Turning Red and Pauline Parenting Advice
Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Turning Red.
In Disney Pixar’s latest film, Turning Red, we follow 13-year-old Meilin Lee’s adventures in self-discovery and red pandas. Writer and director Domee Shi, the first woman to helm a full-length Pixar film, tackles many important themes: adolescence, puberty, attraction, friendship, Canadian-Asian culture, and multi-generational relationships. What made the movie so relatable and poignant for me was a moment at the end of the story that made me say, through tears, “Even my mom was 13 once.”
Meilin, or Mei-Mei, spends the opening of the movie sharing the “number one rule” in her family: honor your parents. “They’re the supreme beings who gave you life . . . the least you could do is every single thing they ask,” she says. It is evident throughout the film that Mei-Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) finds herself torn between the girl her mother wants her to be and the girl that Mei-Mei herself wants to become. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) is a loving, protective parent who expects Mei-Mei to be like her: overachieving, put-together, and well-respected. Mei-Mei loves her mother and wants to live up to those expectations, but she also struggles with her big emotions and her desire to experience some of the normal aspects of being a teen: going to a boy-band concert, making up dances with her school friends, and letting her imagination run wild.
So when Mei-Mei wakes up one morning to discover that her increasingly out-of-control emotions have turned her into a big, fluffy red panda (the effects of an ancient family curse that only afflicts the women in the family), Ming sees her daughter’s condition as a problem to be solved, an inconvenience to be overcome. But as Mei-Mei explores this new facet of herself, she becomes more comfortable and confident, even learning to control her panda-ness. She grows frustrated with her mother’s overbearing nature. In fact, Ming seems to be the reason that Mei-Mei “poofs” into a panda, particularly when she instigates Mei-Mei’s strong emotions: rage, frustration, embarrassment, etc. It gets harder for Mei-Mei to continue to honor her mother. She realizes she no longer wants to be “perfect little Mei-Mei.” She embraces her panda form and integrates it with her identity, refusing to go through with the ceremony that would release her panda-spirit from her body. Her mother sees this as disrespect.
The conflict between Mei-Mei and Ming reminded me of a short line in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he reminds children to “[h]onor your father and mother.” This would seem to echo Mei-Mei’s opening monologue. But then Paul goes on to say, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” In Turning Red, we see an example of a caring parent who is unconsciously exasperating her child. Ming’s fears and anxieties, as well as her hopes and expectations for Mei-Mei’s future, manifest as helicopter parenting. Mei-Mei is exasperated with her mom and doesn’t know how to talk to her, so she avoids her altogether—even lying and living a double life with her friends in order to convince her mom that she is still her “perfect little Mei-Mei.”
TC Podcast: The Race-Wise Family (Turning Red)
Perhaps this reminds us of some instances in our own childhoods. We might wonder at this point in the story: How will this broken relationship, full of unmet expectations and miscommunication, be restored? As teenagers, we are often unaware that our parents were 13 once. Parents of teenagers may forget that they themselves were once 13. What would change in our relationships with teens if we told them the things we desperately needed to hear when we were 13—things like “you are worthy of love?” and “it’s OK to make mistakes.” I think Turning Red explores this idea with grace and tenderness.
We learn towards the end of the story how Mei-Mei’s mom, in her own teen years, freed herself of her panda after realizing that she couldn’t control it. In a beautiful sequence that takes place on a mythical, spiritual plane, Mei-Mei is able to interact with a 13-year-old version of her mother. Young Ming weeps as she says, “I’m just so sick of being perfect. I’m never gonna be good enough for [my mom]. Or anyone.” In this revelation, we learn that Ming’s childhood was also full of unmet expectations and broken communication with her own mother.
It’s as if Mei-Mei and Ming are looking in a mirror: every hope and anxiety that was placed on Ming’s shoulders, Ming has placed on Mei-Mei’s shoulders. Mei-Mei sees herself in her mother: the sadness, the fear, the confusion. I wish we could all go back and meet the 13-year-old versions of our parents and tell them what Mei-Mei is able to say to her own mom: “I know it feels that way. Like . . . all the time. But it isn’t true.” And in a beautiful reversal, Ming is able to look at her daughter, apologize, and say “I see you, Mei-Mei . . . the farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.”
This is an example of mutual honor, powered by empathy: Mei-Mei was able to see the situation of her mother; Ming was able to see how hard her daughter tries to make people happy. In a Christ-like move of love, much like the kind encouraged by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians, Mei-Mei is able to look into her mom’s eyes and dispel the lie that she needs to be perfect in order to receive love. May we do the same—not just for our children, but all of God’s children, at any age, who desperately need to know they are loved just the way they are.