Wednesday, 10 July 2013

My Incredible Dad: Father Figures in Pixar's 'The Incredibles' by James Tregonning


We live in a world where nothing is sound. Battles are fought daily over sexuality, gender, and family roles and values, and the only thing we know is that in fact, we do not know much of anything. In the midst of insecurity and rapid social change, children are still being raised and educated and taught about the world. But what exactly are they being told? This is the first in a series of essays where I will examine the role of the father, as portrayed in the catalogue of Pixar films. Pixar films are aimed at child audiences, and their widespread success makes them an optimal candidate for analysing the messages broadcasted by mainstream media about family roles and values. Particular attention will be given to The IncrediblesUp, and Finding Nemo, although Ratatouille, Brave, and Monsters Inc. will no doubt feature somewhere. This essay is concerned primarily with The Incredibles, and the messages it sends to children about the role of the father within a traditional American nuclear family.

Three brief points, before I begin. Firstly, it is not the prescribed role of Pixar to teach children about the role of father figures, nor is there any reason to suspect that the creative team at Pixar have more of an understanding of what that might entail than any other particular group of people. However, their films have enjoyed widespread success, and the family paradigms those films portray will hold an important position in the understanding child audiences have of what it means to be a father. Secondly, Pixar are primarily an American company. The Incredibles was both written and directed by Brad Bird, an American citizen, and the portrayals of fatherhood found within Pixar films are understandably American. I do not intend to homogenise different cultural understandings of fatherhood, but there is a point where Pixar films are world-wide phenomena, and will have affected the understanding of children across a variety of nations and cultures. There is also a point where children may not understand all the subtleties to a portrayed paradigm: the character Dash in The Incredibles highlights this sort of situation. Elastigirl has come to the rescue of her husband, unwittingly bringing her children into danger. Violet, the oldest child, correctly recognises that the marriage of Mr Incredible and Elastigirl has been threatened by Mr Incredible’s unfaithful behaviour, which has now also indirectly endangered both his wife and his children. This notion flies completely over the head of Dash, Violet’s younger brother, who asks “So the bad guys are trying to break up Mom and Dad’s marriage?”  Younger children, or less analytical ones, may not understand all the complexities of a particular family paradigm. Regardless of the understanding of some members of the audience, it is interesting to consider the messages broadcasted within the films. It is also important to consider the fact that Pixar films have a dual audience: both children, and their parents and caregivers. Messages missed by some children may well be understood by adults who might even find themselves in relatable circumstances. Pixar’s cultural statements are as much for adults as they are for children.

One of the primary reasons for choosing Pixar as a focal point for these essays is because The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and, to a lesser extent, Up, are all films about fathers growing into their roles within the family unit. The Incredibles communicates the notion that fathers should be involved in family life, ought to put their families first, and ought to work in tandem with other members of their family unit. It is important to establish now that the family depicted here is a white, heterosexual, all-American family with a wife, husband, two children and a baby. It is an archetypal nuclear family, and it must be understood that the commentary on the role of the father takes place within this heteronormative American family and promotes a heteronormative American culture, for better or for worse. There are three distinct moments within the film, representing wrong and right approaches to the role of the father within this context.

The first is an early scene set at the dinner table. The father (Bob Parr, or Mr. Incredible) is disconnected from the family unit. He is a limp character, reading his newspaper and interacting only through inattentive placatory noises. The colour scheme is muted and dull, and it is clear that Bob’s actions drag down the whole family: the scene culminates with degeneration into open chaos and conflict. The heart of Bob’s self-worth rests in his superhero identity, and because he is unable to perform this identity, he feels worthless. When he fights with his wife, Helen, he tells her that their son Dash (who has super speed) should be allowed to compete in school running. Helen replies “You know why we can’t do that, Bob” – meaning that if Dash competed, his super power would be discovered and the family’s secret would be compromised. Bob replies “Because he’d be great!” revealing his frustration at not being able to perform his superhero identity. Helen correctly identifies this fact and screams “This is not about you!”.  An incredibly insightful woman, Helen (or Elastigirl) recognized that Bob’s identity was centred around the role of Mr. Incredible, and in fact warned him at their wedding fifteen years earlier that “if we’re going to make this work, you have to be more than Mr. Incredible”. Bob’s blinkered focus on his superhero identity is perfectly illustrated by the fact that he was late to said wedding – because he was preventing crime and saving lives. Helen understands that in order for this family to be a family, Bob’s identity cannot be limited to Mr. Incredible. He must become also both a father and a husband.

The second moment takes place after Bob gets home from defeating the first robot. This scene is a montage where Bob is shown interacting joyfully with his wife and children. He performs the role of a ‘proper’ father to a jazzy upbeat soundtrack, and all is well. Because Bob has been allowed to perform his identity as Mr. Incredible, he is willing to put time and energy into his family. This has a positive outcome for all concerned, but is ultimately a transitory experience. Bob is finding personal gratification outside of his family, and the energy and passion he finds for his family is only an expression of that gratification. He is performing the actions of a father, but really his understanding of fatherhood has not developed: he is simply expressing positive emotion towards his family rather than the negative emotion that he felt before. One might ask: is Bob not doing enough? He is making his wife and children happy! Does this not constitute good fatherhood? The answer, Pixar reply, is no. Bob’s input into his family may be positive, but it is founded on dishonesty and disloyalty. Earlier in the film, Bob was shown trying to relive his superhero days with his friend Lucius (or Frozone), by saving people from a burning building. It is after this escapade that he fights with his wife, who does not want their children put into danger because of Bob’s irresponsible actions. When Bob later leaves to fight the robot (without his wife’s knowledge), he is engaging in the same dishonesty as before. The only difference is that this dishonesty makes Bob feel more satisfied (and he doesn’t get caught by his wife). It is interesting to note that at the end of the positive montage, a subplot begins as Helen becomes suspicious that Bob is being unfaithful with another woman – which is true, in a sense.

The third moment takes place after the climax of the film. Bob is with his family, cheering on Dash at a running event. The family is united and happy, the sun is shining, and everybody is making progress in different areas of their lives. The most important change here is Bob’s involvement in the family unit. There are two critical moments leading up to this change in Bob’s attitude towards family. The first is when Bob is led to believe that Syndrome, the movie’s villain, has killed his wife and children. He is forced to sit and listen to his wife’s cries for help over the radio before missiles hit the plane she is in and supposedly kill both Helen and his children. At this moment, Bob recognizes exactly what it is he has lost. When he is later told that his family is alive, he is determined to change, and refocuses his life around his family. The profound nature of the change he makes is explored throughout the next few scenes. For example, when his wife berates him for his foolishness, he replies “You keep trying to pick a fight, but I’m still just happy you’re alive”. The extent of his change is fully unfolded shortly before the climax of the film. The family are captured and imprisoned by Syndrome, and Bob goes about apologising to his wife:

 “I’m sorry. This is my fault. I’ve been a lousy father; blind to what I have… so obsessed with being undervalued that I undervalued all of you. So caught up in the past that I… you are my greatest adventure, and I almost missed it.”

From here on in, the family works as a unit. Bob is not perfect, but he is learning. The villain is defeated, the family reunited, and the world is saved. Everything is put right after, and only after, Bob becomes a proper father – that is, a father who acts as a father ‘ought to’. Really this understanding can be boiled down to three points: in order to be a good father, men ought to be involved in their families, ought to put their families first, and ought to work in tandem with the other members of their family. These are the three central messages communicated about fathers in The Incredibles, and it is interesting to note that, in part, this is actually a film about a father becoming who he ought to be. How often does one see a work about a mother becoming who she ought to be? Unfortunately I do not have the time to go into this issue, but it is a fascinating sociological question with an equally riveting answer.

A final note: the third understanding, that fathers ought to work in tandem with the other members of their family, is an interesting social concept. The change here is the notion of working in tandem, specifically. In our society today, the father is not necessary the definitive figure of authority within the family, be it financially, legally, or socially. In no small part this is due to the feminist movement of the 80s, which caused serious changes to family roles by breaking down the gendering of caregiver and breadwinner. Women face the challenge of dividing their time between work and family, and to an extent men also face the same issue now – the message communicated by The Incredibles is that a father who is not involved in his family is a poor father. There are echoes of this feminism throughout the movie. At the opening of the film, Elastigirl scoffs at the notion of settling down and raising a family. “I’m at the top of my game!” she announces. “Come on, girls! Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so. I don’t think so.” Shortly afterwards, Mr. Incredible banters with his wife-to-be over the capture of a generic purse-snatcher. Elastigirl asks “Whatever happened to ladies first?”, and Mr. Incredible responds “Well, whatever happened to equal rights?” Feminism has certainly shifted the balance of authority within the family, but that change in authority is just one part of the changing social role of fathers.

There is a great deal more to discuss with regards to the role of fathers today, and I have room here for very little of it. This film highlights the social role of fathers with regards to authority and role within the family. It does portray a nuclear family, but there are interesting questions to ask about fathers who are not biological – be it adoptive fathers, stepfathers, or simple father figures. Some of these questions will be explored more in Up. There is already a great deal of published work on the elements causing social change, and also on the state of fatherhood in different cultural contexts, and therefore my essays do not directly address these issues. Rather, I have briefly analysed the text at hand to draw out the inherent family paradigm, which no doubt can be contextualised and discussed in expert detail by the sociologists among us. Let us put the academia to the side for the moment, and ask: What does this film ultimately say about fathers? They are not always perfect, we are told, nor are they always right. Sometimes, they are remarkably stupid. But there is always, always reason to have faith that one day, they will pull through and be who they ought to be.


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Bibliography
Lamb, Michael E. (ed.). The Father’s Role: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1987.
Dermott, Esther. Intimate fatherhood: a sociological analysis. London: Routledge, 2008.

The Incredibles. Directed by Brad Bird. 2004. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment, 2005. DVD. 

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