Turning Red: Embracing the Red Panda of Puberty

Turning Red started streaming on Disney+ last March 11, quickly generating different reactions. This animated movie from Pixar Studios presents the life of Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old girl, and her problems during adolescence. Mei Mei transforms into a giant red panda when she feels strong emotions, which is a problem because she is starting her teenage years, a moment of uncontrollable feelings and lots of changes. Along with her friends, Mei Mei will learn to control her emotions and stand for herself, as she has an overprotective mother.

While watching it, I could not stop thinking about my puberty years. I might not have been the most rebellious child, but I certainly had some hormonal changes that I could not understand at times. I wish I had a movie like this one because it explains a lot. This movie addresses the topics of puberty, control of emotions, finding oneself, family relationships, parent expectations, and the importance of friendship. One would think this film was produced for girls (and it could be), but boys should watch it too because this will help them understand better what their sisters or friends might feel, sympathizing with them.

First -for me- the red panda was a metaphor for menstruation, which is a topic openly discussed in the movie. Many were shocked to see that Disney talked about the period as something normal (it should be this way), but I think it was genius! Talking about pads, cramps, hormonal changes, and mood swings is incredibly necessary because it is a reality that every woman faces. The red panda was what brought the changes in Mei Mei’s life. Before it, Mei Mei did not worry about the world; other than being the perfect daughter, getting good grades, and working at the temple. The night before becoming a panda, Mei Mei started having unexplainable feelings for a boy that her friends -just- introduced her, leading her to make sexy drawings about him, which is a sign of her sexual awakening, something normal at that age. After a big problem that her mother caused, Mei Mei looked in the mirror and scolded herself because why the perfect daughter would do such horrible things?; she misunderstood what was happening to her. After the panda incident, Mei Mei started behaving like never before; going to parties, not hiding her obsession for boybands, going out with her friends, standing up for herself. Mei Mei also mentions the first day of becoming a panda, that now she is hairy and smelly, two things that also come with puberty and that many do not handle so well. Luckily, her parents are very supportive and help her through it.

But because she was the biggest red panda Mei Mei’s parents understand their daughter’s behaviour because her mom already went through (the process of) being a panda herself. But because she was the -biggest- red panda, her mom was scared of what could happen, so she followed Mei Mei everywhere, not caring if she was ashamed of her. Mei Mei´s mom expected her to be a goodie-two-shoes, a girl that only studied and worked at the temple, pressuring her to be the best in everything. Before the panda, Mei Mei only made what her mother allowed her to, but after the red panda, she started doing things her own, discovering herself. At one point in the movie, we can see that her grades get lower (not something alarming, just a B), and her mom gets hysterical. The film tries to send a message to parents not to be so hard on their kids; after all, they live in a different era, things changed, but most importantly, they are their person, someone completely different. There is a scene where Mei Mei´s mother tells her that she never went to concerts, that her only focus was to be a good daughter and to care for her family, to which Mei Mei replies I am sorry I am not good enough, I am sorry, I will never be like you. She breaks the generational trauma because she accepts and vocalizes that everyone is different, even though parents -sometimes- might not see this.

To be her human self, Mei Mei has to control her emotions, even though Mei Mei had to control her emotions to return to her human self. Although, we all know that could be difficult as we go through puberty. But she handles it very well, only letting the panda out when she wants to and when she needs to. Life keeps throwing tests at her, but she does her best to contain the panda. For example, when her mom doesn’t let her go to the 4Town concert after giving a PowerPoint presentation with reasons why she had to go, she picks up her stuff, and with a fake wide smile, she leaves for her room. Part of what helps her control her emotions is her friends and the importance of friendship during these years. Mei Mei had supportive friends who reassured her that everything would be fine and that they loved her with panda or no panda. Imagine if she had no friends (at all) or worse if her friends were bad influences? That could’ve turned out terrible!

There’s so much to talk about in this movie. I consider it one of the best creations of Disney/Pixar. It gives us a peek into Chinese culture with recipes, symbols, stories, temples, and even a Cantonese chant. Turning Red shows how Chinese people live daily in their culture and Toronto (in this case). Pixar went all out, consulting different people to create the chant, and most of the cast is Asian. Here is a fact about Turning Red: it’s the first Pixar movie to be solo directed by a woman. But not only that, but this movie is also the first Pixar movie to have an all-woman leadership team. Domee Shi did great work! Another fun fact about the film is that group 4Town was inspired by different boy groups such as Backstreet Boys, Nsync, 98 Degrees, O-Town, and some K-Pop boybands.

Everyone should watch Turning Red. The film could help teach their kids about puberty, remember those younger years, or maybe have fun because you will certainly laugh!