When I heard about Disney’s latest film, Turning Red, my inner child burst with excitement. I am a third culture kid who grew up in Malaysia in the 90s. Watching Disney movies was my favourite solace and comfort. Despite the characters’ languages and expressions being more digestible to the American palate, I loved seeing Asian and Arabic representation in films like Mulan and Aladdin. They were relevant to the Southeast Asian melting pot I was born and bred in. Their struggles with family dynamics were especially relatable to me as we all shared collective cultures, mindsets, and expectations.
I remember relating so much to Mulan. I know the pressures of societal expectations, of femininity, and the need to uphold the family’s image. Such expectations are so much to put on a child and her experience was not strange to me as I grew up in a South Indian household and among Chinese relatives. Her rebellion reminded me of my own. Yet, I was completely disconnected from the happy ending in which her family acknowledges her and she receives gratitude from her community. But maybe that’s what the world of Disney offers, after all– an alternate version of life with a happy ending.
Disney is still my warm cup of tea on a rainy day- in fact, I prefer it over Netflix. So this is a review of Disney-Pixar’s new feature film, Turning Red. Now, I wouldn’t be able to live with my conscience if I didn’t give you a spoiler alert before I get started. You’ve been forewarned so proceed with caution, a reflective approach and a critical eye.
Turning Red features a 13-year-old Asian-Canadian girl named Meilin Lee who comes of age in Toronto’s Chinatown. Meilin struggles to find her own voice in a culture that values collective responsibility over individuality. Turning Red resurfaced all the familiar feels from my young adolescence. Meilin is gifted with the hereditary spirit of the Red Panda by her ancestor Sun Yee which physically manifests as her transforming into a red panda whenever she is overwhelmed by her emotions– a gift she would later see as a curse.
Meilin’s character comes off as a strong and ambitious female protagonist at the age of 13, something I couldn’t pull off at her age due to the internalized fear and threat of what my parents and others thought of me. At home, Meilin abides by collective cultural values and when she is with her friends, she expresses individualistic American cultural values. She has the experiences of her dynamic group of friends within a larger white dominated context, allowing them to desire and pursue individual freedoms and expressions- this would not have been the case for her mother or grandmother who grew up in conservative matriarchal societies that permeated their experiences inside and outside the home as a whole.
The double-edged sword of her Asian heritage is highlighted as her character is introduced along with her loving yet strict parents who know how to show love in the most relatable way– through food. As a foodie from a South Asian household, I completely relate to this love language and appreciate the inclusion of intimate and sensorial scenes centered around food in the Lees’ home.
Similarly, the suppression of emotions and silencing culture that encapsulates their experiences as a family seem all too familiar. I see a lot of myself in Meilin when I look back at how I found more freedom to express myself at school rather than at home as I got older, although I was too fearful to ever have the audacity to express myself authentically in public. I know all too well how the mounting pressures to be good and keep up appearances in Asian cultures often results in a delicate dance of suppression of rebellion masked in people pleasing tendencies.
Turning Red highlights the generational trauma that entraps itself within the silencing of authentic expression, specifically in Chinese culture. Ming Lee is depicted as your typical Asian tiger mom, who appears put together in her ruthless austerity yet she loses all self-restraint when she is unable to control her daughter. We are also exposed to her relationship with her own mother, which mirrors her relationship to herself– one of immense judgment and lack of expression. She desperately tries to control Meilin who is growing into her own desires and need for autonomy, which only pushes her further away from her family.
It comes as no surprise that the Red Panda is a manifestation of authenticity and self-autonomous expression, as Meilin morphs into one every time she reacts to a situation with intense emotion– as if she can no longer hold herself back. Such forms of expression are often internally and outwardly rejected, making it impossible to accept oneself wholly, as expressed in the scene where Meilin’s father Jin sits with her to explain how humans are messy and that she shouldn’t shy away from those parts of herself, as he found the beauty in her Red Panda and she could too.
Two things happen towards the end of the movie that strike me as equally odd and refreshing. First, we see the severing ritual of the Red Panda, where Meilin’s grandmother and aunties choose not to keep their Panda’s. For me, this represents self-rejection. They still choose to be validated externally, they choose the collective interest over their personal desires. This choice has been the choice of all Meilin Lee’s ancestors, and this expectation has been passed from generation to generation– that is, until Meilin. She decides to make the radical decision to keep her Red Panda instead of separating from its spirit like all the other women that came before her in her lineage.
Secondly, and even more shockingly to me, the matriarch of the family apologizes and encourages Meilin to stay connected to her authentic self. This leaves many Asian viewers feeling bitter at their personal lack of such closure and acceptance. Others find it unrealistic and not necessarily a good depiction of the consequences of freedom in the context of Chinese culture.
Personally, I am of the opinion that the writers spiritually and emotionally bypassed the immense amount of groundbreaking (and might I add threatening) self-awareness and reflection that it takes for the generations before us to process their trauma and humble themselves to share that with their young. Especially when you consider the unspoken and unprocessed traumas that they experienced in their lifetimes. That gap is still missing for me and I struggle to accept the almost immediate switch between Ming Lee’s rage towards her daughter’s rebellion and her acceptance of her Red Panda.
It is certainly unhealthy to perpetuate the idea that we can simply put our past behind us or disidentify with our trauma without working through it first. But perhaps the most important takeaway for me is that this film can be a form of healing in itself, but only if we remain aware that it is simply a film providing a sense of hope to the children of the Asian diaspora. No matter how much inner work we put in, we may be able to forgive our parents but not all of us will experience the reconciliation and acceptance that Meilin and her mother did. Maybe that’s just the magic of stories played on a screen, no matter how much truth lives in it.
Many of us within the Asian diaspora, myself included, have given up a lot in exchange for our perceived individual freedoms. I lived vicariously through Meilin as she received the blessing and acceptance from the women that came before her– something I may never genuinely receive in my lifetime. I am reminded of a line in Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom, “For years I hadn’t been able to reconcile wanting to feel good with wanting to be good…” For many of us, the privilege of such reconciliation can only be found in a fictional depiction like Turning Red.