Disney’s Encanto is generating a lot of discussion, whether it’s around representation, memory studies or the cost of ensuring futurity. However, a theme that stuck with me is navigating familial love and generational trauma as a queer person. As we grow up, we find different desires and forms of love. One of the first spaces where we find love is our family, but that love is far from perfect in any way. We are always pretending that it’s perfect and the best that there can be. Too often, the patriarchs and matriarchs of families rule with an iron fist to ensure conformity within the family to stay together. They have a noble motive of saving the family from the trauma they suffered. But in doing so, they inadvertently carry forward the vestiges of the same trauma, inflicting it upon others and putting pressure on them.
As queer people, familial love is perhaps the most difficult of all types of love to comprehend. It stems from a place where many face rejection, betrayal and mistrust. At the same time, it’s rooted in structures of patriarchy, monogamy, queerphobia, cisheteronormativity, and love in a very narrow-minded, traditional, exclusionary sense. I know many queer people who have ‘chosen families’ but don’t make any familial relations like muh bola bhai or behen. There’s so much rigidity in such a type of love that it’s ultimately difficult to find solace within it. Disney movies and Disney animated movies have been built on the stepping stone of ‘family first’ as a primary theme. Movies like Coco and Encanto discuss the importance of having families, but Encanto does what no other Disney movie has done so far. It addresses family toxicity, generational trauma and challenges the idea that elders are always right.
In a culture like ours, elders are treated with the utmost respect, and they can never be wrong. Their opinion is almost as strong as that of god. Their rigidity makes it difficult to feel any sense of flexibility in doing one’s family roles in familial spaces. As mentioned earlier, they also rule with an iron fist, much like Alma Madrigal in Disney’s Encanto. She does so to protect her family from the horrific trauma she suffered when she lost her husband in an armed conflict. And that trauma is carried through generations and never spoken about, much like the trauma that’s taken from generation to generation in Indian families. She’s also given a miracle that bestows a magical gift upon her children and grandchildren, skipping her granddaughter Mirabel, who doesn’t find a place within the family quickly.
Mirabel and her uncle Bruno are the two outcasts in the family and the only people willing to have an open conversation regarding what’s happening in the family. When the miracle is dying in the movie, all fingers are pointed at Mirabel because of Bruno’s vision. Alma blames Mirabel for breaking the family as everyone starts losing their magical powers. Until this moment in the movie, it’s a typical family drama, dinner table trouble, and violent confrontation that leads to someone leaving the family, breaking it apart. What sets Disney’s Encanto unique is what happens after this.
As everyone takes care of each other, their house Casita – which also holds magic – breaks down completely; Mirabelruns away after telling Alma that she’s the one who doesn’t love her family. The miracle is dying because of her. Here we get a scene that genuinely illustrates familial love’s power for healing when familial toxicity and violence through protectionism are addressed. We later see Alma go to Mirabel and say these words, “And I am so sorry. You never hurt our family Mirabel. We are broken…because of me.” This is an unconditional apology, pointed out by Schaffrillas Productions. It’s an unconditional apology coming from the person who inflicted the trauma or hurt the other person. And this apology isn’t hiding behind any sort of wall or an excuse or a half-held explanation. This is something most members of Indian families are incapable of. There is so much love in our families, but they’re not willing to acknowledge that they have caused the hurt as well while loving. Encanto offers the willingness to change and the power of forgiveness in dealing with generational traumas.
In the movie, then, we see perhaps one of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes in animated movies where Alma embraces Mirabel. But in the end, it’s just a movie. And I have seen elderly family members who became so bitter with not accepting the truth that they took it to their graves. I don’t understand what purpose such love serves other than making every family member despise each other. Our families have unresolved traumas passed on through a wheel that needs to be broken. Our elders are extra-protective of us and keep us within fixed boundaries in the name of familial love, which I now recognise as the most toxic kind of love that can be. So many Indian movies, traditions, and rituals emphasise the importance of the love that makes the family stay together, but what about when the same love also makes us hate each other.
I do not deny the existence of happy families where love prospers, and growth is possible. But there is something very wrong with no space for expressing ourselves within our families with a generation gap filled with trauma and not kindness, care, and warmth. The inability to recognise the violence and toxicity of keeping the family together leaves no space to have a decent conversation about it. It just keeps on degrading the bonds so much so that family members don’t even talk to each other for decades and break away like the Casita that falls apart, crack by crack, in the movie. And if you’re queer, then this is just hell for you.
Disney’s Encanto, however fantastic it is, is a movie based in magical realism that addresses some rare themes that need to be discussed at our dinner tables in a confrontational manner. But it’s us who have the space and the power to either have this conversation and mould a different kind of familial love or just break away – breaking the wheel of trauma and not carrying it forward to another generation, which is what most of us do. And sometimes, we don’t get a miracle to reduce the weight of the traumas we shoulder. It’s just us with our broken selves where care for self is primary and radical, platonic, and where newer ways of being and loving (like through friendships) take precedence over family. At the same time, there’s hope and power in forgiveness that can break the cycles of generational trauma.