My family was late to see “Encanto” and I had heard numerous positive reviews of the film. Having now seen the movie and finding much to enjoy, I nonetheless see problematic cultural undertones from the character of Luisa.
On the surface, the character trope is merely another tired example of Hollywood being unable to present womanly strength in any way other than “This woman is literally physically strong.” This particular storytelling rinse-and-repeat is both exhausted and exhausting. Hollywood has collapsed feminine strength into this singular presentation: one that most conceals the ways in which women are distinctly strong.
Luisa’s hulky physiology is the most immediate aspect of her characterization and the component of “Encanto’s” visual world that grabs the viewer most viscerally. The most superficial reading of her as a character is that her design is about representation for women who aren’t shaped like the typical Disney stereotype. This idea apparently carries some weight in the broader culture despite the simple reality that no one who sees “Encanto” has ever met a woman who looks like Luisa.
Now, that isn’t to say that women do not exist who share some characteristics or even combinations of characteristics with Luisa. Luisa stands above not just the men in her life but even enormous natural features in her world. She has a jawline to rival Dick Tracy. Scouring the entirety of the internet for a handful of women who can resemble Luisa under special circumstances is to prove the rule by demonstrating how scarce the exceptions are.
We know what Disney’s bigger-than-size-zero women look like. We also know what their muscular men look like. Below you’ll find an example of each. Which does Luisa most resemble?
That Disney is up to something no good with Luisa’s character design is easy to see within the narrative as well. Luisa is just one member of a magical family imbued with wonderful powers. Luisa’s uncle Bruno has the magical power of seeing the future. One cannot help but notice that his powers did not come with enormous physical eyes. (Bruno, as a man the family is comfortable exiling because he continues to tell the matriarchal community truths they find unappealing, must be reserved for another day.)
Luisa’s cousin Dolores can hear anything. Again, the viewer notes that her powers did not come with giant elephant ears on the side of her head. The other Madrigals look quite normal, all things considered for a cartoon, but Luisa’s gift, her great strength, is accompanied by an entirely unique physiology unlike anything seen in the real world she is alleged to represent.
The image of Luisa nonetheless does not account for all of the bizarreness of Luisa’s character. For my money, the two catchiest songs in “Encanto” are “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and Luisa’s “Surface Pressure.” Wouldn’t you like to inject whoever at Disney made the voice-casting choice with truth serum and ask, “Now, why did you conclude Luisa needed a husky-voiced actress?”
The song Luisa sings that defines her character is filled with the imagery and angst of bearing responsibility for a family in the most masculine sense possible. Of course, it could have been a song from an eldest daughter about caring for her family as a woman. Twitter user Royal Blue Raptor has made this point exceedingly well here and I recommend you read it. But that isn’t what Luisa sings about. She sings about doing combat with the world on behalf of her family.
Luisa is, in fact, regularly paralleled with Hercules. At one point in the story, Luisa is asked by a villager to redirect the course of a river, one of Hercules’ legendary labors. This parallel is made even stronger during the “Surface Pressure” song: Hercules is named, then seen running away from Cerberus. Who picks up the sword and shield to slay the beast? Luisa, of course.
“Encanto” clearly isn’t ignorant of traditional female stereotypes. In fact, the portrayal of women – drawn from the traditional family culture of Colombia, which woke Disney feels okay portraying – is quite excellent otherwise. Mom heals people by feeding them.
Even stereotypical criticisms of women make it into the movie. One woman’s emotions swing wildly from sunny skies to literal storm clouds. Another woman hears everything and is seen as an untrustworthy gossip.
Then there is Luisa. I believe the best way to understand Luisa’s role in “Encanto” is to take a look at another, older story. C.S. Lewis’ 1945 novel “That Hideous Strength” has risen in recent years from a book that merely anticipated some of our contemporary challenges to an outright predictive prophecy of chilling accuracy. One of the facets of our cultural moment that Lewis saw coming is the insistence that the absurd be affirmed in order to maintain an individual’s standing among societal elites.
In Lewis’ book, the character Mark Studdock is taken to a particular place within the progressive N.I.C.E. institute named The Objective Room, where Studdock is pushed to reject the idea of objective reality through an act of blasphemy. Completing the task in The Objective Room is the initiation ritual into the inner ring of N.I.C.E., an act that draws the participant into the institute’s program of replacing humanity with a new, more evolved version set free by escaping embodied existence.
Writing about Studdock’s crisis in The Objective Room for The Discovery Institute, Cameron Wybrow says:
[Mark] sees that the intellectual habits of his whole life — of mocking traditional values, of belittling traditional institutions, of ignoring beauty, of regarding nature as purely stuff to be used or an enemy to be conquered, of preferring glib abstractions to the concrete reality of living people, of thinking that a reductionist ‘science’ is the source of all truth and more important than humanity itself — must lead to the insane doctrine of amoral, motiveless action which produces ex-human monstrosities…
Readers might resonate with what Wybrow calls “the intellectual habits” of Studdock’s life: mocking traditional values, regarding nature as merely moldable material to be shaped and reshaped according to human whims, and being powerfully pre-committed to the dictates of what travels under the name “science.” If the reader does not resonate with those habits, then surely those habits of mind can be readily observed in contemporary society. The question of how those particular habits – the kind that Lewis says prepare us for a post-human future – might be cultivated is exactly why, unlike her brother Bruno, we really must talk about Luisa Madrigal.
Luisa functions in “Encanto” like The Objective Room at N.I.C.E. did for Studdock in Lewis’s novel. She pushes the viewer to affirm reality is plastic, free from all norms, and subjected to being formed and reformed as fashions shift.
The developing human brain is a sponge, and its ability to uptake complex patterns of information is remarkable. Disney executives know their stories shape what children think of as “normal.” Can we hope that parents – who rightly control what media shapes their children’s sense of normal – are equally aware?
Women are wonders of God’s creative goodness and wisdom. As part of an ongoing assault on reality, Luisa masks that truth by substituting masculinity for femininity. Women are strong, indeed, in uniquely feminine ways, and in ways that contrast with currently fashionable destructive nonsense.
Families who want to see their children live well (and come out healthy on the far side of our cultural descent into actual madness) better get on this: Decide where Disney gets to come into your house, and how to talk to your kids in a way that helps them love the true, good, and beautiful while recognizing and rejecting the kind of dehumanizing messaging Luisa represents.
We live in a constant propaganda onslaught. This isn’t the time to get lax.