The story in Pixar’s Turning Red is highly specific—a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl struggles with the transitions of puberty in early-2000s Toronto. Yet like all specific stories, there are universal themes at play and subtle but significant worldview assumptions that need to be probed.
I enjoyed many aspects of the film. The animation is top-notch, the jokes are often funny, and the representation of under-seen cultures and contexts is refreshing. Furthermore, the film nails generational conflict in immigrant families and the unavoidable awkwardness of puberty. Director Domee Shi (herself a Chinese-Canadian who grew up in Toronto) has explicitly said the red panda is a “metaphor for magical puberty,” and Turning Red (rated PG) captures well the messy volatility of this life stage. I actually liked the film’s honest, sympathetic approach to the experience of puberty. It provides good discussion fodder for parents of young ladies on the verge—or in the midst—of this oft-tumultuous developmental transition.
It’s a pity, then, that many of Turning Red’s ideas and messages are so unhelpful. For all of its merits, the film ultimately advocates a wrongheaded central message under the guise of empowerment: embrace who you are, even your reckless vices and dangerous impulses, and don’t let anyone stop you.
Don’t Tame the Beast. Let It Out.
In Turning Red, protagonist Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) discovers that her inner beast comes out when her emotions get riled up—she literally turns into an eight-foot-tall red panda. The story plays with the old Jekyll and Hyde trope (or Bruce Banner and the Hulk). But as is the fashion for our nonbinary age, it suggests the oppositional categories are outmoded and harmful. It’s not about pitting our inner Jekyll against our inner Hyde; it’s about embracing both as essential sides to the authentic self. It’s the natural arc of our modern age: from black and white to everything gray; reframing dysphoria as euphoria.
Traditionally, the idea in these Jekyll/Hyde stories is that humans are inherently conflicted—our fleshly passions are at odds with our logic/will, with the former often leading us to rash, irrational chaos while the latter helps us to cultivate virtue and order and “contain” the potential damage our unwieldy passions might inflict.
Of course, this is a deeply theological idea too. In Romans 7 Paul vividly writes about this war within himself: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (vv. 15, 18). He talks often about the battle between flesh and Spirit (Gal. 5:16–26) and about the old and new self (Eph. 4:17–24).
It’s encouraging that the New Testament normalizes this aspect of being human—that our chaos-oriented fallen nature is always undermining our rational desires (will) to be virtuous and ordered. What you’ll not find in the New Testament, however, is an encouragement to just resign yourself to these “two sides of yourself” and embrace them as both essential aspects of “who you are.” The Bible never encourages us to accept the beastly sides of our fallen natures as sanctified goods, as if the Hyde side of our nature is somehow part of a hallowed “true self” that we shouldn’t hide but rather let loose without shame.
Yet our culture today tells us to do precisely this. And so does Turning Red.
The Bible never encourages us to accept the beastly sides of our fallen natures as sanctified goods, as if the Hyde side of our nature is somehow part of our hallowed ‘true self.’
At one point in the film, Meilin’s dad is talking to her about the various “sides” to ourselves, and he says that while “some sides are messy,” the point “isn’t to push the bad stuff away. It’s to make room for it, to live with it.”
And then Meilin’s final line in the film puts an even blunter point on it: “We’ve all got an inner beast,” she says in a didactic summary directed to the children watching. “We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out. But I did. How about you?”
It’s a message entirely in keeping with the “love who you are!” zeitgeist, and it’s not altogether different from the “break free” empowerment anthems we’ve heard in Disney movies for years. But it’s a terrible message. As author/scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson observes in a Twitter thread critiquing the film, real freedom is actually the opposite of letting your inner beast run wild: “You exhibit liberty by not being a slave to your desires. You show freedom by controlling the beast part of you and allowing the higher nature to come out.”
Do we really want to encourage children to abandon all efforts to constrain the lesser parts of themselves, as if any attempt to “tame” beastly passions is the illegitimate erasure of identity imposed by oppressive systems (whether parents, pastors, or the patriarchy)?
“Embrace the mess” may be a cute coffee mug slogan, but if it justifies sinful behavior under the banner of “authenticity” and expressive identity, it’s a bankrupt moral philosophy that will shipwreck your life.
‘My Panda, My Choice!’
Near the end of Turning Red, a shockingly brazen line spoken by Meilin leaves no doubt about the film’s worldview.
As Meilin prepares to go out with her friends, having decided to embrace rather than hide the “beast” part of herself, her mom protests that she’s about to go out in public with her panda ears and tail showing. Meilin responds, “My panda, my choice, mom!”
It’s a nod to the favorite slogan of pro-abortion activists—“my body, my choice”—and a triumphal declaration by a 13-year-old girl that what she does with and to her body is her choice, whatever her parents or elders might say. As if a 13-year-old girl always knows best.
This scene brought to mind Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage, a harrowing book that spends a great deal of time lamenting the dangerous subversion of parental authority in the transgender agenda. Are you a 13-year-old girl who feels—somewhere in that messy, irrational stew of adolescent feelings—that you might actually be a boy? If so, find a trans-affirming therapist who will sign off on hormone treatments and maybe top surgery—and do it all without ever telling your parents!
To be clear, Turning Red is not explicitly promoting a transgender agenda. But it is promoting the same worldview that undergirds the transgender agenda: embrace the messiness of your conflicted inner self, trust all your feelings, and don’t let anyone—even your parents—stop you in your quest to be whatever sort of person (or gender, or animal species) you want to be.
In the realm of “advice we give to our kids,” this message is not just bad; it’s criminal. For that reason, my advice on Turning Red is to turn it off. When we tell our kids to just “let it go” or “let it out” with regard to their fallen and confused self, it’s not empowering. It’s endangering.