Stay in your place, you stupid normals: The politics of The Incredibles

I really enjoyed The Incredibles, because it was beautifully animated, decently written and had great action sequences. (So shoot me, sometimes my mind likes candy.) But at the same time, I thought its politics were pretty regressive, and vaguely thought I’d write a post on it. I didn’t, but thankfully I don’t have to, because Sally of Prednisone Nation did such a great job.

Here’s my fave bit:

…Fundamentally, this is a movie about the social role of talented people. I read a review today that said that it was a polemic against mediocrity, but I don’t think that’s right at all. The movie’s real target is not mediocrity but equality. Some people, according to The Incredibles, are just born better than the rest of us. This superiority is innate and inherited: superheroes make up a kind of master race. The movie doesn’t just suggest that it’s destructive to stifle talented people; it also derides the notion that everyone has talents that should be celebrated, and it raises and dismisses the idea that ordinary people could make their way into the elect. You don’t choose to be a superhero; you can’t earn it through ingenuity or hard work. You’re either born super or you’re not.

An unstated but necessary corollary to the idea of an innately superior group of superheroes is the notion that they will always use this power for the common good. Otherwise, we might have to confront the pesky notion that powerful elites might use their strength to oppress others. It’s not that it’s impossible for ordinary people to become super-talented: with the help of his inventions, the villain becomes an equal match for any member of the Incredible family. The problem seems to be that it’s unnatural to elevate people who are destined to be ordinary; it messes with the proper order of things. When given extraordinary power, normal people will be corrupted. Only those born superheroes can be trusted to use their powers for good. This movie says that powerful, hereditary elites are good for society not because they’re more talented but because they’re more moral. It’s a nineteenth or even eighteenth-century version of how society should be ordered: it’s a celebration of natural aristocracy and the concept of knowing your place.

Another unstated but clear assumption is that real, important powers are physical, not mental. The Incredibles’ powers all reside in the body: they can lift, throw, contort, run, or disappear. There’s no thinking involved. In fact, Mrs. Incredible tells Violet that in case of an emergency, she should not think. Thinking just trips Violet up, and she’s more effective when she shuts her brain off and just acts. The villain of the piece, on the other hand, is depicted as that comic-book cliche, a genius inventor. His powers reside in his mind, and he is capable of creating machines that could give everyone extraordinary powers. This mental prowess, however, is not a super power. His ability to design and create makes him an imposter, not a superhero. His intelligence is a destructive force, while the Incredibles’ bodily strength is a force for good. The movie suggests that the whole society should mirror the social hierarchy of your typical high school: the football players should lord it over the losers in the chess club.

Read the whole thing.

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26 Responses to Stay in your place, you stupid normals: The politics of The Incredibles

  1. 1
    thisgirl says:

    I watched the film, very much enjoyed it, only to have it ruined slightly on reading Peter Hitchen’s gleeful comment that it can be used as an indictment of the idea of equality in education. Politics and children’s films shouldn’t be allowed to mix!

  2. 2
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    Sorry, but I really disagree here. What are people with great abilities supposed to do? Hide them, for fear that others might resent it?

    Isn’t that what talented women were told to do for centuries?

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Jason, with all due respect (and I respect you a lot):

    No one advocated, even implicitly, that people with great abilities should hide their abilities. Your response is a total non sequitor.

  4. 4
    Sally says:

    What are people with great abilities supposed to do? Hide them, for fear that others might resent it?

    Of course not. But that seems like a pretty odd and simplistic reading of my critique. I don’t think I ever said that people should hide their talents. I certainly didn’t mean to. Can you tell me where you think I did? I’m not arguing that talented people should be stifled. I’m arguing that the movie argues from some faulty premises about how talent works.

  5. 5
    Decnavda says:

    My guess is that Jason’s comment comes from having seen the movie. The movie is about a society where people with special abilities, people who are “different”, were required to hide them, and about how sufficating it was for one such family to hide their true selves. I have seen one commenter writing about similar themes in the X-Men who thought the analogy was best made to homosexuality, and I think this could apply to the Incredibles as well.
    But I think Sally’s reading ALSO applies . One big problem with trying to promote either a pro- free expression or anti-equality veiw is that we as a society – on both the right and the left – have not worked through the tentions between individualism and equality. I think they CAN be compatible, and the movie does not necessarily offend a view of equality compatible with individuality. But until society works out the tention, any fiction that focuses on one runs the risk of offending those who emphasize the other.

    Also, what the Forces of Good in any super-hero populated world need to find is a super with the power to cure Narcisistic Personality Disorder. No super-villian would be safe!

  6. 6
    Decnavda says:

    Thinking further, I would admit that one thing that makes the X-Men much better politically is the presence of a bunch of mutants who are abusing their powers. One or two references in the Incredibles to point out that many of the villians the supers fought in the old days were ALSO supers would have made me feel a LOT better about the politics of the movie.

  7. 7
    Raznor says:

    Thinking further, I would admit that one thing that makes the X-Men much better politically is the presence of a bunch of mutants who are abusing their powers.

    Taking it one step further, what I like in X-Men is that the bad guys, whether mutant or human, are those that view the world as a mutant vs human, “us” vs “them” war.

  8. 8
    Robert says:

    I like the fact that (at least in the movie), Magneto is empirically correct in his outlook. Humans do kill those who are different; they killed his parents for it. And of course, if someone is going to wipe out “your kind”, then “your kind” is entitled to strike back…

    It’s a lot more morally satisfying than the standard “and now I feel like being evil and conquering the world!” nonsense.

  9. 9
    FoolishOwl says:

    That was actually something like my feeling about the first X-Men movie. Magneto’s plan, to prevent systematic oppression of his fellow mutants, sounded like it might have worked — and had a bit of poetic justice to it.

    I kind of saw the Professor X/Magneto conflict as a sort of liberal vs. radical conflict — with the radicals depicted as pathetically reduced to thuggery by their excessive bitterness and lack of optimism, as usual. (That seems consistent with what little I saw of the comic.)

    I haven’t seen “The Incredibles,” but this discussion reminds me of a problem that’s had me worried for some time. A great deal of science fiction and fantasy stories seem to take the form of a vaguely picaresque story, in which the character at first seems to be an ordinary person, but who actually has hidden powers, or is the subject of prophecy, or is otherwise special. This specialness leads to the character’s personal liberation and triumph, and eventual achievement of great power.

    That’s a double-edged sword. We all can sympathize with that story — we’re all frustrated by talents and abilities and ideas we don’t get the chance to express.

    But the other edge is, those special, hidden abilities are always portrayed as extremely rare, or unique. Only the central characters in the story are special — everyone else turns out to be ordinary.

    It’s assumed that, for some reason, not everyone can be talented — that there’s some hidden economy of talent, in which only rare people can be unique.

    In short, it’s a narrative that serves to justify a middle class ideal of meritocracy.

  10. 10
    karpad says:

    It’s also an unusually American phonomena, too. other cultures have comic book style formulas, particularly East Asia, but heroes in those works have different systems of growth.

    the Japanese paradigm is diverse. While there are people who are just naturally born to be good, almost universally they have to work to be at the top. Sports manga formula is the best example: someone may be born with natural talent (a steady hand, a sharp mind, a hard boxers build) but it takes a mentor of insight and years of training for them to go from being the hapless loser to the praiseworthy champ. In much of the Japanese manga, the hero is constantly the underdog. There is ALWAYS someone better than they are, and victory only comes through hard work, luck, brains, and laughably overdramatic will to triumph (not to be confused with Triumph of the Will).

    Wuxia, the Chinese genre novels and, more recently, Korean comics, that inspire films like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are almost the exact opposite of the Incredibles paradigm: anyone can be a super. it just takes dedication and training for years and years. Normals are normal because they have lives to tend to, running the government paperwork, working in the market, etc. So the majority of supers-types would come from certain groups, a particular family, or temple, or a mountain training facility, anyone could get there.

    spoiler:
    They actually say it outright in the movie “Hero.” Nameless was just a petty government administrator, until he found out he was adopted, and was in fact a war orphan. Learning this, he devoted himself to assassination of the emperor. He trained ceaselessly for 10 years, and became the biggest badass in the kingdom.
    /spoiler

  11. 11
    FoolishOwl says:

    Ah. Civil service, rather than aristocracy.

    Hmm. That’s another thing that’s bugging me lately: science fiction’s obsession with aristocracy. But that’s way off-topic.

  12. 12
    Jason Kuznicki says:

    I agree with what Decnavda said, particularly about the comparison with the X-Men movie. I admit, though, that I’m on the edge of my knowledge when it comes to comics. I’m not much of a fan.

    What I got from The Incredibles was that each individual should pursue self-fulfillment, as long as it wasn’t at the expense of others. It’s a very Aristotelian message, and one I completely agreed with.

    I totally failed to see the Nietzschean reading, namely that individuals of great talent should spurn society and have contempt for their inferiors. That’s what the villain of the film believed, after all.

  13. 13
    alsis38 says:

    *drift* Heh heh. I haven’t seen the film yet. However, I remember Scott McCloud giving me a really dirty look once when I mentioned a Lefty analysis of another animated film: Toy Story. Several years ago, in The Baffler, Thomas Frank or one of his writers commented that the recurring theme of that film was a contempt for creativity and a love affair with the ideal of corporate-decreed perfection. Free-thinking, as embodied by the little boy who happily dismantled toys and re-assembled them into monstrous structures, was a mark of villainy, after all. */drift*

  14. 14
    Alex Fradera says:

    I think what bugged me most about the film, that gave more weight to the political reading, is that beyond the very early reaches of the film, you never really see supers doing good, merely supers being super.

    (a slight spoiler contained below)

    Loosely, I figure that the superhero genre comes with necessary baggage (that Kip covered here), with two major suitcases: one full of ‘seperate and greater than the common man’; and one full of ‘doing good for humanity – even at personal cost’. Super and hero; you’ve got to have them to some degree. But the film really minimised the altruistic component, to the extent where it was almost entirely abstract. It’s all about self-actualisation, and the only person who is rescued later on is the old lady ‘saved’ by the villain, seemingly suggesting that altruism is a suspect trait, employed for selfish purposes. Meanwhile the Incredibles aren’t seen to sweat the small stuff, like normal people. It’s about as far from, say Spiderman as you could be. There isn’t even really a sense that they are above all agents of justice (Batman, Daredevil), as they don’t hand anyone over to authorities, and don’t seem motivated by anything over immediate concerns (defeat adversary, save family). This is why the tar of a Randian perspective sticks better than one would like to this particular piece.

    That said, I haven’t seen the Iron Giant, but understand it to be from the other side of the podium (and remembering the book from way back when, it’d pretty much have to). Anyone know more about Brad Bird?

    (Edited by Amp to clean up formatting)

  15. 15
    Zarquon says:

    This comment has SPOILERS, too!

    Alex wrote-
    I think what bugged me most about the film, that gave more weight to the political reading, is that beyond the very early reaches of the film, you never really see supers doing good, merely supers being super.

    What about the bit when they’re saving people from a burning building? It’s as much as stated that this is something that they do quite often.

  16. 16
    Sally says:

    What I got from The Incredibles was that each individual should pursue self-fulfillment, as long as it wasn’t at the expense of others. It’s a very Aristotelian message, and one I completely agreed with.

    If that’s true, why did the villain explicitly say that he was going to distribute his inventions so that everyone could be super? Why bother including that line at all if it’s just about self-fulfillment? If that were right, wouldn’t giving people technology be a good and not a villainous thing to do?

    What about the scene where Mrs. Incredible is chastizing Dash and she tells him in typical silly, platitudinous parent-speak that everyone is special? He’s allowed to have the last word when he says “if everyone is special, no one is.”

    It just seems to me that a lot of the writing choices don’t support your reading.

  17. 17
    Decnavda says:

    Sally -
    What about the scene where Mrs. Incredible is chastizing Dash and she tells him in typical silly, platitudinous parent-speak that everyone is special? He’s allowed to have the last word when he says “if everyone is special, no one is.”?
    This is your best piece of evidence for the Nietzschean reading of the film. I think there are ways in which Dash is right and ways in which he is wrong, but the way the film leaves it does address the complexities.

    If that’s true, why did the villain explicitly say that he was going to distribute his inventions so that everyone could be super? Why bother including that line at all if it’s just about self-fulfillment? If that were right, wouldn’t giving people technology be a good and not a villainous thing to do?
    This, however, is an easy criticism to deal with: The villian is clearly lying. Syndrome, like 90% of comic book villians and roughly 30% of real-life world leaders, has Narcisistic Personality Disoder. People with NPP are fanatical about their own image, which is of a great person, and the crimes they commit are justified by the great things they are doing. Syndrome has a person greif with supers, so he justifies his actions by claiming that he will make everyone like them. But he is lying: alittle to the hero, and a little to himself. Earlier he had said, “Of course, I saved the best inventions for myself.” And he didn’t mind killing a bunch of normals in order to make them think HE was a super. If his plan had worked, distributing all of his inventions would have brought everyone else up to HIS level, so what would be the point? If he really wanted to distribute his inventions, he could have just done that, and there would be no need to actually kill the supers, make omnidroids, or pretend to be super himself.
    In other words, claiming he wanted to help the normals achieve equality with the supers was a realistic thing for him to SAY, but not for him to DO. If you believe that Syndrome would really have distributed his inventions, you might also believe that Osama just wants to return dignity to Muslims, or that Bush really wants everyone to be an owner of society.

  18. 18
    Zenmaster says:

    I think that one of the more interesting things going on here is not as much the “super” vs “normal” thing, but the separation of heroic powers located in the body and villainous powers being in the realm of the mind.
    It calls to mind the original film version of “The Thing from Outer Space”. In that one, the true villains (aside from the Thing itself) are the scientists who want to communicate with and study the Thing. They are contrasted by the heroes of the film, the military, who focus their efforts on physical destruction and combat with the Thing.
    This can all be funneled through the Nietzscheian idea of the ascetic priests cultivating resentment first, then developing intelligence which they use to thwart the superior physicality of the masters. It seems that this process is at work in Syndrome, he resents the Supers for their physicality, and has bent his mental powers to great lengths to undercut that.

  19. 19
    Alex Fradera says:

    Thanks for cleaning up my mess, Amp.

    This, however, is an easy criticism to deal with: The villian is clearly lying

    I agree that this is likely to be the case – that, at the least, he will not relinquish his superior status when push comes to shove. However, I think this is again consistent with the trivialising or discounting of altruism throughout the movie – people who are doing things with the motive of “to help” are pretty suspect, and only exceptional people would actually follow it through.

    What about the bit when they’re saving people from a burning building? It’s as much as stated that this is something that they do quite often.

    Well, that was fairly early on, from what I remember. But as I think about it, even that scene really dealt with the act totally in the abstract. They were conducting a ‘superhero rescue action’, not least because Mr Incredible was jonesing for one. They were going through the routine of being who they are.

    It’s hard to make that kind of judgment stick, as it’s really down to the portrayal within the movie, but I would say the fact that normal people are unpleasant or totally disempowered in this film, when they are not totally absent (read: majority of the film) means that their wellbeing is, at best, the means to the end of being a superhero, rather than superpowers being a means to the end of helping people.

  20. 20
    Decnavda says:

    Alex -
    What about the scene where Bob Parr uses his knowledge of insurance regulations to help a client collect on a claim his employers would rather have not paid? The movie also states that he does this regularly. Thus, his essessence is being a hero, not a superhero, and superpowers are a means to that end.
    Again, I am not really arguing against your political reading, I am rather trying to argue that their are multiple or confused political readings, or that any political reading is suspect. The insurance company stuff is a perfect example of this. The political overtones of Bob Parr quietly helping his clients get paid what they are due from the greedy insurance company he works for are the exact opposite of the political overtones of what put him that situation: over litigious plaintiff’s lawyers helping normals sue the supers who saved them. This may have been done to maintain political “balance”; More likely it was done for dramatic irony. Either way, it sends opposing political messages that makes any one political reading impossible to sustain.

  21. 21
    Sally says:

    Syndrome, like 90% of comic book villians and roughly 30% of real-life world leaders, has Narcisistic Personality Disoder. People with NPP are fanatical about their own image, which is of a great person, and the crimes they commit are justified by the great things they are doing.

    I don’t buy this. It’s one thing to diagnose real people with personality disorders, but Syndrome is a fictional character. He does things because the person who wrote the movie made him do them, not because he suffers from some pathology. Someone decided that the villain would be motivated by resentment of people who were more talented than him. Someone decided that he would voice the desire to make everyone equal. He could just as easily have been motivated by a simple desire for power. You’re right that we’re supposed to think he was lying, I think, but that just means that we’re supposed to be skeptical of people who claim to want equality. But I think the talk about equality had to be put in there for some reason.

  22. 22
    Decnavda says:

    It’s one thing to diagnose real people with personality disorders, but Syndrome is a fictional character.
    I actually attented a training on personality disorders given by one of the top experts on them in America. He was also a huge movie fan, and constantly used examples from movies. His training materials even included a list of fictional charaters grouped by which “offical” (i.e DSM IV non-appendix) personality disorder they suffer from. He even went further to assert that movies are ABOUT people with personality disorders; that is what makes them dramatically interesting. His favorite quote about personality disorders and the movies was, “Movies are about people with personality disorders getting better. That is how you know they are fiction.”
    You’re right that we’re supposed to think he was lying, I think, but that just means that we’re supposed to be skeptical of people who claim to want equality.
    You might be right here. Again, I do not disagree with your reading, as I noticed it and was irritated by it as well. It is just that the movie also contained good messages about being yourself and helping others, etc. such that the overall political effect was confused and not worth condemning the whole movie for. Lots of movies have “bad” messages. Hero, for example, explicitly supports imperial conquest. But there is so much else that is good about the film that it is better just to point out and discuss the bad message, and not condemn the film or those of us who enjoyed it.

  23. 23
    Vardibidian says:

    I think that Decnevada is right, in that the interpretation of Syndrome as having an evil plan to make everybody a super clearly makes no sense. On the other hand, it’s clear that lots and lots of people (including John Tierney in the New York Times and about two-thirds of the blog comments I’ve read) came away from the movie believing that the essence of Syndrome’s evil plan was to make everybody super, rather than to kill all the supers and make himself into the world’s only super, as he explicitly states his plan to be. So there is something going on in the scene that gives people that impression, and I agree with Sally that it is probably there deliberately.
    As for my experience of watching the movie, I felt quite defensive at times, as though the writer was attacking beliefs I actually hold. I scarcely am a supporter of giving everybody a medal at track events, nor of graduation ceremonies for rising fourth-graders. Still, when various characters trot out the theme that ‘when everybody is special, nobody is’, it bothered me. As much the practice of giving awards to everybody just for existing (and I had, for years, a drawerful of ‘em) is silly and distasteful, so too is any sort of supremacist ideology that says that supers count for more just because they can run fast or stretch or make themselves invisible. To the limited extent that Bob Incredible is admirable, it’s his dogged determination to help people, his willingness to risk himself in the attempt, and his pathetic need to be useful that is admirable; his super strength and occasional good idea just assist him in that.
    In fact, everyone is special, at least in the sense that everyone is unique, everyone is valuable and (at some point in their lives) lovable, and that means that everyone is special. It’s worth taking the time to find out how. This idea that everyone’s ‘specialness’ lies in some sort of conformist mediocrity is preposterous, and should be mocked, if only anyone actually held it. But in mocking that particular straw man, I feel as if Mr. Bird is mocking the idea that everyone is valuable, that everyone is holy, and perhaps that is why I felt so defensive.
    Thank you,
    -Vardibidian.
    (Note: much of this comment was pasted from my own comment about the Incredibles, which may explain why it’s so long and rambling)

  24. 24
    Decnavda says:

    Ugg!
    Reading back, I found this line in my comment several comments above:
    …but the way the film leaves it does address the complexities.

    That should read:
    …but the way the film leaves it does NOT address the complexities.

    Sorry.

  25. 25
    PinkDreamPoppies says:

    Hero, for example, explicitly supports imperial conquest.

    Must . . . not . . . debate. Must . . . control . . . self . . . cannot . . . resist . . . Argh!

  26. 26
    karpad says:

    yes, Poppy? do you have something you’d like to share with the class?