Turning Red & What It Means To “See Yourself” In A Movie
I wish I’d had this movie growing up. I’m so glad my daughters do now.
I did not know what to expect when I sat down to watch Turning Red with my daughters, ages 6, 9, and 11. I had seen a few previews in passing — beatboxing tweens, an overachieving main character, Sandra Oh’s voice, a large red panda surprising a girl coming out of a bathroom stall. By the time the closing credits rolled, my face wet; I’d encountered a true gem of a movie that embodies some of my deepest wishes for me and my daughters. Better now than never.
Representation matters. I am overjoyed that Domee Shi, who directed and co-wrote Turning Red, is paving a path for women to helm movies at studios like Pixar, and more broadly for women of color to tell their stories in movies and beyond. Yet so much of what I’ve read about the movie stays focused on these admittedly critical topics. Several go on to highlight how it normalizes puberty and periods — also important. Consistently missing is a discussion of what I found most remarkable, what had me in tears, what made me feel so very seen: The way the movie addressed generational cycle breaking, specifically within a matrilineal, Asian context.
Reviewers who couldn’t relate to the movie in the same way I did have unwittingly cracked open a conversation about double standards. Backlash was swift over a now-taken-down review that called the movie “too narrow.” There is no clearer sign of privilege than claiming a work of art doesn’t reflect your experience, and therefore isn’t “good” or “worthy.” Further, I find lazy the inability to find parts of yourself in Turning Red’s main character Meilin Lee — even if you’re not Chinese, or Canadian, or a teenage girl.
All my life I’ve been piecing together disparate parts of myself: bits reflected in Judy Blume’s Margaret, Ann M. Martin’s Claudia, and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne.
Growing up a biracial Japanese American, I didn’t “see myself,” fully, anywhere. Not in the books I read or the movies and TV shows I watched, not in either of my parents. I didn’t have a teacher who “looked like me” as they say (though what is usually meant is “of the same race”) until sophomore year of college. All my life I’ve been piecing together disparate parts of myself: bits reflected in Judy Blume’s Margaret, Ann M. Martin’s Claudia, and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne. Traces in Winnie Cooper, Lisa Turtle, and Brenda Walsh. Others still in Hayao Miyazaki’s Satsuki and Kiki.
At the same time, even if I didn’t see myself, I still learned from and was moved by countless novels and movies I read and watched that center white men coming of age through baseball (well, maybe not all of them).
To hold Turning Red to a different standard precisely because it is pushing at the boundaries of what’s been done, is silly at best, racist and misogynist at worst. I am reminded of the Toni Morrison quote: “The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
I flash back to being in a writing workshop and making a comment that paraphrased a concept I’d heard in many writing classrooms: the more specific your story, the more universal it becomes. The instructor, a Black woman, pushed back. She said that universality need not be what we seek. She questioned: universal for whom? At the time, socialized my entire life to seek validation from teachers, I felt shame. But since then I have turned that moment over in my head many times, have continued to internalize its crucial lesson.
(Warning: plot spoilers ahead)
Mei is also learning. The women on her mother’s side of the family have passed along a gift (or curse, depending on how you see it): Every time she has intense feelings, she turns into a large red panda. And, like her ancestors, Mei is expected to participate in a ritual to rid her of that panda. Her grandmother and aunties arrive to participate in the ceremony that will bottle up Mei’s unruly emotions, just as her mother Ming’s have been, into a necklace she wears. But at the brink of passing through the portal that will contain her panda, Mei defies her mother and turns back. Voiced by Sandra Oh, Ming’s anger over this unleashes her long-dormant panda, causing all the women of the family to unite to save Ming. This is a key moment — generational trauma can’t be neatly portrayed or healed, certainly not in the span of an hour and forty minute movie. But this turn evokes the ways the generations can come together despite the pain they have caused each other, the roots of which are sometimes inextricable from survival.
Mei finds herself back at the portal for a second time, this time alongside her mother, who Mei helped get there. As Ming passes through, Mei says, “I’m changing Mom. I’m finally figuring out who I am. I’m scared it will take me away from you.” I could feel myself hold my breath. That one line echoed with so many moments across my life as a daughter and granddaughter, and now as a mother to daughters.
This gorgeous and imperfect film was reflecting back the potential for caregivers and children to help each other be who they want to be, to really see each other.
Ming responds, “Me too. I see you Mei Mei, you try to make everyone happy but are so hard on yourself, and if I taught you that, I’m sorry. So don’t hold back, for anyone.” They touch hands through the portal. “The farther you go, the prouder I’ll be,” Ming says, and the portal closes, mother and daughter having taken disparate paths.
Mei’s true self includes her panda. She will not push her feelings down, will not capture them in an object to be worn as a literal representation of filial piety over her mental health. And, in a fun twist, Ming’s panda is newly trapped in a Tamagotchi she continues to feed, a small evolution.
I too have been working to break cycles. I don’t repeat the negative body talk that was ubiquitous when I was growing up — from all forms of media, but also from the women in my family. I do talk openly about menstruation — about which we must educate children of all genders if we wish to break the cycles of shame silence perpetuates — and mental health, and sexuality, all things that went unspoken in my house. I don’t want my girls to have to puzzle things out like I had to, again piecing together: from the pamphlets handed out at school, whispers on the school bus, and afterschool specials, none of which were adequate.
The moment Mei and Ming touched hands it clicked for me: this gorgeous and imperfect film was reflecting back the potential for caregivers and children to help each other be who they want to be, to really see each other. As I felt the hot tears begin to fall, I was surrounded on all sides by the three girls I am raising, who are raising me too. I turned to watch them take in the glowing images onscreen. I was reminded of another Morrison’s quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Domee Shi is doing that. So am I. And my girls are taking it all in.
A few days after her second viewing of Turning Red, I asked my soon-to-be 12-year-old what she thought its message was. We hadn’t yet talked much about the movie, she hadn’t read any online commentary. She looked up from her lunch and said, “Expressing yourself, and not really letting others control who you are.”
I wanted to cry all over again.