Stretching the gender roles: The Incredibles’ Elastigirl setting an example as the working woman.

By Tamina Summersgill

Those of us who watched The Incredibles as children went on to watch the film’s long-awaited sequel as adults this year. How fitting, then, that the franchise should grow alongside its viewers. Whilst the first film was innocent family fun, the sequel provides a more prevalent critical comment on modern societal issues. It particularly draws attention to the change from traditionally viewed roles of female domesticity and men in the workplace to a mindset where gender does not define a person’s societal role. Bearing in mind that The Incredibles 2 was always going to attract fans of the first film, and introduce the film to a new set of fans from a younger generation, the creator’s decision to use the film as a platform on which to explore and criticise the shift in social expectations shows how pressingly it needs to be addressed and paves the way for more content of its kind.

The film celebrates and normalises the idea of women in the workplace and is thorough in its analysis of the subtleties that surround it. Whilst the first film contemplates the desire for Mr Incredible to become ‘super’ as an individual, only for him to learn the importance of family, the sequel portrays a complete reversal as Elastigirl must now establish herself independently from her family. The refreshing storyline justifies the choice that she – rather than her husband – should take on the mission by stating that she statistically works more effectively. This is in tune with research suggesting that more female-inclusive boards not only make companies more successful but also but also allow women to perform better in the workplace. Elastigirl’s own reluctance to take on the job brings to light some of the difficulties women face when deciding to enter the working world, their children and a fear of failure; the film particularly emphasises the responsibility she feels towards her family as a carer, rather than as an earner.

Elastigirl thrives in her independence and is in the spotlight until the very end, proving to herself and her husband that she is his professional equal

By satirising Mr Incredible’s reaction to his wife’s independence in the workplace The Incredibles 2 ridicules the opposition to women entering the workplace as, after all, if Elastigirl is more likely to succeed in re-establishing superheroes’ reputation it makes sense that she takes on responsibility of the job while Mr Incredible deals with the domestic side of things.

In reality, another factor which conditions women’s position in the workplace is the opportunity available to them. It is much more difficult for women to make their way to the top, often based on the fact that they may want to start a family and so leave, or are ‘expected’ to leave, their work. By putting forward an opportunity for Elastigirl to do impactful work and complete it successfully, the film is encouraging the inclusion of women in the workplace and portraying it as overwhelmingly positive. As opposed to the first film, in which Mr Incredible realises he is not “strong enough” to succeed alone, Elastigirl thrives in her independence and is in the spotlight until the very end; proving to herself and her husband that she is his professional equal. This seems to say that, when given the opportunity to, women can perform at an equal standard in the workplace and they are highly capable of exceeding expectations.

There seems to be a mutual understanding of their similar experience of being forced into the shadow of their male counterparts

The film also normalises the idea of women in the workplace by showing how compatible the heroine is to the work she’s tasked with completing, she doesn’t seem out of place at all in her role as the family’s breadwinner.  Furthermore, the casual exchanges she has with her fellow female professional, Evelyn Deavor, also contribute to depicting women in the workplace as a normalised phenomenon. When Evelyn suggests that she is the uncredited brains behind her brother’s telecommunications empire, Elastigirl, in turn, relates this to the way in which her husband has, so far, always been in the spotlight. There seems to be a mutual understanding of their similar experience of being forced into the shadow of their male counterparts, and this common ground allows them to uplift and empathise with each other.

However, even if Elastigirl is given the spotlight, the film isn’t glorifying women. The character of Evelyn only temporarily serves as a shoulder for the heroine to lean on. By choosing to make the film’s “bad guy” a woman, the creators are also pointing out that women are equally corruptible, equally capable of being ruthless. Evelyn is a dangerously ambitious, violent, and bitter character. When her sabotaging Elastigirl’s mission is revealed, it is unexpected, but also entirely plausible as Evelyn is a character who embodies different aspects of the working woman: often undermined and uncredited, but also potentially merciless.

Additionally, a lot can be said about the film’s depiction of Mr Incredible, his repeated doubt in his wife’s professional capacity and his confusion about her being chosen over him for the mission highlight the blatant expectation for their to be male privilege in the workplace. While women are more systematically excluded from the workplace when they become mothers, it is expected for men to continue to earn. When the possibility for the man to earn is taken away: he loses purpose. Mr Incredible feels safe within the convention of being the male breadwinner, but the insecurity that results from the role reversal is also an observation of the negative effects of that convention. Mr Incredible’s self-esteem and self-confidence deflate when he cannot meet the traditional social expectation for him to provide.

She makes the figure of the working woman, and specifically the working mother, a role-model for viewers no matter their gender or generation

Another negative aspect of the professional and domestic gender-roles presented in the film is how detached Mr Incredible is from his children’s lives. He struggles to care for them in the most basic ways: putting them to bed, helping with homework, etc. While The Incredibles 2 makes light of it and turns it into comedy, it is first and foremost funny because it is relatable. Often, fathers at work are inevitably separate from the day-to-day routine of their families. Mr Incredible’s catastrophic attempts to manage his own three children does pose the question of what his role as a father has been so far, other than being the main earner. Very little, it would seem. Perhaps this is another benefit of the more equal distribution of domestic tasks with more equal views on women’s involvement in working: fathers would be more involved in their children’s lives.

The Incredibles 2 succeeds in turning the tables by giving the heroine the majority of the action and puts the hero the backseat. The narrative makes the inclusion of women in the workplace look easy for, and beneficial to, everyone and also explores men’s position outside the workplace. However, it does mainly celebrate Elastigirl’s skills and her professional victories, and makes the figure of the working woman, and specifically the working mother, a role-model for viewers no matter their gender or generation.

Photo Credits: Brickset via Flickr

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