This weekend, I went to go see Wreck-It Ralph with some friends and family. As anyone who follows me on Twitter or Facebook has probably heard by now, I loved that movie. I’m the right age to have a strong attachment to most of the cameos, I enjoyed the plot, and overall I just thought it was really a well-done film.
Even beyond that, though, I found that the movie resonated with me in a fairly uncommon way. I’m really fascinated by Brené Brown’s shame research, and I see shame as a major theme in Wreck-It Ralph. Brené Brown contrasts shame and guilt, saying something to the effect of “You can’t apologize for shame. Guilt means you made a mistake. Shame means you are a mistake.” This is relevant for Ralph, who is permanently locked into the villain role both by the people around him and by his own temper. And this is particularly poignant with regard to Vanellope—we learn early on that she is quite literally a mistake. She’s a glitch.
As you would expect, I loved Vanellope. I loved Vanellope, and not just because Sarah Silverman is an awesome voice actor. Despite being shut out and relentlessly insulted by the other characters in her world, despite knowing that she’s not quite right, Vanellope makes the best of what she has. As much as she possibly can, she believes in herself.
A little bit of background information—when I was a kid, I was bullied. A lot. My ADHD meant that I never shut up, my Tourette Syndrome made me an easy target, and overall I was just socially clueless. I was aware enough to know I was different, but not enough to know what to do about it. I asked the other kids to teach me to be normal, but they were just little kids too. They didn’t know how to help.
I eventually got my act together in my teens, but I never forgot what it was like to sit down near a group of kids at lunch and watch them stand up in unison to move away. Like children of the depression hoarding pennies, or people looking in the mirror and seeing the overweight children they used to be, I am still vulnerable to people suggesting that I am somehow inherently unlikable. I’ve gotten pretty good at defending against that fear, but there’s always that gap in which I feel it acutely.
Because of this personal soft spot, I was really moved when Ralph tells Vanellope that the players are going to love her. He says, “You know why? Because you’re a winner. And you’re adorable. And everybody loves an adorable winner.” This is untrue, of course. Everybody doesn’t love anybody. But although Vanellope is an outcast among the racers, Ralph believes that she is inherently lovable and that the players will adore her.
I’ve been fortunate to have some awesome cheerleaders, especially in recent years. And I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to be a cheerleader. My favorite thing in psych is working with people with chronic or developmental disorders, because shame has become such an inherent part of many of those conditions. It was amazing how many people in the psych hospital where I did my training threw around the words “crazy” or “loonies”—and not in the wry, self-deprecating way that I’ve found can be pretty adaptive. This was vicious and hopeless, echoing back the way society and the media write them off as valueless. A significant part of my job as a therapist was just believing (and communicating) that my clients were lovable people. Not just that I cared about them, implying that I maybe had some sort of caring superpower, but that they were inherently worth caring about.
This is why I found it such a crushing scene when Ralph destroys Vanellope’s go-kart to stop her from racing. The villain had convinced Ralph that if Vanellope became a racer, the players of her game would see her glitching and think the game was broken. For complicated reasons (go see the movie if you haven’t yet) this would spell disaster for everyone involved.
Now, Ralph did what he did out of a desire to protect her. He was afraid that if she raced then she would literally be destroyed. But to believe that, he had to believe that the players would reject her because she was damaged. He had to believe that her glitchiness made her inherently unlovable, and that she needed to hide herself so that she would never risk getting rejected. And this was, of course, an extension of his own fears about himself.
The whole scene was terribly sad, of course. The smashed kart that they made together, Vanellope telling Ralph, “You are a bad guy!” But it was absolutely Ralph’s loss of faith that had me crying into my sleeve in the middle of a packed movie theatre. (As much as I tend to be stoic in my day-to-day life, I’m that much more emotional at movies and books.)
It’s so easy to want to protect someone from failure when they have a weakness. I’m still on the awkward side relative to the average psych student, and I’m sure many of my supporters will be holding their breaths when I interview for internships. But I thought my current training site was a long shot, and I almost didn’t apply. Without the people who had faith in me when I had none in myself, I probably wouldn’t have.
One thing I’ve learned is that there are so many moments each day, big and small, when a person’s hope flickers. Pile on enough of those moments and it can go out completely. I don’t like to see the people I care about struggle—especially in situations where I knew that failure was probable. But in the long run, it’s a whole lot better than knowing I helped them give up.