Superpowers can let people do amazing things. You could dream up a superpower to improve your ability to do anything. There is no limit to what you could do when granted the superpower of your choice.
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What would happen if the only powers you could choose for yourself were based on traditional stereotypes? What if I told you that because you’re a girl you can’t have super-strength? Or I told you that you couldn’t be flexible because you’re a boy? That seems slightly problematic. The beauty of superpowers is that they allow people to be whatever they want to be, but by limiting what different individuals can “want to be” this beauty is taken away.
In Disney’s The Incredibles, traditional gender stereotypes are enforced through the powers that are assigned to each hero as well as the role each Incredible plays in the family.
Let’s start with the powers. You honestly can’t get more stereotypically masculine than super-strength, which is Mr. Icredible’s gift. Big, strong, alpha-male… come on, just look at him! Mr. Incredible is basically the definition of masculine stereotypes. Not only is he physically superior to the other members of his family, but he also is emotionally closed off from them, another stereotypically male trait. Disney producers must have gotten together and been like, “I’ve got it! Let’s create the most generalized male hero we can come up with!” And voila! I present to you Mr. Incredible.
That brings us to Mrs. Incredible, also known as Elastigirl due to her superpower of flexibility. Her power allows her to turn into basically any shape she wants throughout the course of the movie. I won’t lie, it’s a pretty cool power and it proves to be very useful on multiple occasions. The power itself is not stereotypically female, but Disney assigned it to the mother of a family.
Hmm… giving a mother the superpower of flexibility? There couldn’t possibly be any implications behind this could there? Like that mothers are “supposed” to be accommodating to their family and put their needs above their own? No, that’s ridiculous! Aside from this, it’s a good thing that Mrs. Incredible can use her flexibility to more efficiently vacuum the house and do the laundry. Come on Disney. You can do better.
When looking at what powers are assigned to the kids in the family, the stereotypes are still present. Dash, as his name implies, has the power of super-speed, an athletic improvement just like his father. I’m sensing a trend here… all males are superior if they are physically better than everyone else. Why couldn’t Violet be given a superpower relating to athleticism? Oh, that’s right, I forgot she’s a stereotypically self-conscious teenage girl. Naturally she should be given a power that allows her to cope with her low self-esteem… how about invisibility? Perfect! This way Disney can teach all young girls out there that hiding from their problems is the best solution. Even with these problematic messages, if a movie is entertaining, people will still watch and love it.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Disney. People obviously enjoyed the movie and it was a huge success. Chances are that none of these stereotypical portrayals were intentional or meant to be harmful anyway. In fact, some people argue that the The Incredibles isn’t all bad in terms of how it portrays gender, claiming that half of the main characters in the movie are female and play a big role in the plot. Others use this information to assert that The Incredibles easily passes the Bechdel Test. While both statements are true, neither mentions the presence of negative messages that reinforce gender stereotypes. That’s certainly a convenient thing to forget when arguing that the movie is culturally acceptable.
Is it better for a movie to include women as main characters if they reinforce traditional gender roles? That’s more a question of personal preference. I would argue that just because a movie includes women and passes the Bechdel Test does not make it inclusive and progressive. The fact that each character’s power fits so squarely into their gender stereotype makes me argue that The Incredibles is not a good example of how Disney is improving its portrayal of gender.
Let’s not forget about the role that each Incredible plays within the family. All it takes is a quick glance to realize that the structure of the Incredible family is nothing out of the ordinary. The family includes a classic stay at home mom who cleans the house, does the laundry, and raises the kids while the father goes out and works to support the family. Not to mention their track star son or their self-conscious teenage daughter. Do these descriptions sound familiar? Have you heard them before?
Disney portrays the family in the most basic and stereotypical way possible, leaving no room for diversity and neglecting to challenge this problematic perspective. Mothers should be allowed to do more than just household choirs and it shouldn’t always be the father who is making money to provide for the family. That’s just not accurate. While others have argued that the film’s focus on family is what has made it such a big success, I maintain that there is a difference between entertainment and influence.
Is it really worth the entertainment if the movie reinforces stereotypical gender roles? Movie producers and creators would likely say yes without blinking an eye. I, on the other hand, would have to disagree. The messages that are sent through movies, especially those made for children, are far too influential to go unnoticed and unanalyzed. It is important to hold companies accountable for the way they portray traditional stereotypes to ensure that movies are not a hindrance to cultural progression and inclusion.