Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pixar and Female Heroes: Why Slate is Completely Wrong

Slate set off a bit off an online firestorm a couple of a weeks ago with a podcast pointing out that none of Pixar's movies to date have female heroes. Ignoring for a moment the fact that having no female heroes is still probably better than the "passive princess" role models Disney serves up, there's a problem with Slate's thesis:

It's completely wrong.

Maybe I'm the only one to notice, but the hero of The Incredibles is Elastigirl/Helen Parr; and the second lead is Violet.

Yes, I know it's not immediately obvious, and superficially it looks like it's Mr. Incredible's movie, but really it isn't. Consider:
  • Helen initiates all the major plot points in the movie. The initial crisis is prompted by her failure to notice that her husband has gotten by far a worse deal out of the bargain they have made to settle for normal domestic lives. The movie contrasts her moderately happy, undemanding domestic home life with his soul-sucking job. The contrast is underlined by the fact that she drives a late-model minivan while he squeezes into an aging, tiny underpowered junker.
  • The plot moves along with her suspicions about Bob, her visit to Edna, her pursuit of the missing/captured Mr. Incredible... At every stage it's Helen who initiates or triggers the next event, while Bob merely reacts to the events that are thrown at him, such as being recruited to hunt down the "rogue" Omnidroid. And isn't it remarkable that Mr. Incredible is captured and she rescues him, not the other way around?
  • More fundamentally from a "film theory" perspective, Helen, not Bob, is the one who has a character arc. She evolves from settling for fake domesticity and suppressed tensions, ignorant of the sacrifices her husband has made to accomodate "normality" (see in particular the scene where she is home, washing the baby and celebrating unpacking the last box while he is crammed into the worst possible cubicle turning down an old lady's claim, and she is completely oblivious to his unhappiness) to rediscovering the value of her husband and children, as well as her own true calling, and finding an accommodation that allows everybody to express their true selves -- including her. By contrast, Bob is essentially the same person at the end that he was at the beginning, only happier (note that we never see how his workplace frustrations are resolved).
  • To underline Helen's position as the hero, Violet's role "echoes" that of her mother in many ways. When the whole family is captured by Syndrome, she's the one who sets them free. She comes up with the idea for taking a rocket. At the climax of the movie, it's her powers that save the whole family from the falling burning debris. And then she wins the boy, not by being meek and passive but by being self-confident and assertive and asking him out on a date instead of waiting for him to notice her. In fact, she probably has the largest character arc of anybody in the movie. And by contrast, her brother Dash really has none: like his father, he is essentially the same person at the end that he was at the beginning.
So in summary: Helen's actions move the plot along, and her character is changed by her experiences. Mr. Incredible exists essentially to give Helen someone and something to save, so that she'll rediscover who she really is. In my book that makes her the hero of this movie, even if the fighting and explosions and conventional "heroics" cleverly conceal that fact.

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