‘Turning Red’ Is an Ode to Complex Mother‑Daughter Relationships
Pixar’s Turning Red is an intimate, domestic coming of age film. Its main conflict is the excess of emotion that women suppress — manifesting in ways that are familiar to even those of us who don’t turn into big red pandas. It is a story about the complex relationship between Mei Lee, a Chinese-Canadian teenager, and her mother Ming. The weight of culture and feminine socialization puts a strain on their relationship, culminating in a “curse” where Mei turns into a giant red panda when she is overwhelmed with emotions.
The groundbreaking thing about Turning Red is its softness and intimacy. It’s in the glances between Ming and Mei laden with affection, doubt, fear, suspicion, tenderness, and pride — sometimes all at once. There are no princes, princesses, kingdoms, or anything out of the ordinary. The biggest crisis in the film is Mei’s attempts to thwart her overbearing mother to attend a concert by the boy band of her dreams.
But the concert, it soon turns out, is secondary; the “hero’s quest” in Turning Red is to grapple under the pressure of emotion that is restrained and tamed throughout generations. The ability to channel excess to turn into a red panda was once a gift by Mei’s ancestor Sun Yee; now, amid changing socio-cultural norms, it is a curse. Ming represents the pain of upholding the “model minority” stereotype; what it costs her is her ability to feel the full length and breadth of her own feelings.
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It is now Mei’s turn to “tame” her feistiness, just as her mother and her mother before her have. Mei must choose between continuing along the same path as her mother by falling in line with the prescribed script for femininity, or letting loose to really discover who she is outside of the norm. Although its characters are Asian, Turning Red tells a universal story — of what it means for mothers to love their daughters in their own image, and what happens when their daughters wish to break free.
Pixar’s exploration of adolescence and puberty goes against the grain of its previous sanitized iterations of the same story. Mei is a dorky, awkward, feisty young girl; her band of girlfriends has uniquely different personalities and nobody looks unrealistic, for once. The friction between Mei and Ming feels all too relatable, rubbishing claims of stories having to be white to have universal appeal. Teenagedom is a particularly fraught, hormonal time — an experience that can turn suffocating under restrictive parenting. But beneath every restrictive parent is a wounded child restricted by their own formative experiences, too. There is no villain in Turning Red but there is an antagonist: and this is the cultural burden that women bear of taking up as little space — physically and emotionally — as possible.
As a red panda, Mei bursts into largeness, taking a hearty belly and a big furry tail in tow when she starts getting comfortable with herself. Ming is mortified and asks her to suppress her panda — and this comes at a cost. Mei finds that she can suppress it only when she calms herself; but teenagedom and even girlhood is scarcely about keeping calm all the time. For those upon whom calmness and discipline are imposed, female excess can look like a curse to be broken. But Turning Red shows how it doesn’t have to be — and therein concludes its heroic quest, sans heroes, villains, or even tragedy.
The conclusion of conflict can be bittersweet; Turning Red understands more than most animated films that that’s what growing up is all about.