With the recent push in animation toward diversity and representation, I was curious to see what Pixar’s new film Turning Red would have to say for itself, given the fact that mainstream animation has seen a turn in recent years from the usual stories we know. Turning Red was definitely a surprise; I did not expect to see a movie marketed for children where the plot would deal with puberty.
The story centres on Mei Lee, a thirteen-year-old, Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Ontario in 2002, whose loving but overbearing mother reveals that the women in their family have been given a blessing that became ‘later an inconvenience.’ When Mei’s emotions get the better of her, she turns into a giant red panda, representing how scary and uncontrollable puberty feels but presents it in a way that is accessible to young people. It’s an interesting idea, and the film does a great job of depicting what it’s like to be going through puberty.
Firstly, Mei’s priorities change. She becomes less focused on meeting her mother’s high expectations and becomes obsessed with boys, her friends, parties, and the quintessential early 2000’s boy band, 4town. The friendship between Mei, Miriam, Priya and Abby really shows how, during puberty, your friends are your family. In Mei’s case, they are how she controls the inner panda. Mei’s emotions are all out of balance- she cries, is quick to anger, and becomes overwhelmed all too easily- something we can all relate to as young teenagers and now even as college students.
In fact, the film succeeds in making almost all the characters seem relatable to their target audience, with glasses, braces, and the kind of clothes we cringe now to remember that we wore. The panda that Mei changes into is also clumsy and awkward, something which a lot of young teenagers will relate to. It’s certainly a good idea to be discussing periods, hormones, and body changes in a way that is accessible to young people. Too many young teenagers hit puberty and can’t discuss it out of embarrassment, whereas Turning Red encourages discussion on the issues, the good and the bad, that come with puberty. It deals with some topics- in my opinion- a little too openly for a film that people below puberty age would be viewing, but that’s an argument for another article.
The overall message of the panda seems to be that embracing your innermost self is the key to being happy. Mei’s mother and grandmother encourage her to repress the panda, as they themselves have suffered because of it. In this instance, the panda is a metaphor for the overwhelming feelings Mei is dealing with. However, Mei’s father and her friends point out how, since she got her gift, she has become more fun, confident, and carefree.
It’s a good message to be sending to young people that hiding their emotions is not the key to living a more fulfilled life, particularly during puberty. Opening up about needing support is a healthy message, especially in today’s world of ultra-capable ‘girl-boss’ characters that young girls can aspire toward but not relate to. While I’m not sure the physical changes that happen during puberty were exactly what Turning Red nailed, it certainly acknowledges the emotional changes young people go through. It is important to see such issues depicted, as it encourages young people to discuss what they are going through in a time we all remember to be difficult.
Emma Mooney- Film & TV Writer