It was an absolute delight to watch ‘Coco’ on the big screen.
I cried multiple times, not only at the heartfelt storyline that is par for the course from Pixar, but also due to the fact that I was watching a young Mexican boy, in a small Mexican town similar to my own.
Portrayals of Mexico that do not rely on stereotypes are surprisingly. Even Mexican media tends to portray Mexico as a dangerous, drug-filled country full of corruption and bad people. Its most successful series star drug cartels and narcoterrorists like La Reina del Sur, and El Señor de Los Cielos.
Although the US has plenty of shows that follow this same pattern, including El Chapo and Narcos it has also produced many financially successful portrayals of Mexico. Mexican artists, directors, and actors, along with Mexican narratives, have moved to the north. The question remains, is Hollywood able to make a Mexican film without stereotypes or misrepresentation? Frida (2002) and Coco (2017) are examples of American produced Mexican Narratives, and their attempts to represent a minority group deserve as much scrutiny as they do praise.
Earlier this year, Mattel received criticism over their new Barbie line of female icons, including a Barbie doll of Frida Kahlo. Some of the backlashes against the Kahlo doll mirror critiques levelled against Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic of Frida Kahlo, Frida. Both interpretations of Kahlo received criticism for their “inauthentic” portrayals of Kahlo and commodification of Latino culture. In both instances, many felt that the suffering that Kahlo underwent was downplayed (with Mattel’s doll standing upright rather than in a wheelchair, and Frida focusing more on her infatuation with Rivera than her personal struggles).
Frida: Hit or Miss?
Financed and distributed by Miramax International Films and Buena Vista International Films, Frida had many pre-production difficulties, firstly receiving backlash for early attempts to cast a non-Hispanic actress as Kahlo. Frida’s cast ultimately included British, Spanish and non-Hispanic American actors, with Salma Hayek, who played Kahlo, being the only main actor of Mexican Descent.
Frida displays a less controversial Kahlo, one that can be accepted by the Latino community as representative of Mexico. Kahlo’s complex identities are not fully explored, such as her homosexual tendencies and advocacy for left-wing politics. As explained in Isabel Molina Guzmán’s essay, Mediating Frida: Negotiating Discourses of Latina/o Authenticity in Global Media Representations of Ethnic Identity:
“The movie’s ideological elisions and recuperation were part of the mechanism by which a syncretic Latina identity was produced and positioned as authentic within global commodity culture. By displacing the anti-capitalist and feminist themes of her art, the movie privileged more familiar narratives of ethnic women as culturally accessible, biologically natural, and sexually exotic.”
Frida instead focuses on her romantic relationship with Diego Rivera and both Kahlo’s and Hayek’s hyper-sexuality as a symbol of Mexican-ness; as Guzman writes: “Hayek’s body, beauty, and sexuality inevitably made Kahlo a more consumable figure for domestic and global audiences and simultaneously reified Hollywood’s familiar constructions of Latina femininity, hype-sexuality, and domesticity”. However large the discrepancies may be, Frida was a financial success, and many consider it the best representation of Kahlo’s life, regardless of its ‘boiled-down’ Hollywood aesthetic.
Frida was both praised and critiqued, illustrating quite how difficult it is for American films to authentically tell Mexican narratives within a structure that actively misrepresents and commodifies their identities, culture, and history.
Coco: A New Hope?
Pixar’s film Coco is an American studio’s slightly more successful attempt at portraying a Mexican narrative. The film has been described as having an organic sense of Mexican-ness rather than an exploitative ploy against its Hispanic audience. Audiences were nervous early on about the project, as Pixar attempted to copyright the phrase ‘Día de Los Muertos’ (the original title of the film). After receiving backlash from the Latino community, Pixar withdrew the claim. After Pixar’s missteps, it became clear that in order to create a film about a community that the creators did not belong to, they had to be open to constant critique and skepticism. Coco employed many strategies to publicise their culturally conscious approach in creating the film. For example, production of the film began with extensive research trips to Mexico.
Similar to Frida, many Latino news outlets celebrated such representation in Hollywood, illustrating Guzman’s message that “the burden of underrepresentation facing Latina/o audiences: any Latina/o cultural visibility is celebrated against the general market pattern of erasure and negative stereotyping.”
Daniel Krauze from Slate Magazine, states that: “Coco never needs to sell its authenticity to the viewer because the Mexico it represents feels as if it was created by people who have taken the time to get to know the country”. Critics of the film’s pre-production were brought on board as cultural consultants, and Latino focus groups were used to critique drafts of the film. A Mexican animator, Adrian Molina, was promoted to co-director to ensure that the project was culturally aware.
Coco resonated with many Mexicans for multiple reasons.
For one, Coco, like Frida, simplified a Mexican family into constructs of Latinidad: “by suppressing differences within the umbrella group and highlighting points of cultural similarity, such a syncretic identity constructs Latinas/os as a stable, long-term, economically viable demographic group distinct from other U.S. ethnic and racial groups.” The film was also set in an undisclosed small town in Mexico, with a mestizo family (arguably the most accepted identity for Mexicans), and utilized common Mexican cultural mannerisms in order to relate to Mexican audiences.
The differences between Coco and Frida, explains the positive critical response to Coco that was missing for Frida. As mentioned earlier, Coco did not represent a Mexican icon but instead a generic Mexican family living in a small town, so it faced less scrutiny. Also unlike Frida, Coco’s cast included many familiar Mexican faces, including Angélica Vale, César Costa, Víctor Trujillo, and poster-boy Gael García Bernal. By casting Mexican actors to play Mexican parts, Pixar guaranteed that Mexican audiences would support the film.
Many viewers received pleasure from hearing the family speak in Spanish, a choice Frida did not make. Lastly, Pixar released the film in Mexico in November, a month before its release in the United States. The film’s release was at the same time as Día de Los Muertos, giving Mexican audiences a sense that this film was made for them. It is up to debate whether the release date was a strategy to cash in on Mexican audiences, or a decision made out of respect and celebration of Mexican culture, or both. Either way, it was a success – as the film ultimately became the highest grossing animated film in Mexico.
Although Frida and Coco could be critiqued for commodifying Latino culture, I find it difficult to completely discard both films, especially considering that Mexico’s very own film industry often misrepresents its population. As Krauze explains: “Films made in Mexico tend to be either serious-minded endeavours that tackle the more sinister side of our society or the broad and silly comedies that dominate the box office, which (like telenovelas) take place in a country where everybody is suspiciously blond and blue-eyed, living large in one of Mexico City’s cool neighbourhoods. Coco falls between those two poles. Its Mexico is sweet but recognisable, and its characters look and live like many Mexicans do, practicing a modest trade outside of Mexico City. Even viewers in the capital know that version of Mexican life, one key to the nation’s self-image but often forgotten by our film industry”