Turning Red pic final

Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ is a coming-of-age classic

Domee Shi spins the Asian American mother-daughter narrative anew

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Words by Diep Tran

In Western media, Asian parents have become synonymous with oppression. After all, the common joke among Asians is that a B is the Asian F. Comedian Ali Wong even addresses this line of thinking in her standup special “Hard Knock Wife,” saying:

"A lot of people also often ask me, ‘Ali, what on Earth do your parents think about your stand-up comedy?’ Now that’s a very racially-charged question, right? Like, what they’re really asking is, ‘What do your oppressive Asian parents who beat you with the SAT book until your fingers bled from playing the cello think about your butthole-licking jokes?’" The joke here, a reference to how Wong is the default golden child because of her sister's unemployment, follows a line of questioning all Asian creatives know far too well: "But what do your parents think?"

Portrayals of Asian parents unconditionally accepting their children are rare. The “Tiger Mom” continues to serve as a mainstream mascot for Asian parenting, a fearsome figure who is strict and overbearing, bound by traditions, while their children are more progressive and modern. Generational tensions undercut every positive emotion. 

That was why I was initially concerned when I began watching Turning Red, the new Pixar film created by Chinese Canadian animator and director Domee Shi. The film follows 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), who is going through those cringey physical and emotional changes we all remember from being 13. Her mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) seems to exhibit every stereotype of the Tiger Mom: she pressures Mei to be a straight-A student, a skilled musician, and to help out at the family business every day after school. Ming’s stifling of her daughter is so extreme that she even spys on Mei’s classroom using binoculars—to the mortification of Mei, who is afraid to even talk to her mother about the hormonal changes she’s going through.

But the movie does not leave the high tension between mother and daughter untouched, in fact, the evolution of this relationship is the soul of the story. By the time I finished the film, I marveled that Turning Red’s Mei achieved in 110 minutes what it’s taken me two decades to achieve with my own mother: honesty and mutual acceptance.

Turning Red is about Mei, a Chinese Canadian girl from Toronto (there’s even a Tim Horton’s box in Lee’s household, a win in product placement for the beloved Canadian coffee chain). As the title alludes, Mei turns into a giant red panda when she’s emotional or upset. As soon as she calms down, she turns back into a girl.  

Turning Red exhibits the signature Pixar convention, as seen in the films Up and Inside Out, where fantastical metaphors are used to illustrate the characters navigating major life transitions. In Up, a flying house becomes a metaphor for grief, and Carl’s inability to to move on from his wife’s death. In Inside Out, the extreme emotions of a pre-teen girl named Riley is personified by colorful talking characters inside her head, as they learn to embrace, not reject, sadness. Similarly, in Turning Red, Mei has to learn to embrace her red panda form: the messy parts of herself that are not perfect.

Pixar’s films may be marketed as kids movies. But beneath all the red pandas and flying houses, for adults, these films are about how to handle the big, complicated emotions in our lives with grace—they’re basically animated therapy sessions.

Since the Turning Red trailer was released, viewers have been asking whether the red panda is a metaphor for Mei getting her period and going through puberty. The answer to those questions in the film are “yes, and...” Yes, Mei becoming bigger and furrier is a metaphor for that universal puberty feeling, where you become a stranger in your own body. But the “and” is rooted in cultural specificity.

As Mei says in the beginning of the film, “Honoring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, you might forget to honor yourself.”

The Lee family runs a Buddhist temple, which Mei helps out with every day after school, lighting incense and praying with her mother.  

When Mei experiences her first change, Ming shares with Mei that she used to turn into a red panda, too, until she learned to exorcize the red panda spirit from her body. She encourages Mei to free herself in the same way. In the meantime, Ming tells Mei to not let anyone see her in animal form.

via GIPHY

Except Mei, for the first time in her life, chooses not to listen to her mother, and instead cooks up a money-making scheme with her friends to charge their classmates money to see Mei’s panda form, in order to raise money to see their favorite boy band 4-Town perform. 

If defying her mother wasn’t enough, in typical coming-of-age fashion, Mei even sneaks out of her bedroom window to go to a party, and discovers she kind of likes her panda form.  

The film is set in 2002, and any millennial will recognize their teenage selves in Mei and her friends. They care for a Tamagotchi, they love the vampire novel Nightfall (a clear spoof of Twilight), they make each other mix CDs. And 4-Town is a clear riff on O-Town and other late ‘90s/early aughts boy bands. Their hit song “Nobody Like U,” written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, is so sonically spot on that I first thought it was an *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys deep cut.

Like the Hulu show Pen15, Turning Red invites millennials to remember, and cringe at, our past selves—the scene where Ming gives Mei a giant box of menstrual pads is enough to make me remember my mortifying first period. The film also challenges the Asian Americans and Asian Canadians watching it to be more honest with our parents.

Beneath all the red pandas and flying houses, for adults, these films are about how to handle the big, complicated emotions in our lives with grace—they’re basically animated therapy sessions.

The first time a friend of mine told me that she talked to her mother every day, I was shocked: How do you do that? I was embarrassed at the thought of even telling my mother that I had kissed a boy. The notion of your mother being your best friend, that was foreign to me.

I’ve always envied the easy closeness that my non-Asian friends seems to share with their mothers, being able to talk about anything—boyfriends, sex, failures—without shame. I envied their frank honesty, their uncomplicated comfort with one another.

So often, a relationship between an Asian mother and her daughter is one built on a throne of necessary lies and omissions. In The Joy Luck Club—Amy Tan’s iconic novel—one of the characters, June, says, “My mother and I never really understood each other. We translated each other’s meaning and I seemed to hear less than what was said, while my mother heard more.”

This sort of silence goes both ways. The mother will not tell the daughter about her past, what she was like as a girl, and what her dreams used to be. And the daughter will not tell her mother about certain details of her life, such as when she’s sick, when she stays out too late or drinks too much, or when she finally has sex for the first time.

Both mother and daughter in these situations act from the same impulses: protection and love. Why tell your mom that you were sick, that would only worry her. Why tell your daughter about your past, it will only pain her. Better to teach your daughter to work twice as hard, to stay silent, and to marry well—the survival technique that your mother taught you.

In Shi’s other animated film Bao, a Chinese Canadian mom (also living in Toronto) is so afraid that her son, who is a steamed bun, will become a stranger to her that she literally swallows him whole to prevent him from leaving. What Shi brilliantly and succinctly did in Bao was portray the fear shared by many Asian immigrant parents, in a way that is understandable, even to those who are not Asian. The proof is in the outcome: Shi won an Academy Award for the short.

Turning Red is similar thematically, but told from the point of view of the child. Mei finds herself lying and withholding from her mother for the first time, choosing to not share her crushes, or what she’s really doing after school every day. And it’s not because Mei is afraid of Ming, or of being grounded or forbidden from seeing her friends.

It’s a feeling that is familiar to many Asian women watching: You aren’t completely honest with your mother because you are afraid to sully the image she has of you as the perfect and obedient daughter. You are afraid of disappointing her. Because there are few things worse than disappointing your mother.

Though Turning Red clocks in at 110 minutes, it fails to fully humanize Mei’s mother, Ming to the same degree as the mother in Bao. The film does not devote adequate screentime to explore one crucial driver behind Ming’s actions, and why Mei is so afraid of falling short of her mother’s expectations: Ming’s immigrant identity.

This feels like a missed opportunity given that Shi is a child of immigrants, and even told the Canadian publication Macleans that as a girl she wondered, “Why are my parents so unfair? Why are they so crazy and overprotective?” And later, Shi understood, “It just comes from wanting to protect your kid and the experiences my mom went through when she was younger in coming to a new country, and having this only child who could be taken away at any moment by the forces of the universe.”

I grew up in an immigrant family with a similar story as Shi, and intimately understand how Mei and many kids like her live constantly with guilt and expectations of having parents who sacrificed for them to be there, and the expectation that the children must make good on those sacrifices.

Shi recalled that her parents didn’t discourage her creative impulses head on, but told her, “If you choose art, that means you’re poor.” If you choose to not be a lawyer or a doctor, you better work damn hard to make sure you succeed.

The film makes Ming overbearing to a fault, without delving into her motivations: that she is likely driven by fear, rather than a cold desire for control over her daughter. And it set up Mei’s deference to her mother as a character flaw, even though it’s something that is so ordinary and common among immigrant families. 

What Turning Red does succeed at is showing Mei successfully balancing her Asian heritage and Western upbringing, in a way that signals there is hope, and a good middle ground, for those of us who feel torn between two cultures. 

CinemaBlend managing director Sean O'Connell was recently lampooned for his criticism of Turning Red, saying (in a now-deleted review) that “by rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto,” the film was not “universal.” O’Connell also said he could not see himself in it, as if a Chinese Canadian girl was more fantastical to him than a house held aloft by balloons. 

By being so refreshingly specific, Turning Red makes it clear that universal stories are not limited to those about white men like O’Connell. An Asian Canadian girl’s coming of age tells the timeless tale of the teenage struggle to balance self-acceptance and family pressures, and belongs to the same genre as classics such as Lady Bird and The Breakfast Club.  

And for this Asian American, Turning Red also reminded me of my own fears, even now that I’m in my thirties, of letting my mother know my fully messy self—someone who doesn’t always follow the rules she taught me.

I recently agonized over telling my mother that I was spending Christmas with my boyfriend and his family in Minnesota. I was afraid—of her worry and her probing questions. Then my mother sincerely wished me a safe journey, and asked, “Where is Minnesota?” Asian moms, you think they are set in their ways, but they can still surprise you.

 

Published on March 10, 2022

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Words by Diep Tran

Diep Tran is a culture critic/reporter/editor based in New York City. Her loves include musical theater and period dramas. She interviewed Keanu Reeves once and got him to admit he was Asian. Twitter: @DiepThought