When Disney’s latest film, Encanto, was released in late 2021, it quickly became a massive hit. With a worldwide box office revenue of almost a quarter billion, it’s easily the most successful animated movie of the past few years. And while Encanto won a golden globe and received three Oscar nominations, it also resonated with audiences in a way that very few films have in recent times. A large part of this popularity likely originates from the simple, heart-warming narrative and touching message. In the film, a large family receives a supernatural gift, giving each member a power – except for the teenage Mirabel. However, it falls to her to unite them and save their magical gift.
But as is frequently true of Disney’s films, much of Encanto’s popularity also comes from the captivating personalities of its characters. One of the more popular characters, if not the most, is super-naturally strong Luisa. Second eldest sister to Mirabel, Luisa captivated audiences with her honesty, deep voice, and stocky frame. From merchandise sales to the commercial success of her musical number, it’s clear that Luisa is one of the most well-liked characters Disney has recently created.
By itself, the broad popularity of Luisa demonstrates a positive trend towards more diverse representations of women in films. But rumors have also surfaced that Disney fought with the creative team behind Encanto, attempting to make Luisa’s character less muscular, less nuanced, and more traditionally feminine. If these rumors are true, they reveal a dark truth about a disconnect between what audiences want, and what executives at Disney feel comfortable portraying.
For the past decade, the diversity of the women Disney portrays has greatly expanded. Raya from The Last Dragon, Moana, and even Mirabel from Encanto are just a few examples of recent Disney Studio films where the female protagonist’s culture and personality break far beyond the mold of more traditional Disney princess stories. Yet, Luisa goes where Disney has only very carefully ventured – into a more subversive representation of femininity. Her deep voice and visibly bulging muscles can’t compare to any other character in Encanto. And any similarity between the powers and appearance of Lusia and other Disney characters can only really be drawn to men such as Maui from Moana, Ralph from Wreck-it-Ralph, or Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove. Thus, this over-the-top depiction of Luisa’s strength reflects the growing willingness of studios to apply to women the design techniques which have been used on male characters for decades.
This willingness to portray more inclusive and diverse body types denotes a strong step towards the creation of more body-positive films and narratives. As previously mentioned, many rumors and reports circulating the internet have cast doubt on the willingness of Disney to sign off on this Luisa. Several unverified tweets posted earlier this year all make similar claims. Allegedly, Disney disliked Luisa’s muscular frame and thought that other characters would be received better by audiences. That supposedly resulted in a surplus of merchandise for some characters, and a failure to produce enough for Luisa. On top of that, in a Tweet that has since been made private, Disney illustrator Dylan Ekren gestured towards the possibility that the animation team had to actively fight for the image of Luisa that made it to screen. Because of the general culture of secrecy promoted at Disney, none of these claims have been verified or repeated by any sources close to the company. Yet it certainly isn’t a stretch to believe that there is some truth behind them, especially since Luisa’s merchandise has been in high demand and seemingly sold out of most retailers.
Regardless of if one takes these rumors as true, this broadening of how women are represented is undeniably positive. Many of these tweets compared Luisa to the final and oldest sister in Mirabel’s immediate family – Isabel. Isabel’s thin frame and supernatural gift of summoning flowers at will place her in stark contrast to Luisa. While her merchandise hasn’t sold well, Disney reportedly expected her to outperform Luisa in popularity. While demonstrating the declining marketability of the almost formulaic feminine archetype, this also shows that for media targeted at younger girls, diverse representation can be very popular. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also very necessary. The value of role models and on-screen representation that doesn’t play into tired stereotypes can hardly be overstated.
Besides providing a wider variety of character types, expanding the image of women in animation allows creative teams to craft more nuanced narrative messages. Both Luisa and Isabel struggle under the different responsibilities they have to their families; Luisa feels constant pressure to be strong for those around her. But what makes her story so redeeming isn’t her bulky frame – it’s that despite her internal challenges she’s willing to be vulnerable and open with her sister. Thus, Luisa’s character design allowed animators to highlight the difficulty of being emotionally honest, while being viewed as someone strong and capable. This makes her storyline representative of a challenge many women face. It highlights the tension between the expectation of being strong for members of your family above all else, while still needing to be emotional and vulnerable.
Ultimately, Luisa’s character demonstrates the receptiveness of audiences to more diverse portrayals of femininity. If Disney weren’t already willing to promote these types of characters, artists will likely be given increased liberty with design going forward. After all, Encanto proved that a monetarily successful film can still incorporate these non-traditional character images. Hopefully, this will catalyze a trend towards better representations within cinema.