Turning Red (Domee Shi 2022) is a Disney Pixar animation based around the life of Mei, a thirteen-year-old second-generation Chinese girl living in Canada. She senses her mother’s hopes and dreams pinned on her, but she has a ghastly affliction. She suffers an occasional fantastical transformation, turning into a giant red panda, a change brought on by heightened emotion. The movie’s story involves her gaining the ability to marshal this change and use it to gain credibility and, in the end, fit in as a different person. Her family is inclined to regard her transformations as a curse, but her friend group encourages her to rebel and reject family unity in favour of the individual freedom of being her own panda. And that’s where Losing It comes in. Losing It interrogates the myths attendant on first sexual experiences. The different cultural manifestations expose a complex of mythologies of lost innocence, of becoming a woman. Despite their alternate purposes and anticipated audiences, the two works run parallel. Priorities and omissions emerge reading the book and watching the movie together.
The arrival of the red panda initiates the topic of menstruation. When Mei first experiences the transformation, she hides in the bathroom. Worried about what’s wrong, her mother assumes it is the arrival of her period, asking, “did the red-peony bloom.” Mei replies, stating a fact, “I’m a gross red monster”. Menstruation precedes Smith Galer’s discussions of first sexual experience. However, menstruation, too, is a transitional moment, experienced and sexual. It ushers in both a changing body and a changed state of consciousness around who we are, what we mean to others, and what we are capable of.
Smith Galer’s opening chapter considers the bleeding hymen, torn in the implicitly violent assault of the first entry of the penis into the vagina. Smith Galer highlights the description ‘penetrated’ as loaded, embroiled in the symbolism of invasion and puncture. She points out there are other ways to conceive of sexual union, the labia welcoming her guest, enveloping him. The stigma of first sex intercedes with the pervasive conception of a foe stealing his way into the unsullied temple and the competitive ethos of being first, ingrained in many cultures and vivified by the colonial imagination of footfall on new lands, planting a flag. Smith Galer cites traditions where a mark of blood is displayed or scrutinised as proof of lost ‘virginity’, the hymen torn. However, the blood’s symbolism is not straightforward. Is it the blood of the fallen, shed in conquest or is it an obligation, a tithe? The latter would suggest a different power scenario involving male envy for the thing the woman has, menstrual blood. To be granted womanhood, she must give up her blood, her independent somatic manifestation of becoming a woman.
Sadly, despite not evading menstruation, Turning Red nevertheless does little to mollify its stigma. Blood and bodily change are not celebrated but presented as terrible and gross, to be controlled and suppressed, sublimated in sexualisation, intimated in the red panda’s large popularity, attracting attention relative to Mei’s desire to be unobtrusive and please her mum. Sexuality is specularized while sex is hidden. Sexuality is camouflage for the conflicted binaries of first sexual experience outlined by Smith Galer; pleasure and violence, proficiency and ignorance, taking and giving, losing it and or notching up experience, sex and love.
The gross red monster’s first manifestation is in the morning. The previous afternoon Mei’s protective mother discovered her romantic drawings of a boy who works at the local store. That night, in a vivid dream, suffused in red light, Mei revisits the drawing’s imagery; she describes it as “horrible, awful, sexy.” Now animated, the dream transports Mei to an encounter with a female ancestor figure dressed in a robe with the form of a vulva. The cloak’s shape suggests that the dream, also horrible, awful, sexy, represents a subtle masturbation fantasy leading to the climax of Mei’s transformation, a change caused by excessive emotional stimulation. Mei later learns that a calm mind can suppress her overstimulation and stop the change. This masturbation, although celebrated for positive health benefits, does not belong in Smith Galer’s pantheon of first sexual experiences. For this, there is a need for two partners. The chapter devoted to penetration myths details the sexual economies of give and take, active and passive, sex that “starts and ends with a penis.” In this economic model, the first sexual interaction with another subtracts from the whole, making womanhood from girlish joy. The thing taken away is perhaps autonomy. The penis takes and gives. Taking inexperience and spitting out the experience of what a woman is and what she must become. If first sex is learning sex, then there is more to learn than can be had from penetration. Mei learns that she can turn into a powerful animal, indicating that learning can, and needs to, precede the first time. To understand what this might imply, it is necessary to look at Water Lilies (Naissance des Pieuvres, Céline Sciamma 2007), another movie about first-time sex.
Water Lilies examines the relationship of Marie and Floriane; both girls are around 15, although Marie seems younger. She idolises Floriane, who captains the local Stade Francais synchronised swimming team. Floriane’s good looks and apparent maturity attracts unwanted interest from men. It sets her apart from her peers who think she is a slut. In fact, she is sexually inexperienced and is worried about it because she feels obliged to fuck her boyfriend, François, the cool star of the water polo team. Floriane feels pressured to live up to her reputation while her parents have gone away for the weekend. She doesn’t want her first sexual experience to be conflicted. She asks Marie, “I would like you to be the first.” And that first time happens in a perfunctory manner, without a kiss and shortly before François is at the door. It’s a first sexual experience, without penetration, without loss.
Turning Red is set in 2002, the early days of the internet and social media, two years before Facebook, five years before Pornhub. Losing It is set now, with a final chapter speculating on “The Future Story of Sex.” Smith Galer’s research uses the contemporary experience of being interconnected, trawling the internet, drawing together stories and experiences from all sorts of voices. It leads her to reflect on how widely accessible certain ideas about sex have become, but how limited is “access to equitable sex”.
Before reading Smith Galer’s book, it hadn’t occurred to me that in recent talk of consent, harassment, abuse, and rape culture, fantasy is nowadays never mentioned as an aspect of sexuality. Smith Galer points out that learning about sex today requires a legal mindset. I guess no one needs fantasy with so much on show online. The pornography industry seems engaged in a campaign of fetishising power imbalances. All the actors play to a masculine, Viagra-driven script of hyperarousal, not losing anything but giving in to it. By contrast, Disney apparently insists on emotional connections exemplified by smitten love paired with unequivocal family love. We might feel one is a better model for young people than the other, but, alarmingly, they are not so different. Both scenarios defer sexual fantasy. In pornography, there is no need for a sexual imagination, sex is an active technical practice. In Turning Red, sex is heritage. And heritage turns on marital contracts.
Today, the word marriage specifies a legal union with associated privileges and obligations around property and material support, a relatively secure basis for procreation. In the past, when there was greater coyness around sex, the word marriage was a double entendre. Marylyn Monroe humorously played on the multiple meanings, talking to co-star Tom Ewell, a married man, in the romantic comedy The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder 1955). “With a married man, it’s all so simple, it cannot possibly ever get drastic… that’s the wonderful part about being with a married man. No matter what happens, he can’t possibly ask you to marry him.” Her usage conflates the implication of sexual union and formal partnership. When, in the past, all unmarried women were subjugated and excluded from participation in public life, marriage agreements held different potency, as is still the case in many traditionally minded contemporary societies. Joining a man in matrimony bestows property rights and the possibility of limited indirect empowerment. Prohibitions against pre-marital sex and access to knowledge of birth control also reenforce the confluence of a wedding and a first sexual experience. In older and traditionalist patriarchal societies, there is an exchange in the implicit loss of first sex and power gained.
Returning to The Seven Year Itch, having been shown out of Ewell’s air-conditioned apartment, Monroe returns wielding a hammer. She enters through a blocked off trap door at the head of a redundant staircase, announcing, “It was so easy, I pulled out all the nails.” This act of unpinning gives Monroe free access to Ewell’s marital home. Ewell’s wife rearticulates the same idea later when theatrically, she shoots him with a revolver. Of marriage, she says, “There is such a thing as the unwritten law.” How can marriage be unnailed or unwritten? Un-fucked? What can Turning Red tell us?
Mei starts the movie claiming that although she is 13, she is “officially a grown-up.” She is a (young) woman who must not forget to honour herself while honouring her family. That would be to honour the institution of first-time sex with the fortitude to self-honour, a “messy weird part of” herself. Perhaps this is none other than the equable sex that Smith Galer seeks and rarely finds. Not one first-sex with a penis, promising fecundity and endorsing lineage, but another first-sexual pleasure.