Cars 3 drives into theaters on June 16 and brings a new character to the Pixar franchise: Cruz Ramirez. Young, enthusiastic (sometimes overly so), talented, and knowledgeable, Cruz is not the kind of personality Lightning McQueen wants to be around as he attempts to return to the racetrack after recovering from a severe crash. He doesn’t really have a choice, though. Cruz, a trainer at Rust-eze, is responsible for getting Lightning back on track; in the process of doing so, she comes into her own.
From what I saw at a press event for Cars 3, Cruz’s aspirations and journey will push her into the spotlight. In many ways, she’s the polar opposite of Lightning. He’s overconfident and arrogant—at one point he does the car equivalent of mansplaining (carsplaining?) to Cruz. She, on the other hand, doesn’t feel quite so sure of herself; her self-doubt prevents her from following her dreams of putting her wheels to the pavement.
Cruz is every person who’s ever experienced the unnerving tendrils of impostor syndrome wrapping around their brain. Cruz is every person who’s ever experienced a lack of confidence. For many of us, particularly for many women I know, Cruz is the very picture of relatable.
In a key scene in the movie, Cruz asks Lightning about becoming a racer. She asks him, “What was it like for you? How did you know you could do it?” He replies, “I just never thought I couldn’t.” The exchange summarizes the difference in their levels of self-belief. Female Pixar employees connected to the scene. Cars 3 writer Kiel Murray said, “We played that [scene] for women in the studio and a lot of the women, particularly in leadership positions, said they felt that way. They said they wished they felt as confident as they should be in their position and that they had this self-doubt that would plague them.”
The writers hit upon the idea of Cruz’s back story once they cast Cristela Alonzo to voice her. They’d put Cruz in a few different roles–a clerk, a super fan, a techie–before making her a trainer at Rust-eze, but something was missing. Then Alonzo shared her history with the writers. “Cristela was awesome. As we were building Cruz and trying to figure out who she was, her own backstory was really inspirational,” Murray said, “She talked to us about trying to break into comedy, and how hard it was, and how she felt so different and she looked different and she sounded different. She talked about growing up in a small town and just a lot of stuff that felt relevant for our character.”
Armed with information from Alonzo, Murray pursued the theme of confidence. She looked at her daughter and sons and tracked their levels of confidence. She said, “I started reading about confidence and the new studies about girls being less confident and why that is, the confidence gap, self-limiting, and the phenomenon of showing up at tryouts at art class or whatever and looking around and seeing everyone else’s work and going, ‘I’m not good enough. I’m walking away.'”
Though it’s not strictly a gender issue, the confidence gap does exist. In many situations, especially in the workforce, women are less self-assured than men. Leaning in, taking a seat at the table, and other workplace catchphrases distill to an important message as cliche as it is true: believe in yourself.
Cruz’s story is about finding confidence. It’s also the story of one of the lead storyboard artists on the film, Louise Smythe. She brought an important perspective to the scene discussed above, because she knew the nervousness and fear Cruz felt. Writer Mike Rich said, “She [Louise] had self diagnosed herself with imposter syndrome. She felt like she was the small fish in the big pond at Pixar. She did not think she could do this job, and she was hiding it behind a smile every day.”
The scene wasn’t having the emotional resonance they strive for at Pixar, and Smythe’s work on the boards helped change the perspective and put the emphasis on Cruz rather than Lightning. “The movie up to this point, the movie in general, is Lightning McQueen’s movie–he’s our main character. He’s been dominant,” Rich said, “We all know Lightning McQueen is brash and cocky, he says a lot, he takes up a lot of screen real estate. He’s been very clear about what he thinks about Cruz; she’s a means to an end for him.”
But Cruz starts to speak up, and Smythe helped pull her into the spotlight. “We realize this was a pivot point, and we were going to start hearing from Cruz that she’s not just a tool–she’s a person and McQueen was going to see this for the first time, too. What Louise brought to this was this idea we’re going to shift the screen balance a little bit for this moment and bring Cruz forward and minimize Lightning McQueen as she’s starting to tell her story and dig in,” Rich said.
Sometimes when you can’t find confidence for yourself, you can give others a necessary boost.