Thursday, July 23, 2009

Incredible[s]

My three year-old is currently watching The Incredibles on a fairly regularly basis, which, frankly, I prefer to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. Who could prefer the princesses' passive model of femininity—one cleaning around the house and the other sleeping [!] until the man of her life comes to give her value and worth—to Helen Parr/Elastigirl's incredulous question: "Leave the saving of the world men? I don't think so!"

In my opinion, The Incredibles is one of the best family movies of the decade in part because of an unusual theme that runs almost directly against the grain of current cultural trends. In two prominent quotes, both of which, I believe, bring their scenes to a close, one of the movie's protagonists and its main antagonist express this theme:
[Helen Parr, while sighing] Everyone's special, Dash.
[Dash, under his breath] Which is another way of saying nobody is.

[Syndrome] I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics they've ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so everyone can be superheroes! Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super, [laughs maniacally] no one will be.

Besides Dash's and Syndrome's lines, however, the theme of being special/super precisely because a character puts effort into his or her areas of natural ability is a major sub-plot for both Dash and Syndrome, who both struggle to know how to be true to themselves and come to very different results, and even to daughter Violet, whose struggles are much more internal, personal, and emotional. In our culture, however, I was amazed (and, frankly, grateful) to see a major studio production recognize and announce to audiences everywhere that the sentimental declaration, "Everyone's special" actually de-specializes everyone.

In Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era, American sociologist Barry Schwartz makes a similar observation regarding the diminishing of traditional (male, European) heroes and the elevation of figures from other national, ethnic, and gender groups regardless of their contributions to history and/or society.
The U.S. Mint's latest project, therefore, is to produce a series of one-dollar coins that will feature the likeness of every president, regardless of his accomplishment. "This could be a renaissance for some our lesser-known presidents," explained the mint's director, Edmund C. Moy, to a New York Times reporter. The reporter's failing to ask Mr. Moy why the mint would ever want to replace George Washington with a lesser president is symptomatic of the great drive toward equality. Neither questioner nor respondent seemed to know that to admire all ethnic, racial, and national heroes equally is to esteem none. (Schwartz 2008: 210; my emphasis)

I'm reminded of the seriousness with which then-candidate Barack Obama suggested that his experience spear-heading a campaign to install him as the forty-fourth POTUS counted as "executive experience" and qualified him, therefore, to serve as POTUS. Perhaps Obama, in the next 3.5 or 7.5 years, will accomplish many great things (other than his obviously significant status as the first non-European POTUS). But only in a cultural milieu in which "everyone's special" could such a thing ever be uttered seriously, let alone taken seriously.

3 comments:

Adam L. Bean said...

Of course, in real life there are few or no "Incredibles," and most of the historical figures we have elevated to such status hardly deserved it. We praise the men who win wars--by what, giving orders?--when anything they have "accomplished" was done by the blood and sweat of the "common" people, who are not "special". It is a good movie, but I'm not sure if I can follow all your sentiments as presented here.

Rafael said...

Adam,

I appreciate your comments. Of course "The Incredibles" aren't true to life, but the theme is apropro, as the quote from Schwartz (which is real life) demonstrates.

But I don't share your cynicism re: historical heroes. Inasmuch as racism, nationalism, sexism, and ethnocentrism have highlighted European males and their contributions to American society and history, we have misidentified our heroes. But the solution that has been operative in our culture for half a century now has been to deny that white men have been heroic and to highlight ordinary women and ethnic minorities instead.

As a person of color I find that incredibly offensive. The problem isn't heroism; the problem has been our narrow search for heroism. There have been genuinely great women and minority figures, but instead of highlighting them we have preferred to level the playing field and focus on celebrity, or worse, victimhood, for our role models. And in the same vein, I really don't understand how highlighting genuinely heroic minority and female figures requires the denigrating of European males. Does that make any sense?

I question your "hardly deserved it." Such a characterization is part of the distortion that's required to pretend that heroic actions and epic personalities don't make a difference, or that it doesn't take anything more than the so-called "common people" to sustain and advance societal goals. The "great man" approach to history—whereby heroic figures bend the course of events by sheer force of will—is clearly a distortion. But so is the "from below" approach that denies the role of great women and men. True, the great figures of history might not have been so great in other historical contexts. But not everyone responds heroically in contexts that demand heroic people. Washington wouldn't have been the hero he was had it not been for the men and supporting populace who carried out his directives. But Washington certainly deserves credit for leading those around him and enabling them to achieve uncommon things.

I guess, to draw a long response to a close, I would simply affirm there's a place for ideals, historical or otherwise. Accuracy and precision in historical reconstruction are wonderful, even necessary, qualities. But ideal images, not realistic ones, push us to endure more and achieve more than we otherwise would.

Adam L. Bean said...

Rafael,

Thanks for the response. I concede to you that recognizing a long pattern of misidentifying heroes does not imply that they are none. My wife specializes in studying two traditional 'heroic' figures--Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill--and I think she does a good job of navigating the tension between those that write hagiographies of them and those that make them devils. I am a bit cynical about historical heroes, though not entirely so. The people I admire most are usually men and women of discipline, intellect, wit, peacefulness, and beauty--not necessarily heroic traits.

I come from Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, where old Honest Abe is practically one of the Gods. Do I admire his strength and his (eventual) courage on the issue of emancipation? Of course. But leading so many young Americans to death is not an act of heroism to me. There may not have been another way, but to me a real 'hero' would have found one.

To be very honest, I think that my negative reaction to your post had a little to do with the example of President Obama that you chose to use at the end. Naturally it offended my biases, but overall it didn't strike me as very clear or on target. Now if you had used Governor Palin as an example...

I did not vote for Obama because he is black or because I thought him to be some kind of 'hero' or 'celebrity', but because of his work ethic, education, political positions, and vision for the future. If he ever was a "hero" to the majority of populace, the polls seem to be showing that this is slipping a bit.

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