Turning Red, a coming-of-age Disney and Pixar movie, shows a young Chinese-Canadian girl named Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) as she tries to navigate her changing social relationships, puberty, and growing up in Toronto. However, when the stress piles on too high, Mei finds herself sporadically turning into a red panda. By confiding in her friends and standing up to her mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), Mei realizes that some things have to change, and that’s okay.
Turning Red is a unique kids’ movie, in that it tackles important issues that are usually overlooked. Typically, topics like periods and puberty are ignored. Even further, movies very rarely show marginalized groups as they come of age. To have a movie that accurately portrays both in a lighthearted and funny way is very special.
There are very few movies centred around school-aged children, and even less that feature young Chinese girls. As far as pop culture goes, school-aged children aren’t a primary focus, and if they are, they’re usually young White boys. Most kids’ movies are made for an audience of very small children and don’t focus on puberty in the slightest. On the other hand, movies made for adolescents are too mature and talk about issues that kids between the ages of eight and 12 won’t understand. Turning Red is a rare insight into what it’s like to grow up as a young girl, and how those experiences shape who we are.
Before watching the movie, I saw all of the Tweets and reviews calling it gross and uncomfortable. I was expecting a movie that was vulgar, or hard to watch. What I got instead was an average Disney movie. Obviously, it had some moments that were a little uncomfortable, but nothing like had been described. It’s disappointing to see so many people hate a movie because it briefly mentions periods and puberty, and shows a main character that isn’t white. In fact, viewers seemed to be the most upset about Mei’s mom holding a pile of menstrual products. Periods shouldn’t be seen as controversial, and a movie that mentions pads maybe once or twice shouldn’t be written off.
If you have ever been, or even have known, a 12-year-old girl, Turning Red will be relatable. Even if it isn’t relatable to some, it shows exactly what it’s like to be a young Canadian girl trying to navigate the world. Turning Red is filled with important messages that everyone should hear, regardless of their gender or ethnicity.
However, despite its relatable and important messaging, the film has faced immense backlash and controversy since its premiere. Many people, primarily parents, find the conversation about periods and puberty wildly inappropriate. Moreover, they find that the movie as a whole is too mature and not suitable for younger audiences.
The dialogue surrounding puberty and growing up in our society is often inadequate, inaccurate, and not geared towards women or people of colour. A movie that manages to do all three, while centering the experiences of underrepresented groups, is rare and important.
As a young girl, I never felt seen by any of the media I saw growing up. Everything was geared towards boys, and nothing talked about the experiences I had. Now that I’m in my twenties, I’m long past when that information and representation was necessary, but there are thousands of young girls who still need to see it. Labelling Turning Red as a harmful movie because it doesn’t cater to your experiences is restricting and damaging to the girls who need it the most.
Parents aren’t the only ones upset or confused by Turning Red — some film critics have written off the movie as being alienating to some viewers. Sean O’Connell, the managing director of CinemaBlend, in a now archived review, said that the messaging and story of Turning Red were “deeply personal — though less relatable.” He even went so far as to say that viewers would feel alienated by the content and that he got tired of trying to relate to the characters.
As a White woman, I didn’t relate to every single part of Turning Red, which is to be expected. Not everyone’s stories are the same, and that’s a beautiful part of growing up in a multicultural society like Canada. I can still find relatability in a story about someone who is completely different from me. Even if I can’t, I can still find empathy. That’s the most important takeaway from Turning Red and its surrounding controversy — just because it’s about someone other than you doesn’t make it any less important.
The controversy surrounding Turning Red centres around moments that last a combined total of 15 minutes, at most. The movie is beautifully illustrated, hilarious, and heartwarming. It’s filled with incredible moments and represents Chinese-Canadian culture in a normalized and wonderful way. There are so many nods to Canada throughout the movie like the Tim Hortons product placement and the cultural diversity of the main and background characters.
Even if periods or puberty bother you, or you feel alienated by Chinese culture taking centre stage, Turning Red has a lot to offer. It’s a beautiful movie, and it should be celebrated, not condemned.