Rebirth of Reason


Objectivist Morality Anime
by Adam Reed

In the summer of 1929, Ayn Rand started work in an entry-level day job in the wardrobe department of RKO Pictures. According to Barbara Branden's biographical essay in Who is Ayn Rand, "Within six months, she was given a raise in salary. Within a year, she was head of the office." Rand was head of the wardrobe department at RKO for three years, during which she supervised the production of costumes for countless movie heroes. In her spare time from that job, Ayn Rand wrote We the Living and the still unproduced Red Pawn. She could not have known that her day job would someday inspire writer and director Brad Bird to include Ayn Rand - merged with famous career costumer Edith Head - as Edna Mode, designer and inventor of ultra-high-tech action costumes for a generation of superheroes, in the 2004 animated film "The Incredibles." Even Ayn Rand's famous long-stem cigarette holder - which disappeared from Rand's official photographs when she was diagnosed with cancer and stopped smoking - is there in Edna Mode's hand.

Ayn Rand is more than just another character in "The Incredibles." "The Incredibles" is an Objectivist morality tale, one that I wish had been available back when I was bringing up a child. To a parent teaching objective morality to a child, the films of those days were a nightmare. At their best, they taught minor corollaries of the trader principle, like "if you don't share with other children, they won't share with you." And at worst, they taught evil as morality, inculcating the "virtues" of altruism and, most importantly, faith. A moral parent's hardest job, in those years, was undoing the example of movie paragons who taught that the most important thing was to believe and never change your mind, regardless of evidence and consequences.

Finally, those years are over. "The Incredibles" brims with "teachable moments" that a child will ask about, so different are its moral lessons from the usual fare of children's films and books and lessons in school. You can talk about it for weeks - and when it comes out on DVD, every time your child asks for it and gets to see it again. Fittingly, it is Ayn Rand, in the guise of Edna Mode, who teaches primacy of reality. When one of the superheroes asks for a costume with the traditional superhero cape, Edna explains - with facts, with evidence after evidence - that she will design the costume in accordance with the facts of reality, cape and faith and tradition be damned. Here is one of the highest principles of morality, grounded in realistic examples funny enough to stick forever in a child's mind. And this children's film does it for principle after principle, with humor and pathos and tension that Ayn Rand would have been proud of.

In "The Incredibles," the superhero characters have extraordinary physical powers. These physical powers are a symbol of the extraordinary abilities that some people are born with - and that the rest of us can either benefit from, or envy and prohibit and waste. Ayn Rand wrote of the man who tamed fire - and was burnt at the stake with the fire he taught his fellows to build. The superheroes of "The Incredibles" live in hiding, envied and sued and exiled and hidden because they excel. Their schools and their jobs constantly present them with false alternatives. Delinquency is the official alternative to mediocrity in school. Dissimulation is the official alternative to enforced dishonesty at work. At this point - where a "sophisticated" film would put existential despair, Bob Parr - Mr. Incredible in mufti - quits, demonstrating the virtue of integrity in a scene straight from The Fountainhead.

Edna Mode, the superheroes' costume maker, is a technological genius who invents new materials - materials whose friction, visibility, and dimensionality varies as needed, with context, from infinity to zero - on the spot. Her personality is so much larger than life that when she is present - even by telephone - it is impossible for the viewer to be aware of anything or anyone except in relation to her. She is, in the company of the superheroes, one of them in their esteem and in fact. Yet she has none of their extraordinary physical powers. When Edna needs to talk to Elastigirl face-to-face, she must stand on the table of her laboratory - and it is only then that we see that Edna is physically a midget. Yet she is a self-made superhero - by the exercise of Objectivist virtues.

The superheroes themselves embody those same virtues. "Mr. Incredible" and his friend Frozone spend an evening of recreation and rest from their boring day jobs, listening to the emergency band and rescuing people from a burning building. There is no question of altruism - thanks to their powers they themselves are never in danger. They just find it both fun and virtuous to take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties and senses. They are in hiding, and they get nothing from their actions - not reward, not fame, not even gratitude - that is anyone else's to give. Their only reward is their own pleasure at doing their best in reality. Edna, as hidden from the world as her customers, works for the same reward as they. Their world is the world of the virtue of selfishness.

Edna Mode's opposite, Syndrome, is, as befits the embodiment of evil, a total second-hander. His goal in life is to appear to be a superhero, and he is willing to live any lie for the admiration and gratitude of the mob. The irony is that Syndrome, like Edna, is a technological supergenius. Had he chosen the primacy of reality, he could have been the superheroes' armorer and, like Edna, one of their company in reality and in their esteem. He chooses, instead, the primacy of consciousness - and demonstrates, in the consequences of that choice, that the evil is also the impractical.

And, by the way, "The Incredibles" is also, in every detail, a beautiful film.

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