Unpacking Mirabel’s “Perfect Constellation”: Jungian Family Archetypes in Encanto

Photo courtesy of Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Encanto is a very well-made movie that, in my humble opinion, does a number of things exceptionally well.  One topic that I learned about as a clinician, and that I think the film really shines in exploring, is the Jungian theory of archetypes of trauma. A few people have asked me to unpack that, and it’s an interesting topic to write about, so here we are! (I should probably warn at the onset that this will involve many spoilers.)

What Are Jungian Archetypes of Trauma?

Carl Jung, nineteenth century psychology guy

Carl Jung, deceased white dude, had this theory of psychology that people express archetypes throughout their lives from the collective unconscious. His successor, fellow white dude Donald Kalsched, further developed that to talk about archetypes of children who survive trauma.  (Some clinicians also call this “roles of family dysfunction,” which is a related family systems theory, but I don’t think that’s very person-centered or trauma-informed, so I’m not going to use that framework in this piece.) 

The basic idea of their combined work is that people in families respond to trauma–in the Madrigals’ case, intergenerational trauma experienced directly by Alma and passed down through the family–by embodying specific predictable roles that serve to help the family function.  But these roles are hard on the members, and often aren’t adaptive in the greater world, because they are ultimately common trauma responses. In Encanto, we see all these roles, and classic family systems theory, pop up from the very first song–“The Family Madrigal” is basically a tour of both the family members and their role adaptations within a system that is, contrary to Mirabel’s description, not quite “a perfect constellation.”  Almost all of them get further exploration throughout the movie, and most of them get their own character song, and it’s all incredibly well-developed.

The Scapegoat

Black sheep photo courtesy of Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain via Wikimedia Commons

The first role is introduced to us when Mirabel names her Tío Bruno, and gets back an immediate “We don’t talk about Bruno!” from various people, marking him as the family scapegoat.  (He’s the only member of the older generation with a clear childhood trauma role, incidentally, which is its own interesting choice.)  The Scapegoat, sometimes also called The Black Sheep or The Problem Child, inherits the blame for larger problems, often by naming those problems created by trauma and acknowledging truths that the family does not want to acknowledge. Others generally understand them to be “acting out” or embarrassing the family. Soothsaying is a perfect ‘gift’ to depict this. 

Bruno’s role in the family gets fleshed out even more in “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which heaps more and more family malediction on poor Bruno’s shoulders just based on his habit of speaking simple truths about things he sees.  It’s clear by halfway through the song, long before we ever meet him, that Bruno’s family sees him through a very negative lens that probably isn’t accurate.

Mira picks up a significant amount of this mantle too throughout the film, but from that very first moment we see that she’s stepping into Bruno’s footsteps more and more to do so–the movie depicts this quite literally, when she visits his room.  (Side note, the character’s nickname is one of this movie’s many clever bits of wordplay, as it emphasizes that Mira is stepping into the scapegoat role temporarily because she sees things–Mira, in Spanish, means ‘look’. Mirabel sees things the rest of the family doesn’t, much like Bruno before her did.)

The Caregiver

When Mirabel introduces her sisters, “the beauty and the brawn [who] do no wrong,” we jump to the next fully-developed archetypes in the movie, and they’re both beautifully handled.  At first, all we know about Luisa is that she’s Mirabel’s older sister and “super strong,” which is punctuated with visuals of Luisa lifting an entire bridge, reorienting it, and placing it back down.  But her role is hinted even in that scene, when Abuela calls out, “Let’s get ready!” and Luisa immediately calls back, “Coming, Abuela!”  By the time we get to Luisa’s solo song, “Surface Pressure,” it’s very obvious: Luisa is the family caretaker.

The Caretaker, also sometimes called the Rescuer, is a role positively regarded by the rest of the family, because they are the ones who step in and make things work when trauma impacts the family.  They’re constantly doing tasks for the rest of the family, taking care of the younger kids, and generally holding things together.  This is extremely hard on them, especially if the family member in a caregiving role is young or is trying to hold together a truly untenable situation.  Luisa’s observations in “Surface Pressure” land extremely well, because the entire song is a highly accurate and poignant depiction of the caregiver role.  (I don’t mind admitting that I visibly winced when I heard her sing, “I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service” and “give it to your sister, your sister’s stronger.”) Luisa’s ‘gift,’ which she notes encompasses both super strength and super toughness, is a very spot-on depiction as well. And importantly, Luisa shows that she is struggling in this role, even though she’s not treated as a ‘problem’ in the same way Bruno is.

The Hero

Superhero image courtesy of Rosefranklin007, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Mirabel’s introduction to her other older sister, Isabela, lays down the latter’s role very clearly from the very first moment: “Graceful, perfect in every way/Grows a flower, the crowd goes wild/She’s the perfect golden child.” Isabela does everything right; the family and her entire town love her; Mirabel even calls her the Golden Child, which is another name for the family hero.

People who embody the Hero archetype generally do everything exactly how they believe they are supposed to; they maintain the illusion that nothing is wrong even if, in fact, everything is.  While this can seem like a positive thing on the surface–there’s nothing wrong with excelling in one’s goals–they can also be prone to perfectionism and rigidity, and feel enormous pressure to never make mistakes. Isabela admits a lot of the traditional stresses of this archetype as she learns more adaptive methods in “What Else Can I Do,” noting that she is suppressing a lot in order to appease her family and she doesn’t know how to do things without being perfectionistic about it.  Much like Luisa, she isn’t happy or adapted, despite the family favor she enjoys, and cracks can be seen through Mirabel’s tension with Isabela. It’s also not a coincidence that they reconcile because Isabela learns to embrace parts of herself that are outside of familial expectation. Isabela’s ‘gift,’ the ability to grow plants at will, is an excellent manifestation of this role, because it inherently touches on themes of suppression and outward perfection.

The Jester

Jester image courtesy of E. E. Piphanies, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The remaining Jungian archetypes don’t get as much air time, but they’re definitely still present, and they first pop up as Mirabel starts her “grandkids roundup.” As Mirabel hops down the family tree and gets to Camilo, she says very little about him, just that he “shapeshifts.” The visual cue, however, is unmistakable; he’s entertaining a baby by shapeshifting several faces in rapid succession, and he’s definitely the family jester

The Jester, also called The Mascot or The Clown, is a family member who responds to trauma by trying to break tension and soothe others through humor, jokes, or entertainment.  They’re often a younger family member, so it makes sense to put Camilo in this role–canonically, he’s only slightly older than Mirabel.  We see Camilo serve this role several times throughout the movie, entertaining townspeople and family members through mimicry and dramatics. Shapeshifting is a good ‘gift’ to symbolize this role, which focuses heavily on entertainment; I also thought it was a nice touch to give this role to Camilo because his mother, who struggles with controlling her emotions, would respond well to attempts to lighten her mood. 

I have a soft spot for this archetype, so I’m a bit disappointed that Camilo doesn’t get his own song or exploration, but it’s nonetheless pretty present in the background throughout the film.

The Lost Child

Mirabel’s introduction to Antonio is that “he gets his gift today“–in other words, much like Mirabel herself, Antonio doesn’t yet know his gift.  This seems like an intentional representation of the family lost child, which is reinforced repeatedly even after the turning point of getting his ‘gift,’ the ability to speak to animals.

The Lost Child, also sometimes called the Aimless Wanderer, is a family member who responds to all of the tensions by turning inward. They keep to the background and withdraw from other family members, and can be very shy in front of other people. Antonio shows this when he tries to hide in the nursery, not wanting to go out and face all of the people.  (Contrast this with, say, Camilo, who was probably muppeting for the crowd as soon as they began to gather.) He shows it again when he says he needs Mirabel to ascend the stairs with him during his gifting ceremony, too shy and afraid to go up alone. Even his ‘gift,’ which gives him the ability to speak with animals, is about turning his attention in a direction that none of his family members can follow; to him, a conversation is happening when he talks with a toucan or a lemur, but to other family members and the audience, only part of the conversation can be heard.  It’s a neat way to depict a rich inner life.

But What About Mirabel?

Much like Mirabel doesn’t have a ‘gift,’ she doesn’t have a clear familial role.  She’s shown trying so hard to fit in with the family, too actively engaged to be a Lost Child but not quite succeeding enough to be a Caregiver or a Hero like her sisters.  She adopts the mantle of a Scapegoat archetype when she starts following in Bruno’s footsteps, but she’s ultimately more successful at forcing the family to confront their collective trauma than Bruno had been.  I think this is probably intentional, and intending to show that in order to move past maladaptive practices developed due to trauma, the family needs to confront these practices as well as the trauma itself.  Thus, Mirabel is depicted trying to help first Antonio, then Luisa, then Bruno, then Isabela, before the household crumbles apart. This culminates in her ultimately trying to help Alma, who experienced multiple horrific and traumatic events directly, and rebuilding the entire household with new foundations.  After they rebuild, the roles are less rigid, there’s more communication, and everyone seems to be faring better as a result.

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