"Turning Red" & peace with the beast
How Pixar's new coming-of-age story for girls tells a timeless truth
It was not quite what I expected. Sitting down to watch the latest Disney-Pixar film, “Turning Red”, with my wife and 11-year old daughter, I supposed this was going to be 90 minutes of the same-old Disney fare about accepting emotion, honesty, courage, and practicing teamwork…and it was all those things…plus a primer on female puberty. The horror!
The film follows a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, Meilin, who is at the turning point in her adolescence. She is drawing pictures of local boys in her notebook (…as shirtless mermaids), chattering with her gaggle of girlfriends at school about “becoming women,” and starting to feel genuine anger about her mother’s controlling nature.
It’s really profound to see a child in a Pixar film work out that frightening love/hate feeling we tend to develop toward our parents around that age. Oh, and one day she wakes up and is a giant Red Panda. It’s a family gift/curse kind of thing that every woman in the family has gone through.
The choice the women have is to banish the Red Panda via a mystical ritual or to let the Panda spirit remain within them, recognized as an equal and valid part of themselves. Every woman has chosen banishment. Mei feels differently.
Now, I wasn’t entirely kidding when I said the horror!
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It’s funny how uncomfortable parts of this movie made me. In all its normalcy and truth about the human experience, plus the facts of being a woman……...as a Dad I found myself sitting there on a low boil watching parts of “Turning Red.” I can’t even describe the reasons. It is probably just because like so many Disney movie parents ranging from King Triton (Little Mermaid) to Mufasa (Lion King) or Chief Tui (Moana), I found myself angry at nature, angry at change, and angry at the inevitable challenge facing both me and my wife…of how our girl is going to grow in the next 2-3 years.
I want to share something about the film that stood out to me. What was the Red Panda meant to symbolize? What was this thing inside each of the women of the family that they wanted to banish?
For each of them, the Panda was different. Some were large, some were small. Some stinky and some flowery. Mei’s Panda was a manageable size, while her mother’s banished Panda was Godzilla-like and as such, very dangerous. It’s understandable that Mei’s mother would need to part ways with that part of herself for the good of those around her.
The Panda was The Shadow. This is a psychological concept I wrote a great deal about in How The Force Can Fix The World, as a way to understand the spiritual path toward redemption. Popularized by Carl Jung, the Shadow is essentially the suppressed side of one’s personality. Your ‘shadow self’ is comprised of the messy parts you think society will disapprove of, so they’re pushed down into the subconscious.
Often, that suspicion of societal rejection is not unreasonable.
This can take many forms: Sexuality. Career ambition. Artistic expression. Kink. You name it. For example…Peter Pan’s shadow self was quite literal and meant to symbolize how he’s running away from adulthood & responsibility (including the possibility of romance with Wendy).
We all have different traditions we’re born into that inform how we’re supposed to relate to these things. For those of us raised in the Christian tradition, the typical read of your Shadow would be to line it up with the sin complex. You deny yourself certain impulses and desires, because of a chosen higher calling that can’t co-exist with those things. There’s nothing wrong with that when it’s chosen. But for a lot of people raised in the church, that foundation is built on shame & fear rather than choice. You hate that one sinful impulse that comes back again and again. It haunts and dogs you like an outside invader. And in turn, you start to hate yourself for “doing something” to invite it in.
Not everyone comes from that tradition. One thing I learned about while writing the book was this practice called Shadow Work. The idea is to develop a different kind of relationship to your shadow other than suppression.
Instead, the path forward is one of recognition. Knowing your Shadow, claiming it as an equal and valid part of yourself, and in that recognition, having more dominion over the role it plays in your life.
In “Turning Red,” Mei’s Red Panda is fierce, angry and defensive. Mei unleashes it to punish a boy who was being cruel to her. She stands up for herself. But she didn’t have control. The Panda has an appetite. Your Shadow has an appetite. I know mine does. We have choices to make in how we manage that hunger pang.
Consider this story I came across in 2020 when researching this question.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.”
“You see, if I only choose to feed the light wolf, the shadow wolf will be hiding around every corner waiting for me to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention he craves. He will always be angry and will always fight the other wolf.”
“But if I acknowledge him, he is happy and the light wolf is happy and we all win. For the shadow wolf has many qualities — tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong-willed and great strategic thinking–that I have need of at times. These are the very things the light wolf lacks. But the light wolf has compassion, caring, strength and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all.”
There’s truth here. It’s also a risky balancing act. High risk, high reward. Don’t get me wrong, great care you must take in this pursuit. But I have found a great deal of peace in my own life by recognizing the Shadow as being authentically me, not an unwelcome or malevolent force that stalks me.
In that, I have found more control. And hope you can too.
Part of why I wanted to share my thoughts on the Shadow is because of the contrast of this concept with what I’m about to say regarding the political quandary Disney has entered in the state of Florida.
The politics of “Turning Red” are incredibly interesting. Right now Disney is wilting in the national spotlight for how it entered the fray around Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law. Referred to by Democratic activists as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” (despite the bill not even bearing the word in its text), this has been a thorn in Disney’s side for a few weeks. After initially declining to weigh in, CEO Bob Chapek has now acquiesced and done the full routine of condemnation over this law which would bar public school educators from dishing out sex & gender ideology to students K-3 without parent notification or consent.
Disney is going to do what Disney is going to do on the corporate activism side of things. They always go the way of left-activists in front of news cameras. But I remain encouraged by the way they tell stories on screen.
“Turning Red” for example…its main feature is the dual role that parents and friends play in young people maturing and discovering who they are. It would have been a very creepy movie for her teacher at school to be filling all the narrative space occupied by Mei’s friends and family regarding her pubescent changes. 99% of people understand this. And this is a character who is in middle school. It’s a very odd hill for Disney to fight on, that teachers should be broaching these issues without parent notification before kids have learned multiplication and division.
“Turning Red” is remarkably traditional. The girls are girls. Periods are directly linked to being a woman’s issue, not that of “menstruating persons.” There is no obfuscation about biological reality. Teachers are teachers, not stand-in state sponsored substitutes for parents. And all the while, the movie balances a message about how kids are going to change and become their own person….in a way that the parent can’t control or erase. Everyone can agree this is true and good. Whether you’re an LGBTQ activist or a concerned Christian mother. Every boy and girl is carrying inside them a Red Panda that is going to find its way out into the daylight.
Even an overbearing mother like the one shown in “Turning Red” deserves full involvement, awareness, and opportunity to be there for her daughter during this transformative time in her life. Imagine if Mei went to the teacher or principal with her Panda issue, and the school system made it their business to conceal the matter from Mei’s parents. That would not be heroic. It would be shady. The only justification would be if Mei’s parents were psychotic abusers. But why would we twist the exception into the rule when it comes to public policy around parental consent and rights?
Disney has so far tried to be everything to everybody. Progressive to the revolutionaries, and traditional to the reactionaries. One day, this balancing act will likely fall apart. Either to the detriment of the stories or to the detriment of the company itself.
My hope is that from this you’ll recognize two things about “Turning Red”
When it comes to our families and friends (while imperfect and sometimes even traumatizing), it is part of nature that we grapple with where we come from to get to where we want to be. If that’s Harry becoming Sally or just your kid not wanting to join the family business…it is part of the great journey to navigate that rocky path with the help of people invested in the long term arc of your life.
You too carry a Red Panda inside. It might be the case that it is genuinely dangerous and worth severing ties with. It might also be the case that it’s not, and your happiness may well depend on making peace with the beast. Talk to a professional about it. Talk with a spiritual leader you trust. Talk to your parent.
Consider watching “Turning Red” this week on Disney+. It is a truly hilarious movie that blends together the best of Pixar with anime-style story telling. Truly, you’ve never seen anything like it in the American mainstream. The characters are incredible, the animation is groundbreaking and like so many Pixar movies before it, the subject matter is ripe for family discussion. Just be aware it is quite literally PG-13 in nature.
Don’t be afraid. Embrace and expect change. And seize on opportunities and stories like this one to have messy, necessary conversations with your kids. ……………………………………………………………Good luck!
This is the way.