Amy and I watched Turning Red this weekend. While geared to kids over 11, it’s a powerful movie that celebrates femininity. In a confused world that has lost the meaning of womanhood, this movie is a breath of fresh air.
Turning Red is mythology. Chanting, red pandas, red moons, and mystical experiences are parts in good mythology. A myth gives meaning to a set of events. Myths help us think about our lives. Pinocchio is a myth about honesty. Cinderella is a myth about true beauty. And Turning Red is a myth about the good of young women embracing their femininity.
Mei, the main character is a girl becoming a woman. Mei’s story finds meaning in her ancestor Sun Yee. Sun Yee’s husband goes to war; she is left to not only tend to the family home, but she is also the only one left to defend it. But, she is only a woman—powerless and weak to protect. So she prays to the gods. The gods grant her the power of the red panda. This power enables her to protect her family. Now all the women who are her descendants are given the red panda by the gods.
In myths, names matter. 孙 (sun) descendant and 伊 (yee) means she. Sun Yee is the first female descendant who has the red panda. This play on names is quintessential mythology. She’s an archetype of femininity. Her power is found in this gift. It is a gift that her female descendants receive.
Sun Yee receives her gift under the red moon. Menstruation is a Greek word that combines moon and power. The red moon refers to a woman whose period starts during the full moon. The first descendant found her ability in her menstrual blood. From her blood arises a red panda. Pandas in Chinese mythology are symbols of strength and protection. This myth says something like the physical space that makes creation possible is the space where feminine power arises. The components that make her female—her blood and her cycle—make her like a dangerous predatory bear.
You then have Mei’s mother. She is afraid of this strength and its danger. She was given the gift, but she fears it. The ancestors’ wisdom says the red panda should be contained and constrained. Ming constrains her red panda like the women before her with magical pendants. The pendant removes the dangerous power. Now, it’s something to look at. It is pretty but not dangerous.
If Mei embraces the red panda, she will cease to be the compliant and controllable child. She will be powerful, untamable. In Chinese mythology, the ancestors are often synonymous with the way things ought to be done. They want her power made into a trinket.
She tries to restrain her Red panda, but like the menstrual cycle, it will not be controlled. The red panda in Sun Yee’s story defends the home, the family. The red panda is the power of motherhood.
Who will defend life when the warrior is away? Mothers will. Who has the power to make, nurture, grow and sustain life? Mothers do. Who will do anything for a child? A mother will. This power of motherhood is beautifully seen when Ming becomes a red panda to get her child Mei. She is powerful and unstoppable. Her point of view is limited and obscured. She uses her power, arguably, wrongly. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. She’s ruled by fear. But make no mistake, she is powerful.
The story ends, and Mei does something dangerous. She embraces the power of her femininity. Mei breaks with tradition and, by doing so, becomes what tradition has forgotten. She will be a powerful woman. In the post-credits, the real woman, Mei, looks for the red panda’s treasure (her love interest is Jin which means gold). She begins the real journey of her life, seeking true love. It is the journey that will culminate in motherhood.
Turning Red is a coming-of-age story. It’s about the madness of adolescence and the needed journey from family to friends. It is a story about becoming a woman. In this new world, she can be powerful. She will be respected. Turning Red is a myth that tells us how good it is that women are women.