Sierra is a lover of books and movies who likes to provide thought-provoking analysis about the way our stories speak to our everyday lives.
What is Turning Red Actually About?
Pixar's direct to Disney Plus release has caused some debate. People boycotting Disney say Turning Red pushes a "woke" agenda. Others applaud the movie as relatable. What's the story actually about and what do leading child development theories have to say about it?
Thirteen year old Meilin works with her mother, Ming Lee, running the family's traditional Chinese temple in Toronto. She soon learns the family secret: strong emotions turn the women in her family into giant red pandas! There's a way to cure it, but until they can perform the ritual, she's stuck shapeshifting at the most awkward moments.
Is "Turning Red" About Periods?
Director Domee Shi confirmed the panda is a metaphor for how we deal with "Everything we inherit from our moms," not just puberty. That said, the movie does reference periods. In one scene, a terrified Meilin locks herself in the bathroom after shapeshifting. Ming Lee bursts in, armed with pads, enthusiastically proclaiming a woman is a "Delicate flower" who needs to "Wash her petals." Meilin hides in the shower, and shoos her mother away before anything else is said about it. Nobody ever says "Period," but there are some gags, later, about offering extra pads. The movie somehow manages to acknowledge periods while still being less informative than a Tampax commercial.
Is "Turning Red" About Sex?
There's no sex in Turning Red. There's not even kissing, unless you count Meilin's notebook doodle of her crush. When her mom confronts her about the drawings, she's more embarrassed than anything else, and clearly has no intention of doing anything. The girls have crushes, and scream over boy bands, but nobody actually does or talks about anything sexual. They're content to admire boys from afar.
Social Learning Theories Explain Why Teenagers Act That Way
Parents concerned about bad influences might agree with Bandura and Vygotsky. Lev Vygotsky theorized that new behaviors are learned when others encourage them. Basically, learning things with help makes you capable of doing things without help. Similarly, Albert Bandura's social learning theory claims children naturally imitate behaviors they see. It defines behavior as the result of how a person experiences outside influences. Both theories emphasize the role of the impressionable child mind.
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She Gets it From Her Mom
Meilin's mother teaches her to run the temple. Ming Lee encourages her to clean up the grounds, pray at the shrine, and promote the location to tourists. She sets examples for her daughter, and walks her through them. These skills are eventually used without Ming Lee's approval, once Meilin can do them without her help. Much to her mother's dismay, Meilin uses the business savvy she learned from her mom to "Hustle the Panda" for concert ticket money.
That's because Meilin is obsessed with 4 Town, a boy band popular with her friends. Meilin also develops a crush on a boy she was previously disinterested in, after watching her friends swoon over him. Bandura would agree these influences are just as important as her mother's influence. The girls bond over their music, and use each other as examples for how to act. In sociology, this is known as a reference group; a collection of similarly situated individuals who pick up social cues from one another. It's not just for friends, either! Why does Meilin hide from her mom, when she's nervous about being judged? Probably because Ming Lee hides from her own mom, and Meilin is unconsciously referencing that behavior.
Meilin Has an Identity Crisis; Erikson Says That's Totally Normal
Different reference groups can have different effects on people, however, depending on their situation. Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development suggest that, at Meilin's age, friends are actually more important than parents. Thirteen year old Meilin is in the "Identity vs Role Confusion" stage; where people constantly compare themselves to their peers, and develop unique identities as individuals. That means a teen's main struggle is figuring out their role in life; something we clearly see in the movie. Meilin can't bear to tell her mom that she uses memories of her friends, not her family, to calm down. She also makes a valiant effort to explain her responsibilities to her friends, and explain "4 Town" to her mom. She doesn't find a balance between these two roles until she embraces her unique identity.
Practically an Adult: Piaget Defines Development in Stages
According to Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development, kids older than 11 have mastered the concrete operational stage, and are in the formal operational stage. They're moving past the black-and-white rationality of childhood, and learning to embrace abstract thoughts. We see this with Meilin; who gets amazing grades, loves her friends and family, and always does her work. Everything is simple until it's not.
When her social life clashes with her family life, Meilin is forced to rationalize, and set priorities. She starts asking things like "If they don't trust us anyway, then what's the point?" and forming long-term plans to achieve her goals. This characteristic transition from concrete to formal operational is a developmental coming of age. According to Piaget, Meilin is right to say she's "Practically an adult."
A Realistic Picture of Teen Development, Overall
Aside from literally shapeshifting into a panda, Meilin isn't much different from most teenagers. The kids have developmentally realistic interests. Their parents have legitimate concerns. The characters have realistic moral conflicts that, judging by the controversy, carry over to audiences. Is that a bad influence, or is it good storytelling?
© 2022 Sierra K Juarez