By Josie Sherman
Disney’s Encanto graced our screens in November 2021 and has made groundbreaking progress towards equality, diversity and representation in the film industry. This vibrant, animated feature film follows the magical Madrigals. They are a multi-generational, dysfunctional, Colombian family who have each been equipped with a gift to help their community prosper — except for the female protagonist, Mirabel. As the only ungifted Madrigal, Mirabel immediately feels like an outcast and has to constantly remind herself that she is integral to her family and community. The end of the film reveals Mirabel’s gift as she provides invaluable love and support to her family, mending the cracks physically in their home, the Casita, and metaphorically, within the Madrigals.
Encanto has captured the hearts of many, no matter their age, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of 2021 and winning a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Animated, earlier this year. In particular, fans have become inspired by and firmly attached to Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow), the middle child and Mirabel’s older sister. This strong, powerful female character has brought a fresh perspective to what we might consider being our typical ‘heroine.’ Before Encanto, when envisioning a physically strong Disney character, I instantly pictured hyper-muscular men, such as Hercules or Mr Incredible. No female characters jumped to mind.
Yet, Luisa’s bodybuilding figure wasn’t originally favoured by all of Disney. Dylan Ekren, an illustrator and character modelling supervisor for Encanto, revealed that Luisa almost didn’t get her iconic, robust figure. Disney originally pushed for a more petite body shape — a sensible idea for someone who can carry five donkeys and move a house!
Sadly, this isn’t surprising when considering Disney’s tunnelled vision and their collection of female characters. For years now, Disney has been relentlessly critiqued for its inability to refrain from using gender stereotypes, even though it’s ludicrous to create a supernaturally strong character without muscles, regardless of their gender.
But why are Disney so afraid to diverge from their small and skinny, unrealistic, infamous Disney princesses? In today’s increasingly progressive world, it is more important than ever for Disney to take the reins of the film industry and guide it towards a more diverse realm.
One can only hope the exceedingly positive support that has arisen from Encanto, and fans’ particular attachment to Luisa, will help push Disney in a more inclusive direction and encourage other members of the industry to follow. Merchandise sales clearly indicate people are engaging better with relatable, more diverse characters. The Luisa-themed merchandise is being favoured over that of her ‘perfect’ older sister, Isabela.
Perhaps this is because Luisa is not only physically strong but demonstrates her emotional strength as well. This is revealed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit song ‘Surface Pressure’, sung by Luisa in the middle of the film as she reveals to Mirabel and the audience her emotional vulnerability and the struggles she encounters with her magical gift. The lyrics reveal how Luisa feels she must constantly be the ‘strong one’, and faces pressures that are like a ‘drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop’. Luisa can teach us the importance of helping those around us but, equally, they need to not take on too much. She highlights the anxiety that arises when you quite literally carry your community. I myself — along with many others, I’m sure — can relate to this chart-topping single. It illuminates the perfectionist mentality that is increasingly ever-present in our modern-day society.
So, finally, Disney is giving us the representation we need to see on screen, switching it up from only showcasing unrealistic perfectionism. It is crucial that such big companies focus on accurately representing the society we live in today. Countless young children’s impressionable minds are being irreversibly shaped by what they see on screen and in the media today. It can damage their self-esteem and leave them feeling isolated. With muscular women often being deemed as ‘not feminine enough’, characters like Luisa help celebrate multifaceted strength — her value to society, beauty and bravery are all showcased throughout the film.
Unfortunately, it has taken until Disney’s 60th animated feature film for people to feel marginally more represented and visible on screen. This shouldn’t be the groundbreaking moment it has become for Disney, or the film industry as a whole, yet depressingly it feels that way. Nevertheless, it is important to celebrate how this diversity deficit is slowly being filled by films such as Encanto, despite there clearly being a long way to go.
Illustration: Anna Kuptsova