Panda-monium, Puberty, & Piety Pressures

The Hope of Reconciliation From Generational Trauma in Pixar’s Turning Red.

Cali Yee / 3.18.22

The pre-teen and adolescent years of our lives are plagued by many changes. And there is a little word we use to name these changes: puberty (gasp!). We know all too well what it was like to be a 13-year-old — pimples, body hair, voice changes, growth spurts, all that good stuff. But how would you feel, if instead of pimples, an even crazier change occurred? What if your entrance into teenage awkwardness was marked with an unusual shape-shift into an incredibly fluffy, amazingly cuddly, but unfortunately very smelly red panda bear? Embarrassment from your mom exposing your secret crush who doesn’t even know how to do his own laundry? Poof. You’re a red panda. Thoughts about a dreamy 2000s pop boy band that sings and dances? Bam. Furry tail, pointy ears, and cuteness overload.

Pixar’s Turning Red is a spunky, rambunctious film about a teenage girl named Meilin (aka Mei Mei). Meilin transforms into a red panda whenever she feels overwhelming emotions. Thank goodness I don’t have this same problem, because I think I would just be stuck as a red panda for the rest of my life …

Meilin’s unconventional transformation into a red panda just so happens to be what her family refers to as “The Curse” that is passed down to the women of each generation when they enter into their teens. Our main character must figure out how to tame the adorable, squishy, and furry beast (at least until the red moon ritual that removes the curse) so as not to expose her secret and dishonor her family (hello, Mushu).

Ancestor veneration (filial piety) is important within Chinese culture. I see this whenever my own grandma (the cutest human on the planet I might add) leads us around all four sides of my great grandma’s grave — each time saying a prayer and bowing as a way of showing respect to those who have gone before us. The same goes for honoring our living elders, most importantly our father and mother, which we can see in Meilin’s struggle to always please her mother. But what happens when honoring your parents becomes less about love and more of a battle to hold up the weight of their expectations? What happens when you morph into an unwelcome giant red panda whenever you experience deep feelings?

In the case of Meilin, what ensues is panda-monium (hah). She launches a genius merchandising scheme with her friends in order to raise enough money for tickets to see the aforementioned dreamy boy-band — a concert her mother forbids her to attend. She jumps over rooftops and slides under clothing lines (in red panda form, obviously) to meet her friends at the show of a lifetime. She chooses to keep “The Curse” of the red panda much to her mother’s dismay.

But the point of Turning Red is not Meilin’s disobedience. The movie is not saying that teenagers should be given the freedom to rebel against their parents’ well-intentioned rules, nor is it claiming the popular Gen Z phrase “you do you” in spite of life’s consequences. If we view the movie only through the lens of Western culture and apart from its roots in Chinese tradition and generational trauma, we will irrevocably miss the stark grace packed within its story. 

Meilin is caught between the expectations of her overbearing mother and the physical/emotional changes she is undergoing as a 13-year-old girl. She wants to go to karaoke, hang out with her friends, and gush about boy bands. But at the same time Mei Mei wants nothing more than to please her mother and gain the approval of her family. Meilin isn’t the only one who experiences this internal battle. We can see it deep down, as well, in her mother. Her mother is continually crushed under the weight of her own mother’s (Mei Mei’s grandmother’s) expectations. The familial pressures were never tempered despite the fact that Meilin’s mother also felt their negative effect (along with her mother before her). If anything, despite her best intentions, Mei Mei’s mom unknowingly continues the cycle of generational trauma ingrained within her culture.

But this isn’t just specific to Chinese traditions. I think we all can relate to feeling like we need to be perfect all the time so that we can make our family, and those around us, proud. The desire to keep up appearances is unfortunately alive and well within us. The fear of not meeting the standards of our loved ones creates a deep divide and misunderstanding in our relationships. Resentment builds up inside our hearts and minds when we feel that we will fail others and bring shame to ourselves when we make a mistake.

We see this in the mother-daughter relationships of Turning Red — the fear of failing to measure up to expectations sparks anger, resentment, and eventually … rebellion. The pressure to be perfect does not yield results in anything close to perfection. The Law does not produce that which it attempts to achieve. It is only when the tightly wound mother-daughter relationships unravel that we, as an audience, begin to see the hope of grace and an end to the cycle. It isn’t until they find themselves completely broken down that they see, so clearly, their desperate need for love and one another.

The reconciliation needed was not going to be in the presence of consequences for Mei Mei — the punishments for sneaking out and disobeying her mother. The necessary thing for reconciliation was the recognition that the expectation to be perfect could never be fulfilled and did not need to be fulfilled. It was an acknowledgement that the love between a mother and daughter could hold space for the messy parts of both individuals. As Meilin’s father beautifully put: “People have all kinds of sides to them. 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.”

The messy parts of ourselves remain despite our best efforts to hide or control them. When we are given the room to see that the bad stuff isn’t going to go away, we may also notice that love can enter into it. When given the grace to experience growing pains and shown the mercy to make mistakes and learn more about herself — Mei Mei actually felt more rooted in her family and closer to her mother than ever before

You don’t have to turn into a ginormous, adorable, and huggable animal in order to learn that perhaps there is Someone who, despite our brokenness, desires to enter into our mess.

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