Analysis: How Pixar's Coco (2017) normalizes family abuse
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead!
If you haven't watched Coco I suggest going through the plot summary before reading this post.
First off the bat let me say that Pixar's Coco (2017) is a brilliantly animated feature. Sure, the logical fallacies (the mechanics of the Land of the Dead, for example), the slapstick humour and the tedious melodrama are often too much to handle, but Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina's direction coupled with some incredible acting manages to tell an emotionally engaging story while staying culturally conscious (as has been pointed out by various Mexican and Non-Mexican critics).
The best thing about Coco is that a lot of the characters and situations seem superbly relatable and based on real world circumstances. Unfortunately, just like the real world, the sweet story hides beneath it a complex history of family abuse. After all, Miguel spends a good 57 minutes (70% of the film excluding credits) running from his family. Let's try to see what's going on.
Life at the Rivera household
No music means no dance, no films, no TV shows, no parties, no events, no get-togethers, no festivals, no cultural programmes. I wonder what that family lives on. You would imagine other forms of art to become increasingly significant to the family in order to try to close the gap that lack of music creates, but that doesn't seem to be the case. They don't even have pets. They discourage going to the plaza because it's "crawling with Mariachis". When Miguel talks about Ernesto De La Cruz his father replies "We've never known anything about this man. But whoever he was...". Let me get this straight- he doesn't know of one of Mexico's most successful singer/movie stars who has a statue and a shrine right in his own neighbourhood? That's some serious level ignorance. Imagine an Indian family who doesn't know of Amitabh Bachchan . They'd be known as the 'cuckoo family' who never goes anywhere because they are scared of music. The Rivera family would be the butt of all jokes and probably be bullied a lot. Is that why Miguel has no friends?
The fact that they don't know anything about "this man" opens up a more sinister avenue which is to say "We don't know what happened, and we don't care. We follow the family doctrine blindly and that's it." This is echoed in the father's words when he says "If Abuelita says no more plaza, then no more plaza." Wow! Shivagami, is that you?
The best part? Nobody, not one person in the family seems even the least bit curious about this De La Cruz guy is who is supposedly their great grandfather. The lack of curiosity can also be seen when Héctor reunites with his family and none of them tries to get to know him. Well, you don't get to follow a no music doctrine by having something called curiosity. Weirdly enough, Héctor, who has made it his life's mission to reunite with his family, doesn't seem too interested in getting to know his grandkids either. Crazy family.
Just an afterthought, what happens to the spouses' music tastes? Do they forego music after marriage or does the family find people who don't like music anyway? Now that would be the more interesting story. I would love to see a film about a music hating family trying to find a spouse who also hates any kind of music.
The opening line of the film is "Sometimes, I think I am cursed", said by a 12 year old boy. Even before we know of Miguel's dreams of being a musician, as we hear Miguel say "She could have made candies, or fireworks or sparkly underwear for wrestlers, but no, she chose shoes," we learn that he is not especially interested in shoemaking. We see this later too when Miguel shrinks at the idea of shoemaking as suggested by the mariachi at the plaza. That shouldn't be a problem though, right? I mean he can do whatever he wants as long as he doesn't get into music. No. A Rivera is "A shoemaker. Through and through."
We see Miguel sharing his everyday thoughts with Mamá Coco who, quite frankly, isn't listening (or at least not responding). Still Miguel keeps on pouring out his thoughts onto her, almost like he has no one else to talk to in the family. The most interesting thing is this happens even during family dinner. He is showing off his dimple to Mamá Coco who isn't looking at him, and strangely enough nobody else is responding either. Neither is Miguel showing it to anyone else. It's almost like he's invisible. Maybe talking while eating is disapproved of in the household, but is the entire family so diligent that everyone totally obeys that? As we learn later, they probably are.
Miguel has to keep his love for music a secret from his entire family, which in itself can be a huge burden to carry. In addition to this, his questions about why music is not allowed is never answered. He has got no one talk to. He opens up about his loneliness to Dante- "I wish someone wanted to hear me". He has to talk about his worries to strangers in the plaza because he "can't really talk about any of this at home". This also establishes the Plaza as a space where Miguel can feel free. No wonder he dreams of widespread love and appreciation from the masses. His idol Ernesto De La Cruz is not only a great musician, not only successful, but was loved by everyone around him. That is exactly what Miguel wishes to have. His favourite song, 'Remember Me', is a goodbye song. So can we assume that somewhere in his unconscious he wishes to leave his family? Now this may be stretching things a bit but his passion for music may simply be a rebellion against a family that fails to understand and appreciate him. A lot of great passions do begin as a rebellion.
Things start to get especially difficult for Miguel when his family welcomes him to the shoemaking workshop "everyday after school". "No more shining shoes" also means no more going out of the house; no more getting a taste of the Plaza music; and staying under constant surveillance. At this juncture he finds hope again when he learns that his idol is actually his great great grandfather, which means choosing music would not entail turning his back on his family. This knowledge grants him the courage to finally proclaim his dreams in front of his family only to have his guitar (which he patched together himself) smashed by Abuelita. This is the exact moment that his unconscious desire comes into the conscious as he yells out "I don't want to be in this family" before running off. The scene reminds me of Dwayne's breakdown in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) where he proclaims "I don't wanna be your family." Although Miguels' outburst doesn't reach anywhere close to the emotional complexity of Dwayne's eruption it is still one of the most significant moments of the film. Yes, Miguel may not have meant it, and it may have been just 'one of those things kids say', but I am not one to make the mistake of not taking children's words seriously.
The lines "He doesn't seem entirely dead. He isn't quite alive either," aptly sums up Miguel's life at home.
Abuelita is a brilliantly written character. I'm sure millions across the globe have been able to see their own grandmas in Abuelita; but alas, like millions of grandmas across the globe, she too is a despot who abuses the shit out of her kids on a misguided sense of love and protection. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against grandmas. Oftentimes their scolding nature stems from leading a hard life oneself and having to constantly prove one's strength and capabilities in a world that berates them simply for being a woman. Their time-tested strategies of survival though, often become quite a nuisance for their kids and grandkids.
We get the first glimpse of how Abuelita enforces her reign over the household when we see her threatening Miguel into eating more tamales, which suggests Miguel may have had his fair share of beatings when he was younger. Although beating is quite common a method of disciplining it can too easily cross the line and enter the terrains of physical abuse.
This scene is followed by clips of Abuelita viciously guarding the family against any kind of music. The same happens at the plaza where she literally suffocates Miguel with her love just before shooing off Dante, the only friend Miguel seems to have. She forbids Miguel from even mentioning "that man". Why? Here's her explanation- "I'm hard on you because I care." Now this is the single most dangerous line in the history of family abuse. Entire books have been written on this subject. This is the single most dangerous line that has been fed to kids for generations and generations. Stop teaching kids that abuse comes out of love.
I don't need to discuss the guitar smashing; that is pretty obvious, but I would like to draw you attention to what happens next. Abuelita, immediately after breaking his guitar caresses Miguel lovingly. This is what confuses kids, these inconsistencies in parenting. They don't know what to focus on- the smashing or the caressing. They spent their entire lives lost in these mixed messages never knowing how to interpret the actions of their loved ones.
When Miguel finally returns home Abuelita reacts more to the guitar in his hand than to his return after vanishing overnight. Not only does she express zero guilt or remorse over the fact that Miguel ran away due to her actions, she repeats the same action by trying to grab his guitar again.
Towards the end though Abuelita's change of heart seems genuine (unlike Mamá Imelda who I'll come to next) as is evident in the family's welcoming attitude towards Dante and Pepita negating her earlier instruction to "Never name a street dog". An apology or even a thank you to Miguel would have been nice though, especially since she was forcing Miguel to apologize to Mamá Coco.
Mamá Imelda- the one who started it all by "banishing all music from her (and her family's) life". Even though blaming Héctor's departure on music is akin to blaming alcohol for domestic violence, she retains her stance against music strongly even after at least 80 years (guessing from Coco's age). So strongly, in fact, that she refuses to give Miguel her blessing if he doesn't promise to give up music. This is a classic example of conditional love. She is literally holding his life at ransom to get him to stop playing music. She actually says "You go home my way, or no way". Wow! When Miguel says, "You really hate music that much?" what I'm thinking is "Your ego is really that big?". The entire family just stands there too scared of Mamá Imelda to say anything. Not one of them has the spine (or heart) to just come out and say that this boy's life is more important than the music fuss. Imagine a 12 year old going from relative to relative with a marigold petal asking for his life back and getting rejected by every one of them. They simply tell him "She's just looking out for you". Right.
Now after Miguel runs away and the family has quite a difficult time searching for him you would expect Mamá Imelda to at least once worry about what will happen if they can't find Miguel by sunrise. Maybe she would wonder if she was being too harsh on him, and maybe the first thing she would do when she sees him again is to just give him her blessing and save the boy's life! Nope. The next time she finds Miguel she gives him a big-ass lecture about her own sacrifice and watches him run away. She could have at least yelled at him, "Listen you runt, I'll give you my blessing just to save your life, but you better not be playing music again," but no. She simply lets him go right after saying "I am trying to save your life."
Later in the film when Mamá Imelda finds Miguel with Héctor (for once can the villain please just finish the job? This is getting frustrating) and learns of the whole story she agrees to give Miguel her blessing with no conditions. Such a marvellous change of heart, but what exactly is it that led to the change? You see Mamá Imelda's decision doesn't change even after Miguel's passionate plea which makes her sing after all these years. Even after he explains "Music is the only the thing that makes me happy" she doesn't call out after him. Her change comes after she learns that Héctor wanted to come back, which means she wasn't really rejected. She realizes that music hadn't really beaten her to top her husband's priority list. That was her problem with music in the first place, because she believed her husband chose music over her and her daughter. Upon learning of her win over music in Héctor's heart she begins to reconcile with him and along with him the music.
Once again no apology from Mamá Imelda whose stringent rules led to a 12 year old consciously deciding to risk his life just to be able to play some music.
Miguel's mother plays a pretty passive role in the film. Miguel's father's role is limited to either supporting or opposing (not much) Abuelita. At the workshop Miguel's mother says to him "you know how Abuelita feels about the plaza?" So she forbids her music loving son to go the plaza not because she thinks it's harmful, but because Abuelita doesn't feel good about it? The same is iterated by her husband as he says "If Abuelita says no more plaza, then no more plaza". Now a lot of you might say, 'yeah, that happens.' Well it shouldn't happen, that's the point!
A bit later we are treated to a straight up horror scene as the father announces with superb glee that Miguel will be making shoes "every day after school". Just look at how excited he seems at the prospect of destroying his son's childhood. "No more shining shoes" read as no more going out of the house or being on your own. The father believes he is doing Miguel a great honour by treating him not as an individual but simply as an extension of the family. By the way, just look at that pitching, notice how he waits for Miguel to say "shoemaker" himself. That man was born to be a venture capitalist. His talents are wasted as a shoemaker.
In the end everything gets resolved and the entire family (both living and dead) enjoy a hearty dinner on Día De Los Muertos with Miguel singing to his joy. What exactly brought about this change? Firstly the revival of Mamá Coco's memory through music and secondly the revelation of Héctor's intentions of returning and his consequent murder. The first one established the healing properties aka the "good" aspects of music and the second one reveals that music doesn't inevitably cause a man to abandon his family thereby negating the "bad" aspects of music. This means once the family got convinced of the innocuous nature of music they allowed Miguel to indulge in it. Nowhere in the film do we find the family trying to understand Miguel's love for music irrespective of their personal history with a man five generations ago. Miguel making a guitar on his own, practicing everyday in secret, and even risking his life for music doesn't seem to weigh in on the family's decisions or conscience. At no point do anyone in the family acknowledge that regardless of what had actually happened to Héctor their treatment of Miguel was wrong. The Rivera family can prove to be a brilliant case study in how the cycle of abuse gets propagated across generations.
Another problematic factor is Coco's premise. You do not require an uniquely complex history to approach the issue of families cracking down on the dreams and passions of their children. It is no extraordinary phenomenon and rarely does a family require any proper justification for ushering in this kind of abuse; just a notion of "practicality" is enough (a notion arising from myriad socioeconomic factors that the families have had to struggle with). For me what the premise tried to do was address the age old question- faced with a choice between family and passion which one should a person choose? We know the great great grandfather had abandoned the family to go be a musician. Then we learn that he was one of the most successful musicians of Mexico ever. This adds new dimensions to the question- Is it right to choose one's passion over one's family when someone is so incredibly talented and has the ability to make his dreams a reality? Is abandoning family necessary to be this successful? Will the family try to understand him now that they know of his great talent? What is the musician's side of the story? Will they ever reconcile? None of these questions get explored. Héctor (who chose family) didn't get to be successful and De La Cruz (who became widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians of Mexico) never had a family, and the Riveras don't have to grapple with complex questions because the fact that Héctor decided to return eliminates all these questions, and with it the complexity that the film started out with. No kid in reality would be so fortunate as Miguel to take down his entire family's preconceptions in one fell swoop of revelation. When you add a complicated history and a simplistic solution to a universal everyday issue you fail to illustrate both the actual problems plaguing us and its possible solutions. More responsibility is expected from a film that caters primarily to kids and teenagers- the ones who are at high risk of facing this kind of abuse. The obvious bias towards traditional family values raises serious questions about the role films like Coco play in facilitating that abuse.
Coco tells an endearing story of family union. Part of the reason of Coco's widespread success is the fact that we relate to Miguel, a boy who just wants his family to listen to him and for once to try seeing things his way. We fall in love with how Abuelita tears up at the sight of Mamá Coco singing because those are tears of love, acceptance and realisation- things that we often find ourselves seeking for from our own families. Coco doesn't try to hide the abusive nature of the Rivera family, but what the filmmakers fail to realise is that everything doesn't get okay just because the family somehow "understands" now.
Everything said let's admit that Coco's ending scene is simply beautiful. The spirit of Mamá Coco resting her head on an unaware Abuelita's shoulder just tugs at your heart in a way that only Pixar films can.