American-accented “Soon-ya”.  But I was too young and uninformed at the time to suggest that – I’d just thought “Sunya” pronounced with a short U sound was what her name was.  And shortly after, I went through a regressive period in which I stopped saying a lot of words (which, not coincidentally, were words I pronounced slightly differently from the other kids) for years – and it happens, in case any are wondering, that the words in question included “tree” and the quintessentially “white” name “Tchaikovsky” (the last of which is a known gotcha in one of those articles, a gotcha that does not work on someone who was once too nervous to say “Tchaikovsky”).

      And I don’t actually know if I had gotten better at pronouncing a short “u” in a normal way or if I am simply exaggerating in my memory how different my “u” sound was as a result of that repeated series of corrections.

      I think a better way to handle this would be to see if at least the person pronounces the foreign name with vowels that one knows that person is capable of pronouncing – if the sounds one uses to pronounce a foreign name broadly match all the sounds that exist and the name and are consistent with the same sounds that person uses in other words, and no nicknaming-without-permission is involved, then that can be said to be a correct pronunciation of that name.  And of course, if someone has a speech impediment that necessitates nicknames, that should still be allowed too, again with the nickname being as close as possible.

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