One of my favourite films of last year ( I laughed! I cried!) I read Wreck it Ralph as a lesson in family dynamics : an explanation for children of why so many weddings, funerals and celebrations end in fights, that isn’t just alcohol.
The film is set in a video game arcade, in which all the characters from the games have self determining lives outside the confines of their games : the premise of Ralph’s game is that he climbs up a building breaking it, while Fix-it Felix, the player’s avatar, follows after him repairing the damage with a magic hammer, and avoids destruction by birds or falling debris. If ‘you’ win, the people in the block run to the top and throw a party for Felix, and give him a medal, and they throw Ralph off the building, where he goes to live in his dump of broken bricks.
The ‘arc’ of Ralph in the film is that he has to leave his game/family in search of the acceptance /medal that his role in the game excludes him from. In freudian terms, this is the necessary trajectory of the child growing up : the point at which the complexity of your needs outweighs the comforts of home is the point where you leave to find your own rewards, and create a new family structure that meets the emotional needs of the adult you become through that process.
The happy ending for Ralph is achieved through his development of a parental relationship with a child character from a racing game, and the help he gives her in her own search for acceptance in her peer group, which mirrors his own desire for social acceptance from the somewhat two dimensional inhabitants of the flats his job is to destroy. When Vanelope Von Schweetz ultimately wins the race, and her game ( for which read ‘life’) becomes a constitutional democracy with herself as president, it is a metaphor for successful parenting : he proudly watches her win her races from his own altered reality, which now includes decent housing for all, and the inclusion of refugees from outdated games. At the end of the film, he has successfully managed to pull his family/ game out of their fixed view of him as ‘bad’, through becoming a father, and obviously, therefore adult. His last words : “Turns out I don’t need a medal to make me feel good, ‘cos if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” is a touching reminder to parents of how much our own little ones mean to us. I did say I cried!
But that is, of course, Hollywood : and it hardly needs saying that the enduring success of an industry based on our desire for redemption, would hardly be so enduring, were the happy endings as reliable in real life as on-screen. Family life is the best thing we have so far evolved to get children safely through to continuing the species themselves, by which time, we need it to be as unbearable as possible to give us the motivation to get the hell out.
Ralph returns to his game/family, and is able to make changes there so that it meets his needs : they happily accept his changes as part of the joy of having him in their lives. I am sure families like this exist, but perhaps, to reference Tolstoy’s view of happy families, the spectacle of a group of people lovingly nurturing each other through all of lives changes, without struggle or resistance, is so common and mundane that there is no need for it to appear in dramatic form.
In real life, brothers Felix and Ralph, would have learnt in childhood to understand themselves and the world through their opposing roles : sometimes it seems like nature just loves the drama of matching a ‘fixit’ shy intellectual child with a ‘wreck it’ boisterous sports nut for a sibling, just for the hell of it. The answer is of course, nurture, not by the parents, but in the child’s evolution of its self, is the counterpoint of the ‘not-self’, which in the best case scenario, of a nurturing family, is helped by siblings, but in the worst case of a stressed, neglectful or abusive family becomes set in such unbreakable stone that conflict is the inevitable result of any attempt at progression by any family member.
If the sports nut grows up, and decides to become a university professor, in a nurturing family, the intellectual sibling should welcome the closeness of new areas of shared interest. Lack of nurturing in childhood is a threat to survival, and as such, activates the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emergency responses, and children who are brought up with this, will need to work very hard indeed to allow their cerebral cortex, which deals with reason, to override their emergency responses. Children whose ideas of themselves and their siblings have evolved in brains bathed in stress hormones are unable to develop into adults, and change these ideas without a huge amount of work and commitment from their analytical brain. Any suggested change in those ideas will be experienced as threatening to their sense of themselves, and will be fought straight from the amygdala : “Stop trying to be clever, you’re the pretty one, it’s not fair” was something I saw my own mother throw at her sister, when both were in their fifties.
Mostly, like Wreck it Ralph, people sensibly go off in search of a medal in a different game, and keep exposure to siblings stuck in childhood to a minimum : Weddings, Christmas, Ancestors day, Thanksgiving…..