If you haven’t seen ‘Turning Red’, you must make plans to do so. Not only is it filled with quality animation, but it also touches on important subjects in youth development.
‘Turning Red’ focuses on Meilin “Mei” Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian who becomes an 8-foot tall red panda when she undergoes overwhelming emotions. As she embarks through puberty, Lee struggles with family and cultural values, friendships, boys and being her true self.
But this is not a summary of the Pixar film, rather the purpose of this article is to give a synopsis to the controversies within ‘Turning Red’ and encourage you to experience the movie through your lens. The four controversies listed below are the most important to take away from this movie.
One of the more obvious controversies in ‘Turning Red’ is the allusion to a young teen girl starting her period for the first time. This PG coming-of-age movie has sparked debate amongst parents regarding the appropriate age to discuss menstrual cycles and the scenes that encourage children to rebel against their parents.
Most of the negative reviews on ‘Turning Red’ stem from this controversy. Parents do not want their young child learning about menstrual cycles at an early age. While this movie suggests some material may not be suitable for children and investigated further by parents, it is a fact that young girls typically start their periods at 12 years old but can start as early as eight years old.
Mei wakes up from her slumber and goes about her day as normal. It is not until she looks in the bathroom mirror that she realizes she woke up as a giant red panda. Freaked out and unwilling to tell her parents, her mom, Ming Lee, mistakes her new transformation as the start of Mei’s period.
Ming rushes to the bathroom with menstrual products and references an off-screen preparation talk that occurred before this. During this scene, an atmosphere of awkwardness and discomfort prevails between mother and daughter.
This is not because Mei was not prepared for this day, but maybe because for a young teen girl, experiencing your period for the first time will not be easy, no matter how much preparation you have.
Still, preparation is imperative to this stage of a young girl’s life. When a young girl may expect to start her period as early as eight years old, important conversation around body changes need to happen earlier.
Children as young as six years old can understand the basics of periods. It’s a topic that should be spread out through multiple conversations, which ultimately can help young girls understand their bodies and make good decisions for their health.
After becoming the big red panda, Mei grapples with controlling her emotions to learn how to suppress and release the panda in her. During this, she sneaks out, is disobedient and talks back to her parents. This act of rebellion is discouraged by many parental audiences.
However, it validates an adolescent’s feelings as they experience major bodily changes, especially hormonal. In fact, according to New York Times, child psychologists say that it is unlikely that the movie will promote salacious behavior; rather it could bring families together by sparking age-appropriate conversations about key issues and values and by validating the struggles that teens often experience.
Generational Trauma: Mother and Daughter Relationships
In this movie, generational trauma is prominent; the relationship between Ming and Mei shows the generational struggles of mothers and daughters getting along. Though the Oedipus complex is sometimes used to explain why there is a natural rivalry between the parent of the same sex, mother and daughter relationships are more complicated than that.
In the beginning, Mei claims herself as her mother’s pride and joy, and she would not do anything to risk that responsibility. However, the burden she carries as her mother’s pride and joy is uplifted as she copes with the red panda, or metaphorically, her self interests and overwhelming emotions.
This often results in Ming and Mei arguing about how Mei should live her life without Ming’s “overbearness.” This doesn’t mean that Mei hates her mother, but Mei stops trying to be perfect for her mom and focuses on having a healthy relationship with her mom while being her own person.
‘Turning Red’ gives justice to the complex, imperfect role of mothers as the people who carry trauma, hopes and dreams of female ancestors. It does the same for daughters who have to learn and understand their mother’s trauma in order to understand her own.
According to Rosjke Hasseldine in “Uncovering the root cause of mother-daughter conflict,” mothers and daughters do not relate in a cultural vacuum. Instead, they relate within a sociocultural and multigenerational environment, which creates an easier dynamic to grasp.
Towards the end of ‘Turning Red,’ Mei finds out that her mother also turned into a gigantic red panda when she went through puberty. In fact, it happened to Mei’s grandmother and aunts, too.
They, however, chose the option to perform a ritual the night of the red moon, where they can remove and suppress the panda into an heirloom of some sort for the rest of their lives; therefore, they did not have to constantly confront the panda’s “uncontrollable” releases. Mei, on the other hand, struggles to decide whether or not to keep it.
After learning about Ming’s trauma and how she handled her panda, Mei learns and empathizes with her mother’s trauma and how Ming’s mother also influenced her decisions.
It is inevitable for mothers and daughters to conflict throughout the daughter’s development, but my issue lies in the approaches taken to deal with this generational trauma.
It often seems as though the daughter is the one who must put their mother’s trauma into retrospect in understanding her mother’s ways. I find this unsettling because it places a heavy burden on daughters to be the one to seek trauma relief.
Though the stigma on mental health and trauma still prevails, especially in marginalized communities, it is not a bad idea for mothers and daughters to work on relating within a sociocultural and multigenerational environment through therapy.
Generational Trauma: Immigrant Families
As mentioned earlier, another form of trauma is the family expectations that Mei should strive to be a “good” daughter. She must be devout in praying to her ancestors, make stellar grades and help out with the family business.
A major reason for immigrant families migrating to a different country is to seek opportunity. As a result, immigrant parents are more likely to put pressure on their children to excel. This pressure can oftentimes be seen in the vision of the family that prevents the child’s autonomy to choose a path they desire.
Controversy here lies within continuing the family’s legacy or sacrificing some traditions at the disposal of living a life of their own.
Scrolling through Twitter, I came across a thread filled with different arguments centered on the parental roles in ‘Turning Red,’ specifically father roles.
Jin Lee, Mei’s father, is seen as supportive in Mei’s decisions to live her life as her own and towards Ming’s past, present and future. Some people have commented on the harsh criticism that fathers are collectively more calm than mothers.
While I hope that the movie makes you understand why mothers are the way they are, keep in mind that the roles would be reversed if this movie focused on a 13-year-old boy and his relationship with his father.
Jin is more of a background character for most of the movie and has more screen time towards the end of the movie where he guides Mei to choose happiness over the pressure to continue being Ming’s pride and joy. He also takes initiative in the ritual to help suppress Ming’s red panda after a bad situation.
What I believe is the more appropriate take away from father roles is that Jin had the emotional capacity to understand his wife and daughter in their struggles. Often, people fail to make the connection that supportive fathers and husbands require a sense of emotional intelligence to be productive engaging in female relationships.
Jin also holds Ming and Mei accountable when they act out of character; the accountability he holds against Ming plays an important role in the mother and daughter relationship.
Like the movie, his absence in the beginning of the movie can allude to the fact that fathers should observe and listen before getting involved, as Jin does towards the end of the movie.
If you haven’t watched ‘Turning Red’, you should make plans to watch it this weekend with your friends and I suggest coming back to these controversies. After all, great movies spark productive and important conversations.
If you are a parent and approve of your child watching this movie, it is important to guide them through the major themes of ‘Turning Red.’
‘Turning Red’ is available on Disney Plus.