Turning Red spoilers follow.
As a child of immigrants, what moved me so much about Turning Red was that it has an explicitly Chinese-Canadian setting, but a plot that was not “Chinese,” if you will. The racial and ethnic experience of Mei, the 13-year-old protagonist, and her family, certainly mattered to the plot of the movie, but the movie is a coming-of-age story that we can all relate to. It is disappointing that some critics found it “unrelatable,” and couldn’t get past its setting.
The movie was certainly relatable to me as an immigrant, and I cherished the care and attention that they offered Mei and her family, certainly, but the film did much more to compel me and my tears than that. The connection between Mei and her mother Ming is so authentic that people from all places might connect to it. Mei is moving from being a girl to a woman throughout the movie, essentially undergoing puberty. But in her family, the women are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to turn into red pandas when they come of age Their ancestor, Sun Yee is granted this ability in order to protect her family, and has been passed down since.
For the most part, in the modern era, such a gift was seen a curse. When Mei turns into her panda, she’s afraid and tries to hide it. At first, her mother thinks It’s her first period (and it is sort of representative of that moment, analogous to her development and growing up). When she shows up at her school with pads, Mei becomes anxious again and turns into her red panda. The transformation occurs in moments where emotions are heightened.
Eventually Mei learns to control the red panda, and her gift is not rejected by her friends, but rather welcomed by them. She becomes popular in school for her ability, raises money to attend the concert of a boy band. Her controlling mother, who is watching her every move, wouldn’t allow her to go to the show, so she finds an excuse to do it.
Meanwhile, Mei’s aunts and grandmother visit Ming, and Ming’s overbearing mother, Wu, insists that Ming watch Mei more closely. They have arrived for the Red Moon, an evening where the red panda’s spirits can be contained in a talisman after a ritual. The ritual is on the same night at the concert Mei is looking forward to attending.
Mei is conflicted about engaging in the ritual – even though Wu and Ming insist that she must – because of the joy that her red panda gave her. Before she transformed, Mei was a straight-laced girl, who followed the rules closely, and lived to serve her mother. She declined a karaoke night, for example, because it was time to clean the temple that her parents run. Mei is figuring out who she will be next, learning how she wants to relate to the family and her world.
My favorite part of the film was a conversation between Mei and her father, Jin, an understated character in a movie with many women leads – another good thing about the film. Her father tells her about a major conflict that Ming and Wu had. Ming’s anger was explosive, and her panda is giant. They were fighting over Ming’s choice to marry Mei’s dad. Jin calls his wife’s anger and power “incredible.” I loved his honor of her specialty. He notices too that Mei became a more outgoing and adventurous person after her transformation, too. He tells her it’s OK to keep the panda. And eventually, Mei decides to do that very thing.
Young girls are told to conform to our society’s standards and their family standards. It is a shame that we cloister them to what is acceptable. Even Ming’s anxiety about Mei’s period is evidence of that in the film. And if the film is a direct analogy to how we repress women, especially minority women, then it offers an even stronger point. I hope we can all let our inner red pandas out.
The coming-of-age story can teach us something too. What are our inner red pandas? What are we afraid to let out? What do we think will be judged? Is it our passion? Our emotion? Our gifts? Is it our disability? Our sexuality? I want our society to be a place that helps us become who we fully are, one where we aren’t afraid to share ourselves.
It broke my heart that Ming had to hide her anger and Mei has to hide her sense of humor. We should be working on creating safety for people to express themselves. Creating opportunities for our gifts to be called forth and extolled, even when they are less presentable.
Sometimes it isn’t just our gifts that aren’t presentable, but actual people in our community. We may try to quiet down the activist folks, the disabled folks among us, the people of color. It is ironic that some critics wanted to quiet down Turning Red, even. Mei learns that her “unmentionables” can be shown to the world, and she can be proud of them. Her mother learns to love her fully. I think we can model the same behavior today, with one another.