We Need to Talk About Luisa

I ran into the middle school gym, neck and neck with another harried-looking mom. 

“Careful,” I said, pointing to her purse, “your phone is coming out of that pocket.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She stuffed it down and zipped the compartment shut. “First time middle school mom?” she asked. She looked frazzled, like dozens of other moms seeking out spots on the bleachers for Step-Up Night. Each one of them represented a fifth grader about to become a middle schooler — no more recess, seven teachers in seven classrooms, lockers, and gym uniforms all ganging up on their babies at once. The cavernous basketball court buzzed with nervous tension as much as the drone of industrial lighting.

I felt a little guilty.

“No, I have an older son, so I’ve done this rodeo. I wanted to come to Step-Up night so Dee wouldn’t feel like her going to middle school was less important to me. Plus I figured they might have changed some policies because of the pandemic.”

“Oh, right.” 

There weren’t seats left in the bleachers, so we milled just inside the doorway with a clump of other latecomers. All of us looked at each other sidelong, shrugging in “what can you do?” embarrassment. Everyone traded stories of what had made them late, half in solidarity, half in apology.

“– just got off work at 5:30. Why do they schedule these after school things for 6:00 every time?”

“So, of course, I had to get the kids fed, and the dogs, and the next thing you know, I’m running out the door to get here and I still haven’t eaten.”

“– my husband’s car was in the shop, so he had mine all day, and he decided to work late because he forgot I had to be here, so when he finally called to say he was coming home, I was like ‘why don’t you go, you’re driving right past the school?’ and of course he’s like, ‘I just got off of work. I want to relax. You worked from home today, so you can go.’ Well, I would go if I could get there!”

My story wasn’t so different from theirs. My last class ended at 4:20, then I had an hour drive home, had to pick Deirdre up from her after school program, then get home to feed both kids before leaving just in time to be late, as always. Husbeast wasn’t on deck for this event because he was already on deck somewhere else: the local softball fields, where one of his two league teams was playing a double-header. 

I confess I didn’t pay much attention to the opening presentation (sorry, Principal Hundal). In fairness, I’d seen it before. Instead, I was busy trying to tally the room.

About 150 parents, give or take. Two thirds of the group were women. A few (almost certainly first time middle school parents) had come with their partner or co-parent, but mostly, it was a giant room of nervous moms who seemed to be going it alone. 

If you live with one half of your brain in stories and the other in social commentary all day, this turns into an article. 

Specifically, this turned into an article two weeks later, when Dee finally made Husbeast and me sit down to watch Encanto.

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” may have ousted “Let It Go” from the top of the Disney musical pop charts, but months after Encanto’s release, it’s Luisa people are still talking about. Frankly, the fact that we were all distracted by Bruno when the far more relatable story was right there the whole time is, well. . . nothing if not proof of the thesis driving Luisa’s character.

 

Disney: Middle sister Luisa, being a badass.

Luisa is magically gifted with strength that makes carrying five donkeys or righting the foundation of a slouching house with a passing kick easy, and so her family and community rely on her to carry (often literally) the burden of their work and responsibility. Her signature song, “Surface Pressure,” is part raison d’etre, part cry for help — a rare confession of the pressure of expectations, her fear of failure, and her struggle to find self-worth outside of constantly fulfilling obligations.

While the whole Madrigal family is charming, Luisa has proven to be the breakout character of Encanto for many viewers. Every viewer has their reasons for loving her– a body-positive character design; Strong Female Character Vibes (™); a powerful character song written for an alto. But for a lot of viewers (many of them women), Luisa embodies the struggle I saw played out in that middle school gym: a life defined by constant demands and expectations. They can all too easily relate to family defaults like the ones Luisa experiences. “[G]ive it to your sister, your sister’s stronger / see if she can hang on a little longer,” Luisa sings, and we immediately hear the familiar unfairness of the request. We recognize why her response is “who am I if I can’t carry it all?” because many of us have responded the same way in the face of relentless pressure.

Luisa’s anthem has driven dozens of other writers to take to their keyboards and claim her struggle as their own. There are essays about Luisa as a challenge to stop defining oneself by one’s accomplishments. She’s been connected to worker burnout, especially for the essential workers who have shouldered the majority of the personal and financial risks of the Covid-19 pandemic. She’s even been part of a larger feminist argument that women bear their families’ burdens largely unaided. 

I am not a crier, when it comes to stories. (Though there are exceptions, and I’ve written about that here before.) But I’d be lying if I said my eyes weren’t stinging after Luisa stopped singing. I kept thinking of the harried, unfed mothers racing to get their kids situated at home, just to go back out again and spend their evening in a gym taking careful notes about the hours those same children would spend in school. I thought about my 5:00 AM alarm and waking my son, then my daughter, and then my husband — giving them breakfast or packing them lunches and sometimes both before finally leaving for my own commute. I thought about hosting every family holiday gathering, and the days of shopping, cooking, and cleaning all absorbed in the whirlwind of a few hours. I thought about driving hours to and from my brother’s group living home so he’d have someone to help read his mail and run his errands. I thought about staying up late to do grading, only to discover a 9:00 PM email alert from my principal announcing a faculty meeting the next morning.

I cried. And once that was done, I was furious.

I grew angry at the film for distracting us with the misunderstood, oddball man (Bruno) when the misunderstood, wounded woman holding the world together through brute force was right there, all along. How many women working on Encanto loved Luisa, saw themselves in her, and then felt themselves disappear to serve a predictable family non-mystery — to make the space to showcase a more mysterious character with flashy drama-generating powers? And how much of my anger about that was really anger at my own life?

I won’t lie. I felt some of the anger because I kept seeing myself as Luisa — as the family pack mule. Every mule has someone driving them. Was I angry at my husband? My brother? My whole extended family? Everyone I worked with? Was there really space in me for that much anger? 

Apparently so. 

It was the morning after we watched Encanto. Husbeast was checking his work email. I was folding laundry. I still felt raw, like I’d been jerked off my feet and dragged a long distance. I wanted to talk about my anger. I needed a way to start. 

“Do you suppose Encanto is going to be Deirdre’s new binge?” I asked, trying to sound light.

“It wouldn’t be the worst thing. It was a smarter show than I expected.”

I put down one of his shirts, unfolded. I chose a towel, instead. “How so?”

“It’s funny,” he said. “‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ is the song everybody talks about, but the one with the sister is way better.”

“. . . which sister?”

“The strong one? I can’t remember her name.”

“‘Surface Pressure,’” I said, obviously too eagerly. “That’s Luisa. That one really got me.”

For a minute, we just looked at each other, not saying anything. 

“Me too,” he said, finally.

I blinked, confused. 

“For myself,” he explained. “And for you. We’re always the ones who take care of stuff, you know? The ones who get things done. You, especially, but me at work, and with my mom,” he rolled his hand in the air, like a katamari collecting the debris of responsibility. “It just. . . keeps going, all the time. It almost hurt, how familiar that song was.”

The anger wasn’t gone, but it started to take a different shape.

The irony of how we talk about Luisa is that in casting ourselves as her, we forget that almost everyone is Luisa, at least once in their lives. In focusing on how much we carry, on our own limits and need for self-care and how often we fail to exercise either of those things, we lose sight of other people. 

It’s that failure to see and understand that put Luisa in this position in the first place.

Everyone who asked Luisa to hold up a wall, or a world, believed they couldn’t do it themselves because they were already carrying what they could through their own crowded lives. They saw Luisa’s competence and generosity and mistook it for ease, and so asking her to do more seemed reasonable. It might even have seemed fair. 

When we take on those jobs and only see ourselves as the ones doing it, we carry more than just the weight of the work of the moment: we carry the resentment of it, and the fear of speaking up about it, and the increasing belief that the people loading up the mules aren’t carrying anything themselves. We fall into a solipsistic trap. We start believing we’re the only Luisa in town. I was angry because I rushed through my life to get to Step-Up Night while my husband was playing softball — but he had come home and put Deirdre to bed and checked Corwin’s math homework, because I was already asleep on the couch and, frankly, the math was beyond me and took them an hour to review together. It had been past 10:00 when they started, but he had still done it.

What other things had he done that day that I knew nothing about? Had I even thought to ask?

“We need the kids to fold some laundry this weekend,” I said, dropping the towel, unfolded, on top of the shirt I just gave up on. 

My husband nodded. “I’ve been teaching them how. Anything else?”

“Think we could get dinner out?”

“Just us?”

“No, all of us. I just. .  . want to read a book tonight instead of cooking.”

He smiled. “Sure. No pressure.”

Disney: A girl can dream, no?