Click on the audio clip below to hear Medha Sarkar’s interview with Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.
Before I watched Turning Red, I had only cried watching a movie once. Turning Red clung to me in a way that was new to me.
For those who don’t know, Turning Red (directed by Oscar winner Domee Shi) is a new film by Disney’s Pixar. It is about a Chinese-Canadian girl, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang), and her adventures with growing up. She has three friends: Miriam (Ava Morse), Abby (Hyein Park), and Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). They are so-called typical teenage girls equipped with signature handshakes, inside jokes, and an undying love of the boy band 4*TOWN (Jordan Fisher, FINNEAS, Josh Levi, Grayson Villanueva, Topher Ngo).
But Meilin’s life doesn’t end there. She is also a dutiful daughter to her mother Ming Lee (Sandra Oh) and helps her with the family temple. That is until she wakes up as a giant red panda and is told that every woman in the family has a red panda and she will stay like that whenever her emotions get too strong. She has to stay calm and in control at all times until the ceremony takes the red panda out of her and she can continue being the perfect child. At the same time, 4*TOWN is coming to perform in Toronto and unfortunately, Meilin can’t go due to her mother’s distaste for the band. However, the group devises a plan to raise funds with Meilin’s red panda as the selling point.
If you are thinking that this sounds like a period metaphor now, you would not be completely wrong. In fact, the movie tackles that head-on when Ming comes bursting into the bathroom carrying pads, tampons, and ibuprofen thinking that her daughter is on her period rather than the whole red panda thing. I love that Disney didn’t censor this scene because all too often, teenage girls are made to feel like their periods are things that no one else can know they struggle with.
But the movie is so much more than a period metaphor. It encompasses so many aspects of growing up. It also covers the transition to adulthood not just physically but mentally. We start seeing Meilin starting to embrace the beast she becomes, but then we see her try to cast aside that part of herself whenever her mother tries to get her to be the perfect girl. It’s a beautiful representation of not just the Asian-American experience but kids in general.
“Constantly, people of color have been relating to white stories because…that was pretty much all that was available.” says Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (voice of Priya), “But now, we’re sort of turning the table where you have characters like Meilin or Priya, and white people are able to relate to those stories too.” Stories should be universal, in that no matter what culture a character might belong to, what race a character might be, they should be able to relate to the feelings a character experiences.
As a teenager myself, I felt like the movie hit all the right spots for me. The animation was so cute and made me laugh but it was also mature — the art really showcased the characters’ feelings. I remember audibly sighing when 4*TOWN was shown and relating to all the girls, especially Meilin and Abby. But I learned a lot from the older women in the movie, women who had gone through what Meilin is going through and are there not just to guide Meilin, but to also reveal how they learned to cope. The movie also touches on how they were all expected to keep their red panda inside, a thinly-veiled metaphor for the expectation that good women are not emotional. Ming was an especially beautiful character who had her own journey alongside Meilin, confronting her own hidden red panda and her relationship with her mother. Their scenes together talking about their emotions may be some of the most groundbreaking scenes of 2022 so far.
While I would like to end the article there and just talk about how great the movie was, there is something that has to be addressed. Multiple people have come forward saying that LGBTQ+ representation in the film was cut. This is especially appalling when we come to know that Disney was funding Ron Desantis, the governor of Florida, whose most recent action is the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that bans LGBTQ+ education in schools. This movie was about showing your true self and it was a missed opportunity to add a queer story that fits in perfectly with the theme. Disney has a long way to go and I hope that they have learned some type of lesson from this, even though I have this nagging feeling that they will wait it out and send Desantis another check.
Overall, the movie was really great. The animation was spot on, the cast was great, the story was beautifully written, and the music was so good. It was so close to being perfect, but I can’t get the idea of a plot or at least reference to gender or sexual identity out of my head. However, the depiction of feminism in this movie was pretty much spot on. We need to have these talks about expectations, periods, and emotions. It is especially great to see these topics in a kids’ movie. I would like to congratulate the cast and crew on a job well done. If animation keeps going down this path, I would feel pretty safe knowing that our society is progressing.
Medha Sarkar is a Freshman at Los Gatos High School. She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.