When it comes to portraying straight married couples with kids, TV and movie comedies leave a lot to be desired. Too often, women are presented as “do it all” supermoms, and husbands are presented as childlike buffoons, incapable of being responsible parents, more willing to be “fun” than to set limits on their kids. As a result, the moms come off as overbearing, but desperately necessary, and the dads come off as another one of the children (think Modern Family’s Claire and Phil Dunphy in their most broadly drawn moments).
As a teacher of feminism and a straight working mom, I worry about balancing work and home life, about sharing the load with my husband, and about what kinds of messages these portrayals of parenting and marriage are sending to us and our kids about “the way things are.” I teach my students to critically analyze both the “Lean In” exhortations of Sheryl Sandberg and Ann-Marie Slaughter’s famous conclusion that women simply cannot “Have it All” and must learn to make sacrifices.
Then, they go home and learn through television comedy that moms carry all of the mental load and that makes them slightly neurotic, while dads carry none of it, and are hopeless goofballs. As an antidote to this message, The Incredibles 2 stands out as a surprisingly nuanced treatise on the difficulties of balancing childrearing and a career, the strains it places on both partners, and also the joys it can bring even in the midst of strain. The Incredibles 2 gets it right.
When Elastigirl goes back to work full-time, she assumes she is indispensible to the family. She worries about Violet navigating her blossoming adolescent social life, Dash’s academic struggles, and Jack Jack’s need for constant attention. We see her navigate a realistic and difficult choice: She wants to return to the career she finds so fulfilling, but she also wants to be there with her kids, for the trials and the joys of growing up. She assumes her husband cannot fulfill her role at home, and to the movie’s credit, she turns out to be wrong, and she acknowledges her mistake.
Also to the movie’s credit, it never tries to portray her as a “do it all supermom,” even though she is a literal superhero. Instead, it shows her disappointed to have missed a crucial moment at home (“I missed Jack Jack’s first powers?”) and unable to be as present for her kids as she would like (“Mommy can’t talk right now, Dash,” as she’s flying through the streets on a superbike trying to stop a runaway train). She never gets “shrill” or “hysterical” or turns into one of the many familiar “mom” stereotypes. She’s good at her job and also loves and supports her children. Through her character, we see the realistic struggles a mother faces when returning to work, including the necessity of truly relying on her partner and trusting his competency as a parent.
If Elastigirl is a huge improvement on comedy moms, Mr. Incredible is, as Violet so charmingly puts it, a “super” depiction of a dad. He is ambivalent at best about watching his wife head off to do hero work, something he, too, finds personally fulfilling, but he understands that, in this situation, he needs to step in and shoulder the domestic load for the good of the family and their marriage. As we watch him struggle with these new responsibilities, the film walks a beautifully fine line—it gives us plenty of comedy as he works to figure out his new role as primary parent, but it never shades into portraying him as an incompetent buffoon.
Right from the start, he knows to feed his son the non-sugary cereal, he makes sure everyone’s backpack is packed for school, and he understands that each child needs a different kind of support and tries to offer them what they need. Best of all, like all real-life parents, he screws up sometimes. In one of the most realistic moments in the film, he tells one of the kids, “I’m used to knowing what to do,” but now admits that he isn’t sure.
That, in my experience, is parenting in a nutshell. The film doesn’t leave him in this state of uncertainty, though. Instead, it shows him figuring out how to manage Dash’s math homework, apologizing to Violet when he screws up her love life, and—a crucial development in the presentation of TV parents in general—relying on others for support when he needs it. We see him longing to return to his career but also loving the time with his kids. He’s a great dad, he’s a great husband, and his children and his wife acknowledge that.
The Incredibles 2 isn’t just fun, it’s important. It shows one extraordinary family navigating ordinary, everyday struggles, and it does so in a way that is realistic and balanced. It provides a more nuanced discussion of work-life balance and mental load, of parenting and marriage, than most of the seminal texts on this issue, and it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
Becca Burnett teaches English, gender, and media studies by day and watches far too many super hero shows by night. She is the mother of two children whom she hopes to raise with the same critical, savvy, thoughtful outlook on life that she enjoys reading on The Mary Sue.
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