LP #46: Rise of the Mirabels
Author: Gary Winslett
(Note: Lots of Encanto spoilers ahead)
Encanto is visually dazzling and boasts a killer soundtrack, but more than that, it’s a deep, powerful, beautiful movie that skillfully weaves together meditations on role expectations, power transition, emotional intelligence, achievement, and ultimately self-acceptance. Though the movie is not explicitly about gender, its themes hold a lot of lessons for gender norms in American society. Those themes also demonstrate the value of commitments to empathy, growth, and self-authorship that, I believe, are at the emotional heart of a politics that combines the best impulses in libertarian and progressive perspectives.
Here’s a quick summary of Encanto for those of you who have not seen the movie and are fine with reading all the spoilers (and I do mean all the spoilers). In Colombia, a young couple (the Madrigals) and their infant triplets are forced to flee from political violence. As they are fleeing, the husband sacrifices himself to block the advance of murderous henchmen, thereby saving his family and the families they are with. In that moment, a miracle happens, protective mountains emerge, and a magical house appears.
The rest of the movie takes place many years later when the wife who was fleeing is now Abuela. The three triplets are now adults, two of them (Julieta and Pepa) with children of their own, the third is uncle Bruno. Each of these children has a gift, a magical power that the house reveals when they are a child. Julieta can heal people with her cooking. Pepa’s moods control the weather. Bruno has prophetic visions. Pepa’s three kids are Dolores, who can hear everything, Camilo, who can transform to look like other people, and Antonio, who can talk to animals. Julieta has three kids as well, super-strong Luisa, Isabela, who can make beautiful flowers grow, and Mirabel, the protagonist of the movie. Yes, that’s lot of family members- it’s the subject of the first song in the film.
Mirabel doesn’t have a gift. The door that was going to reveal her gift mysteriously, soul-crushingly turned into blank wall. It is her lack of gift that drives the story. The magic of the house seems to be dying. Cracks are emerging. No one knows quite what to do with Mirabel, and no one communicates well. Mirabel never feels good enough but has a practiced charisma that helps everyone, including herself, not stare too directly at what Mirabel’s lack of gift means. Over the course of the movie, Mirabel is trying to figure out why the magic seems to be dying, why she didn’t get a gift, can she get a gift or is it too late, and what her role in the family is. Everyone has a role but her. Everyone gets to feel valuable but her.
But then you come to realize that everyone else, rather than having their talents be genuine sources of joy, feels trapped in their prescribed roles. Abuela is so consumed with being the matriarch and defender of the Encanto that she, whether she understands it or not, creates a social milieu in the house that generates these overly restrictive roles. Luisa is so consumed with the responsibilities that come with her strength that she’s an anxiety-ridden psychological mess. Isabela feels so trapped by having to be “the perfect one” that she’s about to marry a man that she doesn’t even like because she thinks it’s what’s right for the family. Pepa has five octaves of feelings but can’t let any of them happen lest that cause a literal storm. After his visions seemed to be causing harm to the family, Bruno has disappeared rather than hurt those he loves, so he serves a secret self-imposed exile in the house’s walls. None of them, despite their gifts, ever seem to get to feel like they are good enough. There’s an almost Shakespearean quality to the tragedy unfolding. Crossed wires, repressed emotions, and bad timing are conspiring against the characters.
You discover all of this over the course of the movie as Mirabel, in sharp contrast to Abuela, has the emotional intelligence to ask people how they’re doing, like actually doing, as people. Meanwhile, the increasing fracturing of the house seems to all involved, and especially to Abuela, to be connected to Mirabel. Abuela and Mirabel’s increasingly fraught relationship comes to a dramatic breakdown; the house’s magical flame goes out. After they reconcile, the house is rebuilt, Abuela comes to understand that Mirabel is not just her equal but also her successor, and at the end they give her the final piece of the house, a doorknob, that once it’s put in place restores the house’s magic. If you haven’t seen the movie, it is hard to accurately describe how special the moment of the doorknob is. It’s a genuinely moving culmination of achievement and self-acceptance. Mirabel has saved the Encanto and her family, and found her role in the process. She understands that, in fact, she is good enough. For those of us who, privately, struggle to feel good enough but publicly paper over that with a practiced charisma, it’s powerful and touching.
Role Expectations and Power Transition
For many women and girls today, they feel like they have to be Luisa and Isabela at the same time, the strong one who carries whatever must be carried for however long it must be carried regardless of what’s going on under the surface for them, and simultaneously fit every social demand for beauty and perfection. That can’t help but create a range of anxieties and a feeling of being trapped for many women and girls. The pressure that generates is perhaps at its most acute among teenage girls, particularly when exacerbated by Instagram. They say comparison is the thief of joy; Instagram and other social media make comparison inescapable, with easily guessable implications for joy. It’s suffocating and relentless and it’s very easy for these girls to never feel that they’ll be good enough no matter what they do.
As for boys and men, they are too often in similar predicaments as Mirabel and Bruno. Like Mirabel, they don’t quite know what their role is. Richard Reeves new book Of Men and Boys does a fantastic job, especially in the chapters on the labor market and fatherhood, of describing how the traditional protector/provider roles that men have historically fulfilled are not as straightforwardly available today as they once were and yet new roles like nurturer/teacher are not as culturally extolled as those traditional roles. What exactly are men for then? That question, when asked by an individual man, turns into “what am I for?” It’s an existential, harrowing, deadly serious question, and when one doesn’t have an answer for it, it feels as though one is standing before an identity abyss, a maw of valuelessness and dispensability.
Not only that, but men all along the masculinity spectrum feel ceaselessly criticized. There are lots of men who can’t be, and don’t want to be, some hyper-macho power lifter who drives a big truck and watches mixed martial arts, not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s who someone wants to be, but many men don’t want to be that. At the other end of the spectrum, men who want to be traditionally masculine feel like everything about them now gets called “toxic.” While there are certainly some men and some behaviors that really are toxic (think Andrew Tate or Matt Walsh), labeling seemingly everything and everyone who is traditionally masculine as toxic is a way of saying to those men “you aren’t good enough now, you might have been good enough in the past, but you aren’t now, you need to be different if you want to be accepted and loved, and you’d better not complain about that either or you’ll get a good solid lecture.” That’s not a particularly kind or particularly helpful posture.
Antonio Gramsci had this famous line: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” As with Bruno, there’s a heroic man of the past as a role model but that option isn’t really available. As with Bruno, the talents many men do have don’t seem to have a super clear utility. Like Bruno, they feel like they don’t live up to other people’s expectations, up to their own expectations, and so they don’t feel like they have value. The only option is exile, self-imposed or otherwise. As with Bruno, that fate is so brutally sad that it feels easier not to talk about it.
All that said, there is at least one positive development going on in the world of men and that is the way being an attentive, emotionally available father is starting to be treated culturally. I think we need to go further down this path, but it is at least a start. You can see this in the way that dads with demanding careers have, on average, leaned more into their father roles during and after the pandemic. You can see it in Timothy Lee’s lovely essay on how he leaned into being mostly a stay-at-home dad.
That transition from emotionally distant to emotionally available in some ways mirrors the power transition from Abuela to Mirabel. The second time you watch Encanto, you realize that Mirabel is not the only one with no gift. Abuela also has no gift. They’re linked. Abuela is the Madrigal matriarch of the past; Mirabel is the Madrigal matriarch of the future. The unsettledness of the house’s foundation mirrors the unsettledness in that interregnum.
Mirabel’s great skill advantage over Abuela is how much more emotionally intelligent she is. She’s curious. She asks questions, she genuinely wants to know how people are doing, and she is authentically there for them as people. When Antonio needs someone to hold his hand as he ascends the stairs to learn his gift, everyone else is just sort of looking around, but -despite the painful memories it conjures- Mirabel is there for him. In different ways, she also there for Luisa, Bruno, and Isabela, and she’s good at it. It is not just that she cares, it is that she is skilled in understanding herself and understanding others.
The ability to deal with people is a core soft skill in the labor market and it’s a core skill in the domestic arena too. If you want to flourish as a person in the 21st century, you need to be emotionally intelligent. This idea of emotional intelligence is one that, quite unfortunately, has gotten shunted to the side in favor of “vulnerability.” The problem is that no man wants to be vulnerable. Vulnerability implies weakness. Most men would rather suffer greatly than admit to being vulnerable. But it doesn’t have to be framed that way. Emotional intelligence carries totally different connotations. It implies savviness and wisdom. We need men to be emotionally intelligent, for their own emotional health and for the overall health of society.
A good example of an emotionally intelligent man in pop culture today is Ted Lasso. The show is about an American football coach who becomes the coach of an English soccer team. Though he knows almost nothing about soccer, he succeeds by being persistently decent, by caring about others, and by understanding what they need from him. One scene that demonstrates Ted’s emotional savviness especially well is the Dart scene in which Ted outfoxes an arrogant jerk and while doing so quotes Walt Whitman’s “be curious, not judgmental.” If the arrogant jerk had been curious and not judgmental and asked some questions rather than think he knew everything, he wouldn’t have found himself losing a bet to Ted. Ted wins the dart game and the scene by being emotionally intelligent.
Like those dads who are enthusiastically leaning into being dads, Ted Lasso is a certain kind of Mirabel. When I say that we need and hopefully are witnessing a ‘rise of the Mirabels’ what I mean is that we need and hopefully are witnessing a rise in emotionally intelligent, self-accepting, nice people who both find their own roles but also help others be who they want to be, who help others accept themselves but also help them try to be the best versions of themselves.
Ted Lasso’s spirit of curious but not judgmental ought to guide how we think about how people today are trying to navigate various gender-based norms and expectations. A few semesters ago, I was talking to a student who identifies as nonbinary and uses they pronouns. I was curious about them and so asked them about their experiences and it quickly became clear to me that a big part of them identifying as nonbinary is that they were horrified at the idea of being objectified, sexualized, and in all kinds of other ways put into this box labeled ‘woman’ that they didn’t want to be put into and so decided to opt out of ‘she’ altogether. The same thing can easily happen in the other direction. Some people who are biologically male are so opposite of the stereotype of masculinity that it’s completely understandable that they would decide to, pronoun-wise, go by ‘they’ instead of ‘he.’ If ‘he’ is understood to mean X, Y, and Z things and they feel that they’re going to be considered ‘less than’ for not remotely doing X, Y, and Z, why not just opt out of ‘he’ altogether. I’m comfortably male but I can sympathize with that. No one wants to be culturally forced to play a game they have no chance of succeeding at. As far as I can tell, what nonbinary people are asking others to do is not put them in a box, to not barricade them into a space confined by all manner of gender stereotypes. When a person says they are nonbinary, what they are really saying is “it is very important to me that you not associate me with the stereotypes that are often associated with a particular gender, especially the gender that I may present as or that is on my birth certificate. Please don’t put me in that cage.” They are not asking you to swear fealty to some strange new shibboleth; they are merely asking you to let them be free individuals. That’s it. It’s a rather small request when you think about it. There’s something very libertarian about that request but also something very progressive about it too.
A big part of trying to be emotionally intelligent is to go empathy hunting. A lot of people think that empathy is an emotion, i.e. you feel sympathetic toward someone else, but I think that’s wrong actually. Empathy is not an emotion; it’s a practice. It is about looking for ways to see other people’s story in your story and, vice versa, to really try to put yourself in someone else’s psychological shoes. That may sound trippy but it’s what is going on when you read a novel; you’re putting yourself into a character’s perspective. So if I meet someone who wants to live out pretty traditional gender roles, I can empathize with that because I too want to provide for my family, I loved playing football growing up, and I was in a fraternity and then the Army. There’s a lot of ways in which I’m a pretty standard guy. But if I meet someone who very much does not want to live in line with traditional gender norms, I can still go empathy hunting. They want to write their own story and live according to their wishes. I can absolutely empathize with someone saying to society “I’m not harming anyone; let me be who I want to be and don’t give me grief about it.” That’s extremely normal and extremely reasonable.
Self-Acceptance, a.k.a. Feeling Like Your Good Enough
Kesha’s song “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman soundtrack is an excellent encapsulation of the spirit of self-acceptance. One of the great lines in it is “I am marching on to the beat that I drum.” The ‘I’ there is extremely important. It’s not the rhythm someone else is dictating. It’s the rhythm that person is dictating for themselves. It’s self-authorship. If good, kind, decent, non-Mises Caucus libertarianism has any sort of emotional core, it’s a commitment to letting people being the authors of their own lives. People get to march to their own drums, and that self-authorship is especially important for people who don’t fit into predetermined boxes, gender-based or otherwise. And we all intuitively understand this. As Atul Gawande insightfully notes in his book Being Mortal, safety is what we want for those we love but autonomy is what we want for ourselves. One of the kindest things we can do for each other is to grant each other that autonomy. We have to let people write their own stories.
Another great line in the song is “I make no apologies, this is me.” The refusal to apologize is a glorious thing. It speaks to pride, courage, and a refusal to be humiliated. If there is any feeling in the human spirit that is universal, surely it is the indomitable will to stand no matter the risks, to keep going no matter the tribulations ahead. In this context, ‘I make no apologies’ is a gut-level assertion of one’s humanity. It is saying ‘you will not shame me, you will not force me to say that I have committed some kind of crime against nature because in fact I have committed no crime, I will not plead to a crime that I have not committed and that, at a more profound level, does not even exist anyway. I am not “less than” simply because I choose not to fit into some preordained box.’ That is a truly great emotional posture to teach, especially as it counteracts the conditional acceptance that gets so often taught by implication.
The message that girls and women often get amounts to “you are only lovable if.” You are only loveable if you fit into all these beauty standards and if you do well in school/work and if you do what you’re told and if this and if that. Fall short on any of them and society tells you that you aren’t good enough. It’s terrifying. While that may not be objectively true all the time, it is certainly how it can feel to many. Meanwhile, boys and men also get “you are only lovable if” messaging. You are only loveable if you’re in good shape, if you’re skilled at flirting and dancing, if you have a high income, if you are funny, if you are innately good with children, if you know how to make small talk, if you’re assertive but not too aggressive, if you’re sensitive but not a “mama’s boy”, if this and if that. Fail at any of them and from society you get a lecture and, what’s worse, rejection. Don’t fit in those boxes, well then you should just exile yourself inside some set of walls somewhere. You aren’t good enough. We the rest of society would rather just not talk about you and your struggles. Again, while that may not be objectively true all the time, that is how it can feel to a lot of men and boys.
That “you are only loveable if” messaging needs to be shattered. If you are reading this, I want you to understand that you are inherently loveable, regardless of which kinds of gender roles you do or do not want to live out. You’re good enough. The old structure was that you had to fit into this box or that box if you wanted to be loveable. The old structure is out. It does not befit our times. It was not kind, it did not promote progress toward a more inclusive society, and it did not value self-authorship.
It's time for a new structure and that new structure is simply this: you are inherently loveable, no ‘ifs’, and you are good enough. All of you.