Disney’s “Turning Red” is one of the first mainstream movies that follows characters of Asian descent and goes through the cultural beliefs of the main character, a Chinese Canadian girl who must deal with her family’s connection with giant red pandas. “Turning Red” has broken barriers in talking about topics such as puberty and intergenerational trauma and has also given guidance to a new audience of young girls that have questions about their life and are going through the phases of puberty. The film has generally received positive reviews, but a small group of reviewers (particularly white, cisgender men) have labeled the movie difficult to connect to as it does not target their ‘audience.’ Additionally, many people have called it not age-appropriate because the film talks about menstrual cycles. Although there are criticisms about what particular audience this film catered to and certain topics addressed that parents have issues with, “Turning Red” has broken barriers and pushed for parents to have conversations with their children about family dynamics, puberty, and growing up in modern society.
One of the film’s main areas of criticism is its willingness to portray aspects of real-life development. Topics such as puberty and parent-child relationships, particularly in an Asian household, are prominent themes in the film. However, some viewers believe that the issues experienced by the characters in “Turning Red” only apply to a marginalized group who have different beliefs than the mainstream white American audiences. In contrast to this view, a UCLA student appreciated Disney’s route of addressing a new and modern version of childhood into adulthood because the relationships and themes in “Turning Red” are “more realistic” and allow audiences to understand how “the way parents treat [their children might have] stemmed from the way their parents treated them.”
The main relationship the film focuses on is the relationship between Mei and her mother. Seen as a ‘tiger mom,’ the mother is perceived as off-putting and overprotective about Mei finding out her family’s history, fearing that her child would question who she was and what generational trauma has been passed onto her unwillingly. A response by an anonymous UCLA student stated that the portrayal of Mei’s mother “is accurate to many real-life Asian mothers [and is a] representation of cultural values.” This is indicative of the realities that many Asian families have in their dynamics and cultural expectations.
One early review from Sean O’Connell criticized the film’s relatability and range of target audience. He commented that “Turning Red” was not made for a universal audience, and instead would only be enjoyable for a “very specific and very narrow” audience similar to the characters portrayed in the film. However, as one of very few Disney films featuring Asian Canadian main characters and family dynamics, “Turning Red” is an important opportunity for representation within the Asian Pacific Islander community. Seeing a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian onscreen is an inspiring experience for those who have spent their childhoods watching films predominantly featuring white characters. An anonymous UCLA student said that “allowing kids to see themselves and their relationships with their parents in a Disney movie is super important because it shows that they’re not alone.” The film’s realistic and nuanced portrayal of relationships within an Asian Canadian family gives much-needed representation to a population that has often been marginalized or omitted in film. It also allows for the sharing of common experiences through the portrayal of cultural values and how they are reflected in parent-child relationships.
Though “Turning Red” tells the story of an Asian girl’s development and familial relationships, its underlying theme is a relatable and universal message to those who are growing up and experiencing change. Rosalie Chang, the voice actress of Mei, said that “this is a coming of age film [and] everyone goes through this change…[so] the core messiness and change is something everyone can relate to.” People from many different backgrounds can see themselves reflected in Mei’s experience navigating her relationship with her parents, her culture, and her body. As Mei learns to deal with puberty and development, the portrayal of her story and experiences can serve as a comforting guide for those who may not have someone to lead them through it.
“Turning Red” has expanded children’s cinema and opened new topics for discussion. It has helped children understand the changes and questions that they may have as they grow up, and it has helped parents prepare to have conversations with their children about life. Though criticism has stated that society at large is not yet ready to have children’s films discussing topics such as puberty and intergenerational trauma, it is important to teach and provide resources for individuals who may not have a figure in their lives to answer their questions.