There are only two scenes in all of Incredibles 2 where I enjoyed Elastigirl as a character. As many critics, including Slate’s Sam Adams, have noted, the Pixar sequel’s gender politics feel as midcentury as its aesthetic flourishes. When a new employer offers Elastigirl, but not her husband, Mr. Incredible, the opportunity to improve the reputation of superheroes, the married couple treat their suddenly reversed division of labor, in which she is the breadwinner and he the stay-at-home parent, the way Don and Betty Draper might have: with mutual panic and reluctance. Too much time is devoted to Elastigirl’s guilt about being apart from her children, while the film lets Mr. Incredible say all kinds of undermining things to his unprotesting wife with no repercussions. So when Elastigirl finally lets herself zip through Municiberg with abandon on a motorcycle, temporarily free of maternal concerns and her downer of a spouse, her exhilaration is infectious.*
And yet that scene is nowhere near as poignant as the one between Elastigirl and her boss, Evelyn Deavor, the inventor who designs all her company’s technology while her brother turns it into profit. The two middle-age women share an exhausted but passionate moment on a late night at the office, as they debate what’s more important—making things or marketing them?—and discuss their dreams and how to achieve them. Even if viewers, by this point in the movie, may have reason not to trust Evelyn, the scene is moving: The characters’ connection is real, if compromised, and it’s all too rare to see adult female friendship valorized in children’s movies—a genre that for decades has villainized older women. So I was especially mad when I saw that New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane, in a now-notorious review, sexualized that heart-to-heart between the two women by making up a male viewer (a possible stand-in for the critic) who tries to suppress his arousal by “rest[ing] his cooling soda firmly in his lap” and “tr[ying] very hard to think of algebra” until his failure results in “flying popcorn.”
Much of the online outrage at Lane, who has been accused of sexism several times before, most notably after his salivating profile of Scarlett Johansson, was directed at a paragraph excerpted by background artist Amanda Wong on Twitter. In it, Lane imagines Mommy and Daddy squirming in their seats next to their children out of uncomfortable horniness, with the couple comparing Elastigirl to Fifty Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele (Mommy calls her “the girl in the Red Room, with the whips and all?”). For the record, Elastigirl, with her soccer-mom bob, thicc badonk, and take-charge demeanor, looks nothing like the shy, waiflike college grad. It’s also worth noting that Lane begins his review with a lede—which also went viral—dedicated to his regret that Incredibles 2 isn’t just an exploration of Elastigirl’s infinite flexibility in the “marital boudoir.”
Is Lane’s review, as Wong put it, gross? Yep. But is it outrage-worthy? I’d have to say no. There’s certainly plenty to take exception with in that infamous paragraph alone. Lane really reaches for that comparison between Elastigirl and Anastasia Steele (hope he didn’t pull anything). He inserts (or plays up) the homoerotic overtones between Elastigirl and Evelyn, then converts their supposedly Sapphic bond into nothing more than fodder for the male gaze. He’s relatively graphic about the physical reactions that attend that gaze, though I’m still confused about whether the popcorn’s flight above Daddy’s junk is due to his erection or his reaching orgasm. In a movie marketplace where female superheroes are still relatively scarce, Lane objectifies characters meant to embody women’s strength, thus recalling the indignation over David Edelstein’s Wonder Women review. And, of course, many people weren’t happy that Lane brought allusions to boners to a PG-rated, resolutely wholesome picture—though animators have been doing just that for decades. (For those who tittered that sexual attraction to cartoons made it into the esteemed pages of the New Yorker, I’d be surprised if the magazine hasn’t already published a 4,000-word article on the subject.)
There may be some out there who argue that an actor or even a character’s looks are always off-limits, and therefore Lane crossed a line. But I’m inclined to agree with my colleague Willa Paskin, who wrote a defense of lusty movie reviews last summer, noting that the reactions of our libidos to entertainment, especially in genres like superhero films that aestheticize stars of all genders, are as worthy of thought as the reactions of our tear ducts. I’d only add that if a critic is to comment on a performer or character’s appearance, animated or otherwise, he should also remark upon the latter’s other attributes. And even then, readers reserve the right to roll their eyes, at the very least, at the hegemonic reinforcement of the straight male gaze, since more often than not that is still who is doing the reviewing.
Lane’s review of Incredibles 2 is a lengthy 15 paragraphs, but only two were passed around Twitter. Perhaps the critic’s mind drifted off to the Red Room when he lists Mrs. Incredible’s “black mask, her long tall boots, and her empowering outfit, as tight as a second skin,” but to anyone who reads the entire piece, it’s clear that Lane’s affection for Elastigirl runs deeper. He calls her the film’s “undoubted star” and expresses sympathy for the “super-paradox of her life,” mourning for how her devotion to both her family and her city leaves her constantly pulled in all directions. Commentators who only read those inflaming excerpts and lamented that Elastigirl was being described as nothing more than a sex object missed that, in fact, she was being examined as quite a lot more.
And while the sexualization of Elastigirl may strike some as “inappropriate,” it’s important to encourage alternative or against-the-grain interpretations of films, so long as there’s evidence to back them up. The bookcases of our film studies departments would be nearly bare without such readings, feminist and queer analyses among them. Besides, Lane is far from alone in finding queer undercurrents in Incredibles 2. But those queerings are naturally more compelling, even cheer-worthy, when they’re taken on their own terms, rather than rendered the subject of male leering, as in Lane’s review. Criticism is a subjective endeavor, and it is any critic’s right to relay their personal impressions. But Lane’s framing slathered another element of regression—the imposition of straight male desire on female empowerment—on an already retro-feeling movie. The review isn’t wrong so much as it is redundant.
Correction, June 21, 2018: This post originally misstated that Elastigirl rides her motorcycle in Metroville. Our apologies to the residents of Municiberg.