Monday, January 3, 2022

How Encanto Destroys the Mean Girl Trope

I'd do a basic review of Disney's Encanto but that's boring. Gist of it the film is beautiful, the music is phenomenal and I've already started doing fan art. 

Okay so let's talk about mean girls. 

Beware: They be spoilers ahead. 

Mean Girl Poison Ivy

So in Encanto we're introduced to Isabela Madrigal early on, sister of the protagonist Mirabel. From the start we see that the two have a not-so-friendly sister relationship. Isabel is beautiful, graceful and has the power to grow plants, which she uses to make flowers appear everywhere she goes, including Mirabel's face. She flips her hair and shoots snide comments to her sister, and her main goal seems to be to marry the town hunk. 

Very quickly I picked up that this character was yet another Mean Girl, the same as Regina George from the titular Mean Girls or Cordelia Chase from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These are shallow antagonists, sometimes either in the sidelines or cast as main villains who are pretty and who only care about either popularity, getting or keeping a man, or getting vengeance on the main character for some slight. They're portrayed as stupid, vain and overall obnoxious. In most stories their big comeuppance comes with them either losing said boyfriend or having something gross spilled on them, ruining their pretty dress. 

Seeing this trope so many times I dismissed Isabela as just another character, white noise to add to the family dynamic and thought little of her. Until the song...

What Else Can I Do? 

In the course of the film, Mirabel discovers through prophecy that in order for her to save her family she has to hug her sister Isabela, a prospect she does not look forward to considering their current relationship. During an earlier scene Mirabel was partially responsible for ruining a family dinner party with Isabela's hunky boyfriend, which was supposed to end in a proposal, so Isabela is especially unhappy with Mirabel at the moment. Mirabel, determined to save the family, marches into Isabela's room and tries to get that hug. 

The room is covered in flower blossoms and Isabela's bed is suspended from the ceiling by vines she controls. It's the girliest thing since the original My Little Pony series only somehow less subtle. She tries to throw Mirabel out via vines when Mirabel starts challenging her about being perfect, temporarily giving up on the hug-my-sister-to-save-the-family plan. It's when Isabela starts to truly get mad, not flippantly annoyed but actually mad, that she accidentally makes a cactus. 

The two sisters look surprised at the spiny addition to the room, and then Isabela breaks out into song. Apparently with all her power all she'd ever done was make flowers and vines grow, she had no idea she could effect other plants or make something that's not a traditionally pretty flower. This is where the mean girl trope spins on its head when we get insight into Isabela's so-called perfection: She feels like she has to be because that's what's best for the family. 

Expectation vs Possibility

Certainly this isn't the first time we've peeked between the mean girl's façade. Cordelia started off as the basic valley girl in Buffy and became a main character both there and in the spinoff Angel, both where we learn that she was only a brat because she wasn't taught how to be anything else. Isabela gives us a far deeper reason for the mean girl: Insecurity. Like the rest of the Madrigal family, Isabela is trying to live up to her Abuela's expectations, and since her power is to make things pretty that's what she thought she had to be. When she made the cactus, she realized that beauty can be her own terms and starts further experimenting with her powers creating even more beautiful plants and flowers. At one point in the song Mirabel explains how she thought she was always perfect and secretly resented her for it, but Isabela is able to confide in Mirabel that she wasn't really happy, but now that she doesn't have to wear a mask for her true feelings, she finally can be, thanks to Mirabel. 

Ruined Dress

I mentioned before that one of the common ends for a mean girl is to have something gross dumped on them, spoiling their perfect look and making for a comedic ending. Once again Encanto flips this trope over by having Isabela conjure plants with colorful pollen, which she then VOLINTARILY gets on her clothes and hair, ruining her pretty pink dress. In the end of the song her and Mirabel are covered in color from the plants, a complete mess, and smiling happily. The sisters finally embrace in the mess they've made, allowing each other to be their imperfect selves and loving each other for it instead of in spite of it. Isabela ruining her dress on purpose shows her breakneck growth as a character. She's not trying to be perfect and is now embracing all imperfections, which allows her to have a relationship with her sister, who she considered the black sheep of the family. 

Isabela Madrigal isn't all mean girls. Her story can't apply to Regina George or Cordelia Chase, but it does give us a more human understanding as to why the mean girl is mean and what she's hiding underneath that carefully manicured perfection. 


"What else can I do?"

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