Turning Red perfectly conveys how uncomfortable and awkward it is to wake up and discover your body is changing and everyone around can see it. This coming of age story is told through the portrayal of a 13 year-old Chinese Canadian girl, Meilin Lee, or Mei-Mei, navigating her pubescent years in the early 2000’s in Toronto, Canada.
Mei she is having to face the embarrassment of discovering new things about herself, such as developing crushes, her first period, and preferring to spend time talking about her favorite boy band with her friends. More alarming, she is dealing with magically transforming into a giant red panda upon experiencing any strong emotion. To make matters more complicated, she worries that these new things about herself, which she is having a hard time concealing, are keeping her from being the perfect daughter her parents know and love.
In other words, the movie is about much more than puberty. It is about balancing family-friend dynamics through the reality of her culture and traditions. Kristen Vibal, CSU Bakersfield alumnus, comments, “The movie examines the relationship between filial piety and autonomy in the pubescent age. We don’t all grow up the same way. Something I wish people understood about growing up as an Asian-American is why I would do the things that I do, and that resonated with me. To have Turning Red give a glimpse of what that is like is kind of comforting to see.”
To further add to her anxieties, Mei’s mother, Ming, is not willing to give up invading her privacy because of her own upbringing. Having dealt with her own panda and watching it destroy her relationship with her mother has convinced her that being overbearing is the only way to ensure Mei will not distance herself from her family. The movie highlights a scar on Ming’s mother’s forehead that conveys the severity of their last falling out. Because of the guilt Ming carries, she encourages Mei to suppress this part of herself and her identity. In the article, “Pixar’s Turning Red Review: You’ve Got a Friend in Mei’’ by Esther Vallins (2022) she mentions, “Mama Ming Lee assures that there’s a cure (Mei’s first telltale indication that her panda is something that needs curing, that should be removed from her identity).”
This is also a story that puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of doing good by your friends. In the film, Mei will do anything she can to keep them around and make sure she is bonding and appreciating them. Although the familial guilt persists throughout, Mei does recognize her friends are her safe and supportive space. Vallins (2022) explains, “[Her friends] celebrate this new discovery, which in turn, shows Mei that she can celebrate her new self, instead of seeing her panda as a curse.”
Although intended for a younger audience, the themes touched upon are universal. Everyone can understand or remember what it is like to grow up, and viewers can also understand these new and scary things do not just startle us during pubescent age. Growing up is continuous.
Vibal comments on what the biggest take-away from the movie is when she says, “At the beginning of the movie, she kind of opens it up to be this perfect daughter for them because they provided basic necessities, but I think what is most important is that we owe it to ourselves to be the most honest version of us and unapologetically us.”