We are breaking free

Julie Raworth watches Turning Red on Disney+.

Whenever 13-year-old Mei Lee gets too excited – which is, Disney/Pixar tells us, ‘practically always’ – she poofs into a giant red panda. Are they about to depict adolescent emotions as ‘too much’, and over-generalised as ‘excited’? Reassuringly, the movie takes us through a diversity of visceral feelings such as excitement, pining, shame, embarrassment, anger, guilt, and (crucially) calm.  

The movie also doesn’t steer away from the parents’ role in their child’s so-called ‘problem’. We get to see how external influences – in this case, an over-anxious mother (Ming, voiced by Sandra Oh) – social constructs and ancestral traditions can all play into the emotions of young people. Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) experiences increasingly confusing and distorted thoughts about their ‘Red Panda’, symbolising self: being ‘an inconvenience’, ‘disgusting’, or ‘a freak’. 

Setting the story in Canada enabled a strong juxtaposition of cultures – whilst the key characters were a Chinese family, whose culture perhaps focuses more on community than independent thinking, there’s also consideration of Western society, where parents may struggle with how self-expression is promoted for teens. The impact of generational social constructs on what is deemed traditional and acceptable behaviour is fascinating stuff. 

The huge tasks involved in adolescence are nicely illustrated by the physical enormity of the Red Panda. A young person must learn to calibrate their emotions for themselves as they head into adulthood. In Western Psychology, this is considered to be largely about balancing the mental and physical space to explore a world of extreme, rapid and hormone-driven emotions with the security of home to retreat back to. Problems occur with a lurch towards either position. Outside the restricted walls of their Chinese traditions, to which Mei Lee is loyal, we see these explorations with her cliched group of misfit friends. They are used as a tool to teach the viewer, and Mei Lee, a more compassionate approach to dealing with her emerging ‘Self/Red Panda’. Hijacked as contemporary but deriving from Buddhist traditions, the friends are mindful, accepting and loving of her messiness and chaos, ultimately helping to neutralise her panda.

With her mother still forcing her way into Mei Lee’s life at every turn, viewers feel the same frustration for Mei Lee that I have felt on behalf of my young clients. As Mei Lee learns to embrace her Red Panda, there’s even more internal conflict between meeting her mother’s approval and being able to express herself truthfully. This results in increased attempts to anxiously mask her true self from her mother. We then empathise with Ming when we see her own mask appear in response to the arrival of her own mother’s mafia-like force of power; with the generational motto ‘banish the beast within and be your true self’. It is this that created an overprotective mother, always anxiously on guard to catch and control any sign of her own daughter’s Red Panda. 

Mei Lee comes to learn for herself that ‘the beast is her true self’, echoed in the song ‘I did it on my own’. By challenging and helping her mother break free of the strong rituals and beliefs that had created a false sense of safety, Mei Lee and her mother become able to find a more flexible relationship that works for both of them. 

Parents would benefit from this movie. And although references to menstruation might infer it is not relevant to boys, there are important messages here for all young people. 

- Reviewed by Julie Raworth, a Chartered Psychologist at Spectrum Counselling Psychology. E: [email protected]. T: @SPECTRUMpsychol

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