The Incredibles

What messages and assumptions underly this animated movie? Ms Razorblade analyses the "family values", the conformity, the female characters and the incredibly cliched stereotypes. (Yeah, we know it's a cartoon. And?)

Ms Razorblade, 11 January 2005

OK, I admit it: I went to the cinema with my mind already made up about this film. I was not initially excited by the reports of the new cartoon with the amazing special effects, as you'd expect from a childless twentysomething. What drew my attention was a Times feature (my dad reads it) on the director, Brad Bird, which read as follows:

"a smart, knowing and funny parody of the superhero genre that contains a strong family message... perhaps Bird's most inspired decision was to give his superheroes powers that reflect their place in the family unit. So Mr. Incredible is your traditional strong dad, except that he can lift cars with one hand; while his wife is the former Elastigirl... because, notes Bird, 'moms have to stretch in 100 different ways each day'.

Oh god, here we go: "the family unit". Not even "their family unit", which might involve admitting that gay, single-parent and extended families exist, but THE family unit, i.e. the heterosexual nuclear family. Since few things rankle more with dykes than the reminder that for over 15 years our family units were officially "pretend", I set off for the cinema faster than a speeding bullet and roughly as agreeable. I had decided in advance that the film would be sexist (which it was) and overtly right-wing (which it sort of was) and would have no Black characters (I was wrong, there were four). I eat my words. Not.

The problem is that I needn't really have bothered watching the film. The right-wing polemic, while it did exist, was crammed in quickly between endless action sequences, most of which were mind-numbingly familiar since they had been plagiarised from "classic" films such as Dr No; and there was no character development since almost all the characters were snoreful stereotypes. By the time the credits rolled I was much where I was when I started; I might as well have reviewed it without seeing it, except that in some ways it was even worse that I expected.

The Superstereotypes

Stereotypes, you ask? Here's a few (cue drum roll):

  • The All-American Muscle-bound Idiot (Mr Incredible)
  • The Put-Upon Housewife And Suburban Mom (Mrs Incredible, née Elastigirl)
  • The Shy, Moody Goth Girl (Violet Incredible)
  • The Brash Blond Brat (Dash Incredible)
  • The Superfly Pimp-Style Black Superhero (Frozone)
  • The Blonde, Husky-Voiced Femme Fatale (Mirage)

And that's just the main cast. In the bit-parts, we have The Wimpy Old Lady Whose Cat's Stuck Up A Tree, The Effete French Villain (with, of course, a Little Black French Moustache) and The Miserable, Grey, Penny-Pinching Capitalist Boss. The boss is actually relatively original: he doesn't actually smoke cigars, cackle while counting his money, or have a bent nose. Evidently Bird feels French people are a safer target than Jews or African-Americans. Mind you, the roles for the Black characters are remarkably original: in addition to Frozone, we have The Security Guard! A Man Driving A Van! And Honey, Frozone's girlfriend, who never even appears onscreen, but whose raucous voice we can hear runnin' at the mouth as she informs Frozone that he ought to spend mo' time wit her. Frozone, incidentally, is five minutes late saving the world because, although his swish flat is immaculate, he has mislaid his superhero suit, and we get a "comical" sequence in which he sprints round the flat trying to unearth it, a victim of his own incompetence.

The only characters who were not prehistoric stereotypes were, well, modern stereotypes. These were at least slightly interesting. Edna Mode, who designs suits for superheroes, was a send-up of Anna Wintour and got by far the biggest laughs; the discovery that she was voiced by Brad Bird himself, however, had me thinking less "amusing parody" and more "misogynist parody". And why wasn't she a gay man... actually, scratch that, the French guy was bad enough. And then there's the villain; but I'll get to him later.

Ah, Happy Family Life!

All right, the predictable stuff first. The film contains just as much reheated sexism as you might expect. It starts with a flashback to our heroes' heyday, which appears to be the 1970s: Frozone sneers nonchalantly that the only thing female superheroes are good for is sex, and Elastigirl, looking rather like that woman from The Avengers, spouts the "liberated woman" cod-feminism that was popular at the time: "Get married, me? Sit at home and let the men save the world? Are you serious?" This would in most contexts, of course, be extremely heartening, but in this case is a not-so-subtle way of letting us know that she will be married by the end of the reel. She is: she steals a bad guy right out from under Mr Incredible's nose, putting it out of joint in the process, and after a bit of the hostile argy-bargy that passes for "flirting" in Hollywood they get married the same day. (Yeah, well, it's a cartoon.)

Get married, me? Sit at home and let the men save the world? Are you serious?

Fast forwards twenty or so years and their married life is just as joyless as you would expect, given that Incredible works outside the home while Elastigirl does not. No explanation is given for this complete U-turn on her previous position. Incredible is your archetypal selfish male breadwinner, believing that the fact he works an eight-hour shift outside the home gives him the inalienable right to ignore his family: he hides in his study, goes "bowling" with Frozone in the evenings, and reads the paper at teatime while Elastigirl does all the childcare and housework. In fact, however, he is not bowling: he and Frozone are secretly (and illegally) saving people from burning buildings, so he has lied to his wife and is in distinct danger of arrest or, possibly, death. The possibility that he will be killed and leave his family in dire poverty is at no point broached (although at the end of the film he attempts to ban Elastigirl from fighting in the final battle, telling her "I'm not strong enough to lose you again" - but she and the kids are strong enough to lose him, are they?).

We are expected to believe that exile from superherodom is for him a wound that can never be healed; if that's the case, why is the former Elastigirl coping so well? Because housewifery is "natural" for women? Or, more likely, because patriarchy has made it the standard for women to do twice the work of men for half the reward? Elastigirl doesn't go bowling in the evenings; she doesn't do anything. There is no point in the entire film where she is shown enjoying herself; she hasn't got a single friend, with the exception of Edna Mode (er, some friend). When Edna says "Men of Bob's age are unstable, prone to weakness", she's got it in one. Incredible's self-control is nonexistent: while Elastigirl works hard to look after the kids and maintain their anonymity, Incredible is fired after throwing his boss through a wall in a fit of pique. He is too scared to tell his wife this, pretending instead that he has been sent on a sabbatical: the film begins to bear a bizarre resemblance to True Lies, or even The Full Monty.

Fortunately, the sex symbol Mirage pops up right on cue to offer Incredible a job killing rogue robots on a fancy tropical island. At this point, ridiculously, his family life improves enormously: he is happy! He acts decorously! He feeds the baby, talks to the kids and pinches his wife's bum! The message at this point appears to be that the secret to happy family life is for men to get more fulfilling jobs. There is only one huge hole in this hypothesis, which is that men know damn well that fulfilling jobs would make their lives better, and so do women; if you went up to women in the street and offered them a highly-paid job on a beautiful tropical island you would have to be a superhero yourself just to cope with the number of applications. Everyone would like a glamorous high-flying job. The problem is getting one.

the message appears to be that the secret to happy family life is for men to get more fulfilling jobs

This ludicrous and impractical message (that the nuclear family is the best of all possible worlds, provided the dad is extremely rich) would seem silly enough on its own, but Bird's comments take it to another level of inanity. The statement 'moms have to stretch in 100 different ways each day' is of course often correct; the problem is that Bird seems to view this an as exemplary situation rather than an injustice to be rectified by forcing men to shoulder a greater share of childcare and housework. He's not even content to restrict the most sexist lines to the male characters, either: it is Violet who says ominously (and quite seriously!) "Mom and Dad's lives could be in danger... or, worse still, their marriage." Pathetic.

"Equality is Evil"

The sloganeering, infrequent though it may be, is equally unpleasant. The central conceit of the film is an original one: all superheroes have been forced to retire after a series of malicious lawsuits from members of the public they have accidentally injured. This could have been hilarious, but isn't, since the central plot is not so much a struggle against genocidal maniacs as a struggle against political correctness (oh no, NOT AGAIN!) and bureaucracy.

When Elastigirl tells her son "Everyone's special, Dash," he mutters, "That means no-one is." Incredible refuses to go to the party celebrating his son's progression from the fourth to fifth form, on the grounds that "they keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity". His stingy boss is horrified that the kind-hearted Incredible keeps slipping secrets to his insurance clients, screaming in panic, "They're penetrating the bureaucracy!" Even the new surname the former Incredibles have adopted is Parr ("par", geddit?!... please, enough). And the Evil Genius reveals that he has spent the last twenty years inventing super-weapons and selling them to 2nd- and 3rd-world countries: "Now, everyone can be a superhero! And when everyone is super... no-one will be."

the central plot is not so much a struggle against genocidal maniacs as a struggle against political correctness

The idea that WMDs are perfectly safe, provided they are kept in the hands of just a few countries, could be read as a straightforward War on Terror allegory. However, the story also bears a noticeable resemblance to the Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergeron", set in 2081, where in the name of equality able-bodied people are forced to wear lead weights round their necks, "beautiful" people must wear ugly masks, etc. etc. Infringements of the law are punished by a submachine-gunning from a butch, "unfeminine" female chief of police (wonder what he was trying to say there, eh?). The story was written, somewhat surprisingly, in 1961, before second-wave feminism had got off the ground and long before political correctness existed. It is depressing how little right-wing propaganda has changed over the years. I would hazard a guess, therefore, that its subject was income distribution, or specifically the capitalist belief that ordinary people "need" the example of millionaires in order to encourage entrepreneurial behaviour.

My comparison falls through there, however, because the Evil Genius is not initially trying to outlaw superheroes, he is trying to become a superhero; he is, in short, a fan. He starts the film as Buddy Pine, an ordinary mortal and comic figure who longs to be a superhero (NB heroism, it would appear, is genetic) and tries to make up for his lack of superpowers by inventing rocket boots. Believing that he is destined to be "Incrediboy", he makes forcible attempts to "assist" an unwilling Mr Incredible and inadvertently mucks up a whole mission, injuring dozens of people in the process. We do not see him again for another twenty years, after which he pops up as "Syndrome", the non-super superhero (not sure I've got this joke), and snarls to Mr Incredible that his life was blighted by the previous rejection and that he now lives a bitter, twisted existence that can only be alleviated by killing all the other superheroes and taking their place himself.

Er, has anyone else noticed the resemblance to Eminem's "Stan" here!? In both cases, fans are providing a convenient scapegoat function, in that certain actions (e.g. beating up women and killing innocent people) are presented as entirely laudable when committed by the star of the show, but laughable and pathetic when copied by fans who aspire to resemble them. Buddy/Syndrome is a bizarre villain: he is about four foot tall, and has a manic, shrill voice, dodgy teeth, and a stunning ginger hairdo the size of a house. While he is certainly original, he is hardly a role model. He kills Innocent People, which is Bad. He even kills superheroes, which is Worse, and the fact that he sneeringly urges Incredible to kill Mirage (knowing that someone so "good" won't be able to do it) is presented as proof of his moral turpitude. Conversely, Incredible kills dozens of Syndrome's security guards, but that is OK, because they are Bad. He even kills innocent people by tearing down a motorway at 100 mph, but that was OK, because it was Necessary. Killing people, it would appear, is acceptable in superheroes but not in ordinary mortals, especially when they have bad hair.

And the beating up women bit...

What's that you say? You're surprised that a PG-rated film has a scene in which the hero picks up a woman by her throat, tries to strangle her and then throws her to the ground? Get with the programme, grandma, we all know that what makes a male superhero is his ability to maul anything female. Just look at James Bond... Now, dropping the sarcasm, I do not believe any part of this revolting scene should be spared exposure, so here it goes. Mr Incredible, who believes his wife and children are dead, is hanging sobbing in a torture device. Mirage, who has seen the light, sneaks into the room, turns off the machine and tries to tell him that they are in fact alive. Before she can get the words out, however, he picks her up by the neck, chokes her and starts shouting at her. At this point his miraculously still-alive Elastigirl enters the room and, noticing her, he is so delighted he forgets all about Mirage and drops her in a retching, gasping heap on the floor. The noises she made at this point were so comical that I realised, to my horror, that this is supposed to be a joke. (Ha. Ha.)

This evidently wasn't violent enough for Bird's tastes, so Elastigirl, believing that Mirage is The Other Woman, becomes furious and punches her in the face with her super-long elastic arm. Incredible then grabs her by the wrist, drags her towards him (despite the fact she is shouting "let go of me!") and... kisses her! (Euck!!!) Ignoring the unconscious Mirage completely, they then run off to find their kids. Elastigirl, however, is incapable of intimidating Incredible: when she shouts at him furiously for getting them into so much trouble, he responds with an indulgent smile, "You can pick a fight, but I'm just glad you're alive." She is also incapable of controlling their son: he obeys his dad, but ignores his mother's instructions.

Her left ear is wider than her waist; her eyes are bigger than her feet

The most outrageous crime of the whole lot, however, is the character of Violet. For a start, she is THE thinnest, spikiest, tortured-on-a-rack-in-childhood waif that has ever had the misfortune to grace a cinema screen. Her left ear is wider than her waist; her eyes are bigger than her feet. This, as you can imagine, makes her a crap hero; despite her superpowers, a guard defeats her easily at one point by simply knocking her off her feet. She is also an atrocious wimp with an unrequited crush on a boy in her school; after he glances in her direction near the start of the film, she hides behind a wall and swoons, "Oooh. He looked at me."

At the end of the film, in the most mean-spirited and hypocritical scene of the lot, Violet is shown at an athletics meet, having cast off her black Goth jeans and donned a pink dress and a bow in her hair (pukarama!!!). The object of her affections approaches her with a puzzled expression: "You're Violet, right? You look... different." "You like different?" Violet asks anxiously. "Sure... different is good," he smug stud replies, at precisely the moment Violet has started to look just like everyone else.

Bigotry vs. Plain Old Narcissism

Ultimately I remain puzzled about the message of this film. For a while I thought I was trapped in Michael Portillo's sneering, anti-Europe address to the 1995 Conservative Party Conference:

"Imagine - the European Commission might want to harmonise uniforms and cap badges, or even metricate them. The European Court would probably want to stop our men fighting for more than 40 hours a week. They would send half of them home on paternity leave."

The idea that white male superheroes are at risk from a cabal of evil bureaucrats, feminists, meddling officials and French people is far from new. However, the film is more complicated than I first thought. It is not a straightforward American Dream story, because not everyone can be a superhero; you have to be born super. It is therefore a paean to elitism: not surprising in a superhero film, but unusual in America. It cannot be an anti-political correctness film when they have so ostentatiously contrived to insert a Black best friend. And although the message is explicitly anti-bureaucracy, it is pro-health and safety; in one of the funniest sequences, Edna Mode informs Mr Incredible that she will make his new outfit but that it will certainly not have a cape. When he protests that capes are obligatory for superheroes, she replies that they are a health and safety risk; and at the end of the film, sure enough, Syndrome is finally (and horribly) killed when his pretentious cape gets caught in the blades of his jet engine.

Perhaps the real subject of the film's allegory is rather more down-to-earth. On the website www.skwigly.co.uk, I read the following interview:

... [In the mid-90s] Brad couldn't get any of his ideas for new animated features greenlit by the studios. "I couldn't get any of my ideas for movies off the runway," Bird explained. "All these projects would get stalled out for purely bureaucratic reasons. My guy at the studio would get fired. Or they wouldn't want to risk their parking spot on my iffy project. Meanwhile, my family is getting larger," he continued. "And I haven't made it yet. I wasn't getting the chance to do what I love. To do what I was good at." And out of all that frustration grew the core concept for "The Incredibles"...

Dear god: so all there really is behind the bureaucracy-is-evil, women-are-pinching-our-jobs rhetoric is just one rather sad director with delusions of grandeur? I give up.

I anticipate complaints to the effect that I am reading too much into a supposedly light-hearted children's film. But children's films are more important than adults', not less; children are much more vulnerable to this kind of rhetoric because they have no knowledge base or political system with which to refute it. Adults can roll their eyes and dismiss this cartoon as a postmodern satire of James Bond, or whatever. Kids won't know.

The only really incredible thing about this film is that even in 2004, it is still quite acceptable to show children a film in which the ideal man is one who beats up women, and the ideal woman a stay-at-home housewife.

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