Parents have been up in arms lately about one of the newest Disney Pixar films that tells the story of a tween girl and her adolescent struggles as she finds her voice and works through an awkward time in her life. This film follows Toronto preteen Mei Lee as she enters puberty and starts literally turning red – into a red panda that, is a result of a family curse. The film details the intricacies of a strained relationship between Mei and her mother and how Mei deals with embarrassment and seclusion during a rough time.
Mei ultimately comes to terms with the fact that learning to make her own decisions is a part of becoming an adult. This film saw parental backlash as a result of the freethinking and challenging way Mei acted toward her parents in Turning Red. It’s easy to get caught up in topics in which you are personally invested. Perhaps an alternate view of the film is worth mentioning. How might the movie be seen through the eyes of an adult who is not a parent?
This is a childless millennial’s take on Turning Red. We are all familiar with the Walt Disney World-fueled discussion about childless millennials and their obsession with Disney Parks, (Magic Kingdom lover here) collections of useless crap (don’t knock my star wars collection), and general Disney fandom. As a member of this group, I’ll admit I do love Disney World and Disney movies with a burning passion so, of course, I wanted to see Turning Red. After I saw the social media backlash via a Facebook post of a friend I was intrigued. Do childless adults, childless couples, and childless women have a different take on this hotly debated film? This is my opinion as a childless millennial watching Turning Red for the first time.
As a 90s girl at heart, I absolutely loved the 90s cultural references in this film. The way Mei and her friends fangirl out over 4*Town is not unlike how my friends and I reacted to our favorite boy bands in the 90s. Think Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC even New Kids on the Block- we were smitten. So of course, I completely understand why Mei and her gang feel compelled to attend the 4*Town concert at any cost. Don’t even get me started about the adorable Tamagotchi habit Mei and her friends have. The 90s cultural references in this movie are adorable.
We Thought We Had More Time
Early conversations around Turning Red and parental anxiety about the movie centered around worry about a Disney movie broaching the topic of puberty and menstruation. Parents worried if learning about this fact of life from a Disney movie is appropriate. Parents of younger children (even girls) worried that the message of the movie was too early for their elementary school-aged daughters to watch. At first, this line of thinking made perfect sense to me. But after seeing the movie it became clear that periods are not the star of this movie. Instead, the story follows Mei’s overwhelming feeling of loneliness and confusion when she turns into a red panda during emotional situations. How this scary and foreign situation affects her relationships shines through as a major conflict.
That said, in a time where we are striving to end period stigma and normalize menstruation as a healthy and unremarkable part of life this movie could have proven helpful. Seeing periods represented in a kid’s film as the normal bodily function they are, would have been a major step in the direction of period equality. In reality, the movie only hints at periods. Mei’s mom runs to her aid in the restroom where she’s hiding out as a red panda to help her through the debacle. Then later, when she surprises Mei at school delivering boxes of feminine products she’s left behind at home.
The theme “more time” jumped out at me when watching the film and reflecting on what mom friends commented about this new movie. The irony of the theme really rings true. When Mei wakes up as a red panda one morning and flips out when seeing her furry hands and fluffy tail her parents spring into action. While her take charge mom is in her element spearheading a crazy situation. Her father Jin remarks in shock that “it’s happening already?” Mei’s mom agrees, with the sentiment she thought they had more time. Because Mei’s parents failed to have the proper conversations with their daughter Mei is blindsided by this new change in her body and feels even more alone and confused than a normal adolescent. While this red panda transformation was always going to be tough, the way Mei’s parents avoided sharing the truth added another layer of pain and uncertainty atop the emotional wave.
When talking to my friends who are moms of elementary school-age girls, they have mentioned disapproving of Turning Red or choosing for their family not to watch the movie because it’s too early to broach such topics. Because they feel like they have more time before information on physiological changes need to be shared with their daughters. While every family is absolutely entitled to make the decision right for them, it’s worth remembering that the lack of communication between Mei’s parents and their daughter was some of the biggest reasons she felt so isolated and confused in the movie. In the course of a day, she literally goes from being a top-notch student, perfect daughter, excellent musician, great friend, and all-around confident tween, to a distraught and confused girl.
The sad scene of Mei curled on her bare mattress on the floor in her room in an effort not to wreck any more property stands out as incredibly sad. The loneliness this scene portrays is truly heartbreaking and sets viewers up to completely understand why Mei takes solace in the love of her friends who have her back during a time when she doesn’t feel like her parents have been completely honest with her. When parents are not upfront about the truth, tweens and teens find emotional support in their friends.
Kids Deserve Respect Too
When I say that I was beyond infuriated when watching Mei’s mom scoff at her concert proposal that is the truth. While Mei’s parents absolutely had the authority to deny her request to attend the 4*Town concert for any reason, the way Ming mocked the band was not cool. She exploded as if even the question was out of line. Sure, the tickets were expensive, logistics were tough, etc. but the way she completely discounted Mei’s feelings and interest in 4*Town was just mean. Kids deserve respect too.
Yes, Ming’s concerns about a red panda transformation during such an emotionally charged concert were valid but she went about the situation in the wrong way. When Ming has thoroughly scoffed at the band and expressed disgust over their “gyrations” it angers Mei and makes it so much easier for her to go behind her mom’s back to monetize her red panda side and purchase the concert tickets. Mei’s response to her mom’s angry tirade is a surprise, after all, Mei has always been an obedient and responsible child. Ming’s response and default to an authoritarian parenting model show little regard for her daughter’s feelings.
This truth was an underlying theme throughout Turning Red that was glaringly obvious to me as a childless woman reflecting on my own adolescence. As the movie continues, we watch Ming’s mother, and Mei’s grandmother arrive in Toronto with the same authoritarian parenting air to exercise over Ming. In fact, she travels to Toronto against Ming’s wishes and takes over the red panda ceremony despite her daughter’s pleading.
When the red panda curse emerges followed by her train wreck of a concert request it’s no wonder that Mei is shutting down and taking matters into her own hands. Attending the concert was all the more important as her fandom for 4*Town was a topic that she and her friends bonded over. Remember, at this point in the film Mei feels really shaken and insecure. She is starting to believe that she can’t trust her mom and dad. After all, they failed to mention in 13 years’ time that she would experience the curse of the red panda. It’s not about the concert, it’s about Mei’s loyalty to her friends and a secure place in a friend group during a time when life at home is crazy.
Parents I chatted with frequently cited Mei’s rebellion in the movie as a primary reason they chose not to watch the movie. The importance of children not questioning authority and not pushing back on their parent’s rules was touted as a reason this movie was inappropriate. However, I could not stop noticing all the ways Mei’s mom set herself up for disappointment in her interactions with her daughter in Turning Red. Ming lacked honesty and her resistance to remain forthcoming about the changes Mei was about to experience left Mei with an added layer of confusion and anxiety during this time.
We Are All Learning
One of the reasons I was a fan of this movie was because of the theme of learning and growing in different stages of life. While I personally am not a big fan of Ming in this movie, I recognize that she is struggling to adapt to Mei’s changes and her new role as the mom of a tween. We also get glimpses of her traumatic adolescence and early adulthood. This tough part of Ming’s history is shrouded in comments from Mei’s father Jin, in a father-daughter heart-to-heart.
Generational trauma is the culprit yet again in this Disney Pixar film as we watch Mei’s confident, smart and professional mom wilt as her mother, Mei’s grandmother, enters the family compound and steps up to take control of the red panda situation. Watching the generations of Mei’s family interact drives home the lesson that honesty is important and that we are all working our way through difficult aspects of the age and stage we are in, in life.
See for Yourself
While I absolutely do see the trends of Mei’s sneaking and lying to be a problem, I think there is so much more to this film that we should be talking about. Namely, moms, and parents in general, could stand to learn a bit from this Disney Pixar film as well. Most importantly, I encourage you to tune in on Disney Plus and stream this new Disney Pixar movie for yourself. After chatting about this new movie with friends I was consistently discouraged to hear that their opinions on the movie were based on a secondhand (sometimes even third or fourth hand) account. If you are not ready to invest the time into vetting this movie before showing it to your kids no worries, just don’t turn other people off to this awesome movie because you have heard rumors about it. Take the time to watch Turning Red to enjoy a sweet story and all the Disney Pixar details that I loved about the film.