Encanto: Missed Metaphors on Disability

Disney has been putting out a lot of disabled characters (or at least, disability-coded characters) in its movies off and on. There's the obvious case of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, not just visibly disabled but also severely abused on account of it. Ariel temporarily loses her voice. Nemo Has his "lucky fin", Dory has short-term memory loss. There have been several analyses of portrayals of disablement in Frozen, together with the stigma and segregation attached to difference and its impact on children.

Encanto does a fantastic job of giving metaphors that map very well onto disablement. It highlights the differences between the Social and Medical Models of disability. It seems unlikely that this was a deliberately intended metaphor, given that none of the characters are easily recognizable by most people as disabled. However, to those of us who have experienced disablement, the parallels are glaring. To its credit, the plot of the movie does a good job with the metaphor, even if unintended. It seems like the writers mostly focussed on the effects of inter-generational trauma, and many reviews analyse it as such. Since that has been adequately analysed by others, I'll focus this piece on the metaphors of disablement. Of course, this is not to say that the movie is definitely about, only about, or mainly about disability. The movie is primarily about intergenerational trauma and centres latinx culture. This is merely an alternative reading that tracks well onto the storyline.

Necessary warning: Spoilers ahead.

Mirabel, the protagonist, is born into the magical Madrigal family where everyone is given a special "gift" (read: abilities) when they come of age. The family prides itself in providing a haven for a persecuted community, who depend on the gifted family to support them. Mirabel, unfortunately, is given no magical gift, which sets up the conflict for the tale. This reflects the Medical Model of disability: a person is disabled because their bodies are somehow "defective" and their abilities deemed less than "normal".

According to the Social Model however, disability is caused when the environment is built in ways that exclude certain people, or when society does not enable functioning that differs from the norm. Mirabel is only disabled in the context of her family and Encanto society because they believe and treat her as being "less able". The rest of the community has no magical gifts, but still treat Mirabel as somehow lacking, reflecting how society treats disabled people as being worthless regardless of their specific capacities. Mirabel's inherent abilities and capacities are not recognised, enabled or supported by the family (with possible exception of her mother) because they do not recognise them as abilities at all. Mirabel can hold space for and understand people's feelings, fears and anxieties. This goes unheeded because it isn't coded "magical". She is the only one who seems to care about helping her younger cousin when he's anxious, telling him he'll be ok no matter what happens at his gift/ability ceremony. She's able to get through her sister Luisa's strongwoman facade and allows her to be vulnerable. She enables the insta-perfect Isabella to drop her act, realise and accept who she really is: funky and spiky and amazing as such.

The Madrigals, however, do not enable Mirabel to contribute her talents to the community as they enable the magical folk, telling her to get out of the way and let others (who are "able") do all the things that need doing. The magical folks are, in contrast, encouraged to use their abilities to help and support the community, and contribute to it. Disabled people are likewise often given messages of worthlessness, even labelled "invalid"—literally not valid—because we don't or can't do things that people believe "normal" folks ought to be able to or do them differently. Mirabel becomes an aspiring super-crip to boot: trying really hard to do household chores (that the magical ones are more efficient at getting done) in order to be accepted by the family, while forgetting the value of the things that she is good at, because her family doesn't value them. Many of us in the disabled community have done this: seeking out over-achievement as a way of justifying our right to exist.

This metaphor travels even more with the rest of the plot. We realise that the gifted Madrigals feel intense pressure to be perfect and do what is expected of them. Disability studies has a word for this: existential anxiety. This was explained by Harlan Hahn as the fear that enabled people have of becoming disabled (I use enabled here as the actual opposite of disabled. This is my preferred way of referring to people who are not disabled because it highlights environments as the source of both enablement and disablement. A person is either enabled or disabled by their society). Enabled people often base their entire self-worth on their particular abilities. Because disabled people are stigmatised, this source of self-worth causes an intense fear of disablement. Symptoms include anxiety-inducing perfectionism, fear of failure, and fear of loss of these abilities. As Luisa sings, "I'm pretty sure I'm worthless if I can't be of service... can I somehow preserve this?"

The anxieties that come with enablement don't take away from the fact that they are enabled but are the natural corollary of it. Just as patriarchal constructs privilege men, they also hold men up to high standards of masculinity (for e.g. the pressure to be the breadwinner/protector). Failure to meet these standards results in social shame and emasculation in patriarchal societies. Likewise, functional enablement is constructed in opposition to disablement, where enabled folks are taught to fear disablement and avoid it at all costs. While this has an impact on enabled folks, it is doubly oppressive to disabled people. First, we are expected to remain in our place of disablement and be grateful for being tolerated. Disabled people are seen as a bother, preferably hidden away where they cannot make enabled folks uncomfortable or remind them of their vulnerabilities. The movie represents this in Abuela's constant admonition to Mirabel: stay out of the way. Second, our ways of existing, our bodies and our identities are deemed shameful and appropriated to be used as tools to shame enabled folks who do not meet society's exacting standards. Consider the use of words like "d*mb", "bl*nd" or "ret*rded" to shame ignorance, or "l*me" to shame something disappointing. These uses appropriate disablement and disabled identities and use them to shame enabled folks. The first act of the movie reflects this in everyone being worried about whether Antonio will receive a gift, and relieved when he does. When Luisa loses her powers, Abuela's first response is to ask Mirabel what she did: in her mind, Mirabel's shame/disability could be contagious and spreading to the rest of the family.

At the climax, the gifted Madrigals all lose their gifts as the house collapses when Abuela Alma insists that Mirabel is causing the magic to collapse. The collapse actually reflects the household straining under too much pressure. Alma's own untreated and unacknowledged trauma led to it being passed on to the grandchildren. To be clear, Alma's intentions are not in question: she believes that the family must earn the miracle they have been given by using the gifts to help the community, but her fears of homelessness born out of trauma lead her to have strict boundaries of how the family should be to stay safe. The family and society's refusal to accept difference makes them scared of being different. The “weird” misfit Bruno—shunned and no longer mentioned because he spoke his truth and people didn't like what he had to say—lives closeted away, in the walls. Abuela admonishes Isabella when she reveals her true self. The Madrigals losing their powers are like people facing the threat of disablement: they do not know how to function and live without their abilities and believe themselves worthless without it.

It falls on Mirabel, who has so far had to do without them anyway, to try and save them all. Helping her Abuela heal from her trauma is the first step to healing everyone. They then rebuild, this time with the community helping out, highlighting interdependence. Once the house is rebuilt the magic and gifts return, but not without healing: Luisa no longer takes on the beast-of-burden role, Isabella remains true to her (real) self and Bruno is welcomed back, learning that they are all more than their gifts. Disablement, similarly, is a reflection on the community: does society recognise that we are all interdependent, and enable us to be our best selves, whatever that is? Does it prioritise our connections to each other, rather than our specific functions? Does it give us space for self-care and empathy? Does it truly include the queers and the misfits? Traumas can leave lasting marks, like the cracked mountain, but supportive communities can yet make the beauty shine through. Sometimes this can only happen when the very foundations are rebuilt.

And thankfully, in the end, Mirabel is not gifted with magical powers. This is a common and ableist trope, where disabled people are magically "cured" at the end of a movie. Rather, she is enabled: her value—just as she is—is recognised by her community who now choose to support rather than exclude her, and this in turn helps her regain her self-worth.