Updated: Jun 30, 2022
There are a lot of on-going criticisms circling about Disney Pixar’s latest movie, Turning Red. As a graduate of Literature, I just wanted to uncover the themes and messages behind the movie and show Christians that it’s not as bad as people are saying it is. And so this mini-thesis is my attempt to dig deeper into the narrative of Turning Red.
So be aware…
***** SPOILER ALERT! *****
“My panda, my choice” as an example, is a line is taken to be understood in the lens of: “My body, my choice”. And some have taken this as a subliminal message leaning towards the slogans of pro-abortion groups. What’s more, others have interpreted this as a message to kids saying that: “It’s okay for me to lie, you’re just going to have to accept that. It’s okay for me to gyrate even though you don’t like it.”
But this idea of disobedience itself is taken out of context of the entire theme of the film. And just like we always tell others to read and understand the Bible in its entirety, and not take things out of context, the same should apply to any story and narrative that we consume. Our goal should always be to seek first to understand, not put judgement.
Mei Mei is a young girl that has been closeted and pressured her whole life into being the “perfect daughter”. We have to remember that at 13 she’s had to repress all kinds of feelings and emotions that she’s had growing up just so that she can conform to her mother’s view of “perfect”.
Let’s remember also that this film is based on an Asian-Canadian perspective, and that tremendous pressure is often placed on Asian immigrants. They move to another country (mostly to escape war) with almost nothing, and have to make a life and a living for themselves in a country and culture that’s completely foreign. As a result, tremendous pressure is placed on their children to succeed in life. They’re often called to be “perfect”.
This perspective is shared by many of those in the Asian-American community. You can find many of these sentiments present in shows like Kim’s Convenience — where you can watch more of Simu Liu’s (Shang Chi) acting — or if you happen to watch Asian comedians doing stand-up. Threads of this experience can even be seen in our very own Filipino-Chinese communities.
A lot of the criticism lodged at the film is originating from critics that are not Asian. Hence, it may be a little difficult for them to comprehend the nuances that the film is trying to convey, specifically because they have no experience of what it’s like to grow up Asian (and in this case, Chinese).
No One Is Perfect
We forget that God himself said that no one is perfect. We forget that one of the big reasons that people turn away from God is because of this feeling of inadequacy, of imperfection, that they can never measure up to His standards, and so they instead give up trying.
We forget that this is the pressure that a lot of Christians place on both their fellow Christians and non-believers. And we all know and understand that that pressure can be tiresome and depressing. Just think of all the people who were once of the faith but gave up altogether partly because of this pressure.
And yet here it is, being imposed upon a very young girl, someone who’s undergoing changes in her body and her hormones that she doesn’t completely understand, someone who is yet to discover who she really is.
Throughout the first half of the film we see Mei-Mei giving up practically everything for her family in order to conform to the idea of the perfect daughter.
In the beginning of the movie, we also see Mei-Mei narrate, “I know what it looks like… I am my own person, but that doesn’t mean doing whatever I want. Like most adults, I have responsibilities. It’s not all about me, you know? I do make my own moves. It’s just that… some of my moves are also hers (her mother’s).”
Usually, at the beginning of most films, the themes are already brought into the open and expressed. And this little speech by Mei herself already expresses that she understands that it’s not about doing whatever you want, and it’s not all about her. For a girl at 13 to be expressing that already shows maturity.
So what went wrong?
The challenge that Mei has is that some of her mother’s motives, aspirations, burdens, and generational hurts are placed upon her.
A few scenes later we find Mei in her room drawing while doing her homework. Accidentally, she ends up drawing Devon, this boy working at the convenience store. She starts wondering why she even started drawing him in the first place, “He’s not that cute.” And it’s at this point that we catch Mei lying to herself, trying once again to repress any sort of emotions that are not in-line with being the perfect daughter.
She’s at a point wherein she herself doesn’t understand what’s happening. Her hormones are changing, making her feel all these feelings about boys that she might never have felt before. So, rather than understand what’s happening, she represses them.
And her mother doesn’t offer any help either. Rather than understand that Mei is going through some changes, instead, she makes it worse for her.
A look back at the scene where her mother finds and opens her notebook says it all. The girl is terrified of her mother, of “disobeying”, of showing a little bit of self-expression. Because when she’s caught in the act of drawing this boy, her mother goes overboard and embarrasses her in public.
Looking closely at that scene, her mother doesn’t even trust her perfect daughter enough to believe that the drawings are all made up. It’s no wonder that when they get back in the car and her mother asks, “Is there anything else I should know about Mei-Mei?” She chooses to say nothing. She closed up because her mother won’t listen.
When we find her back in her room, she’s ashamed, embarrassed. At 13, her life is practically over for her. And who does she blame for all this? Not her mother for embarrassing her in public. Her mother did “nothing” wrong. Rather, Mei puts the blame on herself for being weak.
She’s victimized for just a short moment of weakness. Imagine, had her mother just listened to her and not overreacted, things would not have gotten out of hand, and she would probably never have acted out the way that she did later on in the film.
Her acting out is a result of not being heard, of being silenced to the point that she often can’t finish a sentence without her mother slamming down words of judgement.
Criticism of the film saying that it’s all about unleashing the beast within forget that this young girl is also a victim of trauma, generational trauma, trauma that her mother herself went through, trauma that suddenly manifests in Mei’s dreams that night.
The Dream Sequence
Here is where most of the criticism against the film is laid out for it being demonic.
Let’s first put forth the layering of meaning when it comes to images and metaphors. Remember the Duck/Rabbit picture? That 100-year old optical illusion simply means that one can look at the same image and see a duck, whereas another person can look at it and see a rabbit.
Images, by themselves, have no meaning except the meaning that we give them.
A simpler example is when one person can look at a letter and say it’s “M”, whereas a person standing on the other side can say it’s a “W”.
Hypothetically, an alien from outer-space can see a traffic light and interpret the red-yellow-green lights in the opposite way. Because that’s how it works in their world. Green means stop. Red means go.
Are the images in the nightmare scary? Yes they are. But they’re just as scary as when Sid (in the first Toy Story movie) mutilates toys and puts them together in odd and gross ways. They’re just as nightmarish as that baby head with spider-legs. But like Woody and Buzz, we shouldn’t judge things based solely on their appearances.
Dreams are also the gateway to the subconscious. Devon as a suffocating half-fish can be reflected as Mei herself suffocating because of the recent event involving Devon. Flowers planted in lockers with children’s heads all laughing at her is pretty self-explanatory.
As for the red panda spirit itself. The creators have put forth that the red panda is simply their allegory for puberty. Being taken over by the red panda spirit, in other words, is just a symbol for the beginning of puberty.
“I pitched it as a girl going through magical puberty,” Shi told the Los Angeles Times, adding, “It was always going to be a girl going through magical puberty and uncontrollably poofing into this giant, red, hormonal creature.”
These changes in emotions that Mei felt over Devon? These bouts of anger, rage, and insecurity? They’re happening whether she likes it or not, because she’s just hit puberty.
Now, we can choose to explain to our kids that this is “demonic” or we can choose to explain to them that this is the movie’s symbol for puberty, or teenage-hood.
We don’t like it when other people place unintended meanings and messages to scripture. We explain away and tell them they have to take the whole Bible into context.
But that calls for us to be the same in that we should first try to understand the meaning behind the metaphors other people choose.
Is it a duck or a rabbit?
I, personally, find it unfair that we should place such labels on someone that just wanted to tell a story about a “magical puberty”.
If we look back to our own periods of puberty, we are just probably just as (if not more) emotional than Mei. We acted out. We didn’t understand. We were mostly driven by emotion.
And so like the film is trying to convey, when our kids turn that age, the best thing we can do as parents is be there for them to help them understand and process through the period. It’s a time wherein we should be extending grace and trust, not forcing them into being “perfect”.
The Lack of Trust & Redemption
The movie, and Mei are by no means saying that it’s okay to disobey. They’re not promoting lying or sneaking out. They’re telling a story of trauma and healing.
There are trust issues repeated over and over again throughout the film. Again, it first appeared when the mom finds Mei’s notebook, and she immediately assumes the worst and goes and confronts the boy. She embarrasses Mei in public, which carries over to her school.
These trust issues are so deep-rooted that she couldn’t even go to her mother and tell her that she’s just turned into a big red panda in the first place. Imagine that scene for a moment, wherein overnight your body transforms. Shouldn’t the first thing you do be to go to your parents for help? Instead, Mei hides from her mother out of fear that she’s no longer the “perfect daughter”. Instead, she’s turned into a “big red monster”.
All this criticism about how it’s all about promoting disobedience is ill-placed. In fact, Mei went through so much trouble to create a presentation asking for permission to go. This is a young girl simply asking if she can go to a concert. And how she asks permission is by creating a point-by-point presentation! “That presentation was bomb-dot-com. I cited all my sources,” Mei recounts with her friends afterwards.
Up until this point, she’s keeps trying to prove that she’s a very good, very “perfect” daughter.
Her father even says to her mother, “Maybe we should trust her,” but the mother instantly shoots it down, immediately signalling that, after all the effort Mei has made to encourage their trust (proving that she can hold the panda in), she still doesn’t trust her daughter.
The fact that Mei finds more comfort in the acceptance of her friends that of her mother shows just how deep-rooted the trauma is. And that shoots red flags in their relationship. That signals that the mom may be too hard on her daughter.
In the big fight near the end between Mei and her mother as the 50-foot red panda, Mei says, “All I wanted was to go to a concert.” To which her mother replies, “I never went to concerts. I put my family first. I tried to be a good daughter.” Here we can already see the pressure that’s placed upon this entire family, the pressure to be the perfect.
Rightly so, Mei replies, “Well sorry I’m not perfect. Sorry I’m not good enough.”
When we go back, once again to the whole narrative of the Bible, we see how so many rules were imposed upon the Israelites, rules that they were never able to follow and obey completely. The pressure that was placed upon them to be perfect only turned them into the bigoted Pharisees that we see in the New Testament.
And we see how God reacted to that through His son, Jesus. Jesus then said, it’s okay to not be perfect. I still love you. Just lean on me and let me carry your sins and your burden for you.
Self-Awareness and the Red Panda
When Mei and her mother are undergoing the ritual again, we see her mother’s teenage self crying as she goes through that same trauma and pressure. “I hurt her. My mom. I got so angry, and I lost control. I’m just so sick of being perfect. I’m never gonna be good enough for her. Or anyone.”
A little later, when Mei’s mother asks her to step through and give up the panda (puberty and self-awareness), Mei responds, “I’m changing, Mom. I’m finally figuring out who I am. But… I’m scared it’ll take me away from you.”
Mei is changing. Her body is changing, and she’s growing. She wants to figure out who she is but she’s afraid that finding out will create a bridge between her and her mom.
I fail to see how that sentiment, one with so much consideration for her mother’s feelings and their relationship, could be promoting disobedience.
Is the solution, then, to stop figuring out who she is and what she wants in life? That’s what giving up the panda means in this scene. It means forgoing who we are in service to an idealistic portrayal of ourselves.
Lack of self-reflection and self-realization is the cause of so many major life crises. Lack of self-awareness brings is what leads us to making mistakes, sometimes HUGE mistakes.
Earlier in the film, before the ritual first happens, we see Mei’s dad talking to her. In that scene he says, “People have all kinds of sides to them, Mei. And some sides are messy. The point isn’t to push the bad stuff away, it’s to make room for it, live with it. This side of you made me laugh.”
Let’s reframe this message a little bit shall we?
We all have a weird or messy side. We can try and deny this weird or messy side and pretend it doesn’t exist. Or we can make ourselves aware of it, and learn to live with it.
If we have a condition, for example, we can either be in denial about it, or be aware of it, accept it, and make room to live with it.
Accepting the red panda inside means knowing ourselves. It means knowing where we’re weak, where we might fail. It represents self-awareness. The best way that we can deal with our messy side is to accept that we have a messy side (in a way, we can also interpret this messy side as our sinful nature).
Going back to the final ritual scene, after the big battle, we find Mei’s mother respond to Mei by saying, “So don’t hold back for anyone. The farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.” This is not a signal to disobey. This is a message that Mei should go and figure out who she is.
This “fear it’ll take me away from you” bit represents the idea that parents sometimes say that when their children turn teenagers they no longer know who they are. They have to rediscover and get to know them all over again. Because that’s the truth of life. Change is the only constant. Even in marriage, we’re constantly changing. And so we have to make continued efforts to keep getting to know our spouse on a daily basis.
Accepting the red panda is not necessarily about unleashing an evil side. In one sense, it’s about accepting puberty (the red panda) as a part of growing up. In another sense, it’s about self-awareness and getting to know our weird & messy sides and deciding how we can live with them.
Remember, the Mei that her mother knows is the perfect daughter. She hasn’t yet met the Mei that loves to dance, sing, and have fun. If we interpret the red panda as Mei’s playful nature, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Mei narrates in the end that, “We’ve all got an inner beast. We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out.”
Now, if we follow the order of her statements, Mei defines what “inner beast” means to her in the next sentence: the messy, loud, weird part of ourselves. There’s no mention of being unruly or disobedient. It’s simply referring to the unique and repressed part of us we keep hidden away.
Maybe it’s the fact that you like to collect stamps, or that you’re a full-on geek. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re secretly a superfan of a particular boy band (and know all their steps) and don’t want anyone knowing.
I watched the same movie as the other Christians that criticised the film. And yet, somehow, I left with a different message in mind. Granted, I admit that it’s certainly not a children’s film. It’s something better-fit for teens, or those entering their puberty years.
Parents wanting to watch this with their children should be made aware of that, as there are a lot of things that younger kids might not understand. And so it’s left upon the parent to explain them.
But we shouldn’t shy away from that responsibility either. And that doesn’t give us the right to label something so negatively just because we see things a certain way.
When it comes to film and literature various meanings can be derived, whether intended to or not.
I’ve read several biographies from authors who wrote a novel, a story, or a screenplay with a certain meaning and message that they had in mind. And they tell stories of their readers coming to them with meanings, messages, and lessons they would never have thought of.
A piece of literature has many layers to it, some intended, some unintended. This variety of messages is not because of the author or the creator. These messages completely depend on our own personal mindsets and worldviews.
This applies with Turning Red. Two people can watch the same movie and come out with different lessons learned.
The same is true for any film or story, as well. One person could look at Sleeping Beauty, Despicable Me, or Frozen in a very different light and apply labels to it that were never intended to be placed on it in the first place.
As Christians, we have to have the grace and the open-mindedness to accept that not everything is an attack on God or Christianity. We can look at something and choose to demonize it, or choose to use it to point it to Christ.
Paul did something similar in Acts 17:22–24.
Then Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and examined your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore what you worship as something unknown, I now proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands.
In this scene, Paul engaged the culture, pointed to what was pagan, and turned it into something that pointed them to God.
In the same way, we can look at a story and choose to demonize it, or draw out a message that helps point others to God.
Demonizing it, as we all know, simply turns more and more people away from God. It creates a divide between us and others.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting, more fun, and more relevant to turn something secular as an engagement piece to point to God?
Imagine this for a moment… When you’re engaging others, you can either choose to say, “Don’t watch Turning Red. There are many evil and demonic themes and images in it.”
Or you can choose to say, “Turning Red gave me a good perspective of what it means to be part of a Chinese immigrant family, and what it was like during puberty, but it also reminded me of what it means to be a Christian. It reminded me that no one is perfect. No one can be perfect. But we don’t have to beat ourselves up over not being perfect. We don’t have to put so much pressure on ourselves. We can still come to our Father. Because like the loving Father that He is, God still loves us and wants what’s best for us. He died so that we could live.”
This may not be the main message of the film. But it’s what stood out to me. This was part of my own personal take-away after watching the film.
So now the question is, which message would you rather be sharing?