The Madrigal family’s story is one of diaspora, loss, and intergenerational trauma. Abuela, the family matriarch, was displaced from her home and experienced the loss of her husband, which left her traumatised and unable to deviate from inflexible standards. Her trauma was passed down to her children and then to her grandchildren, who also felt the pressure to conform to these rigid expectations. The film emphasises the influence of parental pressure on children and how it can significantly impact their behaviour and choices.
Transactional analysis (TA) views individuals as autonomous, which means that no external influence can force them to make decisions. In 1972, Eric Berne, the founder of TA, wrote about injunctions, while the Gouldings identified 12 core injunctions in 1976 that were related to negative early decisions made by people. Injunctions are pre-verbal messages that individuals receive from their parents, and it appears that Abuela may have sent some to Luisa.
When examining Luisa’s mother, Julieta, we can see that she is a caring individual who possesses the unique ability to heal through her cooking. Julieta’s nurturing qualities may have arisen because she was responsible for parenting her own mother, Abuela, and made a conscious decision to live her life based on the “driver to please” others. Julieta’s need to please her mother was a survival mechanism that kept her secure. But this behaviour may have impacted Luisa negatively. Julieta’s compulsion to please may have caused her to lose her sense of self and overlook Luisa’s needs. As a result, Luisa may have internalised the message that she needed to work tirelessly, as people who strive to please others often do. This message may have led to her workaholic tendencies, as she may have had to work hard to gain her mother’s approval and affection. This is a theme that Luisa touches upon in her song, Surface Pressure, where she contemplates whether shaking off the crushing weight of expectations would allow her to experience joy, relaxation, or simple pleasures.
Isabel, the oldest sister, exemplifies the consequences of striving for perfection. She may have internalised the message “don’t be you” from her mother, Julieta. As the eldest child of Julieta, who was herself the oldest of triplets, and Agustin, Isabel may have felt the burden of taking care of her younger sisters while trying to gain the love and attention of her emotionally unavailable mother. Perhaps Julieta had an idealised image of her child as beautiful and creative and only reacted positively to the aspects of her actual child that matched that image while ignoring the rest.
Isabel’s passivity is evident in her decision to marry the “perfect” man, even though she later realises that it is not what she truly desires. Although Isabel has the potential to thrive, her life remains unfulfilled due to her be the “perfect driver”, which drives her to seek acceptance. Isabel’s endless hunger for perfection is a manifestation of the message she internalised from her mother: “You ought to be better.” This creates an insatiable appetite for the unattainable, and she becomes the “hungry ghost”, always craving, always gorging, but never filled, leading to a sad and ironic twist in her life.
Mirabel fails to meet her grandmother’s expectations as she does not possess the gift that runs in the family. Her mother and grandmother’s disappointment has soured the milk that Mirabel has drunk, and Abuela projects her own sense of disappointment onto Mirabel. Mirabel, in turn, adopts magical thinking and passivity, demonstrated in her song “Waiting for a Miracle.” Passive behaviour is a manifestation of discounting, which minimises the significance of a person or situation and serves as a form of denial. All the sisters fear making mistakes and being mistakes, and Mirabel fails to recognise that her gifted sisters are also struggling with overadaptation, another form of passivity. As the facade of the perfect and magical Casita cracks and falls away, each woman’s individual mask adopted to cope with their shared suffering also falls away. Abuela clings to the ultimate symbol of precarity, the open flame.
In order for a person to truly come alive, they must release their grip on life and let it be free to be itself. Possessiveness can act as a stranglehold on one’s own life and prevent them from experiencing it to the fullest extent. This idea is reminiscent of an essay by Alan Watts.
Mirabel, akin to the legendary Fool, represents chaos and creativity. Most significantly, she is always present in the moment, a theme that is relevant to Encanto. Mirabel acts as a catalyst for the Madrigal family’s healing process. She represents the Adult Ego State, which brings their script to consciousness.
Upon my first viewing, the song “All of You” resonated with me deeply. Although the gift in Encanto operates as a metaphor for protecting the family lineage and future, I initially connected it with talent. I thought about the children I work with, many of whom discount their creative abilities, discrediting themselves with the phrase “I can’t draw!”
In What Else Can I Do? Isabel joyfully discovers that her gift is spontaneity and that embracing imperfection contains limitless potential. This made me think about the pressures of modern life and social media. Children are exposed to the kaleidoscopic display of extraordinary feats from savants around the world on YouTube. The weight of wanting to be gifted and accepted can be crushing. Sadly, being normal is no longer normal. As the line “You’re the real gift, kid” was sung, I hoped that children would hear this and internalise the message. Hopefully, the isolated character’s words would reach out to them in their isolation, telling them gently, “You’re enough. You’re OK.”
Mark James Hammond is a psychotherapeutic counsellor from Gateshead in England, who watches Disney movies with his daughter.