The Incredibles is a Pixar animated film directed by Brad Bird that was released on November 5, 2004. The film is about a superhero family living a normal life while hiding their superpowers. Bob, who is also referred to as Mr. Incredible, longs to get back into action as a superhero; however, this only leads to the entire family battling to save him against a villain. The budget of the film was $92 million and the box office earned $633 million, which indicates that it was a popular, high-demand film in theaters. The film’s audience age was averaged at seven years old when it was first released, meaning that children were exposed to influential media at a young age. As its high box office totals and popularity indicate, this film secures the hegemonic ideology, specifically in terms of the representation of masculinity, the role of women, and the role of African Americans.
Mr. Incredible, who is a tall, white and muscular man, is the protagonist and focus of the film. Mr. Incredible wants to go back into superhero work and save people from danger and villains; however, due to the citizens protesting that they do not want to be saved and their comments about being in danger from all superheroes, Mr. Incredible and his family must go into hiding. Later in the film, he receives a message about a mission indicating that he needs to destroy a robot. Mr. Incredible decides to train again and works hard to get back into shape; however, when he arrives at the location of the mission, he learns that the mission was in a trap. Meanwhile, his family learn that he is in danger and end up trying to save him.
Each family member has a unique superpower. Mr. Incredible has powers of strength, durability, and enhanced senses. Elastigirl, Mr. Incredible’s wife, has powers of elasticity. She has different views and opinions from her husband about returning to hero work and saving people again. Mr. Incredible believes that the world still needs superheroes, but Elastigirl wants their family to stay in hiding and listen to the restrictions of the society. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have three children: Violet, Dash, and baby Jack-Jack. Violet is not confident and struggles with her superpowers of invisibility and force-field creation. Dash is confident in his power of super-speed. The Incredibles also have a family friend, Frozone, who has the power to freeze anything.
Even though the characters are perceived to be amazing superheroes, the film itself persuades viewers to accept its ideas of masculinity, the role of women, and the role of African Americans with these “heroic” characters. The film represents masculinity with the idea that men must be tall, muscular, and white. The film also illustrates its belief that wives only have a purpose of being a stay at home mom and serving their husbands. The film portrays the African American sidekick to be not as appealing as Mr. Incredible and characterized to be the complete opposite of Mr. Incredible in a lot of ways. Because children watch this movie, its influences on images should concern viewers like myself. The film’s audience starts at age seven and moves up, meaning that young viewers are swayed by what the film wants them to think. There is a deeper understanding to be gained of the problematic meanings or characterizations of gender and race in The Incredibles via hegemony.
Explanation of Theory: Hegemony
Hegemony is the theoretical explanation of how the power and dominance in influence of the status quo is maintained. According to John Storey, “the concept of hegemony is used by Gramsci (2009) to refer to a condition in process in which a dominant class does not merely rule a society but leads it through the exercise of intellectual and moral leadership” (Storey 83). Gramsci developed this theory in the 1920s and 30s during his time in prison. Gramsci was concerned for the working class struggling against the ruling class. This contrasts Marxist theory, in which Marx thought that the working would arrive at liberation or be relieved of their oppressive conditions in a different way than what Gramsci had thought. Marx was confident that the class would realize that this ideology was just a “by-product of the economic system” (Ott and Mack 142). However, when the working class did not come to this realization, Gramsci developed the theory of hegemony.
Society as a whole cannot distinguish or disunite themselves from the dominant or ruling class because hegemony is constantly in different forms of appearance. According to Dominic Strinati, “hegemony is readjusted and re-negotiated constantly. Gramsci said that it can never be taken for granted… the function of hegemonic leadership does not disappear but changes its character” (Strinati 157). Hegemony is ubiquitous and everywhere, but it operates in such a way that we are not aware of its existence, because it is unconscious. Gramsci determines that the ruling class maintains its dominance over society in two different ways: coercive control and consensual control. It is through both forms of power the dominant class maintains its ideology.
Coercive control and consensual control lead society to accept the views and ideas of the dominant group. According to Simon Roger, “Coercive control is manifested through direct force or its threat (needed by a state when its degree of hegemonic leadership is low or fractured). Consensual control: which arises when individuals voluntarily assimilate the worldview of the dominant group” (Roger 39). That is, if moral and intellectual leadership does not secure authority, or is powerful enough, that is when coercive power temporarily replaces the process of hegemonic. Specifically, direct force such as the police and the army, controlled by the ruling class, take over. Either way, society accepts the ideology of the dominant class.
It is important to understand that consensual control is achieved by education, economics, and even the media. An example of consensual control being achieved is to look at the ideal American dream. James Adams states:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position (Adams 6).
This American dream still exists in 2016. This dream is passed on through schools, family members, and the media; in terms of this last category, the ruling class uses shows, social media, and movies. Movies are very influential and express an ideology. Examples of movies that passed on the ideology of the American dream include such films as The Pursuit of Happyness and Forrest Gump. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Christopher Gardner is living from shelter to shelter with his son struggling to pay bills and taking an un-paid internship. After nothing but hope and hard work, Christopher lands a full-time paying job at his internship. In Forrest Gump, Forrest achieves great success with a below-average IQ. He does not let the low expectation society had for him stop him from accomplishing great success. Forrest receives a football scholarship for college, he becomes a soldier and receives the medal of honor, and runs across the country for three years. He eventually reunites with the girl he loves and is introduced to his son. However, the dream is not put into movies by itself; the dream is being distributed by rich movie production companies, which is an example of a dominant group. These production companies, which consist of rich directors and producers, persuade the subordinate class that their ideas, including the American dream, are ideal.
Even though dominant groups seek to persuade society as a whole with their hegemonic ideology, no society will be completely willingly hegemonic. There will always be a counter-hegemonic culture. According to Lenny Flank, “Counter-hegemony refers to attempts to critique or dismantle hegemonic power. In other words, it is a confrontation and/or opposition to existing status quo and its legitimacy in politics, but can also be observed in various other spheres of life, such as history, media, music” (Flank 11). There is a possibility of the working class overcoming the dominant ideology if they acknowledge that the ideas and values they perceive as common are just “products” developed by economic and social systems. This shift in awareness could occur because the ruling class can never achieve total hegemonic control.
One reason the ruling class can never achieve complete control is because it is a minority. The dominant group is not the majority of society; it is just a small group wanting to take advantage of the value systems and seek to control society as a whole. According to Lee Fleischer, “The dominant groups need to create association of groups, such as the bourgeois, and make ideological negotiations and adapt to convince the subordinate cultures that it is in their best interest” (Fleischer, 30-42). So, it is an ongoing process in which both dominant and subordinate cultures make “negotiations.” This leads to a hegemonic struggle between the two cultures; the struggle leads to both resistance and incorporation. Another reason the ruling class cannot dominate the working class entirely is that the working class people have a binary consciousness. Their beliefs and values are impacted by the mainstream ideology, but they are also affected by their own experience. The working-class are in poverty, and because of that they can partly see through hegemony.
Antonio Gramsci argues that the working class can achieve hegemony. Gramsci coined the term, “organic intellectual,” which according to Storey, “According to Gramsci, intellectuals are distinguished by their social function. That is to say, all men and women have the capacity for intellectual endeavor, but only certain men and women have in society the function of intellectuals. Each class, as Gramsci explains, creates ‘organically’ its own intellectuals.” (Storey 84) This counter-hegemony that serves the purpose to dismantle hegemonic power could take over the ideological leadership from the dominant class by contributing new ideas and values of how to run a society. There can be a shift from capitalism to socialism.
An example of counter-hegemony would be the Pixar film, Monsters University. This film challenges the traditional idea of masculinity by bringing out a different representation of masculinity. In the film, Mike is represented as masculine through traits such as leadership, fearlessness, and bravery. However, Mike’s physical appearance goes against the traditional masculine image that many other Disney movies portray. Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles all have the same idea of what a masculine man should look like, which is a tall, white, and muscular man. Monsters University is attempting to tell young viewers to not let one “common” idea or representation define masculinity and to instead think about what is in the inside that can also represent masculinity. However, there are still influential and popular films that have the hegemonic power to persuade viewers that masculinity is defined by the physique of a man.
Analysis of Selected Text: The Incredibles
With this knowledge of the theory of hegemony, we can use the theoretical perspective as a critical device to explain how The Incredibles reinforces their ideology that a white, muscular man is dominant. The film makes the white, muscular man sound more powerful than his wife and his African American friend because the film centers around the main character named Mr. Incredible. The African American man’s name, Frozone, and the woman’s name, Elastigirl, do not sound “incredible” because of his skin color and her gender. Frozone sounds unrealistic and imaginary, this is a result of the way the African American race is denigrated in society. The wife does not get the honor of being Mrs. Incredible. The word, Elastigirl, points out her gender, but also makes her sound juvenile. The word “incredible” sounds powerful and is influential to viewers to see masculinity portrayed as a certain way. Incredible has a positive connotation versus the word girl and a made up word such as Frozone.
The film portrays the African American man to be less appealing from the white, muscular man in every way possible. Frozone’s body is slimmer and not as muscular as Mr. Incredible. Frozone drives Mr. Incredible around to help him find people to save. Later in the film, Frozone assists Mr. Incredible fighting the villain by protecting the son from the villain’s robot. After he saves the son, he does not fight the robot and instead stands with Elastigirl and watch Mr. Incredible defeat the robot. Viewers see that Frozone is just a sidekick. The film is denigrating the African American race by portraying the white, tall, and muscular man to look more appealing than the African American man. The film centers around the white, tall, and muscular man and portray him to seem more incredible.
The film normalizes viewers that a wife should be a stay at home mom. In a specific scene in the film, Helen uses her powers of elasticity to vacuum the living room while her husband sits on a chair and reads a newspaper. Throughout the film, she also picks up trash with her elastic arms and uses these powers to care for the children. This refers to the historical social cultural expectations that women are stay at home moms. The fact that this film was released in 2004 is concerning for viewers like me, who are worried about the continuing perceptions and expectations of women. However, viewers do not notice the lessened capabilities of women like Helen in the film, diminishing their independence and agency.
Helen is assumed to be modern or progressive by viewers, but she is still gendered in a conventional normative way. The film gives a woman superpowers, which might lead viewers to assume that the film reveals a great, strong representation of women. However, that is not the case. The film wants viewers to accept their idea of the woman as a housewife, so in order to do that, the film negotiates and provides Helen with superpowers; however, she uses those superpowers to perform the historical social cultural expectations that women are stay at home moms. Thus, the film is still reinforcing the hegemonic ideal of the role of women. This is an example of the process of negotiation that occurs between hegemony and counter-hegemonic ideology. Many viewers might be satisfied or happy about a woman being a superhero, but they do not notice that the film negotiated with them and reinforced the view of the woman as the housewife.
Even the way the children are presented in the film is hegemonic in nature. In the beginning of the film, Violet’s wardrobe consists of dark colors, which shows her style. After she meets a boy she likes, she changes her outfits to consist of pastel colors and is happy that the guy she likes actually notices her. This is hegemonic for two reasons. First, the film wants teenage girls to all look the same so major companies will always know what products to manufacture and sell for a profit. Further, Violet’s change in the film will allow big corporations to sell products to viewers who want to mimic Violet’s look. In addition, this is also hegemonic because Violet changes her wardrobe because she wants to please the man she likes. The film shows viewers that women will always change for men and that keeps women inside as well as outside the film oppressed. There is also a binary opposition between men and women playing out between the two siblings, Violet and Dash. The film portrays Violet to be weak, insecure, and invisible. Dash, however, is the complete opposite and is confident, bold, and fast. The film does not want the woman to have the qualities of the man. This leads viewers to assume what qualities a woman should have and what a man should have.
The film also forces its hegemonic ideal of the successful family on its viewers. The film’s idea of a “superhero” family is to be a big, happy, and white family. All the members of the Incredibles are white and there is no other family in the film that is not white except for Frozone and his wife, who is not even seen in the film. This is hegemonic. The film wants viewers to follow the idea that white families have a better and more successful life then other families, especially other families who are not white. These hegemonic ideals in the film are so subtle that, without knowledge of Gramsci’s theory, viewers would not notice their presence or influence.
These analyses matter because we need to question what we have been taught since we were children. Many people do not realize that videos or films like The Incredibles are trying to persuade them into following one common ideology. People need to become aware of what is influencing them, their thoughts, their lives, and their values. Further, people can defy the forced ideals once they notice them. We can control what we believe and we can choose a different path than what the media offers. It is important to make our own choices and find our own principles.
After analyzing The Incredibles with the theory of hegemony as a critical device, I have looked at the world around me differently. If I had not taken Theorizing Communication and Media, I would not have realized “great” films like The Incredibles are persuading me to accept their hegemonic ideology. I now look at the media, specifically films, and dig deep into scenes to discern what the scenes are trying to to tell me. Learning about the theory of hegemony has helped me uncover the true intentions of the media and I am thankful for this.