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The Fangirl Delights of ‘Turning Red’

Turning Red on Disney Plus
©Disney | Pixar Studios

When the reviews for Turning Red started pouring in, most were overwhelmingly positive and sang the praises of Pixar’s latest offering, but one review in particular really made the rounds. A white male critic from a well-known outlet deemed the movie “limiting” and “exhausting” because it centered on a teenage girl in the Chinese community of Toronto. A quick reminder that various Pixar films sporting characters like a stick bug, a rusty truck, rats, and a slinky have somehow managed not to be pigeonholed into only being enjoyable to insects, Automotives, rodents, and toys. Let’s scratch our heads and wonder why that might be.

There was an immediate outcry at both the implication that Chinese Canadians aren’t very real people who deserve to have their stories told and the implicit racism and sexism in the assumption that while white men are constantly held up as universally relatable, everyone else’s stories are seen as niche. You know what’s probably really exhausting? Trying to live your life in a world where you’re constantly bombarded with messaging that stories about people who are just like you don’t matter. Both the outlet and the critic apologized, but his message had already been made clear: if you’re not a teenage Chinese girl living in Toronto, you can’t relate to Turning Red

Mei Priya Miriam and Abby
©Disney | Pixar Studios

That could not be further from the truth.  More than a month after its release on Disney+ Turning Red has shot to the top of the streaming charts and racked up over a billion minutes of viewing, and there’s a reason why. This movie is a warm, funny love letter to anyone who has navigated the all-consuming intensity of puberty, had difficulties with their family, and felt so much passion for the things they love that they feel like they may burst. And if you’ve ever been a fangirl, you will see a beautiful tribute to yourself in this story.

Mei Lee is 13 years old; she does well in school, crushes her extracurriculars, and takes part in running her family’s business — caring for and giving tours of the family temple, which is dedicated to their ancestor Sun Yee. Mei is best friends with Miriam, Priya, and Abby, and they are obsessed with the boy band 4*Town in the kind of mind-meltingly, all-consuming way that only girls careening headfirst into their teenage years are capable of.

My favorite thing about Turning Red is that it doesn’t shy away from and instead openly and lovingly embraces how wonderfully weird that confusing whirlwind of feelings can be. Early in the movie, Mei’s mother, Ming, finds some doodles that Mei has drawn of herself with Devon, a boy she has a crush on who works in the local convenience store. Thinking that something untoward must have occurred, Ming drags Mei to the store to confront Devon about it. I gasped in sympathetic horror and then shrieked in delight as Ming, in front of a crowd of people, slammed the drawings down onto the counter and then pulled her hand away to reveal that some of Mei’s drawings were of Devon as a merman. Merman! Fanart! If you’ve been interested in someone and have never at any point thought about whether they’d make a sexy merperson, I don’t know what to tell you, but Mei and I are different.

Replace fanart with anything in fandom — spending countless hours scrolling through Tumblr or Twitter, reading fanfiction. Mei and all of her friends are not only you, but they’re also all of your fangirl besties — the ones you text when you need to flip out about all your favorite things to someone who just gets it.

Sometimes passion manifests itself in unexpected ways, as Mei finds out. She wakes up the morning after the hideously humiliating convenience store disaster and realizes she’s taken the form of a big, fluffy, adorable red panda. When Ming realizes what’s happened to her daughter, she explains to Mei that many years ago, their ancestor Sun Yee asked for the ability to turn into a red panda so that she could protect her daughters. Her wish was granted, and every female descendant of Sun Yee has retained that power and turns into a red panda whenever they feel strong emotions once they reach a certain age. All is not lost, however, and the spirit can be separated from Mei and sealed in a talisman. This is what Ming and all the other women in Mei’s family have done with their red pandas, and Mei is thrilled that she’ll soon no longer have to deal with this embarrassing inconvenience. 

Turning Red movie still
©Disney | Pixar Studios

But it turns out that Mei’s friends, instead of being horrified as she had feared, almost instantaneously come to love her in her red panda form, as do other kids from her school. This celebration of that side of her helps Mei come around to the realization that “turning red” isn’t something shameful to be hidden away but rather something wonderful to be proud of. That doesn’t mean it’s a cakewalk — Mei also transforms when she becomes very angry, stressed, or anxious. Big emotions can be difficult to deal with and can cause their fair share of problems, but in the end, it’s all part of Mei learning more about who she is and how she relates to the world. Puberty is quite a tumultuous time, after all. Mei becomes so confident in her red panda form that she uses it to help her and her friends make money for tickets to see 4*Town in concert by selling merchandise and posing for photos.  

It’s impossible not to root for them because we’ve all been that out of our minds excited about something, both as kids and even now. One of my best friends went to a Jonas Brothers concert recently and went ballistic; I got up at three in the morning to watch the second season of Bridgerton as soon as it hit Netflix, and some of the most important people in my life became so because we connected by our mutual obsession with Twilight.

Turning Red is an ode to the fangirl wonders of girlhood, but if you’re lucky, those huge feelings about the things that bring you joy will stay with you at least in some way no matter how old you are, even if you only get to let it burst out of you every once in a while.

And that’s really the conflict of the movie. Even though there are moments when she really struggles with her super heightened emotions, Mei decides that it’s worth it, and she wants to keep her red panda spirit attached to her, putting her in direct opposition with her mother. There’s no malevolent force to defeat, just family dynamics to traverse. Can Mei stay true to herself in her own way without disappointing her mother? And can Ming learn to relate to her daughter in a different way as she grows and changes? Turning Red both asks these questions and resolves them and is able to make Mei our hero without making her mother a villain.

Ming doesn’t want Mei to part with her panda spirit because she’s a killjoy, but it’s because she wants to protect her daughter. The world is not kind to women who are seen as too emotional and don’t present themselves in a way that’s deemed appropriate, and for women of color, it’s even worse. (White men view your existence as a baffling anomaly!) Turning Red doesn’t condemn Ming and conveys to the audience that she’s dealing with her own big feelings just like her daughter. It was such a beautiful detail that even though Ming, along with her mother and her sisters, are separate from their red pandas, the spirit is still with each woman in some form, sealed inside a talisman that they all keep on their person. Whether it’s a necklace, a bracelet, or when the occasion calls for improvisation, a Tamagotchi — all of those wonderfully complex emotions are never truly far from the women in Mei’s family. I left this movie delighted by the idea that, in time, each woman would come to view their red panda spirits as a beautiful tradition that brings them closer together and that Mei’s journey was transformative for all of them as well.

Being unapologetically enthusiastic about the things you love is wonderful, even if it’s directed at something that other people deem silly. (In the movie’s climax, it’s what literally saves the day.) For Mei and her friends, that love is for 4*Town, but as they get older, that fangirl level energy will be directed towards other things. And if that passion is always just a little bit about a band, or a TV show, or a fantasy book series, that’s fantastic too.

People who care that much about the things that bring them joy make the world a better place. If you haven’t yet watched Turning Red, celebrate your own inner red panda and let that fangirl flag fly by checking it out. Even if animated movies aren’t usually your thing, it’s worth watching just to get 4*Town’s “Nobody Like U” (written for the movie by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas!) stuck in your head. I can’t wait to see it used in countless fanvids about everyone’s latest obsessions.

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