Pandas and Predecessors
There is much in Turning Red which is charming, admirable, and entertaining. The movie unpacks the value of friendship, the importance of honesty, and the centrality of family. That said, the film does posit several subtle (and other not-so-subtle) themes throughout which are worth considering. Interestingly, some of the more explicit comments are at the very end of the film. For example, after being reprimanded by her mother, Mei asserts, “My panda, my choice, mom,” no doubt an implicit endorsement of the “My body, my choice” slogan. Mei also says that “Nothing stays the same forever,” which is quite the bold claim. Certainly, many things do change and an individual’s development can be a healthy process. But there are a plethora of things in reality, in science, mathematics, theology, philosophy, for example, which include truths which will not change.
Perhaps the most significant claim is the final line of the story. 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. But I did. How ‘bout you?” In many ways this idea is innocuous and could even be healthy. Suppressing certain emotions can be damaging and is often indicative of some inner fear, embarrassment, or confusion. There are benefits to sharing our unique desires or thoughts in a safe setting.
However, this is not what Turning Red is truly advocating. Not only is this inner beast, this messy, weird part of ourselves supposed to be shared, it is supposed to be unleashed. Mei’s father advises her that “people have all kinds of sides to them, Mei, and some sides are messy. The point isn’t to push the bad stuff away, it’s to make room for it, live with it.”
There is a profound difference between sharing the inner parts of ourselves with the goal of unleashing and sharing with the goal of growth and self-control. The former path is indiscriminate in its acceptance and acting on inner desires, thoughts, and identities. The latter path advocates for discernment in the inner life, recognizing that not all of our innate dispositions are virtuous or wholesome. And that is the difference from what Mei is suggesting: she encourages what seems to be a full-scale acceptance of this beast within, with little to no restraints.
Living by the Spirit
In the context of a Disney movie with a young heroine, the notion of unleashing the inner beast can seem harmless, even amusing. However, consider what this would mean if each and every person embraced this perspective, where every inner, messy, loud, weird attribute was released. Imagine a world where the sole justification for acting on a desire was that this was simply part of unleashing one’s internal self. Imagine what sort of chaos would ensue in a world like this.
Acting on inner desires, sometimes justified as being authentic, is only admirable if those desires are virtuous, as opposed to being destructive to oneself or society at large. Without this qualification, it would seem any action is permissible on the grounds that the inner beast is in motion. Author Joseph J. Kotva Jr. explains there is a danger in making authenticity the ideal when he writes, “We cannot accept or sustain a society in which many people are ‘authentic’ and thus free to give themselves over to undisciplined urges and felt needs. If we are to secure a decent society, we need a population that internalizes moral principles and develops various virtues.”1
Jesus and his earliest followers took a similar approach, recognizing that not all internal inclinations are worth acting on. Peter explains that there are “sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Of course, each person has God-given gifts, desires, and passions, all of which are to be developed and shared. But this does not ignore other desires which are unhealthy, destructive, and broken. If we desire someone else’s car, that desire alone does not justify us stealing it. Desires require limits and parameters, otherwise they corrode to licentiousness. These desires are not to be indulged in as they are a part of the dominion of darkness, which is antithetical to human flourishing (Colossians 1:13). Instead, individuals are to walk in the light, in the way of Jesus. This path includes virtues such as: love, joy, peace, kindness—and most important to this discussion—self-control (Galatians 5:13-26).
This virtuous path requires training to distinguish what is the best path and to grow in integrity as opposed to giving rein to the unhealthy and broken aspects of ourselves (Hebrews 5:14). Paul calls this the transition from the old way of life, with all its destructive desires, to the new way, which imitates Jesus and his holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24). This perspective is in stark contrast to merely unleashing an inner beast with all its innate proclivities. Professor Rebecca DeYoung explains that in Christianity, “We are to shed the old nature—described in terms of the vices—and put on Christlikeness—the virtues.”2
There is much to celebrate and enjoy about Turning Red. Its diverse set of characters and the centrality of family and friends is encouraging. However, we must ask if the core theme being espoused, to let out our inner beast, makes sense with our lived experiences and moral standards. Instead of unleashing some beast from within there is a path which requires discernment of our internal desires. A path which is guided by the Holy Spirit within us (2 Timothy 1:14), leading to genuine flourishing and being truly human.
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