One Incredible Woman

***SPOILER ALERT***

It is 2012 and we still haven’t reached gender equality. There is still evidence to suggest that women are earning less, on average, in the workforce than their male counterparts. Culture is still rife with constant reminders that suggest that a woman’s body is, unless meticulously trimmed and sanitized, a horrifying spectacle. Unfortunately, I don’t say anything revolutionary when I suggest that much of what keeps us entrenched in a sexist culture are the ways in which women are framed in the popular media.

In that regard, I can understand why some people would get up in arms when we see, once again, a woman in the role of the domesticated housewife grace the silver screen. The “housewife” is a trope that we really ought to be leery of. The smiling, obedient and well-maintained archetype has been long-identified as an oppressive ideal that suggests and encourages women to bear the brunt of the household work, raise the kids, keep the husband/father happy, and do so with a smile; the satisfaction that is derived from putting her family’s needs before hers is “the housewife’s” reward.

Additionally, anytime a housewife enters the frame, we can assume that, unless the film is intent on flipping the status quo, heteronormativity is not far behind. Standing beside their determined, breadwinning husband, the “housewife” is one of the footsoldiers of the heteronormative, patriarchal, slut-shaming army at its most cliché.

However, a film that features a housewife is not inherently evil either. It is not fair to immediately dismiss a movie as sexist simply because it features a stay-at-home mom. There are, after all, moms, and dads for that matter, that opt to stay at home and act as the primary caregiver for a growing family. These people do exist and a portrayal of such a lifestyle in a film ought to be criticized on a case by case basis.

This is why I think that Pixar’s “The Incredibles” has been receiving some rather unfair treatment by feminist-themed reviews. Yes, Helen Parr, wife of Bob and mother of Violet, Dashiel, and “Jack-Jack”, stays at home to tend to the “domestic” side of things while Bob works at an insurance company’s main headquarters as an office drone. This is a perfectly justifiable reason in and of itself to begin questioning this film in terms of its portrayal of gender norms but, in my opinion, this is as far as “The Incredibles” tows the stereotypical line.

The problem with the traditional housewife stereotype is that it reinforces a notion of “mom” that is passive, submissive, infinitely agreeable, and can boast no other skills other than “being mom”. Some, evidently, have seen this at play in the Parr family home; as Heroine Content puts it, “Elastigirl is simply mother and wife.”

The problem that I find in this argument is that it ignores all of the instances when Helen is not simply mother and wife, at least not in the conventional sense. She does not simply bow down to Bob’s demands and desires. There is actually a scene when Bob and Helen get caught arguing by their kids and I badly wish I could find a clip of it as I suspect it to be one of the finest representations of a marital spat in animated film history. Despite her diminished stature, Helen is not afraid to stand up to Bob and is quite capable of calling him out on his bullshit.

Also, what about all of the things we see Helen doing that completely contradict the stereotypical housewife expectations in a broader sense? We know, based on what we see in the film, that Helen was and is a crime fighter, she’s an elusive cat-burgler, it’s insinuated she is a martial artist, and she has an incredible tolerance of pain. Also, so long as we’re talking about stereotypes, if “The Incredibles” was portraying women in their “proper places”, then there would have been absolutely no room for this scene in the final cut.

What I absolutely I love about this scene is the not-so-subtle implication it makes. To the casual viewer, it’s an action packed scene filled with tension, high-speed, and explosions: i.e. all that stuff that makes action movies great. But to the more analytical viewers, this scene begs the question, “Where in the hell did Helen learn to fly a plane like that?!” Well, I suppose the obvious answer would have been flight school. It’s also fair to say that Helen didn’t simply take a weekend seminar either; her fluency in controlling an aircraft and her communicating swiftly via radio suggests years of experience.

One final note, she reacts immediately and knows precisely how to handle the threat of incoming ballistic missiles, which suggests, more specifically, a military background in flying. So when would she have had the opportunity to learn this skill so well? Well, the bulk of the film is set fifteen years after Bob and Helen get married and based on their appearance in the film’s present, around forty-ish, that would mean that the two were around their early to mid-twenties when they tied the knot. I don’t believe that anybody could have learned to fly so deftly without years of experience which would mean, in all likelihood, that Helen earned the bulk of her experience piloting a plane after her marriage to Bob.

My point is, the knee-jerk reaction made by some reviews to immediately see a housewife character as a sexist trope does complex characters a severe disservice. Much of Helen and Bob’s life together we do not see since the bulk of the story takes place in a very specific moment in the characters lives. So, for all we know, Helen, after fighting crime as a vigilante was made illegal soon after her marriage, she joined the Air Force as a cadet, learned to pilot a jet, served her country, and opted to stay home and raise the kids after returning from war. Of course, this is all hypothetical as we are never treated to the complete Helen story but so long as we’re making assumptions, I think, after observing how magnificently Helen navigates a freakin jet airplane, my theory incorporates more of Helen’s overall character than the “was married and then became instantly domesticated” theory.

I find another regular complaint of “The Incredibles” somewhat baffling. Critics have commented on how Bob is selfish in the way that he, at the onset of the film, has come to regard his current life as unfulfilling and has distanced himself from his family:

“Bob feel[s] divided between work and family/be resentful of family for taking time away from work and glory.”

Feminist Disney

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.”

The F Word

“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.”

Heroine Content

(Watch the clip here for a relevant scene.)

The way these commentaries are framed in the above cited reviews erroneously identify that Bob’s distant and aloof approach to family life is the problem with the movie when, in fact, these issues are the problems within the movie. It is because of Bob’s aloofness and resentment that starts the overall story of “The Incredibles” and introduces us to Bob’s character arc.

And it’s not as though the film blind-sides us with this mid-life development in Bob either. I am not a parent so I don’t want to speak out of turn, but I’m pretty sure that Bob’s first few lines, set up as an interview in his glory days, would not be consistent with most parents’ actual experiences. Bob says,

“No matter how many times you save the world it always manages to get back in jeopardy again, know what I mean? sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know? For a little bit! I feel like the maid. I just cleaned up this mess, can we keep it clean for ten minutes?! […] Sometimes, I think I’d just like the simple life, you know? Relax a little and raise a family.”

At least among the people I’ve spoken to, “relax” and “raise a family” do not belong in the same sentence. We see, literally in the first two minutes of the film, that Bob is not equipped, or at least fully prepared, to the real challenges of parenthood. Bob buys into a narrative that is actually a pretty common misconception in our culture, particularly among straight men. We “settle down” into a “domestic” life that includes very high stress things like taxes, kids, mortgages, yards, jobs, bills, etc. so it really shouldn’t surprise us, as viewers, to see Bob resenting the realities of “the simple life”.

And hence, he begins snowballing down a path known as the “mid-life crisis”. He begins looking for ways to find self-fulfillment: Bob does free-lance (and illegal) hero activity, he accepts a secret job to venture to a secret island (unbeknownst to his wife), and he buys a swanky new car (which is important later).

On the other hand, Helen has this to say:

Settle Down? I’m at the top of my game. Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

Some of the reviews have addressed the big switch that Helen seems to make after getting married but I think that depends on your definition of “saving the world”. As I mentioned earlier, it’s highly likely that Helen served in the Air Force which is one way of “saving the world” (if you bring a dichotomous and problematic approach to war but that’s a post for another day). And another way is to ensure that the future leaders, i.e. the youth, are given the best example and learning opportunity possible. In that sense, Helen’s statement is vague enough to encapsulate any notion of “world betterment” so I don’t believe that Helen ever compromised her original ideals.

Ultimately, I believe the intention behind “The Incredibles” is a promotion of gender equality within the family unit which is in complete polar opposite to other reviews. The family is placed in very grave danger, metaphorically and literally, thanks to Bob’s reckless and selfish behaviour. Also, armed with his delusions of grandeur he sets out to defeat a killer robot single-handedly only to discover he is too weak to destroy it. The moral of the story is that what is insurmountable by an individual, in this case, the father, is defeatable if the family pulls together.

The importance of this scene, I think, rests in the fact that no one character steals the show. All of the family’s strengths, as well as Frozone’s, contribute to the defeat of the robot that Bob was unsuccessful in destroying by himself (also note the hilarious send-up of the old “family arguing over the remote control” cliché).

Of course, there is one final confrontation in the film and that is with the inventor of the robot, Syndrome, which becomes a battle performed only by “mom and dad”. This scene is also important for a few reasons: both Helen’s and Bob’s powers contribute equally to the resolution and we see a symbolic gesture made by Bob where he finally rejects the notion of self-fulfilling status and becomes emotionally invested in his family (See! I told you that car would be important).

One more note, I love that “Jack-Jack’s” powers begin to materialize in this scene but, since he is an infant, it’s impossible to tell just what he will truly become in the future. Who knows, maybe young “Jack Jack” will break up that heteronormative trend the Parr family has going for them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Whew! Sorry that took so long to publish! There are many things about this film that I didn’t cover addressed by the other reviews that might require a re-visit sometime soon. They mention issues pertaining to the other Parr family memebers as will as the issue of race in The Incredibles. I could go on and on about this film but I think for now I have to hang up my cape for a while…

…just kidding. I never wear a cape.

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5 thoughts on “One Incredible Woman

  1. I understand from a hobby perspective why applying feminist discourse to a disney move could be stimulating, but I’ve always found this sort of popculture feminism possibly lacking. The sort of cheering when a megacorporgation manages to create a media figure who’s both a woman and not a complete patriarchal-fantasy stereotype, and the hissing when a megacorp portrays a woman as megacorps always tend to portray a women is indeed probably valuable, but again, seems to miss the whole picture.

    Everytime I encouter liberalism, even when it’s in a pro-feminist or social democrat or whatever framework, it always wants to atomize things, when really it should be looking at things in totality, and in relations (specifically social). One mildly successful and ambitious woman in one disney movie seems like a drop in the pond.

    For one, this is DISNEY. Mickey Mouse Monopoly. This is the GENERATOR of American ideology, it’s children’s canon. And American ideology is incredibly racist and sexist. Because we can bend over backwards and analyze a movie such that it comes out ontop and not OVERTLY in service of patriarchy, the result is patriarchy.

    And I have no idea why we think military training (airforce) is not explicitly antifeminist. Keep in mind what years this movie would take place if it were real (I know it’s fiction, but if we can talk about the gender politik of the approximate time and era of the movie, we can talk about he military politik). This superwoman got her military training either DOING or PARTNERING with the organization that’s murdering women and other general imperializing, all over the world.

    • “Everytime I encouter liberalism, even when it’s in a pro-feminist or social democrat or whatever framework, it always wants to atomize things, when really it should be looking at things in totality, and in relations (specifically social).”

      There is nothing I disagree with in your suggestion, and in fact I think what you suggest needs to happen does in fact happen when things get atomized. By listening to all the individual, and perhaps overly nit-picky, voices like mine on single offerings, like “The Incredibles”, we can begin to get a sense of “things in totality”.

      The danger in what you suggest is that I try to frame my argument into a more universal, more socially encompassing debate, which, being one person, I am not qualified to do. I can only speak of my own thoughts and beliefs (and reveal, sometimes, my own ignorances).

      Now, I understand that what you were implying had more to do with regarding the film canon as a whole but even that I find leads to an oversimplification of the matter. For starters, Disney is not Pixar: Disney distributes Pixar. This is an error I see often. The writer at Feminist Disney makes the same error when they bemoan that “Disney” regressed from Helen in “The Increibles” to Rapunzel in “Tangled”. They didn’t, Pixar and Disney have autonomous writing staffs. In fact, I see many subtle efforts on Pixar’s part to shake up the nuclear family that always waits at the end of a typical Disney romp; Andy’s mom in “Toy Story” is, presumably, a single working mother and the clownfish in “Finding Nemo” is a widowed, anxious father. The only Pixar film where we actually see the Nuclear Family is, in fact, “The Incredibles” which makes an effort to bring down some of the archetypical stereotypes.

      I suppose there are some areas, however, that I could get on board with painting in broader strokes. I agree that “American ideology is incredibly racist and sexist” and, yes, Disney does its best to promote the problematic status-quo. I also think that Pixar’s films are very “white-centered” and would welcome some more ethnic variation in their films (although I suspect that another Pixar film deals with racism in a way that keeps the kids happy and laughing). While I don’t believe that “The Incredibles” is overtly racist in any regard it does represent a portion of Hollywood’s bias towards representing white issues as the normative narrative. We can’t fault Brad Bird for writing a story that is white-centric that he admits to have been inspired by his own experiences as a white, married, and, presumably, straight man. But we can fault Hollywood in general for allowing those narrative voices to vastly overwhelm all others and hold them up as the status-quo.

      • I’m with you. I don’t see much room in faulting a single person writing a single story, because again, even that is atomization. It’s a fine movie. Lol I guess my wanting Disney to make a movie for kids about Malcolm, Garvey, and Huey isn’t going to happen anytime soon, is it?

  2. One of the things I found frustrating with the kind of critiques you mentioned was the extent to which the context for “domesticity” was ignored. I completely agree with you that Helen’s overwhelming and wide-reaching competences speak to a full life of agency and engagement, but further I don’t think the film supports the reading that she then “opted to stay home and raise the kids.” The Helen we see living the “domestic housewife” life is shown – in the film – under specific and intentionally problematic circumstances. They are not living this life (in the suburbs with the picket fence and the gender-normative divisions of labour and the emotional detachment) because they chose it.
    When normative cultural policing puts regular real-life humans into little boxes made of ticky-tacky, it’s often oppressive and miserable and even actively scary.
    The super-hero exaggeration of that (because what are super-hero narratives if not dramatic exaggerations of real life?) then becomes a family on the run – simultaneously fighting to conform (not for the joy of conformity, but because of explicit and narratively-evil dangers) and periodically overcome with the need to rebel. Helen’s “domestic housewife” life isn’t shown as somehow natural to womanhood, and certainly not as natural to Her; it is shown in the film explicitly as an enforced and exhausting performance.

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