In many ways, Cars 3 promises a fairly straightforward narrative where the former student learns he must now become a teacher, but it also grapples with the challenges that come with this transition. After Lightning survives a spectacular crash early in the film, he gloomily watches footage of his mentor, the late Doc Hudson, voiced by Paul Newman in recordings that never made the first Cars film, in a career-ending crash. Facing down the threat of his own forced retirement, Lightning seeks out Doc’s own mentor, Smokey. Smokey’s advice about racing frames much of the film’s general philosophy on mentorship as he instructs Lightning “to look for opportunities you never knew were there” and to seize those opportunities when they appear.
Those opportunities, however, are ones that Lightning fails to see for most of the movie. The film’s new heroine, Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo, is earnest and eager, but lacks confidence. After Lightning’s crash, Cruz Ramirez is assigned as Lightning’s trainer to help him get back up to speed. But Lightning has little patience for her help: He may be older, but he’s also more experienced. Although Cruz has the latest technology at her disposal, which Lightning is completely out of touch with, he knows “real racing,” something that Cruz has little knowledge of. That lack of experience requires more of Lightning’s patience than he’s willing to give: “If you were a racer, you’d know what I’m talking about,” he lashes out. “But you’re not.”
In the film’s emotional turning point, Cruz reveals that training others isn’t the career she dreamed of. She too had wanted to be a racer, spending her younger years practicing, honing her talent, and idolizing Lightning in particular. Cruz admits that she gave up her opportunity to fulfill her big dream: “The other racers looked nothing like me ... It made me feel like it was a world in which I didn’t belong.” This is the primary dilemma of the Cars universe, in which personal identity and professional identity are inextricable from one another. While the franchise has generally played its stereotypes for laughs (with Larry the Cable Guy voicing a rusty old tow truck), Cars 3 finally gets serious about them: Lightning fails to see Cruz as a racer because she doesn’t look like one.
Cruz’s story surely resonates with many struggling to break into fields where they are underrepresented (Pixar drew upon Alonzo’s own experiences as an actress for Cruz’s backstory). But what’s more, Cruz’s story emphasizes the way that women, particularly young women of color, internalize external messages about not only what they can and can’t do, but who they can or can’t be.
Cruz’s story embodies the well-documented confidence gap defined by both gender and race. The 1991 American Association of University Women’s study “Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America” found that the gap between girls’ and boys’ self-esteem widens tremendously in adolescence. For Hispanic girls, self-esteem drops more than it does for any other group of girls, according to researchers. These anxieties and doubts seep into educational and career choices, the study found, as many girls believe that they are unqualified or unable to follow their dreams.