There was no way I wasn't going to like Disney Pixar's Turning Red. I’m an Asian American whose pre-teen years fell in the early 2000s. I made straight As and landed the career my parents wanted for me. And, for a brief period in college, I was known to my friends as a red panda (I’m still unsure as to the exact reason, but was never upset because red pandas are pretty cute). I went into watching this movie with a positive bias, already impressed with the writers for capturing some of the cultural mainstays of my childhood: boy bands, virtual pets, strict parents, dim sum, and loud aunties. But what I didn’t expect was Turning Red’s powerful message about accepting the different parts of ourselves.
Meet Meilin Lee
Turning Red tells the story of 13-year-old Meilin Lee, a Chinese-Canadian girl with an overbearing – yet proud and nurturing – mother and an impressively supportive girl gang of misfits.
Her life is proceeding as smoothly as an adolescent’s can until she discovers a big, red surprise upon waking up one morning: the secret to the maternally-inherited spiritual strength of her family depends upon the women involuntarily transforming into giant, smelly red pandas when experiencing strong emotion. “There is a darkness to the panda,” she’s told, and she must prepare to vanquish the animal along with the strength and silliness that comes with it.
Turning Red’s surprising power
Surprisingly to me, the unique power of the movie didn’t come primarily from the fact that it told the story of Asians in Western society. It didn’t come from the fact that the central conflict involved two giant red pandas screaming at each other during a boy band concert. It didn’t even come from the fact that it portrayed an adolescent experiencing lust for the first time, or the fact that it will hopefully spark unabashed, uncensored conversations about menstruation.
Personally, the power of the film came at a moment when Meilin realized the vulnerability of her mother as a teenager just wanting to gain the approval of her own mother. It was in this ethereal world of red panda chimers that she reached out her hand to a portrayal of her younger mother’s self and guided her out of despair.
Accepting the different parts of ourselves
And that was all I needed to see. The insecurity of “never feeling good enough” doesn’t go away after middle school – the pressures just change. The push to be a certain way in adulthood comes from career mentors and cultural norms, from in-laws and mommy blogs.
But the pressure is mostly from myself: a daughter who still wants to please her mother, and a mother who wants to be perfect for her daughter.
I’m a woman who struggles with the messy, violent parts of myself and the quirky, dark truths of my family. I’m an American who continues to lament structural racism as the original sin of my country. I’m a physician who recognizes the deep, disturbing inequities in our healthcare system. I’m a Catholic who wrestles with the dark parts of some people in our Church, and who prays for the grace to remember that our salvation history is made through a broken family tree.
So you, whoever you are, should watch this movie. Because red pandas are adorable and don’t get enough publicity. Because there aren’t enough movies about mother-daughter relationships. Because if you’re an Asian kid, you should be able to grow up seeing people who look like you on the big screen. Because periods are real and beautiful and natural and we should talk about them. But, most importantly, because you might need a simple reminder to love the nerdy, the gentle, the ugly, and even the dark parts of yourself.