Disney's "Encanto" Highlights the Gender Imbalances That Still Exist

Like everyone else, I can't stop talking about Bruno. My kids request Disney's "Encanto" soundtrack every day, and most of the time I play it for them, whether it's on our ride to or from school or just dancing around the house. We've watched the film more than once but the exact number is a secret between me, my God, and the Disney+ algorithm. It's fun to have this great big Disney film, this object of my kids' obsession, be one that reflects so much of our culture. Yes, we're Mexican American and not Colombian, but the language, the family dynamics, the bushy eyebrows, it all feels like home. And I'm glad my kids will have that from the get-go, particularly with "Encanto," which neither demonizes nor lionizes big, beautiful, messy Latinx families.

Much has already been written about how Abuela Alma passes down family trauma in the film. "Encanto" thoughtfully portrays this dynamic, refusing to paint the problematic matriarch as all good or all bad. And Tío Bruno has his fans, whether they're demanding an apology for the outcast or celebrating what his character means for Latinx spirituality. But one thing I don't think has gotten enough play is how the film portrays traditional Latinx gender dynamics and gender-role expectations. You know, the ones where Latinas work tirelessly and selflessly for their families, while their work is largely ignored. The ones where we fix the plates for our male counterparts who drink beer during the cooking and the cleaning.

Now, I actually think this stereotype isn't completely true. It's not how my parents did it, and it's not how I run my household. But I have observed it, and it still looms large over how women are supposed to behave, even if we know better, even when we actively reject this expectation. The women in "Encanto" are certainly suffering from this dynamic. Just take the other top 10 song from the soundtrack, middle sister Luisa's "Surface Pressure." In it, she dreams of what it'd be like if she wasn't constantly working, "If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations / Would that free some room up for joy / Or relaxation, or simple pleasure? / Instead, we measure this growing pressure." And she's not the only one. Abuela is literally keeping the entire community safe, making the mountains around the community impenetrable with her magic. And she's doing it alone, with no one to confide in. Julieta cures the entire town's ailments and injuries, with men literally lining up for her magic arepas. And her work is never done. At home, she's cooking to heal her daughter and husband who can't seem to keep themselves safe.

It's a lot. Now, I'm not going to say the Madrigal men do nothing, but their work is generally countered directly by the women's. When everyone's getting ready for the family dinner, we see the women set the plates and then the men place the glasses. Likewise, in the montages, the opening one explaining who everyone is and the closing one where they rebuild the casita, we see the men working. But never more than the women, always in equal measure. Nothing Camilo, Félix, etc. do compares to Luisa's work or Abuela's or Mirabel's. These women are a class apart. Bruno is the closest, filling in the cracks in the casita without anyone knowing. But it's hard to feel like the outcast living in the walls is a model of masculine behavior. He's more like the exception. Perhaps his willingness to do thankless work, despite his masculine privilege, is part of what makes him so different.

Now, the film never calls out the gendered nature of this problem directly. It just is, although I can't help but think it was intentional. It would have been so much easier (although less fun) for the Luisa character to be a young man. Easier and more typical. But perhaps less true. The thing is, the oversize expectations that Luisa and the other Madrigals face are damaging, regardless of gender. That's the reason the magic's dying and why everyone is so unhappy. It may have some of its roots in patriarchy, but the problems are also in immigrant/survivor exceptionalism, in Latinx culture, and in familism. "Encanto" doesn't parse all that. Instead, it takes an intersectional approach, portraying what it's like to stand in the middle of all those factors and feel your house fall apart around you as Mirabel does.

The thing is, we never know what percentage of something is sexism or racism. We just know it's a factor, and that's what I appreciate about "Encanto." It opens up the conversation about how expectations, within and outside of families, can be harmful, and then lets us talk about how those expectations vary depending on role, identity, and personality. So yeah, there's a gender imbalance in "Encanto," but it's a good thing in the sense that it makes room for us to start having more conversations around this.