“Encanto” and the Intentionality in Crafting Authentic Narratives
Released during a tough holiday season, Encanto has become a bright light in a cloud of tough news. A hit song from the movie, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” surpassed Frozen’s “Let It Go” as the highest-charting Disney animated hit in 26 years (EW). And across social media, people have been posting photos and videos of themselves next to characters from the movie, thrilled to be represented. See this side-by-side of 2-year old Kenzo, this video of a young child dancing along with her digital twin, and real-life enactments of characters Luisa and Dolores.
The care put into making Encanto is significant because historically, the principal characters of Disney movies have been overwhelmingly white. If people of color are featured, they’re portrayed poorly. In the Aristocats, a cat in yellowface plays the piano with chopsticks. In Peter Pan, Native Americans are referred to with a racist slur (NYTimes). And in Dumbo, released during the peak of Jim Crow in America, a group of black crows reinforce contemporary stereotypes about African Americans’ time (Washington Post). If you stream one of these films on Disney+, a disclaimer pops up at the beginning acknowledging that “these stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.” There’s also link to the “Stories Matter” website, where users can learn more about these discriminatory depictions (BBC).
•Consider: What does a hero look like? How about a villain? What was the last media representation you saw of someone from the same background as yourself? What about people with different identities? What kind of conversations about race and racism do you feel equipped to have with children or adults you know?
Darker-skinned characters in Disney movies are usually the villain, and villains often have other characteristics associated with marginalized groups. Nearly every villain in Disney films is queercoded — given a “series of characteristics that are traditionally associated with queerness, such as more effeminate presentations by male characters or more masculine ones from female characters” (The Tempest). Think of Scar v. Simba, Hades v. Hercules, Jafar v. Aladdin, or Ursula (based on a drag queen) v. Ariel. By doing so, the films subconsciously align queerness with evil for viewers. Since Disney villains are often trying to thwart “true love,” queerness is shown as a threat to heteronormativity and our right to live “happily ever after” (Little White Lies). Villains are also depicted as larger-bodied (like Ursula and John Ratcliffe) or as having a physical or intellectual disability (CNN).
Some recent mainstream efforts to depict Latinx culture have missed the mark. In the Heights was slammed for its lack of Afro-Latinx representation (NPR), and several popular Latinx-led television shows have been cut from major streaming platforms (ABC). In 2019, just 7% of major films featured a lead Hispanic or Latinx actor (NPR). Colombia, where Encanto takes place, has been particularly misrepresented in U.S. media, which focuses on drug wars and cartels (Borgen Project).
In contrast, Encanto features a wide range of Colombian characters of different skin tones, body types, and identities. But it also tells narratives that resonate with Latinx and/or immigrant communities, one of the reasons for the popularity of the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” (USA Today). It also depicts Colombian culture with heart. The team brought in the Colombian Cultural Trust consultants to ensure the film’s authenticity (Polygon). And without giving too much away, there was careful consideration given when creating the “villain” of this series (Polygon). As writer José María Luna states in Polygon, the movie’s “focus is on the survivors. It’s about the miracle of thriving when you seem almost cosmically predisposed to suffer ad infinitum. Because that’s what Colombia is: a country of people trying their best to thrive in spite of themselves” (Polygon). Light spoilers in this link.
The movie is far from perfect; some Colombian viewers did not see their culture reflected in the story (The Mujerista), and other critics are quick to note that the movie still didn’t have enough Colombian representation on the production side to call it a “Colombian” film (Remezcla).
We know that representation is critical to the growth and development of youth. Positive, authentic depictions of marginalized communities in the media can shift public sentiment on topics related to their wellbeing, like LGBTQ+ rights. Children that see themselves depicted in the media around them demonstrate higher levels of self-esteem (Common Sense Media). And children form stereotypes on race and ethnicities young, often by the time they turn three (Yale). It’s important that the media they consume at a young age shapes them to have a more inclusive worldview.
For the past few years, we’ve seen calls for broader, more authentic representation in stories. Encanto, in both its literal and metaphorical sense, sets hope that change is possible.
• Disney villains are often darker-skinned and queercoded.
• Along with the underrepresentation of marginalized groups, racist, queerphobic, fatphobic, and ableist depictions permeate popular media.
• While there’s still a lot of work to be done, Encanto might signal that major media companies are finally taking representation seriously.