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Mommy Issues: How Disney is Portraying Generational Trauma

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

Why are Apologies a Millenial Fantasy?

Disney has been known for bringing generational fantasies to the silver screen. For Boomers, (people born between 1955-1964), it was finding love in a nuclear family such as Snow White (1938). For Millennials (1981-1996), it was risking it all for romance like The Little Mermaid (1989). In recent films such as Encanto (2021) and Turning Red (2022), the theme seems to be generational trauma. More specifically, a fantasy in which parents apologise to their children. 

Encanto follows the story of Mirabel Madrigal, the only non-magical family member in the well-respected Madrigal family who all possess powers ranging from superstrength, changing the weather and shape-shifting. Mirabel is ultimately seen as ‘non-special’ and lesser than, especially in the eyes of her abuela (grandmother) Alma, who puts family prestige above all – so much so that this isn’t the first time she has driven away family members for the sake of the greater good. Throughout the film, Mirabel learns to love herself despite her lack of magic and her grandmother’s stern judgement, and in turn helps other family members discover their identities outside of their magical powers as well. As a result, the family learns to communicate about past wrongdoings, accept family members who were shunned and work towards healing the magic and their relationships with each other. 

Turning Red follows the story of Meilin (Mei) Lee, a thirteen-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl navigating her heritage, puberty and how to manage turning into a giant red panda the moment she shows any strong emotion. The focus here is on the relationship between Mei and her mother Ming, who are shown to have a strong relationship when Mei is a child and Ming has more control over Mei’s life. This proves to be a rocky foundation once Mei becomes of age and starts seeking independence via her friends, her love of boy-bands and “gyrating”. The panda that was once seen as a blessing amongst the women in their family is now seen as an inconvenience in the West. Many have taken to literally and figuratively sealing away their panda because of the potential harm it could inflict on others, due to the fights it has caused between generations of mothers and daughters. Eventually, it is embracing the panda that leads to family bonding and healing. 

Both films deal with the complex reality of growing up (especially in a family of colour, and in Turning Red’s case as an immigrant in the diaspora), and the way grudges and fears can be carried on from a family’s past and can affect children to this day. Naturally, these films have produced a visceral and emotional reaction from audiences, both young and old, who were able to see themselves and their family members in the characters. So, why the fuss?

Mental Health in Film

Both films are not the House of Mouse’s first venture into trying to capture raw emotions in film. After all, who could forget Inside Out (2017), which was affectionately dubbed “what if feelings had feelings” by audiences. While the film was a massive box office hit that tugged on the heart strings and echoed growing pains for thousands, the focus had not been placed on the idea of parents being in the wrong. According to a study conducted by the University of Reading in 2017, when parents place unrealistic expectations on their children, it has more adverse effects than good. One in five millennials experience some form of depression and/or anxiety as a result.  While not an isolated experience, it cannot be denied that the millennials who created these films are now in a position to express how those unrealistic expectations and family trauma have affected them through the medium of film. 

Turning Red director Domee Shi, who is also a Chinese-Canadian child of immigrants who grew up in the early 2000’s, stated that she created Mei to be a reflection of her experience, as well as the other Asian women who worked on the film with her. She calls herself at that age much like the panda – “I was bigger, hairier, more emotional, and fighting with my mom almost every day”. She also emphasises the importance of not creating villains in a film like this, stating that not every woman – especially Asian woman in the diaspora – has the privilege of embracing the panda. For generations before her, many had no choice but to hide their panda – their ethnicity, their independence, their culture – from the West, and from men who might tell them otherwise. 

The decisions Ming Lee and Abuela Alma make are founded on their own understanding of what is best for their families based on their own experiences and fears from the past. After hurting their mothers during a panda attack and losing the love of their life and home during an invasion respectfully, their hesitance to accept a new way of thinking is not unfounded. However, that still does not mean it doesn’t hurt when parents don’t understand you. 

Why Should Parents Apologise? 

Parents apologising is seen as a fantasy because it so rarely happens, especially in families of colour. Adults are seen as all-powerful superhumans in a child’s eyes and the concept of an apology from them is inconceivable. More often than not, parents are right. They have more life experience and know what is best for the child. The problems arise when the child gains independence and is able to make decisions for their own according to their own life experiences in a way that parents don’t understand. How do you raise a child that knows more about how to use the internet than you? Definitely not through passive aggression, favouritism and stubbornness, as has been the example for decades now. However, that does not mean that communication isn’t a possibility, nor that parents apologising for their wrongs would not be beneficial. 

A study conducted for the Journal of Counselling and Development has stated that parents who apologise to their children build stronger parent-child attachment relationships. Many parents say that they feel guilty after reprimanding their child, and don’t want to seem weak in the eyes of their children. On the contrary, apologising to your child allows them to understand that their parents are human, and are capable of making mistakes, which is the strongest trait of all. Of course, this will take trial and error according to each family’s experiences, but the overall result from proper communication and acknowledgement of a parent’s faults has been more promising than not.

Where do we go from here? 
The door to children’s films about complex issues has just been opened and will continue to open the more people apply their unique perspectives to their art. Additionally, Disney is not the only corporation doing so. Mitchell Versus the Machines (2021) also tackles the very real issue of a child’s interests not being understood (and subsequently berated) by parents, and how that can affect a child. The same can be said for Vivo (2021), which also discusses issues of family and identity. The decision of where to go from here is all up to the parents – have a family discussion, understand why you may feel called out in some ways and try your best to let your children grow up in an environment free from your past demons so that you can learn to let them go as well. 

Hi there! My name is Aman and I am currently completing my Honours in Media Theory & Practice at UCT. I have also completed a BA in English, History and Media Studies (2023) and a Post-graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) (2024), also at UCT. My interests lie in popular culture, gender studies, feminist theory and good old fashioned memes. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, writing and making watercolour paintings. I have one son (read: cat) named Houdini, a ginger tabby who makes it all worth it. For professional enquiries contact aman.adams1234@gmail.com