Why Are People Being Such Idiots About Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’?
Last weekend, the Robinson family watched the new Pixar film Turning Red. Our eight-year-old son loved it. Now, you’re probably thinking, “We knew this guy was weird, but why would he subject his child to a movie about panda periods?” The film has generated some controversy because it addresses puberty, which is apparently a mature theme for adults who barely remember puberty.
I should clarify that the movie isn’t a sex ed film about menstruation, like 1953’s suitable for “MST3K"-riffing Molly Grows Up. It’s a heartfelt coming-of-age story about Meilin "Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang) a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she experiences strong emotion. The women in her family all have this mystical ability but they’ve suppressed it for societal convenience. This is a fairly straightforward superhero allegory — “The Incredible Hulk" with a hefty dose of Teen Wolf.
But Mei Lee’s a girl and periods are scary, I guess. For a movie featuring a giant red panda, the period metaphor is fairly subtle. There are some direct references to feminine products that will probably pass over most kids’ heads. The humor is rooted in a mother (Sandra Oh) freaking out because her daughter is changing in a way that is very personal to her, as well.
Mei Lee isn’t just a girl who turns into a red panda. She’s also of Chinese heritage. A melodramatic review from Movie Guide claims Turning Red “exposes your child to Buddhist LIES!” (They toned down the headline slight in the final review. Now, the film simply exposes your child to BUDDHISM!)
TURNING RED sadly includes references to Chinese ancestor worship. At one point, for example, in Mei’s narration, Mei says that her family doesn’t worship any gods, but they do worship their ancestors, especially the family’s grand matriarch. [ ... ]
Ultimately, therefore, TURNING RED has a mixed worldview with pro-family elements and false religion.
Well, that’s rude. Some 500 million people practice Buddhism. It’s the world’s fourth largest global religion. You don’t have to practice Buddhism yourself to recognize that other people do and their existence is valid. Exposing your children to different lifestyles won’t kill them or even turn them into giant pandas.
The Movie Guide review calls out the "two overt references to being Zen-like to help [Mei Lee] remain cool and control the red panda within her.” Movie Guide doesn’t care for Buddhist philosophy. Most Christian extremists probably resent a philosophy that teaches tranquility of the mind. Why detach yourself from the cycle of craving when you can torment anyone who’s different? You probably recognize Buddhist teachings from the Star Wars films, and Movie Guide condemned the Force as "abhorrent New Age monism.” They didn’t seem to mind the Midi-chlorians introduced in The Phantom Menace, and those were truly an affront to God.
Although The Movie Guide review is just plain silly, CinemaBlend’s disparaging remarks about Turning Red are far more concerning. Managing Director Sean O’Connell suggested the film’s appeal was limited on account of girl and Asian.
“I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for [director] Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members,” O’Connell wrote in the since-pulled review. “Which is fine — but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”
O’Connell continued his grossness in a since-deleted tweet: “Some Pixar films are made for universal audiences. ‘Turning Red’ is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work very well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.”
Poor baby. He’s paid to watch movies for a living, but spending 100 minutes within a Chinese-Canadian girl’s perspective is exhausting. It’s like he's working in a coal mine.
What’s not “universal” about Turning Red, especially compared to other Pixar films that literally feature living toys, cars, and actual monsters? If you can relate to a rat who cooks fancy meals more than a teenage girl, maybe you’re the one with a very specific and very narrow world view. I can assure O’Connell that the target audience for a movie about young girls who are really into early 2000s boy bands is larger than he assumes.
O’Connell snidely suggested Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi made Turning Red just for her “friends and immediate family members.” (The “immediate” is the ultimate insult, as if Shi’s cousins would turn down a screening.) We could give him the benefit of the doubt and imagine he’d say the same about Woody Allen or Wes Anderson, but let’s not kid ourselves.
CinemaBlend quickly pulled the review, and O’Connell apologized (poorly). He had his defenders, naturally, including one Twitter user who lamented, “It can’t possibly be racist to be unable to relate to a character.” Commence eye roll. White men are almost always the gatekeepers. They can either launch or kill careers. No, it’s not racist to have a limited artistic palette, but what’s damnable is a refusal to concede that this is your own limitation. All art is subjective. It’s not as if Turning Red hid its subject matter. If O’Connell couldn’t relate, he could’ve stepped aside and let someone else review the film. There are many viable candidates from the half of the population who have periods.
My son is neither Chinese-Canadian, a teenage girl, nor a panda, but he connected fully with Mei Lee. He laughed when she got into embarrassing situations, and he rooted for her to succeed. If CinemaBlend is considering hiring a more empathetic and open-minded film critic, they should give him a call.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."