Turning Red and social theory: contextual incongruity, emotions, and media 

Image Source: Max Cortez for Unsplash.com

By Sebastián Ansaldo

The latest Pixar film, Turning Red, has caused an interesting discussion regarding issues of representation, character identification, portrait of adolescent life, etc. Some have even  pointed out that topics presented in the film, such as menstruation, teenage crushes, and sexuality, should not be part of a family film, and should instead be discussed in private. Even though these topics have taken up the bulk of the online conversation, in this post I want to address the film from a social theory perspective, considering its core problematic in my opinion: the new dynamics in intergenerational relations and changes produced by popular culture and media in how we relate with the world. Also, it is a great excuse to discuss emotion and reflexivity in our daily lives.

The film follows Meilin, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian student who, due to a curse, transforms into a giant red panda whenever she expresses any strong emotion. Her mother, aunts and grandmother have the same curse, but they have learned to suppress it. During the film, we see how Meilin transitions from being a submissive girl, obedient to her mother’s guidance and expectations, to developing a conduct and behaviour more consistent with her own self-perception and interests.

That description could be regarded as the perfect example of what Margaret Archer calls contextual incongruity. Unlike contextual continuity, in which the transmitted intergenerational guidelines shape and exert substantial influence on people when they have to seek vital projects and act to pursue them, in late modern societies, contextual incongruity describes how the patterns and references provided by previous generations are less and less useful, and therefore, wield less influence in the actions of the current generation. Thus, the burden of decision-making lays almost exclusively on the individual and not on family or kinship influence.

Beck has theorised the current process of individualisation and Giddens has written about detraditionalisation. However, as Archer indicates, the process is more than “serial reinvention” or “institutionalised individualism”. As we can see in the movie, it is not a standard, nor a homogeneous, process for every late modern society. The surrounding context and personal concerns mediate it

In the movie, we can see how the transit is mediated by friends’ relationships, media/popular culture products, and Meilin’s own self-realisation. The film is explicit and clear: Meilin starts refusing her mother’s principles and regulations when the relationship with her friends becomes more relevant and meaningful for her own flourishment. This is accompanied by the friends’ shared interest in a boy band, which of course, is not only a musical group, but also a media phenomenon. The film depicts how a significant part of the girls’ social world revolves around that boy band and how that interest shapes their vital experience.

We could ask ourselves about the normative aspects in media production and consumption, and question the appropriateness or validity of a model based on selling a superfluous and shallow lifestyle to young girls. However, even when that could be the case, it does not help us in understanding the phenomenon from the girls’ own perspectives and concerns. And, as Archer has explained, personal dispositions can be presented with the formula “context  + concerns” and personal dispositions that emerge from self-reflexivity can have causal powers in human conduct. Therefore, the analysis of concerns, interests or inclinations should be essential to social sciences because they have effects on the real world.

An interesting paradox of the film’s repercussion is the mentioned polemical presentation of issues around adolescence and rites of passage. As already mentioned, some have expressed that such topics should not be presented in all-audience films because it is a parental or familial responsibility. In this case, we can see how the film (a media product) could mediate in those rituals for the adolescent audience, and perhaps family guidance could lose influence. Therefore, the film is not only a representation of contextual incongruity; it might also be a potential agent of contextual incongruity, enabling the growing distance between intergenerational relations in specific contexts.

Another interesting element in the film is how it treats emotions. The red panda emerges every time Meilin experiences strong emotions. The obvious and kind of standard/cliché moral of the movie is to accept our own self, and in Meilin’s case, learning to embrace the panda and the emotions involved. Nevertheless, an alternative approach from social theory would be considering the ontological status of emotions and their influence on social life.

Andrew Sayer has written about the problem of emotivism, or the doctrine in which moral judgement is nothing but subjective expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feelings. Therefore, according to that doctrine, emotions and values have nothing to do with reason or cognition. In Sayer’s view, that perspective has a detrimental effect on social science because it prevents the identification of what matters to people and what things motivate them.

Again, the movie is helpful to exemplify the issue. Emotions in Meilin are not just isolated subjective states. They are about something located in the real world, whether the relationship with her mother, a loving figure or her enthusiasm for a boy band. Furthermore, her emotions not only have effects on her psychic state, but they also have material effects on the world; the ultimate and almost too obvious illustration of this being how she changes into a giant panda and the destructive (or constructive) implications of the transformation for the surrounding context.

Finally, despite the merits or demerits of the film as an artistic production, I think it is a good excuse to reflect on social theory, especially in terms of the impact of media in everyday life. Furthermore, it’s a good excuse for considering that media is not only embedded in our practices but also constitutes a relevant part of our self-reflexivity and social relations, moulding (not in a deterministic or homogenous way) our relationship with the world. 

Maybe the film is also a good excuse to invite readers to question media influence without the standard deterministic and functionalistic bias: 

  • What type of internal conversation do media products provoke in you? 
  • How does media act in conjunction with previous or adjacent interests or emotions?
  • Does media trigger something in our self-reflexivity? How does this enable or constrain certain actions in the real world? 
  • Does our relation with media have a causal influence regarding behaviours, conduct, relations, dispositions, etc? What other elements mediate our relationship with media and dispositions?  

Sebastian Ansaldo is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. He is part of CLAREC and the KPP cluster and his research interests are communications, media, education and critical realism.