Artwork by Chicken Draws
This article will contain spoilers for Turning Red, as well as discussion of neglect and eugenics with regards to neurodivergent people.
I don’t pretend to be a movie buff. But when the latest inimitable concoction from the wizards at Pixar left me thinking deeply for multiple days, I started to see where those types are coming from.
Since popping onto the Disney+ streaming service on March 10, Turning Red has won praise on a lot of fronts: it continues Pixar’s art of telling stories in a realistically diverse world, it talks about periods openly at a time when many people still see them as taboo, and it’s caused audiences to go gaga for a fictional 2002 boy band. Can it get any better?
I watched this film with a good friend and fellow psychology student. We’re both neurodivergent (I’ll politely assume you’re familiar with this terminology. If not, please skim-read here). As the credits music thudded through the living room, we confirmed to each other what we’d both been thinking: the trials faced by Mei are an excellent window into growing up as a neurodivergent (or ‘ND’) in a world that only occasionally understands, and often would rather you didn’t exist.
Melodramatic? No. Take for example the scene where Mei’s well-intentioned parents shut her in an empty room to sleep, fearful of the panda within her – of who she is. Many neurodivergents will have had similar experiences of isolation or containment in small rooms, as opposed to human help and compassion-led therapeutic strategies. Most notably this is the standard practice of Assessment and Treatment Units in the UK, where conditions that are illegal to keep dogs in were and still are routinely used to detain vulnerable autistic and/or learning-disabled people who have committed no crime, often for years. The victims leave, if they do so alive, with worse mental health than they were admitted for – funded in large part by the taxpayer.
The movie’s main conflict is how Mei can hope to contain her new, bigger, fluffier self – ‘staying calm’ ultimately isn’t going to cut it. Her family insists that at the next red moon, a traditional ritual can be performed at their temple, which will banish the panda to the confines of a piece of jewellery – something all Mei’s female relatives have already done. They tell her it is the only way to move on from this ‘curse’ – in other words, to be cured, to become normal. Mei’s mother Ming is particularly anxious that her daughter undergoes the ritual, as she fears losing their close bond. A cure for neurodivergence is thankfully not reality at the time of writing, but it’s a concern that presses on the minds of many in the community. When we say that we are not looking to have our natures cured, we too are more often than not told we don’t know what’s good for us. Despite some slick PR, the people behind subtly eugenicist schemes such as the AIMS-2 trials and Spectrum10K overlook how what makes us abnormal in relation to 85% of society is actually how we can invent new machines, run vast operations or give breathtaking performances. Being neurodivergent enables us to be our best selves, because it is who we are.
The dilemma presented in Turning Red allows ND viewers to toy with the question of what they would do if they were able to ‘banish’ their ‘panda’. As with many issues, the medium of animation (it’s not a genre) provides a layer of abstraction through which one can comfortably think about uncomfortable things. I have no doubt that at least a few NDs, especially women, would jump at the chance to remove from themselves what they only see as an embarrassing hindrance. It’s sad to think that people of any minority group can have that intensity of self-loathing, but it is realistic. Others would not necessarily be there themselves, but as we see in the film, families can put a lot of pressure on a vulnerable person to do ‘the right thing’, even when their intentions are benign and born out of worry. This conversation is related to masking, which is devastating to a person’s mental health if it is done extensively. In my own experience, I didn’t grow up masking, but I’ve done it as an experiment and, as someone who is openly neurodivergent all the time, it feels like drowning. Imagine having to go through the school system like that, when your mind is still developing. For many children, this isn’t imaginary.
But Turning Red’s story ends happily, with Mei being loved in both human and panda form by her family. We see that growing into and accepting her genetic difference has allowed her to be the best version of herself. Visitors rush to her family’s temple, where Mei is the assistant keeper, and her friends love her all the more for her newfound confidence, creativity and sense of fun. While Mei’s relatives choose to continue keeping their ‘wild’ sides quiet, they no longer carry their self-imposed stigma and their relationships are stronger than ever. As Mei says to her mother when going out with her friends (sporting her fluffy ears and tail), “My panda, my rules.” Meanwhile in our world, families with many neurodivergent members are now feeling that they too can be visible. Slowly, tantalisingly, attitudes are changing. The curse being lifted is that of shame.
Or to put it another way: divergent forever, assimilate never.
If you’d like to get to know the history of neurodiversity, I highly recommend NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. Through richly-detailed, true stories, you can explore the past, present and possible future of neurodivergent people around the world. Find it here (affiliate link).