Things that are not worth waiting for: breakfast at that overpriced brunch place, slow walkers, that person you’ve been texting to actually agree on where and when to meet in 3D. Things that are worth waiting for: The Incredibles 2.
A mere 14 years after the original movie came out, the sequel has arrived in cinemas, picking up the action right where we left off. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s dramatic, there’s a baby fighting a raccoon, there are more superheroes: it’s worth your time, and your cash, and the inevitable annoying person sitting next to you texting. But… how does it represent women? Spoilers and insight ahead.
Does it pass the Bechdel test?
Yes: Voyd and Elastigirl talk about being superheroes.
A brief catch-up on the recent history of superhero movies and how they’ve treated women
Remember all the way back to 2004, the year The Incredibles came out. The Recession hadn’t hit, Facebook only existed at Ivy League colleges, President Obama hadn’t been elected, Donald Trump was a woman-grabbing morally bankrupt TV host, Paris Hilton was the most photographed woman in the world, and Juicy Couture velour tracksuits were not ironic. Superhero movies were few and far between. They were either cheesier than a Swiss fondue, like the old Superman and Batman films, or they focused on dark and twisty anti-heroes, like Blade, or Constantine, or V For Vendetta, in a way that made them less a take-the-kids blockbuster, and more of a watch-in-the-dark-alone action drama.
There were some more mainstream attempts, but they were still nerdy and niche. That year saw the release of Halle Berry’s critically-panned Razzie-winning Catwoman. The first two X-Men movies were released in 2000 and 2003, and Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman came out in 2002 (still my favourite) with the first sequel in 2004. Batman Begins, the first of Christopher Nolan’s genre-redefining trilogy, wasn’t released until 2005, and The Dark Knight didn’t come out until 2008.
Come back to now, and it feels like every other movie in the cinema is about people in skin-tight suits with weird powers. From 2017 to now, we’ve had Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Deadpool 2, Black Panther and The Avengers: Infinity War. Those last two are now the ninth and fifth highest-grossing movies all of time in the U.S. – a list that also includes the two other Avengers movies. This summer, we’re getting Ant Man and the Wasp and The Darkest Minds. And, of course, The Incredibles 2.
The only movies in this list to feature a female lead are 2017’s Wonder Woman, just-released Ant Man and the Wasp, The Darkest Minds, which hasn’t come out yet, and The Incredibles 2.
Yes, there’s a terrifying girl in Logan, but she’s not the titular character: she’s a tool to explore Logan’s decay. Yes, Gamora and Nebula are both tough-talking, tough-fighting badasses, but Starlord is the lead. The Spider-Man/Spiderman films always have a damsel in distress, sometimes ‘the other woman’, and the wise aunt, but they’re just there to serve as cheerleaders to Maguire/Garfield/Holland.
The Princess Leia Effect
Women show up in action movies; they don’t lead them. That includes films in the superhero and sci-fi genres. A female lead in a superhero movie is still a novelty, and it’s worse for people of color, and women of color specifically. Hopefully the success of Black Panther will force producers to start putting their money into projects with more diverse casts.
I call this token use of a single ‘strong’ woman in a movie the Princess Leia effect. Male writers think they can appease whiny feminists like me by throwing us one tough, moderately skillful, domineering, underdeveloped female character. (Sometimes, if we’re super lucky, two.) Not only does this mislead us harpies, but she can also serve their dude-oriented plot by becoming bait for the bad guys, which gives him the chance to save her and be the hero. Oh, she’s also always super conventionally hot.
This is why I can’t be bothered with most action movies; they put so little effort into making even the few female characters they include seem like more than just some heterosexual dude’s masturbatory fantasy that it’s annoying and boring. The exceptions are the recent releases from the Star Wars franchise. Apart from Solo, the studio has taken some note of their own tokenism, hence we have Rey, Jyn Erso, Rose, and Vice Admiral Holdo. Not to mention the original Leia, now General Organa, thanks very much. But what about The Incredibles 2?
How does The Incredibles 2 represent women?
This movie accidentally came out at a time when we are seeing a very gradual, very slow, very bitty move away from entirely white male-dominated superhero movies. One Wonder Woman movie – or even two – does not make up for decades of presenting women as damsels in distress, or throwing in one token ‘strong’ woman to quieten down us shrill, complaining feminists. And although The Incredibles 2 is not perfect, it’s definitely an evolution.
Let’s start with the single big positive thing: while the first movie focused on Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), this sequel puts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as the crime-fighting, plot-foiling, ass-kicking centre. (And yes, she has a motorbike.)
This is because a finance guy (Bob ‘Better Call Saul’ Odenkirk) who wants to make superheroes legal again has done the numbers and found that the way she approaches going after bad guys is less costly than her husband’s methods. This smells like that very boring narrative of ‘women are gentler than men’ to me, but at least it’s a compliment. In one of the big butt-kicking moments, we get to see her chase down a runaway train, with the help of another woman talking to her through a headset. Director Brad Bird has a history of his female characters playing the action hero: he also directed Brave.
Meanwhile, Bob is back in their fancy new home, running around after the superkids: lovesick teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), maths-hating Dash (Huck Milner), and multi-talented baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Bob is bitter because Elastigirl, who was initially reluctant to leave her kids, gets to have all the fun and the glory.
Annoyingly, the film never directly points out the hypocrisy of his line of thought. Ask yourself: why should Bob be the family member who gets to be the hero?
This is the point where the sexists will say, ‘Because he’s a man,’ and the in-denial sexists will make up some dumb excuse, like, ‘Super strength is better than stretchiness,’ or ‘She’s just naturally better at the whole domestic side.’ If you just read that question and made up a dumb excuse, you are an in-denial sexist. If you’re now considering writing a comment that could conceivably start with the clause, ‘I’m not sexist, but…’ you are an in-denial sexist. See you in the comments!
BTW That internal rage at being dismissed as less competent at the ‘important’ stuff is how many women feel ALL THE TIME.
We never really get the sense that Bob realises this, or that he suddenly comes to appreciate everything his wife did for their family when he was out being Man The Provider. What he constantly screws up, she makes look easy. (This would be a good time to mention that this constant portrayal of dads as domestically incompetent dopes is insulting to dads who nail the whole parenting thing, but this is a blog post about women.) We’re supposed to fawn all over his newfound kid-herding skills, but she gets no credit. Shout-out to all the real-live mums out there throwing their hands up like “Duh!”
Even while Bob is lamenting having to stay home with his kids – you know, the kids who share the same amount of DNA with him as they do with their mother – Elastigirl can’t quite shake off her mummy role. When she calls Bob after the aforementioned train crash, the first thing she asks about is how the kids are, and how he’s doing, before mentioning, oh yeah, SHE SAVED HUNDREDS OF LIVES TODAY AND WAS ON TV. And at the end, when she realises it’s time to bust out superhero mode to stop a soon-to-be-crashing yacht, she pauses to consider, what will the kids do? Bob has no such qualms, because… he’s a testosterone-charged dude?
Somehow, in the middle of that exchange, there was a super sweet moment. When Elastigirl is dithering about whether to charge off and save the city or to look after her kids, Violet turns to her and says something along the lines of, ‘Go, we’ll be fine.’ To me, it felt like this look at the future of being female: Violet understands that her mum can have responsibilities outside of her, and her generation is giving an older generation the permission to do that. It’s a new perspective on gender roles coming to help out people caught up in the old one. Got me right in the feminist feels. (I’ll get to Violet as a character in a sec.)
Oh, and since I was discussing the sexualisation of women in superhero movies earlier, let’s have a chat about the internet’s response to Elastigirl. Specifically, this one New Yorker critic, who basically implies that the (presumably hetero- or bisexual) men in the audience are going to be getting boners looking at her hips. He also manages to turn a conversation between Elastigirl and Evelyn (Catherine Keener) into some kind of male-gaze lesbian fantasy.
On the one hand, it’s nice to finally see someone acknowledging that a female over 40 can be more than just a sexless, frumpy waste of space. (Shout-out to all the women over 40 going, “WE KNOW!”) But it seems like this is pretty much all the guy got from this character. She’s out kicking ass and he’s looking at her butt. What decade are we in, again?
Speaking of Evelyn, let’s speak about Evelyn. She’s the sister of that insurance guy, the designer to his ad-man. Basically, behind the big-selling, money-making, bullshit-talking dude is a woman who actually did the hard work. The filmmakers are kind of making this point too, in a roundabout way, although they don’t really examine the gender dynamics so much as the low-level sibling rivalry, and the world vs superheroes. Unfortunately, it turns out that Evelyn is the baddie, which implies that women who are simply ambitious enough to demand credit for their hard work must be evil.
You can tell immediately that Evelyn is evil, anyway, because she has untamed hair. I say this as someone whose most identifiable physical quality is my curly hair. The moment I see someone in a cartoon or movie with hair like mine, I’m like, either we don’t trust her, or we’re going to see her get a makeover. (I also have a British accent and a Russian first name, so I’m basically inherently evil, according to Hollywood.) And this is a thousand times more problematic for women of color. I could write a whole post about the abuse of curly and kinky hair in movies.
When I say Evelyn has untamed hair, I don’t mean Merida-from-Brave’s beautiful big curls, which are wild and defiant, just like her. (Merida is my movie hair icon because she breaks outta that big-hair-bad-girl box I just mentioned.) I mean a pixie cut with strands that form wispy spikes all over her head – it’s a haircut that’s shorthand for women who don’t play nice. Women who scheme. Women with ambition. Women who don’t care what other people think about them. Women, to be very heteronormative, who act like men.
Her motivations aside, I like that we have a female villain. Does she have to be a female because it wouldn’t be believable for a woman to take on a man and win? I don’t think that’s what’s going on here: we initially think the Screenslaver is a man, and Elastigirl has no trouble beating up the unfortunate pizza delivery guy Evelyn frames. The more women we can get, with variable personalities instead of the cookie-cutter stereotype, the better. I want them good, evil, polite, rude, meek, loud, hateable, lovable, messy, neat, all-together, total trainwreck, in all different shapes, and from all different backgrounds, and with all different nationalities and ethnicities. I want them human.
OK, look, I have to admit that Violet is my FAVOURITE character in The Incredibles franchise. She has many teenagers’ dream power: she can turn invisible, shoot balls of energy, and put up a forcefield around herself and people near her. Also, we share the qualities of external shyness balanced with inner confidence around our families and close friends. (Any family members reading this are like, ‘You? Shy? Get outta here.’ Any colleagues are like, ‘You… talk?’)
I felt that Violet was woefully underused for the first part of the movie, but that’s because I love her. She’s slightly lost in the typical teenager role, specifically a lovelorn, dad-hating teenager. But then we get to the bit where the kids basically have to save the day, and she becomes this warrior girl, who’s smart and decisive in battle, with mastery over her superpowers. Watching her and Dash squabble over babysitting duties shows that she’s not going to be sat around looking after the kids in the future. She also postpones a long-awaited date to go battle crime with her family. In short, she’s the independent girl we need, and her mother’s daughter.
If you were like, WTF is Honey, then you’ve already identified the problem with this character. Honey (Kimberly Adair Clark) is Frozone’s wife/partner, but you never see her. Although it’s never said, we can assume that her superpower is super-hearing, because she always knows when Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is about to do something fun and cool, like fight crime, and that’s when we hear her, shouting from the other room. This is a less-than-ideal representation of women, reducing her to just the nagging wife, out to kill her husband’s masculine urge to run around in Lycra, shooting ice from his hands.
Also, although it’s again never specified, Honey is voiced by Kimberly Adair Clark, a black woman, so in that way, the character also perpetuates that stereotype of the controlling, finger-snapping, always-angry black girlfriend. Yes, it’s just a side joke, I GET IT, but it would have been easier to swallow if we’d also seen a woman of color (or even, crazy notion, multiple women of color) in this movie do more than just screech at a man.
Every scene with Edna Mode (Brad Bird – yes, that Brad Bird) is like the toy you get in the cereal, or the cookie dough in your ice cream.
Like I said, I’m all about all types of women on screen, and I love that Edna gets to be this career-oriented, super rich, no-nonsense business woman, who is also hilarious. She’s the uniform designer, which is, on the surface, a stereotypical female role. BUT her ability to make clothes that are versatile and resilient, as well as visually impressive, deviously undermines this dismissal of fashion as frilly and superficial, and reminds us that ‘women’s work’ is skillful, and what you wear matters. It’s a technical triumph that the family couldn’t perform their duties without.
By the way, you know how we know she’s super competent and hardass? The straight, dark, fringed/banged bob. WELCOME TO THE HAIR CONSPIRACY.
Overall, I’m very happy to welcome The Incredibles 2 to the category of Female-Led Superhero Movies, along with recent inductees Wonder Woman and Marvel/Netflix’s Jessica Jones. I love that it’s showing mums as cool and brave and smart (and hot, apparently). I wish that they’d taken a moment to point out that Bob’s sulky resentment is total hypocrisy that women have been putting up with for centuries. I hope the next one has more, better-developed women of color. I love that it has a female villain, even if I think the qualities that make her evil would actually be admired in a dude. I also love Violet, and the idea that she is the future, confident in her abilities and not about to accept being left at home.
Do you agree or disagree? Do you also heart Violet? Did you think Elastigirl proved her mettle? Did you wonder where Frozone’s screentime went, and when we’re going to finally see Honey? Are you ‘not sexist but…’? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook.