Disney made a movie about menstruation and — surprise, surprise — American evangelicals got upset. The movie, Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi (a Chinese Canadian filmmaker), is the first full-length Pixar film to be directed by a woman. Let that sink in.
Turning Red is a coming-of-age story surrounding Mei Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian living in Toronto. One day Mei wakes up to discover that when she feels strong emotions, she turns into a giant red panda.
Some of our male readers may be wondering how I know this story is about menstruation. Well, the movie is about an eighth-grade girl who wakes up one day to find that she has a generational blessing that only affects the women in her family. It is big, red, inconvenient and accompanied by strong emotions.
Everyone who has ever been a 13-year-old girl knows this is about menstruation. Sure, the red panda represents the trials of puberty and growing up more broadly but, y’all, there’s no escaping the big red symbolism of the panda.
The fact that the movie so blatantly takes on a female bodily cycle seems to have triggered evangelicals in a new way.
Evangelicals and our larger American culture both have a fear of and an infatuation with women’s bodies. Many of the negative reviews of the film coming from Christian circles revolved around how the subject matter was not fit for younger audiences. Among several reviewers, there was a tendency to make an immediate jump from periods to sex, sometimes in outlandish ways.
This squeamishness over women’s bodies doing what they do is not new and not relegated strictly to evangelicals. Consider, for example, Sally Ride, the first American woman to travel to space in 1983. In the time leading up to her trip, the engineers asked her if 100 tampons would be the right amount for a six-day trip. And women everywhere cackle. Should NASA engineers know enough about menstruation to discern that 100 tampons is overkill? It would be nice.
“The fact that the movie so blatantly takes on a female bodily cycle seems to have triggered evangelicals in a new way.”
Or, consider the 1965 landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut which made birth control more widely available to women. In an audio recording, as the all-male Supreme Court justices discuss birth control, there is a lot of throat-clearing indicating the justices’ radical discomfort with the topic of women’s reproductive cycles. After an awkward and fumbling explanation of how women can procure birth control, one justice admits that he “just doesn’t know about” how women deal with feminine hygiene and the like. You can hear the audio clip here at minute 31:38. Should our Supreme Court Justices understand female anatomy well enough to talk about feminine hygiene in a recorded deliberation? I have no faith that the current male justices could get through a conversation about feminine hygiene without the same level of discomfort and ignorance.
In a similar vein, in 2017, a now infamous photo displayed an all-male White House meeting discussing maternity care for women. Perhaps such a lack in gender diversity would not have been a problem if women had any faith that men understood how women’s bodies work. We don’t, and it’s 2022.
Evangelicals do no better when it comes to talking about women’s bodies. It is little wonder that some evangelical reviews went directly from watching a 13-year-old girl “get her panda,” have a crush and swoon over a boy band, to deeming the film inappropriate because of sexual content.
For instance, Mei has a crush on a boy. She draws him shirtless and as a merman. She turns red and starts to sweat because of her attraction. One Christian review interpreted this scene as depicting Mei’s first orgasm. This “hot-take” has been shared more than 5,000 times in just the first days after the movie’s release. The evangelical ability to misunderstand female sexual pleasure never fails to impress.
From purity balls, to strict dress codes, to lambasting any display of female sexuality (especially if it is not white), evangelicals have shown that women’s bodies are things to be feared and controlled.
The fact that Turning Red conceptualizes Mei’s period as a gift from her ancestor and not a curse shows how far apart the film’s interpretation of women’s bodies is from any evangelical construction.
Similarly, the film treats Mei’s disobedience to her mother as an important step in her developing autonomy. Evangelicals did not like this. There is an impulse within evangelicalism to control others through authority structures. Challenge to authority (whether the church, the Bible or one’s parents) is viewed as a threat to the entire system. So while Turning Red sees challenge and disobedience as an important part of individuation, evangelicals experience it as a threat.
If Turning Red had not highlighted a female bodily function in such an overt way, would evangelicals have been triggered? Was highlighting the female body and what it does the thing that started the hand-wringing? I tend to think so. Other movies have the theme of rebellion (The Little Mermaid, Brave, Tangled, to name a few). Other movies have the word “crap” in them. But none of them put women’s bodies and what they do front and center.
As a culture and as Christians we need to re-examine our relationship to women’s bodies. Are they a thing to be feared, policed and marginalized? Or, as Turning Red suggests, are they a gift, menstruation and all.
Anna Sieges serves as associate professor of religion at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C. She loves shopping, discussing the Bible and romantic comedies.
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