You know the look.
You’re at a party, having a perfectly fine conversation with someone you don’t know, when they ask what you do. If your answer includes the words “home” and “parent,” you’ve seen their eyes glaze over as quickly as a summer storm ends a picnic.
When I first realized that baby talk wasn’t going to make me any new friends at cocktail parties, I tried — determined to demonstrate my brain power — bringing up my dissertation. Somehow, that didn’t go so well either. I learned quickly to change the subject preemptively to easier subjects like politics and religion.
So I was pleased to see Helen Parr (a.k.a. Elastigirl) take a stand for all of us stay-at-home parents in the opening scene of The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004). She’s already lost the interest of a high-powered businesswoman by identifying herself as a homemaker when she overhears the woman disparaging Helen’s choice. So Helen speaks up:
“You consider raising a family nothing?! Do you have any idea how much suffering would fail to take root if more people were just good parents?”
By the time she’s done with her tirade, the businesswoman is thoroughly cowed and stay-at-home parents everywhere are cheering at the movie screen.
What? You don’t remember this scene? It’s not because you were on a popcorn run with your six-year-old. Unfortunately, the scene didn’t make the final cut; the filmmakers reimagined the film’s opening, relegating Helen’s impassioned speech to the bonus features on the DVD.
Instead, this stylish film opens, documentary-style, with interviews of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, their comments offering a promisingly fresh reversal of stereotype: the muscular Mr. Incredible is wearying of the superhero life and hints at a desire to settle down. Defining himself in a conventionally female role, he complains, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. . . I feel like the maid! I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for ten minutes?!” Meanwhile Elastigirl, flush with her power, shouts “Settle down, are you kidding? I’m at the top of my game! …Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so!” But then, after a pause, she adds, softly, “I don’t think so.”
That quiet “I don’t think so” indicates a glimmer of doubt creeping into her thinking, and sure enough, we soon see Helen standing at the kitchen sink, bathing baby Jack-Jack and talking on the phone to her husband, Bob (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible) about her success unpacking moving boxes. Next she’s picking the kids up from school, discussing her son Dash’s misbehavior with the principal, serving dinner to the family. She looks cheerful and involved, whether mimicking Jack-Jack’s funny faces or listing the leftovers available for teenage Violet’s meal. But she’s really only operating at half-speed.
When Dash and Violet get into an argument, we see a flash of Elastigirl’s old powers. Stretching out her arms, she grabs them both, but they dive under the table to continue their fight and she’s stuck, knotted around the table by the two quarreling kids. It’s a beautifully apt visual metaphor of a mother’s struggle to keep her family in line. We stretch ourselves to the limit and hope that, like Elastigirl, we can bounce back.
And bounce back she does. When Bob is tempted into a secret mission, the family abandons the domestic milieu for action and adventure and Elastigirl comes into her own. Swinging from monorail tracks, stretching between and through locked doors, she chases down her husband and protects her children by urging them to rely on their own strengths. She’s at her best here, unambiguously strong, a mother and a superhero. She realizes that the two are not such distinct identities, and that what she brings to the table as Elastigirl, even if she gets knotted up sometimes, is valuable. It’s good to remember, when your kids are pulling you different directions, that if you reach deeply enough you can still access the person you were before children stretched you thin (or not so thin…), and that person has strengths that apply to parenting.
Part of The Incredibles wit is in making each superhero’s power an exaggeration of a normal human characteristic: teenage shrinking Violet can disappear behind her hair; young Dash is super fast; Jack-Jack can turn into a pop-eyed, red-faced monster.
As for we mere mortals, I once saw a t-shirt with the slogan “I make milk. What’s your superpower?” That’ll work for a few more months, for me; then I think I’ll try “I grow people,” and see what kind of look I get.