I watched the movie Turning Red the other night. It was disturbing, but not for the obvious reasons. Apparently, some parents haven't liked the film because of the content about puberty and the prevaricating behavior of the main character, a teenage Chinese-Canadian girl learning to break free of the bonds of maternal control. There was even some commentary in the reviews about generational trauma. But this wasn't what was disturbing to me. What bothered me was beyond simply "generational trauma" - I was blown away by the pathological behavior of the mother. And this got me thinking.
In these times of aggressive promotion of cultural identity, we are forgetting to ask what indeed is culture? It would be easy to be in awe of the purposely framed cultural elements of the film, going to the temple and revering one's ancestors; sitting down for a traditional Chinese meal; the stereotypical (but positive) qualities of the main character's dedication to her schoolwork and being a smart student. But why do we gloss over the pathology - the incredible control exerted by the mother over her daughter, to the point of incessantly publicly shaming this terrified child. In watching these scenes - scenes of the mother betraying her daughter's confidence and marching down to the local convenience store where the girl's crush works, to fling the child's notebook of amorous doodles before the doodled boy in question and his friends, falsely accusing him of going after her daughter; obsessing over her daughter's period and then bringing pads to her daughter at school in front of everyone, making a scene as she does so; spying on her daughter; trying to destroy her at a concert because her daughter disobeyed her and went - in watching these scenes I got sick. This was not culture - this was narcissistic abuse.
And it is wrong to not talk about it. Too long, and in too many places we have been not speaking about the atrocities of culture - the "quaint" traditions which destroy and scar lives. Is it really a beautiful tradition to be the victim of narcissistic abuse? Is it really a beautiful tradition for elders to have a vice-like grip on their young? Is it really okay to have a mother humiliate you incessantly but then have to forgive that simply because that's how it was for her? When do we take responsibility for our culture? When do we decide that we don't need to do things as they were just because we are expected to - especially if what we are doing is creating pain and misery and even destroying lives and societies. I wish people would question "culture" more. It isn't cute - even in a pretty Pixar movie about a young girl turning red with monstrous rage (no wonder!) - to watch pathology in motion; in real life pathology doesn't have a happy ending.