There is trauma that happens in response to unfortunate events in one’s own life, and then there’s trauma that one simply inherits from family—the latter is called intergenerational trauma. As a field of study, it is still very much in its early years, and yet, experientially, it is a phenomenon that is being felt, witnessed and addressed by people all over the world at this time. Emotional distance, addictions and defensive behaviours seen in members of a family across generations could indicate trauma that is trickling down.
In the last six months, two animated movies have made their way to Disney+Hotstar that take an unflinching look at trauma that is passed down generations and how it impacts children and young adults just as their sense of self is developing.
Disney’s Encanto tells the story of the Madrigals, an extraordinary family that lives amid the mountains of Colombia, whereas Pixar’s Turning Red revolves around the Lees, a Chinese-Canadian family living in Toronto in the early 2000’s. Both families come from ancestors who lived through a war and overcame great hardship to provide their descendants a better life. In the process, they passed on special abilities or ‘miracles’ down their respective lineages, which later end up causing…complications.
The Madrigal children get superpowers—one can alter the weather with her mood, one can lift really heavy weights, one can hear a pin drop a mile away, and so on. While these are obviously great and of use to the family and the community at large, the flipside is the overwhelming pressure each of them feels to perform a role to perfection or disappoint their kind, elderly abuela (grandmother) who gave them everything. This is true even of the one child in the family who does not get a gift like everyone else, Mirabel.
Similarly, anytime Turning Red’s Meilin Lee feels emotions that fall outside of what is deemed acceptable by her hovering, overprotective mother Ming—like attraction towards a boy or desire to go to a concert—she feels torn between the need to be herself and the compulsion to please her mother. She oscillates between resentment and guilt over and over until one day, the pent up emotions burst out of her, turning her into a giant red panda that wreaks havoc all around.
Mirabel is the black-sheep of the Madrigal family. She sees cracks on the walls of the house—a metaphor for the dysfunction that is silently but steadily corroding the health and self-esteem of the family members. She sees that her strong sister, who can lift churches, is a nervous wreck under the surface; and that her perfect, pretty sister who can make flowers grow, is filled with rage and resentment. Mirabel stands up to her abuela and tells her off for projecting her insecurities onto everyone in the family, and eventually finds that her purpose is to bring healing and restoration to the family.
Meilin learns that turning into a giant red panda anytime she feels intense emotion is something that happens to every woman in her maternal bloodline: an inconvenient result of a boon granted to her great ancestor in the middle of a war. And even though her predecessors all had their pandas ritualistically extracted and locked up, Meilin chooses to not repress the big, weird, wild part of her. She owns it, learns to control it. She has a world of fun with what has been repressed in her bloodline for generations, and in doing so, she becomes a pathbreaker.
Mirabel and Meilin are worlds apart as characters, and yet similar in their bravery, enthusiasm and determination to challenge generational dysfunction. They’re both unafraid to take the road less travelled and suffer the displeasure of their family as they individuate. In doing so, they set a great example for children everywhere who have likely never been told that it is okay if your loved ones don’t approve of every single choice you make.
This is an especially risky message to attempt, given how in the context of Latin and Asian cultures, implicit obedience is taught as a high virtue. But both the films pull it off brilliantly.
During the red moon ritual, performed to seal away the pandas, Meilin meets a sobbing younger version of her mother in the astral realm. She is taken aback to find that Ming too regrets hurting her own mother in her path to finding herself. This scene does well to show that at the root of intergenerational trauma is the wounded, terrified inner child within each individual, desperately attempting to find safety.
In the final scenes of the movies, as the families come together and peace is restored, one thing becomes clear: it isn’t only trauma that is passed down generations; resilience, love and the ability to heal ourselves is also passed on, whether through conditioning, or infused in our genetic material. These qualities are available for us to tap into in moments of hardship.
Meilin’s many aunties and grandmother show up in panda-form to help her solve an insurmountable problem in the climax. And when Abuela Madrigal finally sees Mirabel for who she is, she sees shades of her long departed husband in her granddaughter’s kindness and big heart.
We all carry within us both the light and the darkness of our bloodlines. What matters is that we accept our darkness just as lovingly as we shine our light.
Some might think this is too intense a subject for a children’s movie, but this is where studios like Pixar have been breaking the norm for years now. We only stand to gain by seeing children as intelligent beings already having complex human experiences. By treating such a daunting theme with great sensitivity and wonder, both Encanto and Turning Red give us a lot to mull over.
Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru