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How 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' is a breakthrough for Disney diversity

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
In this article:
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  • Sarah Silverman
    Sarah Silverman
    American comedian and actress

From the early years to the Disney Renaissance to the Golden Age of Pixar, Disney has set the industry standard for animation — but when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness onscreen, there has been, shall we say, a learning curve. Over the last 10 years, Disney has committed to better representation in its animated features, and movies like Moana and Coco — in addition to being excellent films have been rightly praised for their cultural sensitivity, nontraditional protagonists, and innovative storytelling. But in the video above, we’re talking about an overlooked, very recent example of how Disney Animation is bringing diversity to the big screen. Watch to find out how Ralph Breaks the Internet, the Oscar-nominated sequel to Wreck it Ralph, makes major strides towards equal representation, and shows just how far Disney has come. (Or if you’d prefer the extended version with more Sarah Silverman, scroll down to the bottom of the post see the YouTube cut.)

How is Ralph Breaks the Internet a breakthrough for diversity?

Fifty-one percent of the U.S. population is female. So are 51 percent of moviegoers. And still, studio films average 2.3 male characters for every female character. The Disney classics are no exception. Snow White has two named female speaking parts. Aladdin has one. The original Toy Story? Three. The Princess and the Frog? Four. Even some Disney films about girls, like Frozen and The Little Mermaid, have more dialogue spoken by men, thanks in part to the studio’s traditional formula of dead moms and wisecracking male sidekicks.

The first Wreck-It Ralph, as the title indicates, is Ralph’s story. Vanellope is an important character, but Ralph’s journey from outcast to open-hearted friend is the crux of the film. The female roles in Wreck-It Ralph are pretty great, but they are still outnumbered by male characters, who have 70 percent of the dialogue.

Ralph Breaks the Internet, in spite of the title, is really Vanellope’s story. Though the film is about her friendship with Ralph, she’s the one who goes off on her own, questions her place in the world, and makes a big life-changing decision. She even gets a song.

And when Vanellope and Ralph enter the internet, they find a world that’s more or less half women. That includes all the little avatars of internet users, but also Yesss, voiced by Taraji P. Henson, and Shank, voiced by Gal Gadot: both aspirational characters who have a major role in the plot. (And then there are the princesses, who we’ll get to in a minute.)

Yesss, the head algorithm of the internet’s biggest viral video site, is a black woman. Shank, the tough-but-tender gang boss in Slaughter Race and Vanellope’s idol, has an Israeli accent. We see characters of different colors and ethnicities throughout Ralph Breaks the Internet, and though most of the cast is coded as white, including multiple non-white characters is still a big deal. In family films, only 17 percent of major characters, on average, are people of color whereas the moviegoing audience, like the U.S. population, is around 40% people of color. It’s rare to see that reality represented in film, and women of color in particular are among the most underrepresented groups. So by putting these characters onscreen, Ralph Breaks the Internet is setting a really nice example for how to make the world of an animated film look more like the world kids actually grow up in.

Back to that princess scene, in which all 14 previous Disney princesses join Vanellope in gently skewering some of the studio’s fairy-tale tropes. Besides being very funny, the scene along with a follow-up, in which the princesses essentially become a superhero team shows Disney’s willingness to take a critical look at its own past and try to do better.

As Vannellope herself, Sarah Silverman, told Yahoo Entertainment, “[The princess scene] shows that Disney was so game to reflect on their entire canon of Disney princesses and what that means. And to do that, you have to be willing to acknowledge their accountability in a problematic ideal: a tiny waist, a man who saves the day, a very white existence. And they really have taken that on. You know, you can’t erase a problematic past, but you can acknowledge it, internalize it, and be forever changed by it. … And I respect that so much.”

The princess scene also demonstrates the value of listening to underrepresented groups when they tell you that you’re getting it wrong. In the scene, the characters are inspired by Vanellope to ditch the gowns and put on comfy pajamas. Sarah Silverman saw early concept sketches and had a big problem with the way the clothes were being drawn.

“There were like, half shirts,” Silverman said. “And I was like, ‘Oh god, please don’t make it sexy sweats. I’m begging you on behalf of every little girl in this country. Please don’t do this.’ And they really did adjust it and own it.”

That’s not the only change the animators made. Before the film was released, a trailer generated backlash by showing Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess, with lighter skin, a smaller nose, and natural black hair that seemed anything but natural.

Under pressure from fans (like art student Taylor Goethe, above) and voice actress Anika Noni Rose, animators went back to the drawing board and re-designed Tiana.

That controversy, of course, points to a larger problem behind the scenes: Disney Animation, like the industry as a whole, could really use some more women and people of color to help them create accurate characters from diverse backgrounds. But Disney is making some progress here too. Future animated films include projects being developed by Moana songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda and Domee Shi, who directed the Oscar-nominated Pixar short Bao.

For now, Ralph Breaks the Internet is a step in the right direction. And the fact that it made more money than the original Wreck-It Ralph, supports the findings of several recent studies that more diverse casts, and female leads, actually do better at the box office. Because sometimes, the best way to fix something, is to wreck it.

Watch the extended cut:

Yahoo Entertainment’s Diversity in Hollywood 2019 Report
Part 1: Where we are, how far we have to go and how we can get there
Part 2: By the numbers
Part 3: Why it’s time for change and 5 possible solutions
Part 4: Crossroads at the Oscars
Part 5: The future is now

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