I have always enjoyed the beauty of how media can be applied to our therapeutic journey – from art and drama to cinema and tv, song lyrics and poetry to all other aspects of media. It doesn’t mean as a therapist you have to be the most creative or artistic. It just means using the language and concepts that your client can understand.
When you think about it, movies like Encanto and Inside Out are perfect examples of applying mental health and psychological concepts to a wider demographic. Have you ever tried to articulate with a therapist or professional about your concerns but they looked perplexed? That can be incredibly isolating. Finding a shared language between myself and my clients is probably one of the most important aspects on relationship building.
Recently, a friend of mine recommended that I watch Encanto. I honestly thought, ‘oh, it’ll just be another random Disney movie’, and how WRONG was I? The family dynamics and archetypes could be applied to many, the enmeshment of the family, the need for differentiation and boundaries. It was a theoretical marvel for any therapist! I wanted to touch upon various aspects of the movie and characters – be aware, there are spoilers ahead.
Dysfunctional Family Archetypes
Let’s start first by considering the concept of dysfunctional family archetypes. There are several to consider (and some theorists will use slightly different terms).
- The Scapegoat (or the ‘Identified Patient’)
- The Caretaker (or the ‘Nurturer’)
- The Hero (or the ‘Strong One’)
- The Mascot (or the ‘Distractor’)
- The Golden Child (or the ‘Perfect One’)
- The Emotional One
- The Gossip
- The Matriarch/Patriarch
- The One that Left
The Emotional One
Pepa Madrigal, one of the triplets, is the perfect example of someone who is perceived as the “emotional one” of the family. I identify with Pepa as the one who in my family was repeatedly told to “calm your emotions”.
The emotional one may be seen as ‘too sensitive’, reacting to others’ emotions (empathically). Within Encanto we see this many times when Pepa feeds off the anxieties of others. The more the tension builds within the family, the more volatile the weather becomes around her. Whenever she attempts to stay calm, I recognise the toxic positivity that she uses.
Some of the signs of toxic positivity include:
- Hiding difficult emotions (seen in Pepa being the lead in the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno“)
- Experiencing guilt/shame for being sad or angry (which can be seen by her panicking whenever her emotions become more negative)
- Dismissing others’ negative emotions (Pepa essentially digs her head in the sand when it comes to others’ negative emotions)
- Reciting positive statements/mantras (such as “clear skies, clear skies, clear skies”)
- Ignoring your problems (which also might include people keeping problems from you)
Applying this to Pepa, it’s no wonder her emotions are in complete turmoil – to the point where her emotional state rules her. So why is she such an emotional mess? I’d argue that the sheer pressure from her mother, Alma, to strive for perfection is the key issue here.
The Identified Patient/Scapegoat
I’ll first cover the original ‘Identified Patient’, Bruno Madrigal. Bruno is quickly identified by all in the family as the ‘problem’, as most evident in the song We Don’t Talk About Bruno. But there are several references to him earlier in the film, with other characters shushing those for mentioning him.
Bruno has the ability to see prophecies and visions – which in themselves are a completely uncontrollable gift. The unpredictabile nature leads to those such as Alma (Abuela) being deeply concerned about the messages. Bruno internalises the concerns of others so much so that when he is reintroduced we see many superstitious behaviours that could be perceived as OCD symptoms. This really emphasises the impacts of how he was treated over the past 40 years. One line that really resonated with me was when he expressed to Mirabel that “my gift wan’t helping the family, but uh, I love my family” which is how he became the one that left.
What happens when the Identified Patient/Scapegoat leaves? Does it resolve the situation? I’d argue, no. And that is evident in how Mirabel is treated by several of her loved ones. What happens is that the attention simply shifts from one person to another – so another scapegoat is created.
Mirabel is a compassionate and loving part of the family – she celebrates all of her loved ones and their various gifts. Her song Waiting on a Miracle tugs at the heartstrings of anyone who has been the ‘scapegoat’ in their family, social circles or work environment.
Hey, I’m still part of the family Madrigal,
And I’m fine, I am totally fine,
I will stand on the side as you shine,
I’m not fine, I’m not fine
Mirabel is begging to be seen by her loved ones, and will do anything for her family (which echoes Bruno’s words). She is so desperate to fix the cracks in the house that she puts herself in danger by entering Bruno’s old room to collect the prophecy.
The final triplet is Mirabel’s mother, Julieta. She is almost the balance to the emotional whirlwind of Pepa. Whilst I identify with Pepa, I also heavily identify with Julieta, as the sort of ‘peacemaker’ in my family who often mediated situations between loved ones.
Nurturer’s/Caretakers carry a very heavy burden, with a responsibility to balance and calm situations, and may to an extent lead to the parentification of a child (where they act as a caretaker to their siblings).
Within Encanto, Julieta is seen as someone that the town and her family turn to to heal all ails. From the bee stings that her husband experiences, to the general illnesses and injuries that affect the townspeople.
But her position as a calm force within the family gives Julieta a good insight into the dynamics that are at play. For this reason, she tries to protect Mirabel from becoming the scapegoat, and eventually challenges her mother and her strive for perfectionism.
Antonio is still very young – around the ages of 4 and 6 – so his role in the family has yet to be solidified. That said, I can see many hints of him moving into the role of ‘nurturer’ as evidenced in several places:
- Alma is clearly anxious about making arrangements for Isabela’s engagement. Because of this, Anotonio instructs his animal friends to sit on Alma’s chair. When she looks at him, he replies “I told ’em to warm up your seat…” and she tells him that they’ll find a way to use his gift to help. He’s trying to find his way in the family based on the one characteristic (his gift).
- Anotonio is keen to help, and as soon as the rats told him that Bruno lived in the walls, he quickly goes to speak to Bruno and Mirabel. He offers his own room as a private and large space for Bruno to have a vision, and even lends Bruno his cuddly jaguar “for the nerves”
The eldest daughter of Pepa could be identified in two ways – the Gossip and the Lost One. An individual who is not really seen by others. Her unseen nature is emphasised by the fact that she witnesses and hears everything. But others’ don’t realise that she knows everything (for example, Dolores knew that Bruno never left because she could hear him in the walls).
The problem that Dolores experiences is that because she knows everything, she often blabbers to others. For example, she lets slip how many children Isabela’s fiance wants, and she can’t hold it in that she knows about Bruno’s prophecy.
Despite all of this, and being central to many conversations, Dolores’ own wants and desires are ignored or forgotten. It’s only at the end of the movie that Mirabel sets Dolores up with Mariano, and she is seen and heard by someone.
“My primo Camilo won’t stop until you smile today!”
I think everyone can identify with being or knowing a ‘class clown’ or mascot. The person who tries to get a laugh out of people, especially in tense and difficult situations. Whilst being able to see humour in tough times is a good thing, it also can be an unhealthy coping mechanism.
In the case of Camilo, he cares deeply for his family and the town of Encanto. He spends most of his time making others laugh or calming his mother. But this is a heavy burden to carry, as he is shown to be in a parentified role, caring for his own mother and her emotions.
Much like his sister Dolores, we know little about Camilo and his deeper desires. He could be a little ‘lost’ in the family, only seen for his gift and not for the person as a whole.
The Golden Child
The eldest daughter of Julieta is Mirabels sister, Isabela. Depicted as a beautiful, soothing and graceful individual, it’s very clear that Mirabel resents her. This is because of how polar opposite they are – where Mirabel does everything wrong in the eyes of Alma, Isabela is perfection.
Mirabel refers to her as the Golden Child, and it seems that Isabela has bought into the narrative that Mirabel is the scapegoat. Their relationship is rocky at best.
As soon as Mirabel refers to Isabela as “selfish”, the perfect image falls and we experience the pressure that Isa has been under:
“Selfish!? I’ve been stuck being perfect my whole entire line!”
“I never wanted to marry him. I was doing it for the family!”
The tiny prickly cactus that sprouted at this moment showed Isa throwing off the shackles of ‘perfection’ and embracing something imperfect and spikey. This is what brings the sisters closer together as the pretenses are dropped and they are finally able to be honest with each other.
The Strong-One (the Hero)
The Strong One can be looked at in two seperate ways – physical strength and emotional ‘resilience’. The person in the family who you lean on when you need some strength. Luisa is depicted as incredibly physically strong, and is asked to do all sorts of different tasks for the family and the town. Her strength is a great asset to all, but it is also a huge burden.
In her song Surface Pressure, Luisa describes all of the ways that she is expected to be strong and fine:
“I’m the stong one, I’m not nervous, I’m as tough as the crust of the earth is.”
Whilst also diving deeper, under the surface:
“Under the surface,
I’m pretty sure I’m worthless,
If I can’t be of service,
A flaw or a crack,
The straw in the stack,
That breaks the camel’s back,
What breaks the camel’s back?
Pressure like a drip, drip, drip, that’ll never stop, whoa…
Pressur that’ll tip, tip, tip til you just go pop, whoa!”
When you look at it, it’s so similar to Isabela’s experience. A need to be perfect in the eyes of the family and the town – a pressure that you can never truly live up to. When the magic begins to fail, Luisa goes to the extreme, panicking that it is her fault. This is an unhealthy strength, where showing any sign of vulnerability is weakness.
Most Disney movies have a villain that you can truly dislike. Someone that you can boo when they come on the screen. But the beauty of Encanto is that whilst you may resent Alma, you also get an insight into her complex nature. You begin to soften to her with Mirabel when you see what she went through – before and after the miracle gave the family their gifts.
Throughout most of the movie, Alma is seen from the perspective of her grandchild. A child who does not understand why her grandmother holds on so tight with a strive for perfection.
As Alma’s story unfolds, we get the insight into her love story with her husband. The birth of their triplets, and her husbands death at the hands of an invading force. This trauma, coupled with the loss of their home, explains Abuela’s need to tightly hold on to those around her.
Couple that with the loss of her son, Bruno, it’s understandable why she almost suffocates the family with her need for control and perfection. It takes challenge from Mirabel and the loss of the miracle for Alma to finally recognise that it is the relationships that are the real miracle, and not the magical gifts themselves.
Applying These Archetypes To Therapy
Note: I will never refer to real clients in my works. Any examples are either completely hypothethical or applied to my own journey.
How might all of this be applied in the therapy room? A lot will depend on the therapists modality, but it’s important that we look out for what our clients are describing. Are they describing how they have to be ‘perfect’ all the time, or that they can ‘never do anything right in the eyes of a particular loved one’? Looking out for the archetypes might help the therapist understand a little more about their clients’ world.
It’s also important to find a shared language between the therapist and client. For example, within my own therapy, I talk a lot about TTRPG and LARP, as well as cinema/TV, as I often identify with characters. My therapist is then able to explore what this all means for me in a language that I understand.
So in regards to Encanto, has a client talked about watching the movie? Has the therapist introduced it to the therapy room to provide some psychoeducation? There is no right and wrong way to involve pop-culture into the therapeutic relationship, so I’m not going to say how you should do things. I simply want to highlight how liberating it can feel from the client perspective to identify with someone and then have the language to express it.
There’s a lot of jokes that I’ve seen doing the rounds in the geek circles, how Encanto has ‘called out’ people with it’s incredible lines. It’s becoming increasingly common for things such as memes and TikTok to be introduced by clients into the therapy room – it is no different to using art or artistic language. But if a client does introduce something from geek culture that you don’t understand, that’s ok. Asking them what it means for them can make all the difference and create so much therapeutic work.