Recently, I saw Incredibles 2 with some friends. It was a nostalgia-laced thrill ride and we left the theatre buzzing, riding a high of reminiscence. The premise of the film, for those that may be unfamiliar, is that there exists in the world a group of humans born with incredible powers. In the prologue of the first film, we learn that use of their powers for hero work has been outlawed. The plot of the second film follows the protagonists as they attempt to legitimize heroism by providing a window into what it really means to be a hero. The heroes believe that if the public can empathize with their struggle against adversity, hero work will once again be accepted.
The villain in the second film is the dastardly “Screenslaver”, an individual who uses screens to hypnotically influence others into perpetrating crimes. While this premise alone is a tad on-the-nose in today’s panoply of media expressing technological cynicism, there’s an interesting sequence about halfway through the film where we learn the villain’s motives. Through a monologue (how else?), we are lectured by the Screenslaver. The gist of his speech is that the world is better off without heroes. In the terms of the tropes of the genre, this is not an innovative premise for a villain.
However, it is the unique way in which writer/director Brad Bird builds Screenslaver’s argument through the monologue and then subsequently fails to deliver on this premise in the film’s endgame that makes this worth a second look. Media at its core is about communicating a message to the audience. What message does Incredibles 2 try to communicate? Or rather, what message does it fail to?
The structure of the Screenslaver’s argument is as follows:
Heroes solve problems for normal people in lieu of individuals solving problems themselves
This robs individuals of the experience of overcoming adversity
Overcoming adversity is crucial to the true experience of life
Individuals are made better by embracing true life experiences
Society is thus improved by keeping heroes outlawed
The unfortunate thing about Incredibles 2 is that the narrative never presents a counterpoint to the above assertion. Through the climax and resolution, the plot narrows in a similar fashion as its predecessor to show the Parr family once again overcoming interpersonal conflicts to ultimately “save the day.” This leaves the end of the film feeling hollow as the protagonists never align behind an ideal fundamentally opposing the one presented by Screenslaver. This is tragic, as the counterpoint seems so readily available: Heroes, by standing against adversity in the place of individuals, are good for society.
I don’t recall the first time that I heard the term “white guilt.” I similarly don’t recall the first time I learned about racism. At best, I can recall a window of time in which I began educating myself on the history of race in America. My experience was likely similar to many middle-class white males: a gradual awakening to the adversity faced by others in society through adolescence and young adulthood – reading essays and statistics indicating that by the color of my skin alone I was at an advantage in a myriad of scenarios when compared to my non-white counterparts.
The natural progression of this awakening is learning first that one is privileged in the present, second that one’s parents were privileged in the past, third that one’s grandparents were privileged before that, etc. It is learning that just as my ancestors’ privileges are cumulative, that others’ (who are not like me) ancestors’ restrictions are cumulative. It is learning that the narrative, for generations, has been skewed by socio-political factors, human psychology and economics. It is learning that fundamentally America has a unique problem with race, that fundamentally it is not a problem readily encapsulated in soundbites or articles, and more so that fundamentally it is not a problem easily solved.
The above overview of racism and my racial education is, admittedly, rather reductionist. It overlooks countless individual experiences within this country and countless additional perspectives on the matter of race. The topic of race in America is so fraught with personal investment, individual bias, and cognitive dissonance that one needs to simply broach the topic in a public forum for the gnashing of teeth to begin. It can make grappling with an already complex issue seem all the more impossible, no matter the medium.
In this setting however, a reductionist argument can be beneficial. For initiates, it is enough to understand that there are historical injustices that have shaped current injustices. These current injustices continue to infringe upon the rights of a significant portion of the population in this country. Even without a full grasp of the complex web of racial forces in this country, a small degree of empathy can be used to understand the unique adversity faced by individuals of color. This is where various media formats are particularly useful for providing insight into the issue of race in America, as consuming another’s story is an inherently empathetic endeavor.
I cannot explain the framework of oppression in a 2000 word article. However, I can ask you to empathize with an individual facing adversity in that space. I can tell a story of their life and struggle. I can put you in their shoes, asking you to evaluate their struggles and reflect on how you would approach the same scenarios. With empathy, an individual can evaluate the adversity experienced by another and label it an injustice. With empathy, an individual can catalogue the systematic nature of the injustices faced by multiple individuals from multiple stories. With empathy, an individual can grasp the otherwise impossible to grasp.
On November 8th, 2016 a man without empathy was elected President of the United States. There have been countless post-election analyses of the events leading up to when the vote was cast. Just as when grappling with the issue of race in America, the political forces at play over the course of the 15+ month election cycle escape our grasp. While just as fallible as when evaluating the American racial experience, a reductionist perspective can again be useful. One such lens through which we can review the election results is via the demographics presented in exit polling.
On November 8th, 2016 only 46% of eligible 18 – 29 year olds voted. Interestingly, they were the only age group that actually saw an increase in turnout in 2016 (albeit a small one). This age group also falls drastically short when compared to other voting groups in terms of overall election participation. By comparison, 30 – 44 year olds voted at a rate of 59%, 45 – 64 year olds voted at a rate of 67% and 65+ year olds voted at a rate of 71%. This age group categorically disagrees with most of the policy decisions made by the current administration, at rates of near 80% across topics presented in polling. Thus even though 18 – 29 year olds make up roughly 30% of the eligible voting populace, their viewpoints are drastically underrepresented in current policy decisions. We only have ourselves to blame.
On November 8th, 2016 my age group allowed a man without empathy to be elected. The nature of the Republic requires the populace to be informed and engaged. This can seem an impossible task. There is just so much to follow, so much to evaluate and so much other competition for our attention. Here again a reductionist approach can be beneficial. It is enough to exercise a small degree of empathy which allows us to grapple with the adversity faced by others. That understanding allows us act against that adversity alongside them, such that they do not have to struggle alone.
On November 8th, 2016 we were called to action and we failed to answer. We were shown the warning signs. “Surely, this won’t happen”, we told ourselves. “Seriously, but not literally”, we were assured. We were caught up in the spectacle and disbelief and cognitive dissonance. We revelled in it. We failed to remove ourselves from our own experience and excitement long enough to exercise a base level of empathy. Without that empathy, we failed to understand. We failed to even begin to grasp that intangible, impossible adversity. Thus, on November 8th, 2016 we left millions of individuals to face that adversity alone.
The method by which Screenslaver hypnotizes his victims in Incredibles 2 is not a narrative coincidence. There is a thread of sanctimonious lecturing in which the villain excoriates the populace (and thereby us, the audience) for their addiction to screens and the distractions they provide from true life experiences. It is easy to draw the thread from the TV screens of the film’s 60’s setting to the multitude of screens now bombarding us in the modern age. It is the same criticism often lobbed at the millennial: we are too disinterested in the world around us, we are glued to our phones, we have lost the ability to truly interact with one another, etc.
The criticism of the average millennial’s technology habits is not without merit. There are more and more studies indicating that over-indulgence of the media made available through our now portable screens leads to adverse psychological effects including feelings of loneliness, depression and disinterest. Interestingly, the advent and widespread use of the internet and smartphones correlates with sharp drops in voting percentage of the 18 – 29 age group that is not as severe among older generations. That is not to suggest outright that new technologies impede the youth vote. They do, however, present new challenges for candidates facing the ever-growing competition for your time and attention that these technologies make more accessible.
What these criticisms fail to address though is the inherent ability of these new technologies to empower users to a higher level of empathy than previously possible. While they can certainly be detrimental, these screens also allow us to peer wholly into another’s perspective. We can witness injustice first hand. Over time we can recognize the pattern of injustice coming across our feeds. We can project this pattern onto the system and call for change. Our screens allow us a window through which to empathize, which in turn allows us to grasp the otherwise impossible to grasp and ultimately to hear the call to action and respond.
Women’s March, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and countless other movements have launched via the windows of empathy that these screens provide. While their motives and metrics vary, their methods do not. Each of these seek to inspire empathy within an individual, asking them to step forward and act against injustice. These movements call for a rejection of the notion that individuals are doomed to stand alone against the systemic adversity that is inflicted upon them. In this way, screens empower us to rise to a higher level of empathy, becoming heroes by wrestling with the problems that were inaccessible only a generation ago.
This is the Millennial Burden. We were born with the means to access a more acute level and higher volume of empathy than our predecessors. Our screens make the great swath of the American experience viewable at our fingertips. It easier than ever before to consume another’s story and exercise empathic reductionism to understand systemic adversity. With these tools will we rise as heroes – rejecting the notion that each individual must face adversity alone? Or will we live as slaves to our own experience and remain blind to empathy?