What We Can Learn about the Family in Encanto
I’m sure most of you have at least heard of, if not watched numerous times, the new Disney hit movie “Encanto.” I know I’ve watched it approximately 200 times in the past few weeks with two little girls at home (and unashamedly, a few times on my own). Not only is my house flooded with the movie on repeat but the drive to school drop-off is also filled with the soundtrack and A LOT of very bad singing. If haven’t already gathered, we love this movie, but I believe my reason for the infatuation with the film is much different that those of my children. Let me tell you why and see if you relate!
Birth Order: How It Can Shape Your Personality
OH boy, was this movie filled to the brim with examples of different types of family dynamics! I could spend all day, and many, many hours identifying and writing about all the different examples, but for the sake of everyone’s reading experience, I’ll try to contain myself.
Birth order was the first and most “in-your-face” example of family dynamics that I noticed when watching the movie for the first time. The idea is that the order in which a child is born, will have a large impact on how their personality develops. Mirabel (the main character) and her sisters are prime examples of this theory.
Isabel is the oldest sister of the three siblings and strives, even to her own detriment, to maintain “perfection” in all things. From how she looks, acts, and presents herself, to the way she operates in the family and with others. She is focused on only creating “the beautiful” and pleasing her parents and grandmother. She even agrees to marry when she doesn’t want to because she believes it is upholding the image of “perfection” and pleasing her family. Of course, movies like to dramatize most things, but this isn’t too far off the mark for a lot of the oldest siblings out there.
Louisa is the middle sibling and is gifted with incredible strength and resolve. She attempts to maintain the “peacemaker” personality and has an incredible fear of appearing weak or failing at her tasks of helping people and her family. She sings a song about cracking under the pressure. (It’s a personal favorite). In the song, Louisa even sings about what it would be like to let go of her “strong” mask while riding a unicorn through the clouds. (Reference to how much she feels this is a fantasy and never reality? What do you think?).
Then there is Mirabel. Mirabel is the youngest of the three sisters and is by far the most outgoing and charming. She is labeled as an “attention-seeker” by her oldest sister and family, even when she is attempting to tell them about the problems the house (and family) is suffering. She is also the most steadfast in her individual self, although she seems to struggle with identifying what makes her special when she is surrounded by her other family members. More on that later, I promise!
Don’t Let the Mask Slip!
Listen, if there was one thing in this movie that hit me right in the feels, it was this entire concept. This movie was saturated in the idea that you can’t show weakness or difficulty at all, from the beginning to the incredibly beautiful conclusion. (What’s a Disney movie without a happy ending, right?) Personally, while I was growing up, I remember being told to keep the family’s struggles, difficulties, dirty little secrets, and all those pesky skeletons wrapped up tight at home. “Don’t you dare go telling anyone about any of this.!” Man, when I say this part of the movie got me, it *got* me! Growing up in rural Appalachia, the culture has a pretty heavy bias toward keeping your problems concealed but that’s for another blog, on another day!
In this movie, the house is literally falling apart, figuratively and literally. Siblings are fighting, the foundation is cracking, tensions are rising, and throughout all of this, there is still this overwhelming presence dictating everyone to keep it together, don’t show weakness, act like everything is “perfect.” I know at least some of you are relating, because I definitely am. The magical house built from sacrifice and love ultimately collapses under the unrelenting pressure to maintain a strong, unified, flawless appearance. Folks, the metaphors here are limitless! We can’t just sweep our problems under the rug and expect to it continue to lay flat. They’re eventually going to be noticed, no matter how desperately we want to ignore them.
What About Generational Trauma?
I’m so glad you asked! The study of generational trauma has long been a passion of mine. There have been multiple studies linking the trauma experienced by survivors of Nazi Holocaust camps to their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Trauma has the ability to literally alter our DNA, which can then be passed down to our children and so on.
Encanto has such a wonderful illustration of this concept, and I was absolutely elated to see it! Abuela Alma, the matriarchal leader of the Madrigal family, experienced an enormous trauma shortly after the birth of her triplets. However, given the context clues in the film (and some extra digging), Encanto takes place in Colombia, during which the Thousand Days War is taking place. This was a horrible time of civil unrest, people fearing for their lives and communities, and an enormous number of displaced refugees fleeing from conquering soldiers. Abuela Alma would have been living through all of this trauma prior to and during her pregnancy. So, now we explore the effects it may be having on her family.
The first things that popped out to me (and led me down this rabbit hole of psychoanalyzing a Disney film), were Abuela Alma’s daughters, Pepa and Julieta. Pepa is gifted with the ability to control the weather and she is almost constantly followed by a storm cloud hovering over her head. She is much feistier than her sister, Julieta, and frequently loses her temper and lashes out. Julieta, on the other hand, is a calm and serene presence, gifted with the ability to heal. She appears much more empathetic and even somewhat fearful of her mother’s behavior toward her daughters. It is made pretty clear in the movie that Abuela Alma is incredibly fearful that any “cracks” or imperfections in her family system will result in losing the miracle that occurred after her husband sacrificed his life for his family. In a sense, this is survival for her.
An awesome recommendation for reading more about intergenerational trauma is “It Didn’t Start With You” by Mark Wolynn. (LOVE this book).
Why Don’t We Talk About Bruno?
I saved this for my last section because I’m absolutely obsessed with Bruno. His entire character, the role he plays, and his complete development throughout the film are so powerful. Bruno is the symbolic outcast of the Madrigal family. But why?
Bruno is thought to have “dark” prophecies but really, isn’t his ability to see the future a perfect metaphor for putting a voice to our insecurities, fears, all the things we try to avoid and cover up? He never had the power to control the future. The best part, most of his visions were of situations within the control of the person he was referencing or about things that no one can control (i.e. balding, death of a pet, etc.). Maribel had the choice to fight for her family or abandon them. Pepa was in control of whether it rained on her wedding, but she blamed him for putting the thought there (hello external locus of control). Isabela was in control of the tightly held leash on her powers in the name of perfection. I mean, I could go on and on but ultimately, Bruno became the scapegoat because he was able to talk about it. He became a representation of the perceived “imperfections” in the family, and they villainized him, forcing him to live in isolation and fear of his own potential. They excluded what they feared they could not control.
Now don’t worry, remember this is a Disney movie so, of course, Bruno was redeemed and brought back to the family, but is that always the way it works outside of the perfect Disney plot line? I’ll leave that for you to think about.
The Takeaway Message!
Think about your family system. How has it changed over time? How does your culture influence the family? What do you value in your family? What would you like to see change in your family?
One of the most beautiful scenes in the movie is at the end when Mirabel and her Abuela Alma reconcile and accept one another, imperfections and all. However, this Hollywood ending is not possible or even appropriate in many real-life situations. Boundaries are important and necessary, particularly in cases of trauma, abuse, etc.
Regardless, this movie is sending a screaming message to learn about and practice empathy and understanding without sacrificing yourself in the process. You can understand others without agreeing with them. You can still have a healthy relationship while practicing assertive boundaries. You can respect and love your uniqueness even if others do not seem to appreciate it. You are important, you are valued, and you do have purpose while being true to yourself.
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