It’s being called millennial apology fantasy.
In film after film, over the past two years — from movies set in the multiverse (Everything Everywhere All at Once), to animation capers (Turning Red; Encanto) and films about future worlds under threat from robots (The Mitchells vs the Machines) — parents are apologising to their children, acknowledging inter-generational trauma, opening a door to healing.
“I see you, Mei-Mei. You try to make everyone happy, but are so hard on yourself, and if I taught you that, I’m sorry,” Ming Lee says to her daughter Meilin, in Turning Red (2022).
“I lost sight of who our miracle was for,” the matriarch of a gifted family says in Encanto (2021), finally acknowledging her not-magically-gifted granddaughter.
It’s another twist in the tale of how pop culture has reflected and promoted new parenting styles.
Adages such as “Spare the rod, spoil the child” gave way, in the 1940s, for instance, to an approach that focused on the emotional needs of children. This shift was sparked by American paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare, first published in 1946. It called for parents to replace strict schedules and stiff upper lips with hugs and discussions of feelings. By the time of Dr Spock’s death in 1998, the book had sold more than 50 million copies across 40 languages.
By that time, near the turn of the century, family formats were changing (the nuclear family was becoming the urban norm; the number of two-career families was growing). Technology was about to throw all-new challenges at the family unit. (As Rick Mitchell says to his two kids, in The Mitchells vs the Machines (2021): “After a long day at work, nice to see your faces, bathed in ghoulish blue light”).
Rising divorce rates added new elements of uncertainty and concern. Films such as Mrs Doubtfire (1993), One Fine Day (1996) and Stepmom (1998) offered comforting but trite takes, putting parents in desperate predicaments to allow them to reassure their children of their love. A dad dressed in drag to pose as a nanny. A little boy went missing, sending his busy working mom into hysterics. A woman struggled with her emotions, then entrusted her children to their stepmom, before dying gracefully of cancer.
These tales had little real-world relevance, but they were cathartic, and they played the important role of normalising divorce, dating mothers, multi-parent families. They also reinforced what Dr Spock had posited: that being a good parent in a complicated world was not an innate skill that came from instinct. It was a process that required learning, and as such, was bound to involve a certain number of mistakes.
Those ’90s children, raised in new family formats, amid a host of new parenting skills, in a fast-changing world, would come to be called millennials.
“As millennials became parents in the last decade, they brought with them a wave of newly compassionate and conscious parenting,” says Sukriti Das, a clinical psychologist and learning and development head at the online therapy platform Betterlyf. “Nuclear families have been around long enough for them to be able to introspect, identify elements of intergenerational trauma that they wish to break the cycle on.”
And so, in Encanto and Everything Everywhere…, the cycle is broken on the intergenerational trauma of unrealistic expectations such as magical levels of talent, perfection in behaviour and appearance, a child that will unfailingly mirror the parent. The apologies come as parents acknowledge the damage caused, across generations, by this sense of conditional love.
In Turning Red, the cycle is broken on the trauma of repressed passion and anger; a grandmother who was taught it as a child teaches it to her daughter, her daughter passes it on, and Mei-Mei fights back, at 14, rejecting the idea that she must exorcise the giant red panda from her system.
In films and TV shows through the decades, this kind of intergenerational trauma was typically mined for comedy or drama (think of the film Monster-in-Law, or shows such as Two and a Half Men and India’s saas-bahu serials). The aim there is not resolution or healing; it is to further the plot. Admissions of guilt are conditional, insincere or comedic. Often there are, conveniently, wrongs on both sides.
“A graceful, unconditional apology by a parent helps the child open their eyes and see that there is more complexity to the parent’s story than they perceived,” says Deepanjana Pal, writer, podcaster, cultural critic and managing editor at Film Companion. “It also acknowledges that the parent’s reactions are rooted in deeper issues of intergenerational trauma. Traditionally coming-of-age movies showed how the young generation would set out in search of their identity forging a new path after cutting ties with older ways. What we have now is an acceptance of intergenerational trauma and an acknowledgment that we are not disconnected from the previous generation.”
This, in the end, is the most interesting lesson: that everyone has a story arc of their own, and the power to alter it, at least in adulthood. As Evelyn Wang says to her father in Everything Everywhere… (2022), “I’m no longer willing to do to my daughter what you did to me.”