Disney Pixar's latest animated film combines the joys and struggles of coming of age in the early 2000s.
“I'm Meilin Lee. And ever since I turned 13, I've been doing my own thing, making my own moves; 24/7 365. I wear what I want, say what I want, and I will not hesitate to do a spontaneous cartwheel if I feel so moved!”
The Meilin Lee we are introduced to at the beginning of Pixar's Turning Red knows who she is and appears to be unapologetic about it. Grade A student, flute player with attitude, lover of maths, total boy band fan girl. She and her group of pals draw you in with their infectious positivity and feel good friendship.
But of course it's not that easy. For thirteen year old Mei, puberty hits, and for her it has a furry twist. When Mei feels strong emotions she is transformed into a giant red panda. As a result, she is pressed to control her emotions and remain neutral no matter what happens (how relatable when girls and women are too often criticised for being 'too emotional'). While Mei wants to explore who she is, she is struggling with being herself and being who her mum (Ming) aspires for her to be. Simultaneously the film offers us a window into Ming's own childhood and the strikingly similar relationship she had with her own mother - feeling that she is not able to live up to her expectations.
Generational expectations and meeting matriarchal standards are themes which have been explored in other coming of age films. Most recently Disney's Encanto explores how the grandchildren of Alma Madrigal cope with meeting her expectations of them and their special abilities. Parallels can certainly be drawn between Mei's anxieties with her mother and both Mirabel Madrigal's feelings of insufficiency and her sister Luisa's pressure to remain strong (both literally and figuratively) for their family in Encanto.
Turning Red has a lot to do with representing puberty as a part of coming of age. It's unfortunate that, while on the whole it has garnered excellent reviews, some reviewers and parents claimed it is limited and unrelatable or even deem the PG rated film not being suitable for children . At the heart of this criticism appears to be that a) the film deals with periods as a part of coming of age and b) the protagonist is a Chinese girl from Canada.
Now I'll lay my potential bias out. This film is set in 2002 and Mei is 13 years old meaning she was born in 1989. I was also born in 1989. The nostalgia trip that this film took me on was wonderful (the tamagotchi alone!) . While I didn't grow up in a large city like Toronto, I wasn't gifted at maths, and I am not Chinese I don't think any of these factors about Mei and her friends made the story niche or unrelatable. If anything, it is refreshing to see people from different backgrounds represented in coming of age stories. I too wrote cringey fan fiction and poetry and tried to draw my crushes. I felt pressure to be academic to make up for the fact that I wasn't athletic. I sought more freedom to explore who I was beyond being part of my family. I also had a first period. And I recall how embarrassed and scared I was to speak to anyone about it - even my mum.
In Turning Red, Mei's mum Ming supplies her with everything she can think that she might need for the arrival of her first period. Don't get me wrong I physically cringed at her flower petals metaphors but, despite that, Ming was present and understanding. The scene rejects the idea that there is anything shameful about periods. It is sad when I see mothers online complaining about the inclusion of periods in this film. It's natural, it happens. And whether your child does or doesn't have periods, it's still important for them to understand that many people do! Turning Red normalises the discussion of periods without making it the explicit focus of the whole film.
The Universality of Coming of Age
It strikes me that anyone who complains that Mei is unrelatable is the same kind of person that would complain to ofcom about a Christmas advert featuring Black families as 'unrelatable' while a campaign featuring a family of bloody carrots in the same ad break is apparently is more true to life.
These kinds of reviews focusing on Mei's culture and background as a negative aspect of the film attempt to reduce her to being a one dimensional character. This phenomenon is explored by Projansky (2007) in their study of girls of colour in coming of age films. They argue that people view adolescent girls of colour in a way that is 'more closely linked to their race and/or culture than to their gender' meaning that 'gender and race become more separated' when in fact 'these two kinds of representations depend on and support one another' (Projansky, 2007:200). Mei is a rich and nuanced character who represents the directors own background and upbringing while simultaneously embodying the shared experiences of millions of young people going through the always awkward, sometimes scary and often mystifying experience that is puberty.
Turning Red is a feel good film which depicts adolescent girlhood and family relationships with thought and care. At its heart is a young girl who pushes back against society's expectations to keep herself small and control her strong emotions. Her ultimate decision to 'embrace the panda' is effectively accepting herself, allowing her to forge a more positive and honest relationship with her mother. By challenging others' pre-conceived expectations of her, she is able to mould these herself. She ultimately has a more healthy relationship with her family and her friends as a result. And I think that's a pretty positive message to convey to children.
Projansky, S. (2007) Gender, Race, Feminism and the International Girl Hero, in Youth Culture in Global Cinema. Sharey, T. and Seibei, A. (eds.). University of Texas Press: Texas