Turning Red is an endearing coming-of-age, monstrous femme film about learning to love yourself but it is also about the emotional connection between a mother and daughter. Furthermore, it’s about the dual identity of this Asian-Canadian girl. Gabe gets real about her own mixed identity and replies to audience complaints about the film. Kat explores what the Red Panda symbolizes and how trauma is different for everyone.
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Turning Red (2022)
A 13-year-old girl named Meilin turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Director: Domee Shi
Turning Red: Learning to Love & Accept All Our Identities
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Turning Red follows Mei, an ordinary pre-teen girl with amazing friends and a beautiful relationship with her mom. Mei is incredibly close to her mother and spends her time outside of school working at the family business. Mei is super obsessed with a boy band and she’s only just discovering that real boys can be pretty cute. The film brings us along Mei’s journey of self-discovery and growth. As Mei begins her puberty process, she also discovers an old, hidden, family secret. She and the other women in her family are were-red pandas. They turn into giant red pandas when they feel too many emotions. At first, Mei is stressed by this change. Hair in unexpected places? No control of our emotions? Our body is so foreign and our parents couldn’t possibly understand?! You may wonder, as we often do in stories like this, why Mei’s mother didn’t warn her of the panda beforehand? Well, Mei’s mother thought she’d have more time. When I was watching this, I totally understood considering that people my age tended to mature and go through puberty faster than our parents. I got my period when I was 12 or 13 myself.
It’s a typical coming-of-age monstrous femme, but it is also so much more than this. Mei learns to appreciate her panda. With the help of her friends, she turns the panda into a positive. Other kids love it and she soon begins making bank using the Panda and panda merch. This money is going to be used for the beloved concert of her favorite boys, 4Town. However, the night of the concert happens to fall on the same night of her ???. Will Mei sacrifice her new red panda powers to become normal? Or will she learn to love her panda and find the beauty in what makes us monstrous?
This film has gotten a ton of love online. Fans of Encanto are excited for this future of wholesome, loving movies about family, growth, and representation. However, there’s also been a bit of backlash from viewers that I want to address.
I Don’t See Myself:
There was a review by a white man explaining that he doesn’t see himself in a movie like Turning Red. He expressed distaste for the film for lacking in his experiences. There’s a lot to unpack in that idea but I want to start by saying, I think it’s okay for one of the millions of things out there to not be about a white man or the white person's experience at all. Been there, seen that. It’s like when Jordan Peele said he doesn’t see himself ever casting a white male lead in his films. He’s already seen that movie. And we have. It doesn’t have to be about you, dude. Let other people have a chance to share their stories. It’s time to rotate the crops or else our land will rot.
The other piece to this is that this person is simply out of practice. He hasn’t had to work to identify with a piece of media before. Because it has always already been made for him. As an incredibly mixed femme person, I have had an entire lifetime of practice finding a connection with characters that do not look like me. You learn to find other parts of their experience to bond over. I am not Asian (I am Canadian though) and so I can’t entirely relate to Mei’s experience. But I can relate in ways that I always have with the media. I had similar experiences growing up and there are many other pieces of this story that I relate to.
Growing up, there were no (and continue to not be) any Disney Princesses for me. I either had to be Indigineous or Indian. Even my Latiné heroes weren’t quite right for me. Selena Quintanilla is a Mexican-American, where I am Puerto Rican-American. But I could identify with her dual-identity as a Latiné-American who did not fit into either identity entirely. So my response to this man’s outcry of lack of representation is simply, figure it out. Find what parts of you are in this piece and understand that there is no one story to tell.
The other negative review I want to address is about Mei’s mother, Ming. There is a lot of hate towards her and her own mother for being too overbearing and controlling of their daughters. There is similar vitriol towards Alma of Encanto. Firstly, how many mothers are even alive in Disney to be criticized? Let’s give them some props for not having anime-mom disease and dying off camera. But also, these are women who are existing under some very extreme and traumatic societal pressures that those other Disney moms wouldn’t understand. Turning Red reminded me a lot of Brave. I mean, both moms are turned into bears! But the exploration of that mother-daughter bond, the pressures young girls experience to perform and uphold certain traditional values is present in both. However, Ming and her mother have the added pressure of being immigrants. Of being outcasts in their own homes. Alma literally fled persecution and watched her husband murdered in front of her (spoilers, sorry), I think we can cut this woman some slack!
So, all that is to say to lay off. Leave these women alone. They are not the villains in this story. They are not Mother Gothel of Tangled. Their moms: human, flawed, and absolutely in love with their families.
There is so much to be said about this truly fun and amazing film! I loved it on so many levels. I identified pretty strongly with Mei. Through her connection with her family, the very strong matriarchal line of women, her obsessions with boy bands, boys, and attention. This film is about learning to love yourself but it is also about the emotional connection between a mother and daughter. Furthermore, it’s about the dual-identity of this Asian-Canadian girl. Being mixed myself, I understood the stress of straddling two realities. Of performing the role of daughter at home and someone else entirely in the world. Director Domhee Shi said about the red panda, after visiting a sanctuary for them, “They’re native to China. And then also, it’s like red and white. It’s like Chinese, but also like the colors of the Canadian flag, too. So it felt like the perfect animal to tell this story about this Chinese-Canadian teenage girl.”
There are so many pressures on children of families that feel the intense weight of societal expectations on them. There is an experience here that is very unique to Asian-Canadians/Asian-Americans and other mixed race families that adds to the story. Mei is seen as a golden child, she holds on her shoulders the weight of the future. She must be the best version of herself and please her mother. When she stops doing that, she becomes this red panda. And though this film is very much a puberty film, it’s also about allowing ourselves to let go and to feel. Like in Inside Out, our protagonist learns that it’s okay to show all her emotions, that they are a piece of her and do not make her any less worthy of love or praise.
Adverse Childhood Experiences & Turning Red
by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
This is our last in the Monsterous femme series and an unexpected addition in a lot of ways. The horrors in this film are more about the horrors of puberty, and familial trauma than it is about a monster. In fact red pandas aren’t monstrous in Chinese mythology, nor do they have much of a mythological back story. According to an article in Marie Claire, The Symbolism in 'Turning Red,' Explained By Quinci LeGardye the writer-director Domee Shi told insider that Pixar chose the red panda in part because red pandas don't have a deep mythological background. "I think we wanted the space and the room to come up with a whole legend and a mythology," Shi told the outlet. The red panda being a relatively clean slate means that the themes of the film can stand on their own, without other popular myths being added to or conflated with the story. They also said that they wanted the red panda to clearly represent a magical puberty experience/transformation, and that the red panda presented an opportunity with color to represent the period itself, anger, embarrassment, and lust. The relation to actual red pandas stemmed mostly from the fact that they’re territorial and protective of their young and that they’re very cute. In a lot of ways my section will be dedicated to talking about what the director intended, focusing less on mythology of the monster, and more of the story the red panda monsterized was trying to tell. That familial trauma can be generational, and that protection can become toxic if done without clear communication and trust. I won’t talk about the horrors of puberty in this episode because we did that last week and in a lot of ways in previous iterations of the monstrous femme series, so check those out if you’re interested.
For those who know little about trauma and its impact on the brain I’ll provide some introductory knowledge. Trauma is unique to the individual, and an event that may be traumatic to one person could be just another day for someone else, it all kind of relates to our sensitivity to various situations, and ultimately connects to all other facets of our lives. For example: a parent may interpret that a house fire was horribly traumatic to themselves, and think the same about their child. Where the child could potentially be more traumatized by the loss of their pet dog who ran away in the fire, instead of the event of the fire itself. Most trauma is a purely subjective experience and highly dependent on its impact on the individual. In the same way, trauma can manifest in behaviors in vastly different ways that are unique to the individual, as different people have different coping mechanisms for their experiences. A child who has a caring and attentive person in their life may handle a traumatic event better than a child who feels unseen and isolated. “Better” is also subjective to to the outsider viewing the child’s experience, in that a child handling their trauma by repressing themselves and forcing themselves into a dissociated people pleasing shell of their true identity can be perceived by outsiders as “better, or more convenient” than a child who handles their emotions more outwardly through aggressive or destructive behavior. “Better” in reality is more about the child/person feeling safe enough to explore their emotions without threat or fear of abandonment. Met instead with understanding from their peers, and caretakers in their life.This same thought process extends to adults, and in many ways may feel familiar to some of us when looking at our parents, as well as looking internally within ourselves. The reality is that because trauma is subjective to the individual, almost everyone has experienced their own version of a traumatic experience. The impact of said experience differs for each person but in many ways existence itself is traumatic and especially when living in a capitalistic oppressive society. The result being that most adults are balls of unhealed trauma. Covered in knots of repressed traumatic experiences that they’ve either never coped with or are working through. This is showcased beautifully in our film, with Meilin’s Mom, and grandmother unintentionally creating a cycle of traumatic experiences that Mei is tasked with untangling. Whether this is done intentionally or unintentionally, the impact is something that young people today are dealing with and is being reflected in children’s media. This is seen in films like Encanto, Turning Red, Luca, and others.
The research on trauma is ever evolving, so the understanding of the true impact evolves with this research. When I was originally introduced to trauma research the bulk of this exploration was done with the understanding of early childhood development, and the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). For anyone who heard Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) and wondered what I was talking about, the CDC describes ACE’s as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. ACEs can include violence, abuse, and growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems. Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. However, ACEs can be prevented. It’s possible to score yourself with the framework that ACE’s present, and this information can be helpful in instilling a sense of urgency and drive to seek healing for yourself. However, I strongly advise against scoring your own Adverse Childhood experiences unless you are in a positive mindset, as the score itself can be very triggering when taken in without any tangible next steps or solutions. What is important to know when exploring your own trauma is that the neuroplasticity of your brain makes it possible to heal from your trauma, and while that is something that takes active work, it is possible. Also if you’re interested in just learning more about this I highly recommend checking out one of the more popular spoken explanations of this that Nadine Burke Harris speaks to in their TED talk. It’s a video generally shown in intro trauma courses, as they explain it clearly and instill a sense of urgency in the listener. Neuroplasticity is a fancy word for explaining that the brain creates neural pathways both from traumatic events as well as through positive and constructive therapeutic healing experiences. With that understanding, the ACE’s can feel less like a death sentence, and more like a reason to fight for yourself and your healing journey.
For anyone who is still in the survival stage of existence, you likely won’t start to recognize the impact of your experiences or how they may have traumatized you until you reach a more stable and safe space. Ironically that’s when a lot of the more upsetting symptoms of trauma rear their head, when things are calmer and you’ve left the cause of the trauma behind. Once out of danger, your body may have trouble adjusting and regulating your emotional responses to stress.This can manifest in self sabotage, not trusting your instincts or the intentions of others, having big emotional reactions to things that used to feel like not a big deal, or seeking out experiences that feel familiar but are dangerous. For example, to speak to my own experience, I have always struggled with recognizing my own value, and accepting that I am not the cause of every bad thing that has ever happened. When I was younger I handled this by dissociating, desperate people pleasing and shrinking myself. As I got older I started to handle this in really toxic ways, through either reckless decision making, irrational emotional reactions to situations that didn’t call for them, as well as not taking care of myself, recognizing myself or my needs. I also would often seek out partners or friendships that subconsciously reminded me of my traumas, in that they either exhibited erratic or toxic behaviors, struggled with alcoholism or drug addiction, or were otherwise neglectful or cruel to me. I was unable to save my loved ones from their inner demons, so I often sought out partners with the same problems with the hope I'd finally be enough for someone to get better for. Which isn’t real, and not healthy, and definitely a damaging and retraumatizing experience for everyone involved.
Another big piece of this healing journey involves viewing your reactions to the trauma you experienced. Viewing your own actions and how they may have traumatized others either through intentional or unintentional harm. An unfortunate reality of being a traumatized person is that it is likely that in the time before you started healing, you hurt others. The intention behind your actions is ultimately irrelevant when the impact of your behavior has hurt someone else. What is important when unpacking this for yourself is recognizing all you can do is to take accountability for those actions, and do better in the future. Apologizing with the goal of external forgiveness can retraumatize the person you’ve hurt which just makes the situation worse. An apology should only be given with the understanding that the person you’re apologizing to may not forgive you for what you’ve done, and ultimately that is their right that you have to respect. External forgiveness is not something you can control, so you can only forgive yourself and accept the consequence of that person not wanting to be in your life anymore. You are not entitled to another person’s peace, as much as no one else is entitled to yours. All you can do is hope that that changes, but understand that you must also accept if that never does. It’s also important not to project your trauma onto others. Just cause something was or is traumatic to you, doesn’t mean it was also traumatic for someone else. Approaching someone with the intention to have them recognize their trauma can be more traumatizing than just letting them cope with their experiences authentically. If someone is okay with how an experience took place, calling attention to how they should be reacting instead of how they are reacting is you projecting your trauma onto someone else. Forcing someone to recognize a trauma is ultimately a selfish and centering thing to do, because you’re making their experience about validating your own experience instead of what is actually in their best interest.
As someone who feels like an alien entity that actively doesn’t understand humans, I repeat this information to myself….like all the time. So in a lot of ways this is just me sharing my internal dialogue. I feed myself this information as a way of making sense of a world that doesn’t make sense and in navigating social situations. It’s also backed up with medical research so that’s another reason to take it into account. As I said previously, it’s important to have tangible next steps when exploring these kinds of topics as unpacking all your baggage can be a messy experience.