Tuesday 28 December 2021

Encanto: A Celebration of Invisible Labour

In this post, I reflect on what makes Mirabel, the leading character in the latest Disney movie, an unlikely hero.

On the surface, Encanto is the usual underdog story: in a family of exceptional people, blessed with magic and superhero powers, Mirabel has no special gift and is an embarrassment in the eyes of her grandmother and her much more accomplished sister Isabela. However, it is Mirabel, with the help of another outcast, her uncle Bruno, who will save the day.

To me, Encanto is about what it means to live in a society that does not acknowledge the patient, exhausting, and yet often invisible labour required in any sort of close-knit community--and often carried out by women. The weight of expectations suffocates the individuality of the members of the Madrigal family and takes the joy out of their lives. Such expectations are driven by labels that, once attached, are stuck to their owners: the strong and dependable Luisa; the “golden child”, perfect Isabela; the “weirdo” Bruno; big failure Mirabel; and the controlling matriarch, Abuela. 

Stuck in their determined roles, Abuela and Mirabel misunderstand each other. So they spend most of the film as enemies, but then they realise that there is more to the other than the label. Mirabel is giftless, but not useless. She is the glue keeping the family together, offering her sisters and cousins an opportunity to unload and be true to themselves. And it is not an easy task to placate anxious Luisa, get bottled-up Isabela to release her creativity, and encourage Dolores to make herself heard and pursue her dreams. Mirabel’s contribution is invisible because it is perceived only indirectly in everybody else's resilience: her dedication, compassion, and wisdom enable the rest of the family to cope. 

Mirabel helps Abuela too, to reassess her priorities and see her children and grandchildren as complex, imperfect people—and not as pawns in a game whose goal is to defend the family’s privilege. But Abuela is no villain: before she became a grandmother, she was young Alma, in love and full of hope. Love and hope that were crashed by tremendous adversities. Until the end we don’t even hear Abuela’s name, she is simply ‘Abuela’ as if there was nothing more to her than the role she plays. It is thanks to her interaction with Mirabel that we have a chance to hear Alma's story and appreciate her perspective.

In a recent research project on what makes for good clinical encounters, we found that young people seeking mental health support value validation and empathy above all: that is what Mirabel offers to her struggling family, a compassionate ear and genuine interest. Mirabel does not see other people as unidimensional labels, and it is when people talk to her that they realise that they can bring positive change and tackle their difficulties with adequate support. 

In our project we found that in successful interactions practitioners resist the temptation to treat the young person as a problem to be fixed and appreciate the whole person as an agent with multiple roles, interests, and goals. Being able to see each member of her family as a unique individual and to offer them emotional support at critical times are Mirabel's invisible superpowers. 

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