The Pixar movie Turning Red follows the story of 13-year-old Meilin, a young girl on the cusp of puberty. She struggles to balance the expectations of her mother and form her own identity. Her troubles take a turn for the worst when she turns into a giant red panda. A seemingly innocent movie to many viewers – myself included – sparked quite a bit of controversy.
Many parents felt that the mature subject matter of the film made it inappropriate for younger audiences. Some took issue with Meilin repeatedly disobeying and lying to her parents, claiming it set a bad example for young viewers. Some of the most vocal critics were unhappy with the movie’s depiction of sexuality. And of course, the movie’s main premise, Meilin turning into a giant red panda, is a metaphor for her getting her period. And to an extent, I agree. For the typical Pixar viewer, the subject matter of the movie may be mature. But this isn’t a movie for the typical Pixar audience. In fact, the audience for Pixar, and animation as a whole, is changing. Director Alberto Mielgo, the winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Short said, “animation for adults is a fact. It’s happening. Let’s call it cinema.” And he’s right. Gone are the days when cartoons were just for kids. It’s evident that animation is a medium capable of telling a wide range of stories and tackling a wide range of issues.
Encanto, the mega-hit from Pixar and Disney Plus, was praised for its portrayal of family trauma and representation of the Latine community, drawing viewers of all ages. Much like Encanto, Turning Red deals with more complex issues like generational trauma and puberty. So why is it that some audiences criticized Turning Red so much more? Turning Red focuses its lens on a centuries-old taboo: women’s and girls’ bodily autonomy. Meilin’s biggest conflict is with her mother, who fights to shield her daughter from the realities of womanhood and preserve her innocence. Although she had good intentions, Meilin’s mother symbolizes the many ways in which culture and society seek to control women. And her peers at school show the many ways society shames women for showing their emotions.
Another way Turning Red subverts the expectations of an animated kids' movie is in the fact that it has no villain. While it would be easy to say that Meilin’s mother Ming Lee, in her authoritarian way of running her house, is the antagonist, that’s not exactly the case. Similar to Encanto, Turning Red does a great job of presenting complicated “villains” who the audience can sympathize with. We see that the reason Meilin’s mother is so hard on her is because her mother is hypercritical of her and the way she chooses to raise her family. In this way, we can see that Ming is doing her best at parenthood, and like most parents, she makes several mistakes.
But don’t be mistaken! Despite the mature themes of sexuality, generational trauma, puberty, and menstruation, Turning Red is still a family movie. It’s not a family movie in the way Cars or Frozen is, but it’s not supposed to be. Older kids and teens may understand its nuances better, and that’s ok. Young kids can still enjoy the movie. Viewers should see past the critiques of tiger moms and watch for themselves. On the surface, it's a cute family movie. Dig deeper and you find a story about girlhood and family dynamics and culture. It’s the story I needed when I was younger.
Written by Kendall Ricks