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Opinion: The joy of positive female representation in Disney's 'Encanto'

Allison HopeAllison Hope
“Encanto” is Disney’s latest movie, the 60th in its animated repertoire, and hit the theaters in late November and Disney+ on Christmas Eve. The film is beaming with more positive, diverse female representations than any Disney movie, or even any other movie that I can think of.
The story follows a magical, matriarchal family, the Madrigals, who live in the mountains in Colombia and serve as the spiritual guides and healers to the town’s denizens. The movie’s protagonist, Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, is the black sheep of the family, the only member of the household not to have any known superpowers. One sibling can lift anything, another can make roses out of thin air, Mirabel’s mother can heal any wounds, a banished uncle can see into the future, her young cousin can talk to animals.
Mirabel feels like the pariah in her home, but she maintains a semblance of confidence and never gives up on her intuition, intellectual curiosity and sense of justice to uncover the truth and protect her family.
The plot line is beautiful, resonant with themes that are ever-present in this second pandemic holiday season — of holding family close, of homes as the mainstage for all the action, of intuition and how things come apart and go back together again, if we’re lucky. The music, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is catchy, the character development is nuanced and refreshing, and the plot, though as predictable as any Disney movie, is suspenseful nonetheless.
Perhaps most poignantly, “Encanto’s” female characters refreshingly diverge from Disney’s long history of casting Barbie-like sexualized figures who are missing ribs (think: “Cinderella,” “Snow White”). Even when they trade their mops and brooms and the need to be saved by a man’s kiss (“Sleeping Beauty,” Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Princess Jasmine in Aladdin”), and they are superheroes who save the day (think: “Moana,” “Pocahontas”) they are still large-busted, small-featured, curvy feminine women with long hair and little clothing.
In contrast, Mirabel in “Encanto” is a flat-chested, average weighted, artsy, glasses-donning antihero. She is geeky and antisocial, with a wide, freckled nose and thick eyebrows, a far cry from the rib-less Disney stars of movies past.
What’s more, the main character’s sister, Luisa, voice by Jessica Darrow, is a strong woman, with bulging muscles and a butch demeanor. She would undoubtedly be male in any other movie, but is pleasantly female, and just happens to have a more masculine gender expression. It’s brilliant. I can’t imagine any other Disney movie — or any other movie for that matter, animated or not — where a female character is ripped and beloved. Large biceps and manual labor are assigned to men, or else to women who are pariahs. The 12-year-old in me has a giant crush on her.
Spielberg's West Side Story shows us the value of multilingualismSpielberg's West Side Story shows us the value of multilingualism
They also allow Luisa room to be multidimensional. Mirabel, at the end of the song, “Surface Pressure,” in which Luisa admits that she feels insecure beneath the strong exterior, tells her, “You are carrying too much,” and Luisa pulls her sister in for a tight hug. The message: You can be strong and feel weak, be tough and feel insecure. It is a critical message for our children, particularly as they watch this film through the pandemic lens, coming of age in a world that is ever more tenuous.
The Madrigal household is notably female, run by Abuela, the grandmother, a stoic woman with a square jaw and a wide gait, who everyone listens to. There is no father, no grandfather, no mayor or president or other authority figures in the film to speak of — no male, in other words, present or in utterance, to step in and take charge or exert his maleness to drive the plot forward.
The only males in the film are Maribel’s father, a meek man who is afraid to speak up when Maribel learns that the family may be in trouble and encourages her to keep it a secret; and a brother-in-law, brother-in-law-to-be, as well as a cameo from a priest, all of whom take supporting roles at best and offer no salve.
As I kid, I loved watching Disney movies. I had all the songs memorized and daydreamed that I was inserted into the plots, swishing my mermaid tail through the ocean with Flounder in “The Little Mermaid,” or flying on a magic carpet in “Aladdin.”
I never, though, felt like I could relate to the female characters. Much like women in fashion magazines or on TV shows, whether for adults or children, the club felt reserved for women who were skinnier, prettier, more feminine than I could ever be. This film is a big change.
To be clear, however, the film’s female representation leaves some room for improvement. For one, sinewy Luisa, who slings a pile of donkeys on her shoulders with ease, wears a skirt and her hair pulled back into a ponytail. Would it be be asking too much to have her present as butch and wear pants or short hair?
Also, in one of the opening numbers, Mirabel sings her family tree to the town’s children to help explain who everyone is, she describes her feminine sister Isabela as “beauty” and the muscle-ripped one as “brawn,” presupposing that the two are somehow diametrically opposed, as if the strong, butch sister can’t also simultaneously be beautiful.
This still reinforces the feminine beauty ideals that demure and tiny and pink is closer to what we consider aesthetically pleasing than a thick middle and etched facial features. I, for one, find butch beautiful (full disclosure, I am butch).
Still, there is so much joy and reason to celebrate this new piece of culture that has entered our living rooms and children’s hearts.
Directly translated from Spanish, encanto means the allure of something, something that is sweet or charming. It is a close neighbor of encantar, the verb “to love” and “to enchant.”
As I watch “Encanto” for the eighth time in three days with my 4-year-old, I channel my inner child, fulfilled to see women reflected on screen who feel more like me. And I marvel that my child will grow up knowing that women can be both strong and beautiful, can be in charge and can save the day.
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