Arts & Media

Turning Red Turns the Narrative

Ellen Wang ‘25
Copy Editor Intern

Editor’s note: contains spoilers for Turning Red

This one’s for the Chinese daughters with the world on their shoulders and an unhealthy codependent relationship with their mom.

Turning Red (2022, dir. Domee Shi) is a Pixar animated film about Meilin, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl living in Toronto in 2002. It’s Shi’s feature directorial debut and draws on her experiences growing up in Toronto.

I cried watching this. And not just because I cry pretty easily, because I do (the power of storytelling and whatnot), but also because this story touches on a core pillar of my and many others’ experiences: as Chinese Americans (and Canadians, and on), as young girls going through puberty, as vessels for their mother’s dreams, as daughters of daughters.

I can’t begin to imagine the power this film will have on young people everywhere struggling through the awkward stages of puberty. For something that affects such a large chunk of life, I cannot recall a time I’ve seen menstruation portrayed on the big screen. It was heartwarming to see Meilin’s mother Ming’s immediate, pronounced support when she thought Meilin had gotten her period.

I cringed along with the audience when Ming pulled out a box of pads in front of the whole school and when Ming found Meilin’s horny art, but it was a sad reminder of learned reactions to common occurrences surrounding normal life events that have been heavily cornered into taboo. Ming’s willingness to face these events head-on is seen as a source of second-hand embarrassment when she’s simply trying to keep her daughter safe.

I could go on about the little (big) things. The spotlight on Meilin’s father’s cooking, a common thread in the expression of love in Chinese households, is also featured in Shi’s Oscar-winning short film Bao. Meilin’s playful, loyal, and very-middle-school friend group. The intergenerational trauma that Ming manifests, which brings me back to the time I realized my mother is a daughter too. I personally noted that Mei-Mei, an endearing nickname Ming has for Meilin, is a homophone for “little sister.” I’m an older sibling, and my mother occasionally still calls me that to indicate my youth and almost alleviate some pressure off me: it’s her way of saying, “I’m here to guide you and you don’t have it all figured out — you shouldn’t.”

Moreover, the film incorporated more 2D graphics mimicking anime that add expressiveness and breathe the kind of life into the film that Pixar has not seen since the switch to computer animation. 2D features like exaggerated body movements, still movement (where only one body part moves), and artistic silhouettes liberate the family comedy to be fun and funny. Turning Red wonderfully utilizes 2D elements to complement the power of 3D animation.

Many people have been asking, why the whole red panda transformation bit? Turning Red’s explicit takeaway is that everyone has messier sides, and the point is to learn to embrace them. The panda can firstly be seen as a physical embodiment of the disheveled chaos of puberty. The title of the film, however, also implies a double meaning of assimilation — whether it be to Western society, family expectations, or other pressures.

Turning Red was able to show that Meilin’s mother was in the wrong without depicting outright abuse. With our seemingly good intentions, we can still end up hurting those we love when we have unresolved trauma of our own and don’t respect the unique identity, will, and preferences of a loved one.

As much as I’m praising Shi and the team’s work on Turning Red, I’m not going to give Disney too much credit here. I’m happy to see more diverse experiences and cultures reflected in mainstream media by people who can draw upon their own lives, yet the recent films Disney-Pixar have released seem to indicate a new age of commodifying representation for representation’s sake.

This is a part of a larger conversation, but it is worth noting and always valuable to suspect the intentions of a media megacorporation. The fact that this is the first Pixar film solely directed by a woman and the second to feature an Asian lead character after Up (2009) is still pathetic on Disney and Pixar’s part. Support good work, with money or buzz, but be wary of tokenization as Disney checks off cultures they’ve “represented” to boast their diversity portfolio.

Nevertheless, Turning Red was an incredible journey and celebration of Chinese-Canadian tweenhood. It is a solid portrayal of a teenager’s sexual awakening without sexualizing the teenager. It ties generational trauma and cultural roots to the modern struggles that children of diaspora often inhabit. This story is joyful, loving, and rebellious.

Image Source: IMDb

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