“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
So begins Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which Samsa is reviled for his transformation into a mammoth cockroach. His family hides him away until he dies. Then they go on with their lives, thankful to not deal with that problem anymore.
What do we do with this absurdist 20th-century story? It’s a tale that compels readers to question our own metamorphoses or changes. Over the course of our lives, we all change and grow, so how do these developments (or, in the case of Samsa, mutations) affect those around us? After all, we do not belong to ourselves. We cannot become beasts or angels without it hurting or helping our families, friends, and neighbors.
If you’re Meilin Lee in Turning Red, however, such wisdom of age-old philosophy is seemingly disregarded.
Philosophy is about the love of wisdom, and our culture is training us to either desire or disdain wisdom. Every world religion has a different conceptualization of wisdom, but for Christians, Wisdom is Jesus Christ.
When watching Disney films, I don’t expect the animation to move my family toward that highest end (although I was surprised by Encanto), but I do hope their movies don’t persuade my children against the grain of conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, Turning Red is a film that departs from that wisdom and embraces a messy philosophy.
I had high hopes for the movie, and I watched it with my children on the day it was released. I could not wait to see a contemporary Asian hero and the foregrounding of the mother-daughter relationship. (I enjoyed Brave, and I consider it a win when Disney doesn’t kill off the parents of the heroes.) Granted, the movie is not aimed at my children, who are all under eight; parents should aim to watch it with their 10- to 12-year-olds.
From the opening monologue of the protagonist, Mei, I could see where the movie was headed:
The number one rule in my family? Honor your parents. … Of course, some people are like, “Be careful. Honoring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, well, you might forget to honor yourself.” Luckily, I don’t have that problem. … I’ve been doing my own thing. Making my own moves … I wear what I want, say what I want, and I will not hesitate to do a spontaneous cartwheel if I feel so moved.
The humorous conclusion to this opening narrative can distract the audience from the problematic assumptions it conveys. From this moment forward, audiences realize that Mei is not free to wear, say, or do what she wants because her mother Ming is an overbearing control freak. The audience is then set to cheer Mei on toward freedom from her mother to get her own way and to be able to wear, say, and do whatever she so desires.
America has been divided over the past two years during the pandemic between those who proclaim their freedom to wear what they want (i.e., to not wear masks) and those who believe that we should be responsible to our neighbors and wear masks. Yet people are rooting for Mei to have the opportunity to wear whatever she wants.
Of course, that is not reality. We all must wear certain things in certain places: You cannot go shirtless on airplanes; you cannot teach public school with low-cut blouses or miniskirts; you cannot dress up as the murderer from Scream and preach from the pulpit. We have all had to learn to place restrictions on our personal autonomy to function well together in society.
The impetus for Mei’s freedom comes from an unexpected source: her inherited ability to transform into a red panda whenever she experiences a strong emotion. From the perspective of the director (Domee Shi, who cowrote the story with Julia Cho), the panda transformation symbolizes coming of age: “this experience of growing up, of suddenly waking up one day and realizing you grew a couple of feet, you’re covered in body hair, and you’re hungry all the time.”
Normally when teenagers begin this process of metamorphosis, the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, etc.) teach them how to control their urges. In the movie, Mei expresses her newfound sexual desires by fantasizing about half-naked boys with mermaid tails. By contrast, in a Christian sexual ethic, we submit our desires to God. Under a self-disciplined will, we wait and look forward to their fulfillment in the proper time and place.
Instead, Turning Red portrays the limitation of our urges as a form of oppression, denouncing any attempts to regulate another’s actions. The enemy is the mother, who explains to Mei, “There’s a darkness to the panda. … You only have one chance to banish it. … Otherwise, you’ll never be free.” This belief—that self-mastery leads to freedom—follows millennia of tradition.
Turning Red opts for a different approach. Mei says, “We’ve all got an inner beast. We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out.” The goal, the film suggests, is to let out the beast.
Yet only Mei exercises the privilege to let out her beast. The film would have fallen apart if her mother Ming were permitted the same freedom to let out her inner beast, which is the size of King Kong and destroys much of the city in one night. Apparently, there’s an unknown standard for who gets to release the beast within.
The film ends with a call for viewers to do like Mei and free their beasts within. “People have all kinds of sides to them. And some sides are messy,” Mei reflects. “The point isn’t to push the bad stuff away. It’s to make room for it, live with it.”
We can pretend that children’s films don’t deal with philosophy, but these explicit claims in the film are hard to ignore. While I applaud the realistic admission that we all have inner mess, the encouragement should be toward self-control and social harmony. This film does little more than normalize our #momfail culture.
Children repeat what they see and hear. In Frozen, I was grateful when Elsa’s victorious belting of “Let It Go” was shown to be disastrous for the community and not a laudable theme song, so I don’t grimace every time my kids dance to it.
However, I was not happy when Frozen II pretended that the answer to Elsa’s discomfort in her life was that “you are the one you’ve been waiting for … all of your life.” You cannot be waiting to meet yourself. The story is much better than that: You’re waiting for the One who made you. When choosing films for our children, as Christians, we need to consider the worldview being broadcast to their imaginations.
I expected Turning Red to be about a young girl learning to be a proud Asian teenager growing up in Toronto. Instead, the story shows a preteen discovering the benefits of capitalism, exploitation, and hedonism. When Mei wants to go to a boy band concert against her controlling parents’ wishes, she disobeys and lies to them, extorts money from her schoolmates, sells her image like a wannabe influencer, and embraces the part of herself that always wanted to twerk.
By the movie’s end, Mei has degraded the ancient practices of her ancestors into a money-making endeavor and transformed her family temple into an irreverent, Disneyesque tourist site. When her mother tries to advise her, she responds, “My panda, my choices” (a vaguely veiled affirmation of the pro-choice movement slogan “My body, my choice”).
Although Mei’s mother is a caricature of a helicopter mom, her poor parenting should not excuse Mei’s bad decisions. Nor should Mei’s choices be seen as though they could occur without negative consequences.
If parents want to show Mei as a model because she is an Asian girl hero coming into her own, in spite of her unbiblical projections, they should at least consider the costs and talk about her failings.
After watching Turning Red, I discussed with my children the characteristics in her that I considered unworthy of imitation. While none of us is perfect, we should all look to imitate models of people who pursue goodness.
When I ask my children, “Whom do you want to be like when you grow up?” I want the answer to be Jesus. Instead of liberating the messy beast within them, I hope that the films they see, the books they read, and the music they listen to will be pointing toward a higher end.
Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas and author of several books, including The Scandal of Holiness.