Animation: Encanto and Gifts of Trauma

[Content Note: Encanto Spoilers]

I haven't talked about Encanto much because I didn't want to spoil people before they had a chance to watch it and also I'm suuuuper white and not Colombian at all. But the movie is SO GOOD and deals with family trauma SO WELL and I wanna navel gaze so here we go!

There are a LOT of ways to analyze a film, especially one as deep as Encanto. In this TED talk I will put forward the theory that the "gifts" the house bestows are reflections of trauma and that person's coping mechanisms. The "gifts" remind me strongly of how abuse survivors talk about how trauma gave us a double-edged "gift" of hyper-vigilance or a "gift" for reading people's emotions because we had to read our abuser in order to survive. The "gifts" are useful AND painful. JUMPING TO THE END, this is why it's very important to me that the family retains their "gifts" in the ending. Even after trauma has healed, we still bear the "gifts" and scars FROM that trauma. I will always be an "emotion reader" whether I want to or not.

GIFT ROLL CALL: Abuela Alma's gift is the house, but the house is a symbol of the whole family. Her way of dealing with the trauma of Pedro's death was to cultivate, protect, and grow her family--just as the house grows over time. The flipside of this Trauma Gift is that the house is *literally* tied to the family and as the family suffers, so too does the house. So on the one hand, cool magic house; on the other hand, fights means your roof caves in. Pros and cons.

Bruno is Alma and Pedro's only son. I'm sure in many ways he was looked to as the future of the family: the boy who would become a man, who would be expected to be wise and help them make sensible choices. To "see" the future--so he does. The problem is that he's deeply traumatized by all these expectations and hopes and dreams, and what he sees tends to be the normal disasters and disappointments that life brings--things he can't change just because he foresaw them! I have a soft spot for Bruno in particular because my own trauma means I can often predict all the bad ways a situation will go, and it's vexing to be disbelieved as a cynic or as someone who "wants" things to fail just because I've seen some shit.

Pepa is Alma's daughter and she grew up in the wake of her mother's sorrow. I think she tried to be sunny and cheerful to help her mother cope, and that manifested in the Trauma Gift of being able to create ACTUAL sunshine as long as she tamps down her anxiety. Her gift is described as controlling the weather, but I quipped during the movie that the weather controls her--there's a real "anxiety spiral" situation wherein she feels a negative emotion, storm clouds appear, and their appearance distresses her even MORE. So she's stuck in this trauma gift where, yes, she can make actual sunshine and rainbows when she turns "on" her determined cheer, but the rain is always lurking behind her eyes. I feel so much for her.

If Young Pepa was doing the emotional labor of the family, Julieta strikes me as doing the physical labor to keep everyone going. She cooked food to make sure her mother ate, and tried to heal her by being present and nurturing. Now her food literally heals. This is an amazing gift! Until you realize that she cooks for the whole village EVERY DAY and it seems like she can never take a day off. Do they even have any other doctors? Why would they need one? So Julieta is trapped forever nurturing everyone else.

Of the children, Isabela is the oldest. Like Bruno, she had to be seen as the "future" of the family. There were expectations that she would be lovely, that she would marry, that she would be fertile, that she would keep the family going. So she is...fertile. She grows flowers, but it has never occurred to her to grow anything that isn't "perfect", just as it has never occurred to her to be anything other than the "perfect" child and grandchild. Her dress is the closest in color to Abuela's, trying to please her. Isabela could have been growing fruitful vines and orchards all this time, but they wasted her talents on ornamentals because the family unconsciously fell into the assumption that SHE was an ornament. Mirabel has to break Isabela out of that thought process.

(Note that I don't blame Abuela or the family for these expectations for Bruno or Isabela or anyone else. These are societal expectations as much as family ones. I want to be clear on that.)

Our second grandchild is Dolores, whose gift is hyper-vigilance. She can "hear" when her cousin Luisa's eyelids are twitching stressfully all night. If you have hyper-vigilance, you know already how this is a gift and a curse. I suspect that Dolores developed this gift in part as a means of managing Pepa's anxiety; Dolores would carefully watch and listen for whatever might be affecting her mother's mood and try to stay out of the way or help however she could.

Camilo is also Pepa's child and he clearly has inherited his father's jokey style of managing Pepa's anxiety with humor. I suspect that he had an early talent for mimicry and imitations and used those to make his mother laugh. Thus his gift. There's also an aspect there of trying to be whatever the family needs at any time in order to help--and it hurts me a little how often he, himself, Camilo, isn't what is needed or wanted. My hope is that, just as Luisa learns to rest, Camilo learns that he can babysit a baby without having to literally morph into the baby's mother. That he can be useful *as himself* and not as an imitation of someone better suited to the situation.

Luisa is next, of course. She took on the burdens of the family and tried to make herself useful with manual labor. I imagine she began as a child in Julieta's kitchen, cleaning up after her mother's cooking and putting away the pots and pans. We don't see much of Luisa and Mirabel's father, but we know he chops wood. I can see Luisa out there helping him--carrying the wood away when she was a baby and then later chopping the wood herself. Her "gift" is strength and shouldering burdens. Luisa is like her mother, Julieta, trying to keep the family going by being useful. But the family is bigger now and there are more burdens to go around. Luisa takes on a whole village-worth of labor and begins to break. (I love her the most, I love her.)

Mirabel is the youngest of Julieta's children, and there is a truism (ymmv) about the youngest child being the most neglected but also the most free. She wasn't the firstborn like Isabela, needing to be married off to make babies. Unlike Pepa's children, she doesn't need to manage her mother's mood. Unlike the older grandchildren, she doesn't need to handle Abuela's anxieties. She's relatively protected from all that... the favored "baby" of the family that everyone can pet and coddle--

--but that means when it's time to bestow a Trauma Gift at her 5 year old ceremony the house doesn't have a lot to work with. Her lack of gift makes her a wonderful disability metaphor (which I love) but also in some ways means she's the healthiest of them all. She has the "gift" of being somewhat sheltered from all the trauma in her family, which is somewhat ironic given that this causes her to immediately become the focus of a buttload of trauma for being "out of the loop" of the family's gifts/traumas.

The movie involves Mirabel leaving the nursery, leaving her innocence and childhood behind, (she even suits up in a Mulan-esque sequence!!) and digging into her family's trauma closet. She learns that her missing uncle left because he had embraced his role as The Scapegoat in order to protect her. She learns that her older sisters have become The Beauty and The Brawn in order to shelter her from those same expectations. And at last she learns that Pedro's death is the source of all the trauma in the family, and that Abuela's grief-and-coping mechanisms were imperfect in ways that radiated subtle harm throughout the family--the house.

Mirabel and Alma, and ultimately the entire family, are able to acknowledge that they have been grieving-and-coping in unhealthy ways. And together they are able to rebuild the family and the house from a stronger foundation. And Antonio? He is a shy and frightened animal lover, whose gift grants him literal emotional support animals to help get him through the tough times ahead.

Anyway, seriously, I love the movie and everyone should see it maybe. And I want an extended edition in which Dolores and Camilo have Trauma Songs too, even though I understand why the narrative focused on the people it did.


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