How 'Turning Red' Presents Chinese Culture Liberated Me in a Way I Didn't Know I Needed

Disney Pixar's 'Turning Red' tackles topics marginalized by the male gaze—menstruation, friendship, body image—as Mei turns into a larger-than-life red panda at those rollercoaster moments that mark puberty.

Scene from Turning Red of teens in school hallway
Photo: Getty

"I accept and embrace all labels!" proudly declares Meilin Lee, the energetic protagonist of the latest Disney Pixar film Turning Red. Meilin, or Mei (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang), is a bold, confident, and at times angry 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl navigating puberty in wonderfully diverse Toronto in 2002.

This highly anticipated film directed and co-written by trailblazer Domee Shi, whose powerful Oscar-winning short film Bao captured so much heart in a mere eight minutes, is already making a splash. Turning Red hits closer to home for many of us who are part of the Asian diaspora because of an important distinction—it takes place in a familiar-feeling North American city.

Past Disney feature films celebrated for Asian American Pacific Islander representation such as Raya and the Last Dragon, Mulan, Moana, Big Hero 6, and Lilo and Stitch have all taken place in Asia, Hawaii, or a make-believe setting. Other recent animated hits featuring Asian casts, like Over the Moon and Abominable, also favorites in my family, are set in China.

During this time of heightened anti-Asian hate, when Asians continue to be relegated to foreigner status no matter how many generations our families have lived in the West, this kind of representation of Asian Canadians and Asian Americans is sorely needed.

Shi, who was born in China and raised in Toronto, is the first sole-credited female director for Pixar—giving some 6 million Asian Canadians, nearly 18 percent of the Canadian population, a well-deserved moment. In Turning Red, she seizes the opportunity to pack it full of subjects neglected and marginalized by the male gaze—menstruation, teen girl horniness, big emotions, and more.

Mei turns into a larger-than-life red panda at unexpected moments as an analogy for puberty as she and her friends lust after the pop stars of 4*Town, a boy band that appears to be a cross between BTS and 'NSync.

Chinese cultural representation is highlighted in a manner that feels deeply authentic. Never did I imagine I could watch Chinese ancestor worship, burning joss sticks at family altars just as I've done hundreds of times with my own family, in a mainstream Disney movie. Similarly, depictions of rice porridge eaten for breakfast and the overprotective behavior of traditional parents were all the things I tried to keep hidden as a young person growing up in America. These scenes unburdened me from memories of past shame I wasn't aware still lingered. Turning Red put these experiences on center stage, liberating this 40-year-old mama, and probably others like me, in a way I didn't know I needed.

Shi not only delivered on cultural representation, but she subversively spotlights the very relevant and necessary theme of positive body representation. She dismantles Disney's history of promoting a "princess figure"—impossibly thin, hourglass waist, with a long slim neck and delicate limbs.

Mei and her butt-kicking group of girlfriends are a realistic, fun-loving cast of diverse characters of differing human sizes—Miriam (Ava Morse) rocks a disheveled look with a flannel shirt and slouchy cap; Priya, voiced by the breakout Canadian star of Netflix's Never Have I Ever Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is artsy and stoic; and lastly, Abby (Hyein Park) is a round, purple-loving, intense first-generation Korean Canadian who speaks Korean when she gets excited. None of them fit a particular physical stereotype of how a girl is "supposed" to look, especially on film—and I'm so ready for it.

All of this body and Asian experience representation culminates in a subtle but evocative scene when Mei's grandmother and aunties descend on her to help with the red panda problem. "She's gained weight," one auntie observes, pinching and petting her face. "She's lost weight," says another. Another auntie says Mei looks like her mother; another says she looks like her father. My eyes widened from how much I related to this. Over the years, countless times at every family gathering, everyone has had an opinion about my body, my face—how it looks, how it ought to look.

Mei, though dumbfounded, seems unaffected by these comments because of her established sense of confidence. I am immensely grateful that such an unapologetic character like Mei exists for young girls today, one who learns to embrace all of herself. She owns her emotions and her development—imperfection, independence, creativity, and all.

Turning Red, like Bao, reminds parents that it's okay for kids to seek some distance and forge closer bonds with friends as they grow older. It reiterates that the love between a parent and child will evolve past teenage years. Ming, Mei's mother voiced by Sandra Oh (another legendary Canadian), initially struggles to accept her daughter's changes, but her husband Jin (Orion Lee) says, "Adolescence is messy. Bottling up our emotions, our interests, for the sake of family does not serve us."

Turning Red is ultimately about breaking family cycles that cause harm. "I can't disappoint my family, my mom…" says Mei. "All her hopes and dreams are pinned on me." But of course, it is not fair for a child to carry all the hopes and dreams of her parents when she should be allowed to have hopes and dreams of her own. Growing up means outgrowing our family's expectations of us—and this can hurt. A lot. Shi's film captures this "growing pain" exceptionally well, with ample silliness and charm folded in.

As specific as this coming-of-age film is, its universality is also undeniable. Struggles with body image, budding sexual urges, the awkwardness of puberty, the cementing of friendships, and fighting for independence are human experiences relatable to everyone.

Turning Red (PG) is streaming now on Disney Plus.

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