Embracing Our Inner Child: A Review of Pixar’s movie Turning Red

*Movie Spoilers Ahead*

As I am approaching 40, my TGIF nights look a lot different these days. Watching a new movie on Friday night with the kids might hit you with adult messages you don’t remember catching when you were a child on a random 90’s TGIF night. Pixar’s new movie Turning Red came out not long after Disney’s Encanto had the older Millennial generation sobbing through songs on their cream colored canvas Pottery Barn couches. We got the message from Encanto on why we must be the alchemist to heal generational trauma and just after we got Luisa’s song out of our heads, Pixar crept in months later to keep us doing this work for the conscious collective with Turning Red.

Mei opens up the movie telling us that in her family the most important rule is to honor your parents, no matter what. She foreshadows her journey with, “don’t forget to honor yourself, first.” Oh MeiLin Lee, say more, I am literally taking notes. I knew this story was going to connect me to my inner teen and I just had no idea how much I would tap in!

So much of re-parenting ourselves is about living in our joy and re-claiming moments in our childhood where our joy was shamed, halted, quieted or just an afterthought.

From the beginning of the movie we see  many instances where Mei straddles the duality of her bi-cultural life as a Chinese Canadian 13 year old who lives next door to the temple where she works with her parents after school. At school she has a group of friends who “get” her and love all of her. They know her authentic self and she sees herself in them, too.

Mei has a good thing going, at school her friends are her ride or dies, they love 4-Town and know all the dance moves. When Mei is with her friends, she is silly and giggly and drools over hot boys! I felt connected to Mei through 4-Town, I know her joy well as I recall my teenage days rewinding the N*SYNC live concert VHS tape because me and my friend Monica loved the part where JC Chasez grinded his junk on the stage floor which was actually (on purpose) a see-through floor so the camera would do close ups. Oh yeah, Monica and I knew all the parts in the concert that were steamy and downright HOT! NSYNC could make me panda like no other!

Before NSYNC, I remember being in love with Immature, an Inglewood based R&B group I followed in middle school. One day they were playing at Knott’s Berry Farm for only 50 cents, 50 centavos! I begged my parents to let me go to the concert and surprisingly they took me and watched the show with me. Now I don’t remember my parents at the concert, I just know they stayed with me, but in that moment, my spirit was on stage dry humping Marques “Batman” Houston and I was living my best life!! That feeling was so freeing and yes when we let our red panda out, they grow big and bold!

If what we see in Mei at school is her authentic spirit that sings and dances with her best friends, what we see at home is the shapeshifting Mei does as soon as she steps off the bus. Sure, she doesn’t hate having to do things with, or for,  her family, like she says, “sometimes my time is hers, too.” Annnd that was it for me, a predetermined role, set upon us by our parents. I know the feeling of the mask I had to put on at home and I often started prepping myself moments before I walked in the door. What so many of us leave behind after we have a great visit with our friends is our vulnerability and visibility. I mean that when we were teens with friends who really “got us” we felt seen, valued and that allowed us to be vulnerable and build genuine connection with our friends. This connection was always misunderstood or minimized by my mom, and it hurt. I saw the hurt in Mei’s face as her mother criticized her friends whom she has some of her best memories with! We see Mei’s mother with an anxious preoccupied attachment to MeiMei (as her mom still calls her). She wants to control all of Mei’s moves “out of love” and Mei is to honor that. When does the cost of abandoning one’s self to get your mom’s approval or even just some comfort leave us in debt to our true self? 

Mei is discovering herself in puberty and her mother is so wrapped up in her own anxiety about controlling Mei’s daily life that she doesn’t even realize how she mortified her own daughter at the corner store. Yet Mei doesn’t tell her, she doesn’t speak up for herself. She self-abandons to stay in graces with her mother. She has a visceral reaction (gritting her teeth, scratching her thighs through her tights, racing heart) and she stuffs it down to please her mother and stay in the role as “the good daughter.” That is where our inner child wounds show up, in those quiet moments in the car where we wrestle with speaking up and the tornado it may cause if we do, so we don’t. It’s those moments in the car when Mei ignores her body’s cues that she is in conflict with her true authentic self and what her mother wants. That feeling of wanting your mother’s approval and still feeling incomplete, because when we self-abandon to please others our inner child is lost.

Mei gives herself a shame pep talk in the mirror and tells herself to stop being hormonal and be who her mom wants her to be, “you are her pride and joy so act like it!” She sees her journal full of her drawings and self-expressions that were turned into a school joke and claims,  “this will never happen again!”

I know I could relate with Mei’s mortification and conflict, and can’t so many of us? When puberty came around so much of our own parents’ projections were thrown onto us. Their fears became (and have become) our fears. There is a deep collective loneliness of having all these big human emotions and not being able to ask questions at home. That’s why as teenagers, our friendships were so important to our development. Who else could understand my compulsion with calling TRL to request N*Sync’s latest video every day but my just as pervy friends?! 

Re-Parenting in Practice

Mei becomes the red panda and while embarrassed, realizes she can harness the power of the panda when she meditates and feels calm. Reparenting is a daily practice of getting your needs met through mindful self-talk that regulates the inner child. Reparenting can be taking a deep breath and placing your hand on your tummy and kindly asking yourself, “what do you want to eat today, little one?” It can also be taking yourself to the bathroom to cry and then holding yourself with compassion and calmly talking yourself through a sensible plan to complete the expected tasks. The thing about reparenting is we talk to ourself from the voice of a most commonly coined “Loving Inner Mother,” except in Mei’s life, she visualizes her three loving friends as her Loving Inner Mentors and that is how she can really explore all the benefits of living life as a proud red panda (inner child/authentic self).

She visualizes her friend’s Miriam, Abby, and Priya sitting with her when she needs to regulate herself. Her friend’s represent that compassionate loving presence she needs to stay true to herself. When we are doing the work of reparenting, we are offering our inner child empathy and self-compassion in all moments until they feel seen, heard, and calm.

Before puberty Mei wanted nothing more than her mother’s approval and after that night, after tapping into her red panda spirit, she uncovered something she wanted more, self-actualization, the right to become the person she wants and expresses herself in all their bigness, panda and all!

Can we think about how much shame our inner teen carries from the messages that emerged and smacked us in the face as soon as our red peony bloomed? Well no wonder we created beliefs about what that meant of us, we went from believing that everything our parents said were facts to these unforged feelings and hormones that cause embarrassment. There are many confusing messages about shame as a teen that Mei is carrying.

The way Mei taps into her red panda fluidly is the practice of daily reparenting. Mei’s grandmother tells her she knows Mei has been tapping into her red panda and warns her that if she does it too much, it will grow and she won’t be able to control it. The work of reparenting is exactly that, letting our red panda grow and explore and expand in crowds and to take up space! The elders fear growing the red panda because in their time to be children, they weren’t allowed to test out their pandas 360 degrees. Sun Lee, however, the ancestor who gifted the panda knew the true gift the panda holds, connection with your children and the capacity for big expression and expansion. Mei is the family’s gift to reconnect themselves to Sun Lei’s pre-colonial gifts.

Reparenting our inner child is holding space for our inner child with daily loving kindness and compassion which is simultaneously us doing the work of generational healing. We are going against what our elders advise as a radical act of healing ourselves and in return healing our lineage.

Generational Healing by Embracing Our Inner Panda

Mei realizes her red panda is a lot of her emotions that are a part of her that she doesn’t want to give up. Her red panda is symbolic of her inner child spirit. Although her red panda spirit is her most vulnerable side, she realizes it is also who she is to her core and losing her red panda would mean stuffing her true self, her sweet, inner child away just like the other women in her family. Her red panda may be too big for the room, they get lost in play, show her angry parts, like gyrating to 4-Town, and yet it’s all those big parts of her that keep her connected to her joy, her fun, and most importantly for a teenager, her friends. Her red panda is very much her mindfulness youthful way of living in the present moment and all its emotions. 

Mei’s mother grows angry that Mei disobeyed her. Haven’t we seen this in our own mothers and maybe have not called it their inner child grieving? Mei’s mother’s own hurt inner child/red panda has been present with Mrs. Lee while she raised MeiMei. Min Lee’s fearful, perfectionist inner child is around when she is repeating the relationship she had with her own mother and succeeded just as her mother did in raising a daughter to seek her mother’s approval and didn’t realize until it was in her face that it never ended and felt unfulfilling. By Mei “disobeying” her mother or following her own intuition towards self acceptance, Mei is capable of reaching depths of compassion for her mother and her mother’s wounded inner child that could only have been achieved through Mei’s daring stance to choose to live in  her inner child’s truth! 

The scene where Mei is in the bamboo forest had me in tears. I felt so connected to the women in that moment for it was just this month, after years of my own re-parenting and daily meditations for self-compassion that I too saw my own mother’s inner child in meditation one night. And like Mei I sat with my mother’s inner child and just witnessed, saw, heard, and loved on my mother’s inner child. It was a night I will never forget and for Pixar to show the depths that choosing your joy and braving the waves of change to come and possibly bring your mother around to your perspective, wow, Pixar is getting spiritual in these films and maybe that is what has some people uncomfortable.

Mei standing up to her mother in that moment was her choosing to live her life as her true self, regardless if her mother approved. Although Min Lee grew into her own angry red panda, I see her anger and sadness directed at herself for being lost for so long. Mrs. Lee’s role in her lineage was to suppress her red panda just like everyone else and survive. Mei choosing her own path tapped into her mother’s own fear and anger from her childhood. We alchemist daughters are privileged to walk on the coals towards intentional self compassion and joy. I imagine the hurt my mother must have swallowed every time she had to stay at a role that shrunk her because my dad said she had to. For me to have a choice is another painful reminder of our duality. While they are happy for our chance to curate our own life, the grief we feel for lost time being at peace can be more than some mothers can process and that is their inner child wound at the core. If our mothers feel negative feelings about us living in our purpose, it is a projection of their own wounded child because their role in their generation was to survive and get to a point of secure status whether that is financially or a title that shows their sacrifices were worth it. And while it is written, the heaviness of that last sentence cannot be weighed but it is most certainly felt. It’s passed on to the first-generation children as a guilt for joy and new experiences our parents didn’t get. That mindset is not moving our lineage forward. 

Honoring Generational Sacrifices

Turning Red does a wonderful job of showing generational sacrifices our elders have made for us to be in this very position to be able to keep our inner pandas and heck, even embrace them! We see her mother, grandmother and aunties all briefly become their red pandas and in that we realize they did not get to embrace their red pandas and the grief that comes from having to part with your inner child and grow up so fast while suppressing all the big emotions life allows was bound to be reflected somewhere in their lives.

After puberty, all the women had the ritual to keep their red pandas away and not let them out. That is generational trauma that forced our parents and grandparents and so on to have had to suppress their red panda (inner child ) to keep going, to survive. As immigrants, marginalized people, people living in colonized conditions, we can’t let our red panda out all willy nilly, it could be dangerous, it could be disrespectful, it could carry too much grief to have to put it all  back in to step back into reality. For many, it’s best kept down. They didn’t get to live in all the big emotions the red panda offers. That’s their sacrifice in this lineage.

So if Mei choosing to keep her red panda is taboo in her lineage, why does her great ancestor Sun Lee welcome her with a soaring embrace?

Mei chooses to keep her red panda  (her inner child/her true self/her spirit) and for a second wonders if she will regret this decision, as she is the first in the family! And she dares greatly to choose to keep her true inner child spirit and her ancestors welcome her to her role in her generational healing; being expansive! Our role in this generational healing is intentional radical JOY! We can honor our ancestors daily by living in the life they wanted for us pre-colonization. They wanted a life of expansive possibilities, not scarcity mindsets. Inner Child Joy is very much part of our generational evolution from trauma to radical possibilities. The next generation won’t be “healing their inner child,” they will be living in their present inner child and expanding the gifts of authenticity they share with the next generation; that is expansion.

Many people may feel strongly that honoring our ancestors is to keep stressing, struggling, hustling and while I respect that, just as Sun Lee held Meilin Lee, I hold your inner child with a warm mama panda embrace and say, “you have done enough, you can rest now. You can indulge in what makes your heart sing. I am here to watch you shine.”

Thank you Pixar’s Turning Red for showing us that embracing our inner child is our role in healing our elders and embracing our future possibilities with joy and loving kindness.

Your Loving Inner Child Hype Woman,

Cynthia Perez, LCSW

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