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A Marriage & Family Therapist’s Take on Disney & Pixar’s Turning Red

When I first heard of Turning Red, it was sent to me by a friend as an inside joke. Of course, after that, I kept seeing ads and previews for it because that’s how the internet works. Then I found out that Sandra Oh was in it, and the Grey’s Anatomy fan in me felt like I had to support her. So I became intrigued and looked forward to watching it when it premiered on Disney+ on March 11th. However, I could not have imagined I would become such a fan of the movie, and now I’m obsessed and can’t stop watching it. It’s like Disney’s Encanto all over again. 

Turning Red was the perfect movie to debut during Women’s History Month. It is such a cute coming-of-age film that depicts honoring women’s ancestors, mother/daughter relationships through generations, and the importance of having a community of women around you. I also watched the making of the film documentary, Embracing the Panda, and learned that the movie was created by an all-women leadership team at Pixar. It is truly a movie created by women, for women of all ages. If you haven’t watched it yet, I would suggest not scrolling any further because there will be some spoilers.

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Keeping Emotions In

The movie’s main premise is that the main character, 13-year-old Meilin Lee (a.k.a. Mei Mei), suddenly begins to turn into a red panda whenever she gets too excited. As the movie goes on, you learn this was a gift passed down by her ancestor Sun Yee, as a way to protect her daughters. She then passed it along to them, and it continued to pass from each generation of women to the next. What was originally seen as a gift became an inconvenient and embarrassing “curse” as generations continued. The women of the family even created a ritual of “banishing the beast within” so that you could become your true self.  When I first watched the movie, I saw the red panda as a metaphor for women feeling their emotions. Whenever Mei Mei felt an emotion too strongly, the red panda would appear, whether it was anger or excitement. It served as a reminder of the messages women typically receive growing up to repress their emotions for everyone else’s comfort. Women, especially Black women, aren’t supposed to be too loud, too upset, or too much of anything for that matter. There was also shame around the red panda appearing in the movie, and Mei Mei’s mother, Ming, stated that no one could see her like this. Her grandmother and aunties even flew in to perform the ritual and ensure she didn’t “let her panda out,” which goes into my next takeaway from the film. 

Having a Community of Women

As soon as Mei Mei’s news of her panda gets out, her grandmother and aunties fly into town to be there for her and help perform the ritual to get rid of it. However, they also fly in because they don’t expect her mother to be able to handle it on her own, so they come as condescending help for Ming as well. While they originally come off as judgmental and patronizing, by the end of the movie you are able to see them band together and be a huge source of support and acceptance. On the other hand, Mei Mei’s friend group provides an alternative example of what having a community of women around you entails. They showered Mei Mei with unconditional love and acceptance, panda or no panda. They accepted her, even when she became something she didn’t recognize. I believe it was their unconditional love for her that allowed her to begin to fully love herself as is, and that is true for real-life friendships as well. Watching this movie reminded me of the importance of having female friendships in your life and how much my friends have gotten me through difficult transitions I’ve experienced. Mei Mei’s friends were the only people able to calm “the panda” down. Whenever she became too emotional, she pictured them surrounding her and speaking affirming words to her, and she would be back to herself.

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Coming of Age

Most of the movie is Mei Mei trying to balance her friendships and her loyalty to her family. It is truly a coming-of-age story, because you are able to watch how Mei Mei navigates becoming her own person and shedding the expectations that her family has of her. Not to mention beginning to have crushes on the opposite sex. While watching Embracing the Panda, the director and creator Domee Shi describes the red panda as a metaphor for “magical puberty.” She states it’s a story of the struggle between being her mom’s perfect daughter, and embracing her “inner beast.” How often do we face an internal battle between following our heart and following what is expected of us as women? Adolescence is typically when that internal conflict begins to arise. Domee Shi also describes the pressure that children of immigrants face because they are expected to carry on the family’s legacy and make sure their sacrifices aren’t in vain, but also wanting to explore new things and embrace some aspects of the new culture they’re living in as well. This is such a common scenario that I’ve seen in my work with individual clients, especially those in young adulthood. It can be mentally and emotionally draining to know you need to set boundaries, but feeling guilty or selfish for doing so, especially with family members. 

Mother/Daughter Relationships

The movie begins with Mei Mei saying “Number one rule in my family, honor your parents. They’re the supreme beings who gave you life…the least you can do in return is every single thing they ask.” This is another common belief that I see in my work with individuals, couples, and families. Parents make sacrifices and do so much for their children, and in turn often expect their children to live a life that meets their standards and is a positive representation of their hard work. Mei Mei is described as her mother’s whole world, and knowing that all of her mom’s hopes and dreams are pinned on her. But when children/adolescents begin to venture off on their own and assert their own autonomy, it is sometimes seen as disrespectful. Thus creating this pressure to be “perfect” and good enough for your parents’ approval. Mei Mei stated she had been “obsessed with her mom’s approval her whole life, and couldn’t risk losing it.” As the movie continues, you’re able to see that the same dynamic existed between her grandmother and mom (Ming)  also.  Her grandmother shared that her and her Ming were close, but the red panda took that away. Yet by the end of the movie, you’re able to witness not only Mei Mei’s grandmother accepting and loving her daughter as is, but you also witness Ming do the same for Mei Mei. One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Ming said “ I see you Mei Mei. You try to make everyone happy, but you’re so hard on yourself. And if I taught you that I’m sorry.” This stood out to me because Mei Mei’s mom was finally acknowledging all of the pressure that Mei Mei puts on herself to be perfect for her. Most importantly, she recognized that her behavior and actions may have taught her to continue that pattern and she apologized. Talk about acknowledging and healing generational trauma!

Final Thoughts

I know I’ve focused a lot on womanhood and mother/daughter relationships, but I also noticed the role Mei Mei’s dad plays in the family. He appears to be a pushover and obedient to whatever the women in the family say. But I believe he is also the one that keeps the family grounded. He tries to extend trust to his daughter when she wants to go out with her friends, he is able to calm his wife down when she gets high strung, and most importantly, he accepted his daughter’s panda and was the only person in her family to not shame it. He even offered her encouragement of seeing the panda as a part of her and keeping it. Like the creators of the movie stated, at first the red panda represents everything Mei Mei doesn’t want to be, and not feeling able to control situations or her emotions. However, by embracing the red panda it shows she’s accepting that part of herself and realizing it’s ok to not have control over everything at all times. Do you find that you’re holding in or ashamed of a part of yourself? Imagine how free you would feel if you gave yourself permission to be your authentic self. As Domee Shi states, the moral of the red panda is “if you don’t accept it, it’s a curse. If you embrace it, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.”