The stay-at-home dads of Cincinnati discussed it on a trip to the zoo with their kids. A similar dialogue erupted on the Facebook page for City Dads Group, a national support network for at-home dads. It’s been pored over and analyzed in at-home dad groups across the country. For these men, the stakes for The Incredibles 2 are atypically high for a summer Disney-Pixar sequel. This preview to the long-awaited follow-up to the 2004 hit, which features Mr. Incredible at home with the kids while his wife saves the world, offers an opportunity for stay-at-home fatherhood to be portrayed in a positive, stereotype-breaking, superheroic light — but it might also do exactly the opposite.
“Everyone’s trying to dissect the previews. Everybody’s crossing their fingers and saying please, don’t mess this up,” Brock Lusch, a stay-at-home father of two based in Cincinnati, told Refinery29 over the phone.
The minute-long trailer, which, with 594 million views, has broken the record for the most-viewed trailer for an animated film, depicts the Parr family in flux. Superheroes have been banned for years. Then, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a superhero superfan, taps Helen Parr (Holly Hunter), aka Elastigirl, to be the face of a superhero reputation rehabilitation mission. When Winston announces his choice, Bob (Craig T. Nelson), aka Mr. Incredible, displays a flash of momentary shock and disappointment. He’s boundlessly strong, almost entirely invulnerable, and brawny AF: So why is he being passed over? But, since this is a tremendous professional opportunity for his wife, Bob shifts around this new configuration. “I’ll watch the kids, no problem,” he says wearily as Helen jets off in a motorcycle donning her Elastigirl costume.
As Helen leaps from buildings, Bob goes on superhero mission of his own: Taking care of their three children — a task which, judging by the trailer, he seems to struggle with significantly. After a few days of primary caregiving, Bob seems to deteriorate. His undereyes grow puffy with exhaustion. He’s exasperated by the math methods of Dash’s (Huck Milner) homework, which have inexplicably shifted since he learned them as a child. By the time he bribes baby Jack-Jack with a cookie, Mr. Incredible’s haggard face is clouded by five o’clock shadow.
It’s this moment of flummox and struggle that makes the at-home fathers watching the trailer bristle. “Part of me is concerned that The Incredibles 2 will fall into the standard stereotype of the bumbling father that struggles with childcare, messes stuff up at home, and has to call his wife at work and say, ‘I can’t do this,’” said Billy Kilgore, a Nashville-based at-home dad who writes professionally about his experiences. “There’s a lot of potential for The Incredibles 2 to put forward the image of a father that’s potentially unhelpful. Possibly destructive.”
Lance Somerfeld, the Manhattan-based co-founder of City Dads Group, shares similar concerns. “If this is the way he’s depicted on a deeper level through the film, I’d feel a sense of disappointment. I thought we’d really turned the corner on how dads were depicted in TV and film; this brings me back to films from 10 to 20 years ago.” Somerfeld is referring to the set of incompetent, bumbling pop culture dads who passed the bulk of child-rearing over to their more capable wives for most of recent TV and movie history (see: Homer Simpson of The Simpsons, Ray Barone of Everybody Loves Raymond, Daniel Hillard before he becomes Mrs. Doubtfire in Mrs. Doubtfire).
Still, gazing at the unabashed chaos of the Parr household, these dads see echoes of their days of caregiving. “There was a new disaster on an hourly basis,” Andrew Bentley, a stay-at-home father and the founder of a paternity lifestyle brand, told Refinery29 of his first days alone with his son. Lusch, too, admits he “came into [at-home fatherhood] cocky, but had his bravado eroded by the realities of parenthood. “Week two I was like, holy crap. What did I sign up for?” recalled Lusch.
Perhaps the trailer’s scenes of fumbling over homework and chores are just evidence of a man coming into his own as a primary caretaker — a journey taken by all four fathers that Refinery29 spoke to. “Best case scenario, he goes through the initial phase of stumbling and learning, and gets to point of succeeding at child care on a daily basis,” said Kilgore. “I think it would be helpful for our culture to see a man on that learning curve, applying their inner nurturer and tapping into that reservoir of patience they didn’t know they had.”
Inevitably, a movie of this stature and global reach will have ramifications of how at-home fatherhood, a growing trend, is perceived. The number of stay-at-home fathers has climbed significantly since 2004, when the first Incredibles movie premiered. As of 2015, a Pew study estimates that 1.9 million American men are primary caregivers. In all likelihood, the number of men who are primary caregivers is likely higher — the Census Bureau’s narrow definition of “stay at home father” excludes same-sex couples, men working part time jobs, and fathers with children older than 15. Of that 1.9 million, 21% of at-home fathers cited caretaking as the primary reason they are at home (as opposed to inability to find work or disability), like the four fathers featured in thise article.
Despite the rising phenomenon of voluntary at home-fatherhood,at-home dads still face stigmas from strangers and friends alike. They endure skepticism from other men who perceive at-home fatherhood as a temporary measure: “They think this my way of keeping our family life together until I move on to bigger and better things,” said Kilgore who, in fact, chose to be an at-home dad voluntarily. They have access to fewer resources: “The menu of options for dad is slim. There aren’t a lot of classes for fathers. There’s everything out there for mom, whether it’s lactaction consultants or Strollercise,” said Somerfeld. They get side-eye at parks: “A dad at the park is not a creeper!” emphasized Lusch. Or, at worst, they’re considered obsolete: “People don’t see [at-home dads] as bringing any kind of worth in that role in the family. They see him as sitting back and playing video games because that’s what they think guys do,” Lusch added.
The Incredibles 2 could launch an interrogation of these hang-ups, many of which are mired in traditional expectations of a father’s role in a family. “I think it could bring a conversation to the table. Stay-at-home dads are no different than the moms that are doing it. They’re just as valuable,” says Lusch. Not only are men capable of being caretakers — they’re capable of supporting their partners’ professional goals. “I have to succeed so she succeeds,” Mr. Incredible says in the movie.
So it’s fitting, in a way, that the most high-profile depiction of modern at-home fatherhood is being brought to the table by a superhero — figures who have been, so often, male role models. If Mr. Incredible sets the example, we might listen.
“Superheroes represent our aspirations, individually and collectively. They have the abilities we want. They have the ambition. The empathy. All of those things that they’re able to influence the world in ways that we would like,” said Bentley. “So when we see Mr. Incredible take a step back and say, ‘I’m going to take care of this kid and allow my wife to go off and pursue her career,’ if he can do it, anyone can do it.” In the world of The Incredibles, being a parent will be a job fit for a hero. As Edna Mode tells Bob in the trailer, “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”
Bentley joked that he took out the trash in a cape. To him, that’s how being a stay-at-home dad feels every day.