There Is More Than One Way to Be Exhausted by “Turning Red”

“Turning Red,” Pixar’s twenty-fifth feature film, contains a lot of firsts. It’s the first Pixar feature directed solely by a woman, Domee Shi, whose “Bao,” from 2018, won an Oscar for Best Animated Short. It’s also the first Pixar film set in Canada—in Toronto, where Shi grew up. The coming-of-age story follows a thirteen-year-old Chinese Canadian girl, Meilin Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), whose first period triggers yet another first: she turns into a giant red panda. This transformation recurs whenever she is overcome with intense feelings, be they of lust, rage, or embarrassment. To a great extent, the film is a depiction of how Meilin adjusts to her new bodily functions around her school friends and, especially, her strict Chinese mother, Ming (Sandra Oh).

The “gross red monster,” as Meilin calls herself whenever she takes on the panda form, can be read as an obvious metaphor for menstruation—at least at first. (It could be a metaphor for blushing, too, and maybe there’s some palimpsest trace of Communist menace in there as well.) Like the monsters in “Monsters, Inc.” or Bing Bong the elephant in “Inside Out” (on which Shi worked as a storyboard artist), Meilin’s red panda initially appears as though it were a figment of a child’s imagination. Unlike previous movies such as “Monsters, Inc.,” “Turning Red” makes the monster real to children and adults alike. “Perhaps we should talk about why this is happening,” Ming says the first time her daughter emerges from her bedroom as a fluffy, red creature. “You’re a woman now, and your body is starting to change.” Ming doesn’t beat an eye at her daughter’s metamorphosis because she has gone through the same process herself. As Meilin soon learns, turning into a red panda is an ancient, matrilineal Chinese curse. In this way, the gendered trope of “Turning Red” (getting your period) bleeds into the ethnic trope of “Turning Red” (becoming a red panda). The parallel red scares here are united under the trope of turning Chinese. And why not? In the growing panoply of culturally inflected Pixar films, it was only a matter of time before the studio featured China. This, too, is a first for Pixar.

Since its release on Disney+ earlier this month, “Turning Red” has been received positively for its portrayal of women’s reproductive processes and Chinese Canadian culture. It unfolds amid the turmoil and chaos of Chinese girlhood in 2002, when Tamagotchis were all the rage, cell phones hadn’t completely caught on yet, everyone drank milk from bags, and Toronto’s Rogers Center was still called the SkyDome. “Toronto is awesome, and I don’t see it in movies a lot,” Shi told Toronto Life. “And everyone at Pixar was on board with the idea. For some reason, Americans are always amused by Canadian things. It actually helped me sell the pitch even more.” The cultural specificity of “Turning Red” irked an American critic, Sean O’Connell of CinemaBlend, who, in a review so controversial that it has since been taken down, wrote that the film “feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members.” The review continued: “There’s an audience out there for Turning Red. And when that audience finds the movie, I’ve no doubt they will celebrate it for the unique animal that it is. In my opinion, however, that audience is relatively small, and I’m not part of it.”

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As a Chinese immigrant who grew up in Canada around the same time as Shi and Meilin, I might be considered among those O’Connell imagines to be the target audience for “Turning Red.” (In elementary school, I even picked the red panda as my chosen species for a science project.) Yet I, too, found the film, as O’Connell puts it, to be “a jumble of familiar ideas and manic energy that exhausted me”—though perhaps not in the same way that it exhausted him. The manic energy is surely intentional, at least insofar as puberty works up nontrivial surges of eros and frenetic drive that need to get displaced somewhere. (As a Pixar heroine, Meilin is obnoxious enough to be weirdly refreshing.) In “Turning Red,” Meilin and her friends’ sexual awakening largely gets worked out through their collective obsession with the boy band 4*Town, a group that scans like an algorithmic mashup of ‘NSync, Backstreet Boys, O-Town, and the Canadian pop sensation soulDecision. In private, Meilin explores her burgeoning desires by sketching her crush in exaggeratedly chiselled form—an Adonis-like rendering that seems to outpace Meilin’s own recognition of her desires.

The unabashed portrayal of adolescent sexuality is inspired, but the film’s embrace of girlish horniness gets muddied by its parallel representation of Chineseness. When Meilin first “turns red,” Ming lurks outside her classroom window with a box of pads, drawing the attention of seemingly the entire school. Chinese mothers are overbearing, sure. But they are not typically overbearing in this way. In its effort to meld a celebration of Chinese culture with the destigmatization of gendered taboos, “Turning Red” renders these tropes as at once hyper-specific and alienating. The movie’s Asian stereotypes are neither winkingly ironized nor reanimated into something like realism.

The CinemaBlend review of “Turning Red” wasn’t smart, but it wasn’t necessarily wrong. Had the critic pushed his analysis further, he might have discerned that the chaotic overlap of identity-politics plots—Chinese mothers, horny girls, the cold, hard facts of reproductive biology—is exactly what guards the film from any meaningful critique. If one sees the movie as too sexualized or adult-themed for a young audience, that suggests only the conservatism and squeamishness of the critic. The literalism of “Turning Red” is, of course, part of the point—in making a topic that is still socially taboo friendly to all ages, Pixar works to undo the shame attached to something as banal as getting your period. But the film does so by distorting other cultural tropes, such as the tiger mother, who, in this rendition, literally shoves pads into her daughter’s face. Gender and ethnicity work as mutually reinforcing shields; in order to make female puberty everyone’s problem, “Turning Red” turns it into a Chinese person’s problem. It’s a film as messy as its subject matter.

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