Saturday, 5 May 2012
The 12 Greatest Super-Heroines Ever (1) Elastigirl
Elastigirl (Helen Parr)
The Incredibles sometimes seems to be a remarkable example of heretical, paradigm-shifting forteana, evidence of truths which few in the superhero industry want to privately or publicly acknowledge. It stands like E=MC2 in the face of the theory of Ether, like the arrival of The Beatles when apparently "guitar groups are on the way out, Mr Epstein". Just about every sacred truth held by the Rumpish Flakkers of the cult'o'fanboy is contradicted by the artistic and commercial success of The Incredibles, and yet, despite that, the entrenched industry-killing prejudices and the miscalculations drawn from them career onwards. There's no place for adults in the superhero tale? Or stable romantic relationships? Or families with children, or tales grounded in anything other than adolescent entitlement and blokeish power fantasies? But what about The Incredibles? And why has so little of The Incredibles ever filtered through to the pages of the sub-genre which inspired it?
In particular, where are the strong, human, grounded-in-everyday-life superheroines following in the wake of the entirely inspiring Elastigirl?
As we've discussed so many times before, the only time to feel concerned that a woman's being depicted as a wife and mother is when that's all a woman's ever allowed to be. An idiot from either the ergh-girls or the domesticity=patriarchy tendencies might choose to sneer at Elastigirl's role as contented, committed housewife. But then, both choruses are populated by little more than blind-minds in the first place. Inhabiting a culture which constantly bombards us with reactionary and yet often hyper-sexualised representations of women, it's regrettably easy to assume that female characters informed by traditional roles implicitly embody regressive thinking. As such, the misogynist simply assumes that their own occluded world-view is being reflected and complacently stop asking questions, while those associating XY chromosomes with Bloke-Babylon jump to the presumption that misogyny is inevitably being perpetuated. Yet Helen Parr is quite clearly the star and neither the doormat nor the victim of The Incredibles. A jaw-breaker with her elongated fists, a skilled pilot and a super-acrobat, she's an unmistakably adult woman who can spat and scrap with the best of them. She's clearly chosen her own path in life within the constraints of the Superhero Protection Programme, just as she was every bit the equal - if not the superior - of the costumed super-guys she associated with before anonymity and inaction was imposed upon her kind by the state. Just because she's not her family's breadwinner doesn't mean that she's anything other than the most authoritative of its members. It's Elastigirl, after all, who comes to the rescue of her husband when he's managed to get himself imprisoned, it's Elastigirl who saves her children when their plane is blown out of the sky, and its Elastigirl who takes charge and prevents the none-too-bright Mr Incredible from indulging in potentially-fatal macho-grandstanding at the tale's climax. Though she's as capable as any of us are of being swallowed up by anxiety and indecision when her marriage appears to be crumbling, there's ultimately nothing that's depressingly passive and dependent about Elastigirl.
Whether the family-as-superheroes set-up is seen as a metaphor for the mid-life crisis or the debate about private versus public responsibility, whether it's ultimately an expression of Mom-stay-at-home chauvinism or you-can-have-it-all feminism, the fact is that The Incredibles draws a great deal of its power and appeal from an engagement with real-world issues grounded in recognisable human experiences. In that, Elastigirl's not just an invigoratingly compelling character, but also the clearest example that the superhero sub-genre can be used to discuss the broadest range of social situations, including even the most apparently unremarkable and everyday of debates. Yet where does the super-book touch upon any such issues with any such lightness of touch and spirit of sheer good fun? There's a hint of the same in Hickman's Fantastic Four, while there's a great deal more of a similar substance in Simone's Welcome To Tranquilly. Elsewhere the reader struggles to recognise anything of the situations and issues put to use in The Incredibles at all, unless it's to recognise the likes of the murdered-by-superheroine husband in Birds Of Prey or the apparently centuries worth of dead male baby bodies in Wonder Woman. The family is typically a source of at best frustration and at worse trauma in the super-book, while mothers are either burdens to be supported, jailers to be escaped or ghosts to faux-tragically mourn and avenge. Whatever the strengths and limitations of its politics, the family metaphor at the heart of the Incredibles generates powerful emotions and stimulates fundamental questions, whereas so much of the sub-genre's traditional fare works to narrow down the same to a safe, unthreatening, bloke-exciting blur of grit'n'grind'n'bloodlust.
Even the fact that Elastigirl's absurdly idealised and yet patently free from objectivisation is both a relief and an inspiration. That women as strong and individual as Elastigirl are almost entirely absent from the super-verses of 2012 is more than a considerable shame. It is, although the very word will strike many as nought but hyperbole, a scandal. After all, we can hardly argue that Helen Parr's anything other than an entirely unchallenging if engaging representation of a typical middle-aged individual. As laudable as she is as a character, she hardly represents what we might think of as a radical view of femininity and age, and yet, in the mass of costumed crimefighter books, her like's often far too daring a take to even appear on the page. Too "old", too mature, too unlike a 14 year old boy's vision of a Sue-Storm-hot soccer mom, too suburban, too strong, too challengingly grounded in everyday experience, too willing to express emotion and reason alike, too willful and yet too maternal, too contrary. Too worryingly threatening and contaminating, it would seem, as ridiculous as the very idea surely is in this, the second decade of the 21st century.
Though the reports appear to vary a touch, they all seem to agree that The Incredibles grossed more than $630 000 000 in just the first six months of its release in 2004. What a shame that the super-book as it stands typically struggles to produce more than two dozen or so monthly titles topping even 50 000 sales each, with few of them ever discussing anything more moving and substantial than which-bloke-punched-who and how-much-blood was spilt?
So, once again, why it is that the super-book sells to so few people?
The "12 Greatest Super-Heroines Ever" pieces, which will run on an occasional basis for a while, will of course include a significant number of super-women for whom domestic life would be as unwelcome as it'd be entirely inappropriate.
nb: Son Of Baldwin makes a pertinent point about the very name "Elastigirl" in the comments below which I ought to have done and didn't. I'm kicking myself about that, but at least he nailed what I should have mentioned. Mea culpa.