Source: Turning Red (2022)
By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers
Since Turning Red (2022) came out, there’s been a multitude of backlash and criticism of the Pixar movie that’s set my teeth on edge. I’m not talking about the fair criticism of the characters and plot or the “It just wasn’t for me,” but about comments concerning the “relatability” of the movie and concern over the lessons it teaches. Vox has a great article that discusses where this backlash stems from and a brief summary of the common critiques titled “Pixar’s Turning Red is an unlikely culture war battleground.” The last line of this article is especially striking as Aja Romano writes, “Perhaps that’s the film’s real offense: It offers lessons for parents, as well as their children. How willing you are to listen might make all the difference in whether it leaves you embracing its idiosyncrasies or…turning red.”
I love Turning Red for many reasons and this focus on teaching parents about respecting their children, as Romano points out, is one of them. As the movie follows 13-year-old Mei trying to score a ticket for her favorite boy band’s concert, she clashes with her mom, Ming, and faces difficulties controlling the red panda inside her. The heart of the movie really is Mei’s relationship to Ming and how Mei’s growing independence is changing their dynamic and exposing issues about control and unhealthy communication.
[Editor’s Note: Please assume from this point forward that everything–quotes, images, and summaries–in this post, unless cited otherwise, comes directly from Turning Red (2022). This post also goes into in-depth spoilers for the movie. Thank you.]
The very first thing Mei says in the movie is, “Honor your parents. They’re the supreme beings who gave you life, who sweated and sacrificed so much to put a roof over your head, food on your plate […] The least you can do in return is…every single thing they ask.” It’s a common refrain heard by many children, but is especially pertinent considering the importance of filial piety in Chinese culture (and many Asian cultures, overall). My Asian friends have told me so many times about how their parents expect them to do everything they ask and remind them constantly of what the adults have sacrificed to give their children. Many feel pressured to live up to parental expectations because they understand how much their parents have sacrificed for them, but it’s easy for resentment to grow too if it’s not balanced with freedom and love.
This is the dilemma that Turning Red portrays so well. It captures a child’s desire to please their parents and honor them and their sacrifices but to also live their life. While the first few moments are filled with pictures of Mei with her parents, it’s also made clear that she has interests outside them. The biggest one is in the boy band, 4*TOWN, an interest that she shares with her friends. While Mei claims she doesn’t have a problem honoring her parents and herself, her friends’ reactions show a different story. They ask her to come hang out after school but aren’t surprised that she turns them down because she has to go to her family’s temple to help out. One of them asks her, “Can’t you just get one day off?” but Mei deflects the question.
Mei’s friends are relegated to school time and her family expects her to help out the rest of the time. And Mei doesn’t want to disappoint them, especially Ming, so she sacrifices her time with friends for the family. That’s something that critics of the movie’s message don’t seem to realize: a child sacrifices a lot for their parents, too. Personally, I believe this comes from the inability to see a child as a full human who deserves respect, but rather as extensions of the parents. When parents say that their children are “talking back,” I wonder if what they’re really angry at is being forced to realize that their children have emotions and thoughts outside their control.
Mei recognizes the responsibilities she has to her parents but Ming doesn’t see Mei as the person she is who deserves space and respect. Ming wants to keep Mei under her control, partly out of fear that Mei’ll hurt others with the red panda inside her like Ming did, but also because it can be hard for parents to let their children go. This is a theme that’s shown in director Domee Shi’s other short film, Bao.
This desire for control can absolutely come from good intentions. When Mei is late to the temple, Ming immediately asks, “What happened? Are you hurt? Are you hungry?” Any deviance from their regular routine is threatening to Ming, but it stems from concern and genuine love for her daughter. However, this desire to protect Mei and help her comes with placing high expectations academically on her daughter, undercutting one of Mei’s friends by questioning how they benefit Mei in school, and inadvertently shaming her developing sexuality.
The depiction of puberty is another critique leveled at the movie by those who claimed it was unrelatable and even disgusting for portraying it honestly. The biggest reason for this uproar is the way it addresses periods, but I think it also has to do with Turning Red’s depiction of healthy sexuality. Not only is Mei physically attracted to boys, but she expresses it through fanart and many fantasies in a way many kids may be familiar with. These ways of expressing her attraction are perfectly normal, but Ming reacts with disgust and rage. Instead of accepting her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality, she sees it as a sign of danger and interrogates her about why she would draw such “disgusting” things (“Did he do these things to you?”).
Ming doesn’t listen to Mei when she tells her mother it’s not real. Ming physically rips the art away from Mei then embarrasses her by confronting the boy Mei drew. This is a big sign of not respecting your child’s privacy and it leads to Mei not confiding in her mom more as Ming wants, but in learning to hide things better. It also leads to Mei internalizing her mom’s disgust and shaming herself, calling herself a “sicko” and throwing the art away.
It’s no wonder then that Mei doesn’t tell Ming about turning into a red panda and that the anchor that calms her down is not her mother, but her friends who offer her unconditional love and support. While Mei’s family fears the red panda and wants to get rid of it, her friends accept it as a part of Mei. By spending time with them and learning to understand and control her emotions better, Mei does something no one else in her family has since Sun Yee, the first woman to have the red panda: she keeps it.
This is one of the most important choices Mei makes in the movie and it’s not to spite her mother or “rebel” against her like some critics believe. It’s about bodily autonomy and acceptance that shows how far she’s come from shaming herself. The red panda can be interpreted as a metaphor for puberty and embodies the typically unacceptable emotions for girls and women such as extreme anger or excitement. This is a lesson about self-acceptance that’s very important for adolescents to learn and adults to understand because if Ming had continued to work against her daughter’s self-acceptance, irreparable damage could’ve occurred between them.
There’s a moment in Turning Red when it seems that this has happened. After throwing her friends under the bus when Ming discovers they were raising funds for the 4*TOWN concert, Mei runs away from the ceremony to keep the red panda. In the process, she knocks aside Ming, who begins crying. In the sadness, rage is mixed in as Ming wonders, “How could she do this to her own mother?” This sentiment reflects the misunderstanding between Ming and Mei as the former sees Mei’s bodily autonomy as a personal betrayal of filial duty. Because Mei never explained her inner conflict and because Ming showed no signs of listening to her for other matters, a rift opens between the two throughout the movie. It culminates in this scene wherein Ming transforms into a red panda and goes after Mei.
This leads to one of the funniest scenes in the movie as a giant red panda crashes the concert for a boy band. As Mei fights her mother, she says everything she’s been thinking for the past few weeks and lets out all her feelings. She owns her attraction to boys and hobbies her mother considers unbeneficial while Ming looks on, horrified. Ming’s response to this is very telling as she says, “I never went to concerts! I put my family first, I tried to be a good daughter!” Ming’s reluctance to accept Mei as she is stems from the lack of her own freedom in childhood. The cycle of control did not begin with Ming but she ended up perpetuating it onto her daughter.
It’s for this reason that Mei can only have a healthy talk with her mother in the spiritual realm. When she does so, Ming appears similar in age to her, showcasing the similarities between the two and the desire to escape the constraints of being a “perfect daughter.” As they walk through the grove, Ming grows up but retains the vulnerability of her younger self. It’s a moving scene of the ways in which children can help their parents if only they would listen and of the surprising connections that can form between them if they have healthy communication.
At the end of the movie, Ming apologizes for the hurt she’s caused Mei. Mei keeps her red panda and begins balancing her work at the temple, and her time with her family by extension, with her friends. Ming also demonstrates a genuine desire to change and create a healthier relationship with her daughter by inviting Mei’s friends for dinner and asking her to be home by a certain time instead of demanding it. While the two have always been loving, it’s important to see Ming respecting her daughter now.
There’s so much more that can be discussed about Turning Red’s depiction of familial relationships, including the way intergenerational trauma affects families, and about the ways the movie respects its tween characters. Perhaps that’s for other posts, but I really do encourage people to watch this movie. Turning Red is a fantastic story that shows you can honor your ancestors most by breaking cycles of unhealthy communication and control with your children.