The newest Disney movie, Encanto, is widely accepted in the community for being a representation of transgenerational trauma.
And while that core concept is as evident in the movie as magical realism is, I believe there is much glossed over when it comes to the main protagonist and her character.
Of course, people have pointed out and mentioned how Mirabel Madrigal longs to fit in and wants to be recognized by her Abuela, as noted by her “I Want” song which is typical of many Disney protagonists. However, most focus on the discussion of Mirabel and her supposed gift, or how Mirabel represents the entire family or the pillar of the family as her dress displays motifs of each of the family members.
Mirabel being the “black sheep” of the family is another core concept of the movie. In fact, it’s the main driving point of Mirabel’s character. She is, without a doubt, the odd one out.
At its core, Encanto is a movie about family. It deals with the pressure of how every child seems to want to perform their best to receive praise and affirmation from the highest parental figure. And it shows how, without a clear “talent,” you may be doomed to forever be the family disappointment. Every mistake that is made or, in fact, anything that goes wrong is pinned on you. No matter how hard you try to love your family in your own way or provide help and support in your own way, it never seems to be enough. You are overshadowed by your siblings that have more prominent skills and the achievements to prove their ability to wield that skill.
Mirabel is the perfect example of being the black sheep of the family. Growing up, she is told that once a Madrigal turns five, they will possess a “gift” that will help with aiding the village. Mirabel, however, does not receive a gift. She is as normal as they can come. This makes her stand out as she is unable to “help” the family or the people in the valley in the literal sense. She cannot move mountains, heal any ailments, make flowers grow, control the weather, listen out for trouble, predict the future, or shapeshift. She’s just some person.
Being the only ordinary person among extraordinary people really makes you stand out. Mirabel might start wondering what is wrong with her, or what has she done to deserve this. Since Mirabel is unable to “help” the valley and the family, Alma seems to ignore Mirabel unless she is chastising her. Every time Mirabel tries to help her family, Alma sees this as a sort of sabotage, perhaps seeing her as just a teenager lashing out for being so different from her family members.
Alma, in a sense, perhaps doesn’t see Mirabel as a person. Though, it could be argued that Alma forgot to see the rest of the family as people, only as tools to help protect the valley and the family from harm. But it can at least be said that Alma does care about those with gifts since they can impact the valley the most, while Mirabel is unable to do that.
Mirabel’s “I Want” song, as well as the majority of the movie, shows how Mirabel rarely gets noticed by Alma, the main source of affirmation for the Madrigal children. And she is quite literally left out when the family takes a portrait to celebrate the youngest member of the family, Antonio, for receiving his gift.
Although Mirabel states in her song that she is “fine” as she is “still a part of the family Madrigal” and will “stand on the side as [the family] shine[s],” she quickly admits that she is not fine and asks Abuela to “open [her] eyes.” A request to be seen and accepted for who she is after having been so “patient, and steadfast, and steady.”
This can be seen in the desires of most children deemed as the black sheep of the family. Even if the parents or some other guardian doesn’t actively force their perfect image on the child, living in the shadow of such “great” relatives certainly can leave an impact on the child. Especially if the parents and other siblings and relatives all seem to follow the same path, while you are walking a completely different one.
The desire to be accepted and seen as a valid individual is a strong sense rooted deep in human nature. As we are social creatures, to be accepted into a community means you will be taken care of and will have a low chance of being left to die. It is deeply ingrained in us that we mustn’t stick out like a sore thumb and will try our best to fit in and be a part of something.
The fact that Mirabel is the black sheep and Abuela Alma refusing to see Mirabel as good enough for anything is enough to cause deeply traumatic emotional stress on Mirabel. Mirabel even seems to have a strained and distant relationship with her siblings and cousins at the beginning of the movie. The only one she was close to was Antonio, the youngest Madrigal and whom she had to share the nursery with. It could be said that they share such a close bond not only because they spend the most time and physical space together, but because up until his fifth birthday, Antonio was the only other Madrigal that didn’t have a gift.
“I will never be good enough for you.”
The phenomenon of being quite different from your family and what is considered tradition is not a strange concept to many children. Especially if these children come from families that hold tradition to the heart, as well as those that view certain talents and skills as more valuable than others.
In essence, if a child more drawn to the arts hails from a family consisting of doctors, they might become the black sheep of the family if they do not pursue a medical degree of some sort. While it might not necessarily be true that there are no artistically inclined family members out of the long line of doctors, it might be that those family members didn’t express their preference of being a musician or perhaps an animator rather than a doctor. Instead, they show the capability of being a doctor and continued down that career path despite having more artistic abilities.
Should the child in that scenario be not interested or even incapable of pursuing a medical degree, rather keeping to their innate abilities, they would essentially become outcasts of their own family. This causes intense emotional stress for the kid as your family should be your most inner social circle at that age. Feeling like a reject or being unable to fit in with your social circle is, deep down, a very jarring feeling for social creatures like humans. Fearing that your family might not accept you and leave you to fend for yourself, or even just being unable to form meaningful connections between your family members (which is important to our mental health), might cause the kid to act in ways to turn all focus on them.
In terms of Mirabel’s actions, she wishes to save the miracle so that she might finally be able to help the family in a similar way that her family members have. Hoping that, by doing so, she might finally be seen as an equal or worthy in not only her family’s eyes but most importantly Abuela’s eyes.
Abuela Alma being the centerpiece, being the main source of affirmation for many of the young Madrigals and even her own children sans Julieta to a degree, causes most of them to be seen as useless unless they are providing some sort of service that actively benefits or helps Alma. Even with their parents’ or siblings’ constant affirmation and comfort, it feels as though none of the Madrigals think it is enough. They needed Abuela‘s affirmation and comfort.
Therefore, even though Julieta and Agustín are supportive and loving parents, Isabela, Luisa, and especially Mirabel feel as though they have to keep outperforming themselves in order to stay relevant and helpful in the eyes of Alma. With Mirabel’s lack of a gift, and being branded as being an absolute menace by Alma, her persevering desire to continue to prove herself and finally become part of the family Madrigal is just a little stronger.
Similarly, in the movie Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales receives Spider-Man’s powers after being bitten by an interdimensional radioactive spider. Although his universe’s Spider-Man (Peter Parker) realizes this and promises to show him the ropes of being Spider-Man after the fight, Parker doesn’t make it out alive. Left alone, Morales realizes he is unable to train himself to take up the mantle of Spider-Man left behind by Parker.
Throughout the course of the movie, Morales meets more Spider-People, the most notable one being Peter B. Parker. In a sense, Morales finds his “family” with these Spider-People, as well noted by when they realize their powers are the same.
“You’re just like me.”
However, even though Morales finds “his people,” he is unable to fit in with them since these Spider-People have been in the field for a significantly longer time than he has. They have mastery of their abilities and they know who they are–some a little too well than others.
It could be said that Morales feels a little insecure in light of this, much like Mirabel might feel around her superpowered family members, and he feels as though he needs to work extra hard to prove himself.
When discussing how to get the Spider-People back to their home dimensions, Morales’ lack of control or even understanding of his own abilities comes to light. Since it is basically useless to send a Spider-Person incapable of even defending himself into a fight, they ask him to demonstrate. Peter B. Parker, having known Morales the longest, vouches for the kid and says that he is capable of camouflaging himself and something called the “venom strike” that can temporarily paralyze almost anyone with just a touch.
Unfortunately, he is unable to present these abilities and realizes that the other Spider-People deem him unable to help in their mission. In a sense, this causes him to be the “black sheep” of the Spider-Family, as he is the only one incapable of showing or even controlling his powers. He is unable to help these people much like how Mirabel is unable to help the family or the people living in the valley.
Luckily, however, both of these characters do end up proving their worth and sort of integrating themselves back into the family. Morales masters his abilities and becomes Spider-Man, while Mirabel seemingly finds her “gift” of keeping the family together and becomes a recognized Madrigal.
In terms of message, though, one could say that Encanto has a better ending. Mirabel doesn’t gain a superpowered gift, per se. She remains the same, with the exception that Alma has now realized that gifts do not outvalue or devalue your existence. While Spider-Verse holds a more grandiose version of it, allowing Morales to gain new powers, abilities, and control.
This proves to show that being the black sheep of the family might not be that bad after all.