MOSF 17.3: Pixar’s “Turning Red”: Puberty, Shame, Racism and Belonging
Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 17.3: Pixar’s “Turning Red”: Puberty, Shame, Racism & Belonging
by Ravi Chandra March 15, 2022
Last week, my Twitter timeline “turned red” with reactions to the ungracious review of Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red by a White male critic, Sean O’Connell. The review has since been deleted from Cinemablend.com and O’Connell and Cinemablend have since apologized for their misstep. Originally, he wrote and tweeted
“Some Pixar films are made for a universal audience. #TurningRed is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific, and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting…By rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is fine, but a tad limiting in its scope.”
The many faces of the red panda (and ourselves). Also me as I heard about Sean O’Connell’s review and tweet.
Well, I guess you can call me a friend-and-family-member-of Domee-Shi-wannabe, then, because her pathbreaking film, Turning Red, had me from the jump: the literal jumps, cartwheels and over-the-top, through-the-roof emo of the central adolescent heroine Meilin and her friends that grace the film’s buoyant opening. Turning Red follows Meilin (or Mei-Mei, as she’s called by her family) as she rides the turbulent physical and emotional roller-coaster ride that is female puberty. Along the way, she reminds the audience of our own difficult emotions, especially shame, during that time of change, insecurity, longing, frustration and raging hormones. As an Asian Canadian, she also has a more specific journey of recognizing and carrying cultural differences to find resonance and belonging. “Turning Red” connotes shame, rage, and perhaps moving through these and ripening into one’s full, rich identity, as red is also, obviously, a very auspicious color in Chinese culture, associated with the New Year and happy occasions. Notably, the film is also getting dinged by conservatives (mostly White, I think) because of Meilin’s upstart, rebellious nature – something which didn’t bother them with the Little Mermaid, Merida from Brave, or many a Disney princess, not to mention all the rambunctious and complicated male characters we regularly see. Hmmm…. wonder why?
In short (minor spoilers in this paragraph), Meilin Lee is a Chinese Canadian 8th grader with a diverse and quirky group of friends who are into a hip hop boy band and hanging out. (Toronto, I’ve been told, has some of the most diverse and integrated schools in North America.) Her family runs a popular Chinese temple in Toronto, dedicated to worshipping ancestors. Meilin is driven to excel at, well, everything, by a supportive but intense mother, voiced by Sandra Oh, who was pushed by her even more severe mother, voiced by Michelle Yeoh. (Now that’s what I call a matriarchy!) When Meilin enters puberty physically and emotionally, she also inherits the cultural history of her female lineage: they turn into giant red pandas when they get stressed or emotional. (Tell me about it; been there.) This apparently helped one ancestor protect her village in a bygone era, but now is shamefully “inconvenient” in 2002 Toronto. As immigrants, children of immigrants and women, they maintain ‘face’ by keeping their emotions bottled and striving for self-esteem through performance, achievement, perfectionism, self-control and discipline alone. The film charts how Meilin copes with her out-of-kilter inner life to make peace with her inner red panda. Hint: it’s got less to do with suppression and avoidance than with connection, belonging and pride. Mei-Mei goes from marginalization to acceptance and even popularity and affirmation by coming out of hiding and embracing all that she is. Of note, the women in her family eventually come together to shepherd her transition. All our inner red pandas need the safety that this belonging and understanding bring. Disconnection is at the root of suffering, and belonging is the opposite of suffering.
Another face of the Red Panda, from Disney press materials.
The specific always illuminates the universal in the best art, a point which Sean O’Connell missed. And this particular version of the specific – an Asian Canadian pre-teen girl – has rarely if ever been seen in a big-budget Hollywood film. This made Turning Red an especially endearing viewing for this particular (specific and universal?) middle-aged Asian American male. As I tweeted, “I’m all like who DOESN’T have an inner horny Asian teenage girl?!?!” Why, oh why, didn’t I get any likes?!? My point is that empathy allows us to relate to others. We see ourselves in them, and we see them in ourselves. And at the same time, we can put ourselves aside for a moment and enjoy someone else’s story. This is precisely the cultural and artistic mirroring we need at this time of burgeoning, palpable anti-Asian hate. I needed it about 40 years ago too, but I’ll take what I can get.
The fact that a White Male critic couldn’t empathize with Meilin’s story speaks volumes about the casual ways Asian Americans – and girls and women – are invisibilized, erased, othered, and made perpetual foreigners by the dominant culture of an often unwelcoming West. Yes, it’s a great advance that Turning Red was made, but Domee Shi is only Pixar’s second female director, and Disney made headlines a few years ago for “a culture of sexism” as Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, was fired after being outed for sexually harassing his co-workers. And let’s not forget the century of ugly and racist stereotypes perpetuated by many Disney films. Turning Red was helmed by an all-women leadership team, a necessary antidote to the culture-as-it-is. (For more inspiration and insight, definitely watch Embrace the Panda: Making Turning Red, Disney’s behind-the-scenes featurette. It definitely portrays a more positive, woman-affirming side of Pixar than the scandals mentioned above.)
So yes, we need to see stories about girls, women, and minorities, told by girls, women, and minorities. Unless we too are seen as universal – well, it just isn’t universal, is it? When only the dominant White male culture is seen and amplified, devoid of Blackness, Asianness, Latinness, Indigenousness, Queerness, Female-ness, disability-ness, and so on, we get the segregation of consciousness and idealization of a segment of humanity that defines racism and all the other -isms. Integrated consciousness requires conscious mirroring of plurality and equality, allowing us to find not just a new center, but a new vision of society and new depth. Shi’s film accomplishes these goals with verve.
In addition to normalizing Asian-ness and plurality, Turning Red also normalizes Asian female sexuality and identity, bringing them back from the exoticized and eroticized stereotypes that have plagued us in the dominant culture’s narrow and creepy imagination, underpinning “Yellow Fever”, fears of “immoral Chinese women” in the Page Act of 1875 (preceding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882), and leading to such tragedies as the Atlanta spa massacre on March 16, 2021, just one year ago, and also part of the wave of hate that lies behind such incidents as the brutal beating of a 67-year old Asian American woman in Yonkers just this week. (See my referenced Psychology Today articles below.) For O’Connell to not note this important context again tells of the continued exclusion of Asian America.
Asian American strengths (and, in the movie, Asian female superpowers) become a shameful “inconvenience” under the pressures of this exclusion. Indeed, the stigma of turning into a Red Panda is not just a metaphor for the physical changes of puberty, but a metaphor for all the ways we as Asian Americans dare to – or can’t help but – stick out, in terms of our cultures, histories, traditions, and burgeoning, inventive, bricolage identities.
Turning Red dares us all to move from silence to expression; to find ourselves, our voices, our agency, and create a better, more inclusive world. This message is important for us all, but especially girls, women, and minorities as we have demonstrably borne the brunt of the twin pandemics of COVID and racial trauma.
As the film tells us, we are all messy works-in-progress that don’t align with expectations. Shame tries to keep us hidden – out of self-protection but also to protect systems of oppression.
Turning Red is nothing short of liberating.
Meilin, who turns red in every meaning of the phrase!