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Thursday, September 13, 2007


Speaking of authoritarian stuff

... which we have been this week, I think I'll take the opportunity to share a theory that emerged in a conversation with some friends a while ago.

You recall the movie The Incredibles? Lovely animation and good plotting, as per Pixar's usual - but when it came out, I think everyone knew at least one person who emerged saying, 'Well, I enjoyed it, but - did it seem a bit right-wing to you? You know, all that stuff about how some people are just better than others?'

And it's a tricky question. Because on the one hand, well, Ubermensch, superhero, I say tomato, you say pop cultural ketchup ... but on the other, there were definitely strains of left-wing thinking in there too. The nastiest two characters are the hero's boss, a grasping capitalist insurance manager whose entire raison d'etre is preventing poor people from getting the insurance cover they've paid for, and the villain, who's made a fortune in the arms trade. It's not your left-leaning liberal who's going to jump up saying, 'But we need a free market!' when you discuss people like that, is it?

Now, the simplest explanation is that it's just a story, and things that are artistically consistent aren't necessarily politically consistent. But they have to mesh somehow, and in cases where they seem incompatible, it comes back to authorial temperament. What kind of artist, or audience, is going to find all these things fit comfortably together?

And in The Incredibles, there's a very simple explanation. It's not trying to make a political point; it's the fantasy of an aging jock.

(I'm not assuming that this is what Brad Bird of any of the Pixar team acutally are. They could be; making a movie about superheroes using computers is not where you'd expect the captain of the team to end up, but stereotypes very seldom tell us anything. But since Pixar refers to Cars as its 'red-state movie', I think we can assume they're capable of presenting more than one attitude about the world.)

Think about it that way and it all makes sense. For this mindset, the story is a poignant life-trajectory. When you were young, you were golden; stronger, faster, more famous than everyone else, you got endless encouragement and validation for doing something you loved, something that feels at once a fun, exciting game and a way of standing for a system of good, old-fashioned, character-building values. Think of the way Bob, our Mr Incredible of super-strength, keeps checking his watch on the way to his wedding and saying, 'I still got time', slipping off for one more hoop before he has to settle down. Think of the way that he confronts villainous Bomb Voyage: they face off, shouting each other's names like a salute. They're completely opposed, but the minute the dorky little kid butts in, they're completely united: this is clique business, loser, you're not fooling anyone. They are, in short, like nothing so much as captains of opposing teams meeting before a game: sure, they want to beat each other, but fundamentally they're delighted to see each other, because without both of them, they couldn't play the game.

Then the golden age passes. Suddenly you're stuck in a dull job, because the thing you're best at wasn't a very marketable skill. You love your family, yes, but it's all responsibilities and no more adulation; your pretty wife has moved on from being the head cheerleader and is busy being a mom, and doesn't want to play the games that brought you together any more. The geeky kid who used to worship you is a millionaire while you're stuck in the same old grind, with no more highs and lows, no more applause. You don't know what went wrong, but somehow, the glow has gone out of everything. It can't be your fault, because you only did what you always did, but somehow, the world has gone out of kilter, and nothing is the way it should be any more.

Doesn't that account for some of the oddities? The way, for instance, Bob's son Dash wants to go out for sports, despite the fact that he's so fast he can run on water and it would be about as much of a challenge as an adult racing a two-year-old? The way that book smarts don't get any respect (irritating Buddy, the klutzy Mozart-fixated babysitter), despite having an exceptionally intelligent set of creators? The way that Bob accuses the villain of having 'killed real heroes' rather than killing, say, people, or even of killing his friends? The way they beat the robot with a 'Go long!' football throw? The way the Q of the film, Edna Mode of technological wizardry, isn't actually a scientist but a fashion designer, a freaky cool kid rather than an outsider techie? (I love the Edna Mode scenes, she very much reminds me of a friend of mine, but still.) The way the adult Bob isn't even slightly impressed, or even interested, that twelvish-year-old Buddy can invent rocket boots?

It's not that this is meant to add up to a philosophy; it's more a hierarchical way of looking at types of people, so deeply hierarchical that it isn't fully aware of itself. If someone spends their formative years being told that they're superior because of a morally neutral talent, you'd expect some compartmentalised thinking to emerge, and in one of the compartments, separated from the 'Beauty is skin deep' box, would be a tendency to assess people's worth based on their physical prowess. The two villains may be right-wing, but they're also geeks, and ugly ones at that: a tidy-minded squawking insurance nebbish and a potato-shaped ginga fanboy who can make fantastic tools but, crucially, doesn't have the physical skill to use them. The schoolteacher whose chair Dash puts a tack on is a balding, big-headed four-eyes, and hence doesn't get very much sympathy: Dash's mother gently points out that he needs a 'more constructive outlet' for his talents, but doesn't give him the scolding he deserves for hurting and humiliating someone, or even for Using His Powers For Evil, which is what he was doing, the little villain.

In this worldview, some people simply matter more than others. Non-super people aren't exactly inferior, but they're background noise, not part of what's important. They are, basically, an audience. It's noteworthy that, having destroyed the evil robot, the heroes are rewarded with applause: it's applause that Bob's been missing, even more than the sense of helping people. Similarly, I think, Dash's desire to go out for sports: doing well in the race doesn't challenge his powers at all, but it allows him to get some public recognition, which is the only thing he can possibly get out of a race that's so much a foregone conclusion that it's practically cheating. He can run fast on his own, but he needs to be on the track to get applause.

The film is, in short, the dream of a mindset that's spent its youth experiencing the reality that, if you have a physical skill, you deserve more admiration than people who don't - and doesn't know what to do, but is sure the time must be badly out of joint, when that reality changes.

I'm not attacking the movie: I like it. I don't think it speaks any deep truths about the human condition in the story it tells, though I think it may be eloquent in expressing the bewildered frustration of the office-bound former athletics star, but it's very well-made indeed. Mostly I'm saying all this because it's interesting when an idea suddenly explains a lot of previously puzzling things, and when my mate suggested this about The Incredibles, suddenly the whole movie made perfect sense.

Like "Hero," I was entranced with "The Incredibles" -- until the final scene.

Holding a child back for fear of making other people look bad is pretty lame, of course, but... we're talking sports, here. Ultimately this is not a matter of life and death or any great import. It's fantastic for morale at many levels, and it's healthy and self-esteem-boosting for the participants, but having that be the goal of a ten-year-old who can run on the ocean is definitely all about the applause; the ego.

That really screwed with a very nice film for me. (I especially liked how they juxtaposed the daughter's personality with her power.) It's like bragging because I can draw a better stick figure than my kindergartener cousin. Or better, bragging about my lovely symmetrical stick figure when in reality I have a degree from a 3-year design school. It's distasteful.

There is charge often leveled against this sensibility, and I often hear it leveled against Americans/the US in particular (I do wonder quite often if -- and kind of sheepishly hope that -- it might be more widespread) -- that this mentality takes every single quarrel back to high school:

"You're just mad because you peaked at 16," hurled at the Al Bundys of the world who were senior-class stars with tons of dates and rule-bending privileges, then went bald and became shoe salesmen. (I'm being a little Yankee-centric with my examples, please bear with me.)

"You're just mad because you were a geek that couldn't get laid in high school," leveled at the angry Internet millionaires who lack social skills and yet complain that "women hate nice guys."

"It's only a game" versus "that's what all the losers say" (thus Michael Vick is a millionaire arrrrrrgh.)
[/ overgeneralization]

Not to mention the "teachers are lame/the enemy" "smarts are suspicious/I don't hold with that book learnin'" "I'll vote for him because he may be dumb but he looks like a nice guy to have a beer with"

So its authoritarianism doesn't slap me in the face so much as its immaturity. Even, or especially, the need for applause feels very adolescent -- Mommy, did you see me? Daddy, I don't exist unless you're there to approve. Tell me I did a good job. Did you see? Did you see?

That some people are better than others at certain tasks and skills, as the movie puts forward, is not a problem for me. I am five-foot-ten -- gravity-defying skill at the uneven parallel bars is probably not in the cards for me (I've tried. :-)). Everybody can't be good at everything simply through the power of love or heart or believing in yourself. (This doesn't make less-skilled people less valid and it would be awesome if this became a more acknowledged trope in society. Plus, I like to believe, the average individual tends to be skilled or at least competent at something; if you're not good at A, chances are you'll be good at X, or whatever.) The idea that they shouldn't have to hide it or be ashamed (like, playing dumb or helpless to date a guy, for starters) is also an excellent idea to get out there. But to turn around and apply that to a fourth-grade footrace just sullies the whole thing. It's cheating -- no better than taking water pills to compete in a lower weight class or lying about your age to enter Little League, something a pack of aging athletes ought to have taken stronger issue with. It changed the whole premise from "doing your best" to "being the best" -- one attainable, the other just smug. It takes the beautiful idea of "everybody has a niche and place in the world, fulfill yours to the very best of your ability" and pounds it and flattens it and turns it into "win! win! win!"

(Or, in a nutshell, "yeah! What you said!")

I did really like the film, though.
Most of my guy friends like this movie. Most of my girl friends think it's okay but not that good. The whole high school jock thing explains that nicely.
The film is, in short, the dream of a mindset that's spent its youth experiencing the reality that, if you have a physical skill, you deserve more admiration than people who don't - and doesn't know what to do, but is sure the time must be badly out of joint, when that reality changes.

I agree with everything you have to say and yet I cannot shake my uneasiness that this sort of analysis is never applied to books or films which lionize intelligence, another morally neutral talent which people spend their formative years being told they're superior because they happen to possess it.

This, of course, is for the perfectly natural reason that critics, authors, etc. tend to be intellectuals and wrongly (and arrogantly) consider intelligence to be on a different level somehow from beauty or athleticism.
I'm not sure what stories you're referring to when you talk of 'lionizing intelligence'; I can't think of many examples outside the whodunnit genre. Objecting to whodunnits valuing intelligence is like objecting to martial arts movies valuing fitness: they're simply essential to the story.

In terms of social utility, I do think that intelligence can often contribute more. One strong man can kill a tiger, but one clever man can design an anti-tiger device that protects a thousand villages. This doesn't mean that beauty and strength are bad, but if I was facing a problem that threatened large numbers of people, I'd definitely rather have it addressed by an ugly, weak, clever person than a handsome, strong, stupid one. The handsome stupid guy may be an excellent fellow, and it would be most unfair to consider him bad simply because he's handsome and thick - neither of those things are his doing - but there are situations where he's not the best guy for the job, and those situations can be important ones. My point is simply that there are some situations where intelligence is a virtue, and those situations form a frequent and significant part of human experience. The fact that intelligence can be misused doesn't mean it's not a good thing. There's nothing inherently wrong with valuing it; it's very often valuable.

There may be a practical reason for intelligence cropping up in stories: a good plot involves finding good solutions to problems, and the ability to do that is more or less the definition of intelligence.

My objection to The Incredibles, such as it is, is not that it presents strength as good, but because it presents intelligence, or at least technical intelligence, as bad. That's as unreasonable as suggesting that physical strength is bad just because you value sharp wits. Both are good things when turned to good ends; I don't think placing them in opposition helps anyone. The idea that respect for or enjoyment of intelligence must be intellectual arrogance is false and divisive. It's no more reasonable than saying that anybody who enjoys watching a basketball game must despise short people.

Please don't object that I haven't happened to address an issue that's a particular bugbear of yours, though. I blog about what interests me. If you want to know my opinion on a subject, ask me; if you have an opinion of your own, write essays expounding it. Responding to an essay that I did write by complaining about an essay that I didn't isn't very pro-active, and it's kind of off-topic. If you want something, create it!
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