What We Can Learn From The Turning Red "Controversy"
So Pixar’s Turning Red kind of just snuck in on Disney+ and I honestly probably would have missed out on watching it except for all of the dang controversy around the film. Given my love of pretty much all things Japanese or really Asain adjacent, I’m really glad that I did. This is an excellent movie that is so obviously inspired by the art style that I grew up enjoying that I could honestly leave this movie muted and enjoy just looking at it. You could just feel the Ghibli oozing out of this one.
But that’s not enough. This movie has an incredibly important story to tell and if you’re missing the forest for the trees because your cousin’s uncle’s step-brother twice removed told you it’s about a menstrual cycle, then you’re missing out on a story about growing up and understanding your family. Is this movie filled with metaphors, familial disrespect, kaiju monsters, and self-discovery related to the Christian life? Yes, not really, definitely, and OOO yeah. Let’s talk about it.
Welcome to Checkpoint Church - where nerds, geeks, and gamers come together to talk about faith, games, and justice for Aaron T. - Every group needs a funny guy. I’m your Nerd Pastor Nate. If you like these weekly deepdives, be sure to sub and hit that bell to find out when our next one drops.
John 15:12-17 (NRSV)
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
So, what is Turning Red?
Turning Red is the latest computer-animated fantasy comedy film from the infamous Pixar Animation Studios.
Set in Toronto, Ontario, in 2002, Turning Red follows Meilin "Mei" Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian student who, due to a curse from her family lineage, transforms into a giant red panda when she expresses any strong emotion.
But that’s just the gist of the story - what Turning Red is ultimately about is our main character Mei growing up in a family with a rich and well-knit history. The viewer gets the closest look at the relationship between Mei and her mom Ming. Ming seems to want to be typecast as a strict and overbearing helicopter mom and she certainly does things that are ‘too far’ but I hope I’m not the only person that didn’t actually feel like she was mentally insane like this trope tends to typically represent - at the very least I didn’t find her to be toxic - she just has a growing curve.
As a confident middle schooler, Mei is growing into her own self while trying to keep a healthy balance of respect for her family that has raised her so far
That is, until she learns about the curse after a particularly unfortunate peep into her diary on her mother’s behalf. Mei has inherited the family curse that turns her into a giant red panda whenever she feels something strongly.
This feels like an obvious conundrum and a thing that Mei should want to control. And thankfully - Ming knows exactly to do that for her daughter. All of the females in the family go through the same process of capturing the emotive red panda into a talisman. It just has to be done on the same night as a red moon.
So Mei begins to wait for this, doing her best to control her emotions and contain the red panda for the time being.
That’s our A-Plot, but our B-Plot involves Mei and her besties desire to attend their first ever concert of the boy band 4*town. Ming, of course, refuses to pay for this concert, and so Mei begins to use her red panda as a means to an end to raise money for her and her friends to sneak out and go to the concert anyway
The way that everything together and climaxes in the end is fun and unexpected and I highly recommend that you give it a watch to experience the kaiju panda for yourself, but for our purposes in this video we really have to talk about the controversy behind this film
And specifically the controversy between these two people: Ming and Mei
Ming is an overprotective parent. Mei is a thirteen year old girl coming of age and trying to figure out life. There’s no doubt about that.
Inevitably, these two are going to butt heads. As a dad to almost two daughters, I cannot wait (help)
But simply by butting heads does not a bad movie make. The arguments that go on between these two are nuanced and complex and not wholly rational or irrational. They just are.
By the end of the movie, Ming has done a whole lot to both help and hurt her daughter Mei. Mei has done a lot of things that go above and beyond the level of consensual respect between a child and her parent and she’s also been disrespectful.
Why? Because human beings fail. I’m really not sure why that’s a controversy.
Nothing about the relationship between these two is anything darker or more controversial than the evil relationship between Cinderella and her stepmother. Or Gothel and Rapunzel. This is not new for kids movies, it’s an important story that we’ve learned from for a long time.
That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to feel uncomfortable during the story being told. A good story actually challenges the viewer to grow as a person as we witness our fictional characters growing as people.
So what kind of growth does happen here?
Mei learns that her mother’s protectiveness is an outpouring from the brokenness in her relationship with her own mother. Ming hurt her mom by giving into her red panda persona at some point and she’s spent an entire adulthood dealing and struggling with that weight. That weight which then manifested into an over obsession with the overachieving Mei who was happy to exchange attention for her good deeds.
In this way, Ming and Mei had a parasitic relationship. Ming was a broken person using Mei as a crutch of a happy, perfect childhood that she wished she had had. Mei was also a broken person using her mother Ming for attention and expectation that she either felt out of obligation or in order to receive praise. Both of these are normal, neither are healthy.
By the end of the movie, Mei’s rebellion ripped away the false reality that Ming had built for herself that Mei was a carbon copy of her as a child without the trauma. Unable to handle that kind of quick rip of the bandaid, she lashes out and makes mistakes.
With a bit of help from some other red pandas nearby, Mei is able to calm down her mother and work through the trauma together. Mei decides that she is going to keep walking down the path she has chosen for herself and Ming, in the end, finally realizes that she has to let her daughter go and live her life
And then the movie ends - and that’s the hardest part. Maybe that’s the reason behind the reason for the controversy. We don’t get to know how Ming and Mei are going to do when Mei gets her license. Or when Mei has her first boyfriend. Or when Mei goes to college. We don’t get that, but we want it because we know how hard it is both a parents or as kids who had people, broken, that raised us
But the movie doesn’t give us that - instead it shows us reconciliation and lets us move on with that alone.
The good news is that Jesus tells a very similar story that might lay things out for those of us not suffering from a giant red panda spirit passed down in our family lineage
Our scripture for this video is one of my very favorites, but it’s also one that has caused me a lot of trouble
Christian or not you’ve likely at least hear the quote that greater love has no one than this, one who would lay down their life for their friends
If you have your finger on the pulse of the Russian War on Ukraine, then you might have heard it this past week when President Vladimir Putin used it to encourage that this war was a good war
In United Methodist doctrine, we thankfully don’t believe any war is a good war and we certainly don’t believe that the greater love Jesus was talking about has anything to do with violence of human sin - in fact the language that we often use in the church is that it is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus
So then what is Jesus talking about here? Well, it’s actually more in line with the morals present in Turning Red than in Putin’s speech.
This passage starts with the commandment from Christ that we will love one another as Christ loved us.
Well that begs the question… how did Christ love us?
Well, the greater love of Christ has no one than this, than one who would lay down their life for their friends (sound familiar?)
Begs the question again… okay who are our friends?
Jesus says you are my friends… who is you? Just the disciples gathered around right then?
No, a friend to Jesus is someone who has taken on the livelihood of a servant, but has learned what the master is doing and, since knowing what the master is doing, has chosen to continue a life of service.
Let’s break it down:
Jesus to the disciples: love one another as I loved you
Jesus love = sacrifice and servanthood in knowledgeable friendship
That love then makes the next servant into a friend, because if we love as Jesus loved, we’re teaching and bringing people into the fold of friendship with Christ
So, generation by generation, if we follow the commandment to love one another as Christ loved, we should be perpetuating that same cycle of love to the next one and the next one and the next one
And this love takes us from servanthood to friendship - by what means? Knowledge.
Okay, back to Turning Red. We have two histories going on in this family - one is the history of the disastrous red panda curse. This is one rooted in fear and unknowing. It’s a secret being kept between Ming and her mother Wu who are afraid of something that happened a long time ago.
Then there’s the rich history of a family legend that has been carried down from one to the next. It’s one of honoring the past, sharing the love and strong powerful emotions present in each one. The red panda wasn’t a means of offense, but of a prayer for the ability to defend the children of the family. It’s not a curse, it’s a gift.
Once the honesty is shared, the brokenness in the family is able to be healed at last. It no longer becomes a curse, but instead the gift that it is. A gift that each member of the family has the choice to reject or embrace - because it’s done in a way that allows for servanthood and humility.
So what we have in this story is growth from one place to another. Mei grows from someone who serves her family into someone that begins entering into friendship with that family.
Even Ming grows from a place of servanthood and guilt for her mother Wu into a place of friendship with her mother now that forgiveness has been offered and accepted.
See, when we started the movie, there was love. That’s why I didn’t think the overprotective mother was crazy problematic. Love was there, I believe that.
But by the end of the film, there is a greater love. A love that rises above the violence of untruth, of secrets, of guilt, of pain, of denial, of expectation - a love greater than all of those things. A love that mirrors the love Jesus offers and commands of us.
We’re called directly by Jesus in this passage to rise above all of the garbage and love like servants until those people we love become servants, learns why we’re servants, and enter into friendship with us and the body of Christ. That’s what the church is at the end of the day.
That’s why we don’t proclaim once saved always saved, it’s a complete change and entering into a new and greater relationship with others in holy community.
That’s what we’re doing at Checkpoint Church. It’s why we pray for each other daily. It’s why we’re always hanging out in Discord and encouraging one another in the Twitch chat. We’re serving one another - and if you aren’t there yet, that’s okay. We’re going to keep serving you until you enter into the knowledge of why we serve and then you enter into a place of holy friendship with Jesus Christ.
So, whether you’re in a boy band, an actual red panda, or still struggling through those middle school years, know that you’re always welcome here at Checkpoint Church
Thanks - now what?
We stream on Twitch MTW
Question: Which 4*town member is your favorite and why is it Aaron T?
Outro - Clip: