September 21, 2010

The Incredibles

Hello Heroine Content readers, here's another guest post by our stalwart guest blogger Patrick. Enjoy!

In my opinion, there's not much that stimulates debate like a contentious statement. So I hope the following review will serve as stimulation in that vein. I am a big fan of Brad Bird - he directed three of my favorite animated films, and The Incredibles is one of them. Still, I don't think he or Pixar are perfect when it comes to the representation of women or people of color, and this review will contain quite a few criticisms (and some questions).

The Incredibles is the story of Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, and his midlife-crisis. Bob used to be a superhero, but nowadays super-heroics are prohibited, and Bob slaves away in a dead-end insurance job... until a woman called Mirage shows up and gives him a giant robot to fight. Unfortunately, it's all a plan of Syndrome, a disgruntled fan of Mr. Incredible, to become a hero himself, kill all other superheroes, and in the end get rid of the idea of superheroes itself. Thankfully, Bob's family comes to the rescue, and together with his wife Elastigirl and their daughter Violet and son Dash (and old friend Frozone), the heroes save the world yet again.

First question, not that related to Heroine Content: do you feel it's a problem that many people get killed in this film?

It is a family film, after all, but Syndrome kills many heroes (off-screen), his henchmen get blown up - Syndrome himself is dragged into a jet turbine.

One of my criticisms is right in the description above. The Incredibles is Mr. Incredible's story. The first half of the film is told almost totally from his perspective, and it is his crisis that propels the film forward. Elastigirl, you see, has adapted perfectly to her role as housewife and mother. As the film begins, we hear her say, "Settle down? No way! Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don't think so." But then she is tamed by marriage. She even becomes "Mrs. Incredible", not only in the advertisements (because of rights issues with Elasti-Girl), but also for the film proper - it's the Incredibles, after all, not the Elastics.

And while Elastigirl is busy trying to hold the family together, Mr. Incredible reads at the dinner table, doesn't listen to her, doesn't take his kids's problems seriously, locks himself in his own room to relive the past, and sneaks out with Frozone to play Hero, something which has caused the family to relocate and get new identities at least once and probably more than once. Has Elastigirl ever thought about a divorce? Or, if Incredible can't hold a job, has anyone thought about making her the breadwinner? Doesn't seem so. And while Incredible still has Frozone to rely on, we never see or hear from a friend she may have and go out with. Elastigirl is simply mother and wife.

I am not sure how much criticism to bring to bear for the traditional household the film represents because I feel that was part of the whole idea: Imagine the stereotypical suburban family, only with superpowers. Still, it is the traditional household we see, and the respective powers are also traditional: the men get the action powers (strength, speed, and Mr. Incredible seems pretty invulnerable). Elastigirl's powers were chosen specifically because as mother and housewife, she is used to juggling many different things, and Violet has the passive powers of Sue Storm (invisibility and static force fields). Violet needs to learn to be more confident, of course; her brother Dash has no such problem.

In fact, I'm not sure what Dash's personal problem is supposed to be - except for growing up to be an insufferable jock. In the beginning of the film, Dash is sent to the school principal's office, but this seems more due to him not being allowed to use his powers than anything else. Mr. Incredible needs to learn to fight as a team, and Elastigirl, in typical Mom fashion, needs to learn to relax and allow for a little heroics now and then. She goes after her husband not to save him, but because he lied to her, and only when she discovers he has been imprisoned does she rescue him - only to immediately start berating him.

Elastigirl still has fun moments. She knocks out bad guys left and right and frankly, her power is the most interesting - and flexible (heh). She uses her body as a sling, a parachute, a boat, a trip line, ... She is also the most practical member of the team and, naturally, the voice of reason. Violet has the most pronounced character arc, since she does learn to be confident, and even gets the whole family out of the prison (and she gets the boy). And the way the family (and Frozone) works together at the end is not only a great lesson, but also shows how a superhero team fight is supposed to be done.

If you count all of the Incredibles as main characters, half of them are women. Even more, these women don't conform to the typical comic book look. They have small breasts, and Elastigirl has wide hips even when she's young. Of course, in the time between the prologue and the main part of the film, Mr. Incredible's physique changes much more than her - I have provided screenshots to compare the difference. Mirage and Violet, on the other hand, are thin enough that while they don't have the comic book look, they could be played by any number of rail-thin actresses. The men are allowed to have a little gut, though (except for Frozone, but Frozone is Samuel L. Jackson and the designers are probably both in awe and afraid of him).

Second question: Do you think the body types of the main characters should have been even more non-typical? Should Violet have been larger, and maybe Dash very thin? Should Elastigirl have changed more - or is that even possible with someone whose power is total control of the shape of her body? Do you even think the character designers for animated films have more freedom than for a live-action film - or less, since they need to design the characters so that their features are part of the story, part of who those characters are?

Of course, Syndrome has Mirage as his sidekick. Mirage is a woman of unintelligible ethnicity. Her facial features and slim build suggest Asian, her accent is vaguely European, and her white hair makes me think she's the daughter of pop singer Bjørk. Mirage has helped Syndrome kill numerous superheroes, and try to kill Mr. Incredible, but she does get pangs of conscience when Syndrome shoots at a plane containing kids. When Mr. Incredible threatens to kill Mirage, Syndrome calls his bluff. Both events come together to make Mirage betray Syndrome and help the heroes. I must admit, though, that having watched the film several times now, I still don't really buy it. I would have preferred her to be an unrepenting villain instead of melting away when hugged by Mr. Incredible (for which she is punched by Elastigirl soon after).

Frozone is the only black character we see. Voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, he is pretty much Samuel L. Jackson in a spandex suit. He also has a fairly headstrong girlfriend / wife who I assume was intended by the filmmakers to be black, since they portray her using a stereotype often associated with black women: when the city is being attacked by a giant robot, she is arguing with Frozone about the dinner they had planned for the night - and not telling him where she put his suit, even when he calls her, "woman!" I find this specific scene tiresome, to be honest.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Incredibles without talking about Edna Mode. Edna is easily the best thing in the movie. She is honest, direct, and confident. Even Mr. Incredible cannot stand up to her. She is a fabulous designer, as well. Edna is also of indeterminate descent - her accent is a mix of German and Japanese according to what I've read. She is tiny, but nonetheless great. And she's a woman... in fact, she might even be a transgendered woman, since Edna is voiced by Brad Bird himself.

In the end, even though Mr. Incredible features prominently, The Incredibles contains several female characters who have quite an impact and get to be action heroines in their own right. The woman even comes to the rescue of the man - in fact, Mr. Incredible is freed first by Mirage (moments before Elastigirl would have freed him) and then by Violet. And don't forget Edna Mode! There is only one prominent black character, however, and he's very much a supporting character who also gets to argue with a stereotypical off-screen wife, and two more characters of indeterminate ethnicity.

Finally, I want to address the issue of ableism in this film. I think I get what Brad Bird is trying to say with the comments about celebrating mediocrity and the mantra that if everybody was special, nobody would be special anymore. Still, he chooses to say this with a superhero film, which means that the elite, the ones who are special, are not special because of what they do, they are not special because of hard work - but because they are born special. In the final moments of the film, Dash runs a race, and it's comical how superior he is to his competition. He is competing with kids who are incapable of competing with him. I am note sure about it, but I think this moment - and the whole superhero thing - muddles the issue. However, does this make The Incredibles an ableist film? Or are those at least ableist moments? Let this be my third question.

I think especially with an animated film, the producers could have done an even better job of integrating other ethnicities and minorities into the movie, and they surely could have chosen less typical powers or a less traditional household to portray. I like the film, as I like a lot of Pixar films, but just as with these other films, this one is a far cry from inclusive or even feminist. Yes, there's Edna Mode - but there's also the selfless mom role for Elastigirl. The potential was there, though, so I give 2 stars.


Syndrome's evil plan bugged me for reasons related to your ableism discussion. Obviously he's a bad guy that kills people, but I don't see what's so bad about planning to give superpowers to everyone. Obviously there's real dangers, but otherwise the film seems perfectly content with unregulated vigilantism.

I personally hope in that if there's a sequel, a heroic gadgeteer will give the Incredibles what for.

That said, it's been a while since I've seen the film, and my griping has gotten push back from some friends that liked it and are pretty savvy.

I've never seen this movie and this may be a small issue but I'm wondering if anyone else is bothered by Elastigirl's name? I know lots of (most?) people refer to grown women as 'girls' sometimes (often?), I do it myself, but it does bother me some.
Of course, she could call herself whatever she wants but the writer/creator chose that name really.
I don't know, does this bother anyone else?

@ Christine, I wonder if this was a name the character got when she was young? It does beg the question of what she's supposed to do when she does get older.

Whilst you make good points about Elastigirl/Helen's character, and there are some definite problems there, for me her character was very positive in that she throws off the societal shackles of being a housewife and reclaims her own identity.

It all comes together in that great scene when Edna Mode confronts a crying Helen at what she has become:

"What are you talking about? You are Elastigirl! My God, pull yourself together! .... Confront the problem! Fight! Win!"

That fact that Elastigirl has conformed to her expected gender role is her 'problem' that she needs to overcome as a character. She does fight, she does win, and more than that she kicks a lot of butt and saves her (slightly bungling) husband.

Of course as you point out, this does all take place in a story centred almost entirely around Mr Incredible, which lessens the impact of her personal story. Still, I think there's a cool message in there somewhere which combines female empowerment and comic books, which is awesome.

Also, just to refer to your first question: yes I think it is absolutely okay that a family film contains quite a few deaths. Children shouldn't be molly-coddled by tv into thinking the world is a lovely perfect place. If you're going to provide a fantasy world of superheroes, it's good to have consequences and reality in there too. It's just good story-telling, and probably better for the child's development.

My favourite film as a young child was Watership Down, a cute film about bunnies that also features a lot of violence and death, perpetrated by both humans and by rabbit against rabbit. It was upsetting to watch, but it had a powerful impact on me because my heroes were fallible. When those same heroes triumphed, it gave me an appreciation of their courage and resourcefulness, not to mention self-sacrifice, because they had gone through so much. Moreover it gave me a desire to develop those traits myself. Regular comic-book stories where the hero always wins and nobody ever dies failed to provide me with the same kind of experience, or any kind of meaningful lesson.

Okay I should wrap this up before I start to rant. Great article! :)

Wulfy: that's a good point, the emancipation of Elastigirl as B-plot, so to speak. Thanks for pointing that out!

For what it's worth, I totally agree with you on the deaths thing. I think children's fantasies are much darker than we like to believe, and one of the things I like in "Where the Wild Things Are" is the undercurrent of threat throughout the whole thing. Doesn't mean I don't love Ponyo, but what I don't like is when I feel children are mollycoddled. If it's an ugly topic, have the gumption to show its ugliness.

I totally agree with Wulfy about conformity being a problem Elasti-girl has to overcome. The point about her being Mrs. Incredible instead of her family being the Elasti-family is something I've been thinking about for a while, ever since I got married and didn't change my name. I think if we have kids I'd want us all to have one family name, but neither of us really cares whose last name it is, but it is important to me to have a family name. So I could conceivably see them keeping with the "Incredibles" for the family since it encompasses all their powers, but they really should have kept Helen's civie last name to balance it out. Really.

Also, there's a very good reason Mr. Impossible is much more out of shape than his wife - he's muscular. And not magic super-powered muscular, since he actually has to train to regain it. When you have a lot of muscles, they don't just fade off and leave you when you stop using them, they become fat. He was so super muscular and then started a desk job. Elasti-girl kept working out, what with having to pack and unpack so many times. I think if Mr. Impossible had ever admitted he hated office work, she would have gladly swapped places with him, as much as she enjoys being a full-time mom (this from a deleted scene that is a little problematic, while interesting). Mr. Impossible's pride is a problem he overcomes in the movie, as well as his tendency to keep secrets from his wife.

I adore this movie, even while I do see a lot of its flaws. It's kind of fun to figure out how it could have improved them while remaining true to its themes and ideas playing off the classic Fantastic Four and typical suburban family stereotypes. The commentary is very good, and you can see how Brad Bird worked hard to puzzle out some of these issues and how sometimes the story and simplicity won out over more inclusiveness and more feminist details. With budget and timelines, it's easy to see how Frozone's wife is just a voice, for example. I'd like to see more movies from him.



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