How Movies Like ‘King Ralph’ Condition Audiences to Give Ill-Prepared Leaders a Chance

There are days it seems possible that the Trump Administration is all John Goodman’s fault.
By  · Published on November 7th, 2017

There are days it seems possible that the Trump Administration is all John Goodman’s fault.

There’s an awareness these days of how the media we consume contributes to something like “rape culture.” “Rape culture” is often defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” It manifests in victim blaming (“why didn’t she do enough to stop it? What was she wearing?”), slut shaming (“Does she sleep around?”), objectification, and trivializing rape. This isn’t an article about rape and rape culture but consider for a moment how our culture still considers funny to make jokes about men being raped in prison. Films and TV often depict male rape as funny in situations that would not be played for laughs with women.
(Which is not to say that the depiction of female sexual assault isn’t messed up in its own way, but this is a pretty simple, noncontroversial oddity to point out.)
Rape culture probably played its own part in electing Donald Trump, but do you know what’s held the media back from being as critical of him as they need to be? The certainty that holding the office of President will somehow impose presidential norms on Trump. How many times over the last year have we seen even the mainstream media be horny for the “Presidential Pivot.” There have been so many false starts for the moment when Donald Trump would at last “act presidential” that “Today is the day Donald Trump became President” is pretty much a regular meme on Twitter.
Where does this unwavering faith in Trump’s ability to be humbled and take to leadership with some degree of selflessness and nobility come from? King Ralph.
For those of you who haven’t seen the hilarious 1991 comedy, it stars John Goodman as an American who’s the last surviving heir to the British throne after a freak accident wipes out the entire royal family at once. Ralph is the descendant of an illegitimate offspring of the Duke of Warren, giving him a legitimate claim. He’s everything the Brits don’t want in a king – he’s boorish, loud, and a bit of an unrefined slob. When he’s finally tracked down by the British, he’s performing as a Vegas lounge singer. It’s basically the perfect role for John Goodman in the early 90s.
We get the expected culture clash as he’s instructed on proper royal protocols and etiquette. Most of the jokes about proper dining and the way to address people are fairly expected. (A high-five is not considered a proper greeting.) It’s not long before he sneaks out to take in a strip show and then goes backstage to meet a dancer who’s caught his eye. On his first evening out with her, they go to Burger King, where he’s swiftly recognized. The whole debacle of the heir dating an exotic dancer would be scandalous, and that fact soon threatens his reign.
Centuries of tradition and the reputation of a nation’s figurehead are threatened by a belching, straight-talking “normal guy” who pushes back against all the stuffy British pomp and circumstance. It’s not hard to imagine why Ralph would be such an embarrassment as a monarch, but the way the story’s told, we’re kind of on his side. Why does he have to marry someone he’s never met just to secure the royal bloodline and to grease the wheels for a diplomatic and business relationship? Why does he have to be so formal and unnatural when his “no bullshit” persona is just as good at cutting through the crap and getting down to brass tacks.
The movie explicitly endorses the latter when Ralph hosts a function with the newly-established King of Zambizi. Upon seeing the dark-skinned royal, Ralph throws all protocol to the wind and greets with a “Yo, Holmes! What’s happening?” That gaffe aside, the two bond later over beer and darts. It’s hard not to watch this and think of Ralph as “a guy you’d like to have a beer with.”
And whatta you know? By the end of the film, Ralph’s risen to the occasion and become more than the slovenly lounge singer he was at the start. Plus, all of his faults end up being coded as reasons why he’s trustworthy, salt of the earth, man of the people, and so on.
The people who were still trying to give Trump a chance even after a Muslim travel ban and a botched military op were desperately trying to believe that we had a King Ralph situation, where all his sleazy traits would become assets. I guarantee it. It’s as unhealthy as taking your romantic cues from movies where the guy wears down the girl who dumped him by doing some grand gesture that demands she give him one more chance.
If the reporters weren’t banking on King Ralph, they were probably pinning their hopes on Trump being Eddie Murphy in The Distinguished Gentleman. It’s one of Murphy’s lesser-acclaimed comedies, but worth a revisit. Murphy plays Jeff Johnson, a Florida conman with a name similar to a recently deceased career congressman. Having recently learned how much money there is to be milked from lobbyists. Jeff runs a campaign entirely on name recognition without making a single public appearance. His assumption that people will vote for “The Name You Know” out of habit proves correct and before long he’s off to Washington to soak up that sweet lobbyist cash.
The joke of the movie is that his fellow congressmen and their associates are just as unscrupulous as Johnson, with allegiance only to whatever puts the most contributions in their pocket. With a few cons, he gets himself named to a committee that a normal freshman congressman would never be qualified for and briefly it feels like we’re about to get a film about two different breeds of snakes slithering around and biting each other.
There’s almost certainly a Wolf of Wall Street version of this film that would be damn entertaining, but instead, the filmmakers have Jeff grow a conscience. A visit from a young girl who’s dying of cancer believed to be caused by the power lines near her home touches him, and for the first time, he becomes an advocate for his constituents, not himself. He’s motivated to expose the dirty deals of his mentor and committee chairman and somehow it all gets cast as “a common man taking on the REAL crooks.”
Because you see, the responsibilities of the job changed him. It hit him that this dying little girl and everyone else in his district needs him to be their voice against this corrupt machine. In the face of that, who COULD keep running the same kind of cons as Jeff did?
It’s a nice fairy tale, but that’s all it is. Our problem is that we’ve bought into it. We’ve romanticized the idea that an outsider can come in and will do what’s right. Sure, I’ve pulled two movies from the nineties as my example, but the trope lives on as recently as this fall season. ABC’s The Mayor is about a rapper who runs for mayor just for publicity and ends up being elected. So far, most of the plots have been built about him being woefully unprepared for the job, but he’s always depicted as a guy who’s intent is to do good now that he’s been given this power.
We don’t have many stories about sociopaths who achieve high in the system and keep using that power to the detriment of their constituents. Just as film and TV have taught us that the unpopular girl is a stunner once she loses the glasses and overalls, we’ve been fed the nonsense that even a con man will get a new perspective once millions of lives depend on him.
So when you hear a CNN anchor revving up his viewers for the surely-coming “presidential pivot” or speaking with the expectation that eventually Donald will “act presidential,” know where this unfounded optimism comes from: John Goodman saving a kingdom thanks to a beer he shared with a down-to-earth ruler.
We didn’t elect King Ralph. Some days it feels like people have forgotten that.

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Since 2009, The Bitter Script Reader has written about his experiences as a Hollywood script reader, offering advice to aspiring writers. He is also the author of MICHAEL F-ING BAY: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films, and posts regularly on his site at