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Pixar’s Turning Red is an unlikely culture war battleground

Turning Red’s biggest offense may just be its unapologetic weirdness.

A still from the animated film “Turning Red,” showing five teen kids with mouths open, reacting broadly to something.
Turning Red is an unconventional coming-of-age tale from Pixar, and as such it’s attracting some unconventional criticisms.
Disney Plus
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

What makes a controversy? In the case of Turning Red, Pixar’s delightful new film about a Toronto teenager who discovers she can turn into a (huge) red panda, it seems no one can make up their minds. But the quest to pick an objection, any objection, to this quirky little movie might have conscripted Turning Red into larger ongoing conversations about parents, kids, and — deep sigh — the culture war.

The vast majority of the film’s audience seems to adore its main character, a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl named Mei, with her proud fannish hobbies and her loyal geek squad friends. And they’ve been loudly celebrating Turning Red’s unique elements: Its early-2000s Toronto setting, its celebration of teenage girlhood, and especially its thoughtful depiction of a child grappling with complicated issues of family, community, and repressed history.

But the buzz around the movie in the days since its March 11 release has been tinged with drama, and might well give you the impression that Turning Red is Pixar’s most controversial film since — maybe ever. While that’s probably not true, the dust-ups around Turning Red keep gaining attention and going viral — maybe less because lots of people are mad than because the things a few people are mad about are just ... kind of weird.

The controversies, such as they are, range from claims that this film isn’t relatable to insistent discomfort with the depiction of a young woman in puberty, a child having autonomy, and the very reality of — yes, sometimes cringeworthy — 13-year-old girls.

In many ways, Turning Red will be a deeply familiar story to many members of its audience. Its Toronto setting is full of local color and details to delight the natives. Mei is a boy-crazy fangirl who’s confident, passionate, and loves school. Those descriptors could easily fit millions of teen girls and adult women, but it’s rare, outside of Bob’s Burgers’ Tina Belcher, to see this kind of femininity lovingly, playfully depicted on screen. Mei’s favorite band, 4*Town, is a hilarious amalgamation of every early 2000s boy band, sporting all the nasally vocals, heavy synth, and drum pads you could want from a nostalgic trip down the backstreet. The film also sports cheeky period references, from Tamagotchi to Sailor Moon. Even more familiar to many more viewers might well be the film’s loving but strict parents, as well as the rich Chinese cultural signifiers on display, which have drawn praise from viewers:

The film centers around a careful metaphor that, like the movie’s other elements, is both specific and broad. In Mei’s household, her mother gives her freedom but keeps a close eye on her and expects her to help work in their family temple, which honors their ancestral love of the red panda. All is well until the onset of Mei’s puberty triggers a metamorphosis: Mei begins turning into an oversized red panda when she experiences intense emotions, and learns that this secret has, er, challenged the family for generations. The “cure,” so her mother describes it, is a ceremonial ritual that locks away all the inconvenient emotions associated with the panda transformation: aggression, anger, and fear, but also intense passion and happiness.

Many people are reading Turning Red as a narrative about intergenerational trauma. This can manifest as learned behaviors in response to oppression, abuse, or other challenges that are then passed down through the family or community — like Mei’s family inheritance — until they become embedded and difficult to interrogate. It’s also easy to see this narrative as a commentary on the way Asian diaspora children deal with the tremendous expectations they face to succeed — even in societies where they face discrimination and alienation, often silently.

Yet a metaphor like this one is also durable and applicable to all kinds of different experiences. From one angle, we do have a very individual story: a girl with a red panda spirit that her family’s ancestral temple has carefully locked away through a ritual involving a Chinese shaman and a blood moon. But from another angle, we have a deeply familiar story: a family forcing a child to completely repress a messy, unpalatable side of themselves that they were born with and don’t want to completely get rid of, even if they’re still learning how to navigate the world with it. That is an entirely recognizable story to millions of people. Just as Mei tells the audience: “We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away, and a lot of us never let it out.”

Whether Turning Red is relatable shouldn’t be a question. Except that the larger cultural debate around Turning Red was prescribed for us, completely predictably, by a single loud critical voice proclaiming that it isn’t.

The culprit: a review, since fully retracted but still archived, written by Sean O’Connell, the managing director of CinemaBlend. O’Connell felt that not only were Turning Red’s Toronto teens impossible for him to relate to, but that even trying “wore [him] out.” Pixar’s turn toward “deeply personal — though less universal — stories,” he feared, “risk[s] alienating audience members who can’t find a way into the story, beyond admiring the impressive animation.” O’Connell described the film’s target audience as “small and incredibly specific” and snarked that it hadn’t “bothered to include plot elements everyone could find engaging.” He also repeatedly dismissed Turning Red’s quirky plot as a giant Teen Wolf rip-off, which kind of implies O’Connell has only ever seen one teenage werewolf movie. In reality, director Domee Shi took much of her inspiration from classic ’90s anime.

The public backlash to O’Connell’s review was swift, and so fierce that O’Connell apologized and the website retracted the review and published a better one, with reviewer Sarah El-Mahmoud writing that Turning Red is “the most relatable Pixar film I’ve ever seen.” But despite El-Mahmoud’s opinion aligning with the overwhelmingly positive critical reception of the film, O’Connell’s review got all the attention. It made the question of whether Turning Red was too “specific” a central part of the public discussion.

Other complaints followed. Some viewers and critics have complained about the film’s supposedly inappropriate “maturity,” Mei’s willful nature, and the generalized problem of teen girls.

First, the “mature issues” argument — namely teen girls getting their periods. Turning Red is an obvious analogue for menstruation, and Mei’s mother mortifies her by presenting her with pads in public. But apart from this moment of public embarrassment, there’s little shame or confusion attached to the idea of getting periods, which is a giant win by itself — unless you’re the type of viewer who thinks, as Rotten Tomatoes audience reviewer “Jon K” did, that Pixar overstepped its bounds in a major way. “Insanely inappropriate,” he wrote. “Please leave the explanation of puberty to us parents and we’ll leave the family entertainment ... to you.” Jeana O was “shocked for the huge emphasis on periods and sexual obsessiveness with boys (not something this audience is even thinking about right now and doesn’t need to be concerned about).”

Other reviewers echoed the sentiment that the film’s themes were inappropriate for children, but brought up a second concern: that it celebrates kids disobeying their parents. “It feels like the film champions kids being rude to their parents and other authority figures,” wrote Joseph A, while Cristy A argued that the film’s entire premise was suspect: “This ‘you’re perfect exactly as you are’ theme is not reality, it needs to be pushed back with love, we embrace our good qualities and learn from our bad, embracing anger, rage, disrespect and disobedience is not exactly the messages we want to send our kids.”

This idea — that Turning Red promotes disobedience and an unhealthy level of self-acceptance — has popped up so often in viewer reviews and discussion that it deserves a little unpacking. Pixar, of course, is no stranger to depictions of kids having rocky relationships with their parents, from Brave to Finding Nemo. Disobedient girls are Disney’s bread and butter, from Lilo & Stitch to Encanto to almost every Disney princess. It’s not clear why this particular Disney girl’s disobedience is so objectionable — if we graciously ignore the issue of racism, and the implication that some viewers want Mei to be presented as a respectful, obedient stereotype.

What is clear, however, is that Mei’s family approach to the panda inheritance clearly isn’t healthy for all of them. The conversation about disobedience largely ignores that the thing Mei disobeys is awful: Having her soul essentially ripped apart in a kind of exorcism that doubles as an emotionally scarring, possibly even physically painful intervention — even conversion therapy. If you’re a kid who’s faced with that kind of family pressure to give up a huge part of yourself, it’s arguably okay to feel a lot of negative emotions about it, and to refuse to go through with it. If obedience is going to give you lifelong trauma, sometimes you simply must disobey.

The conversation about disobedience is explicitly tied to Mei having autonomy over her own body, mental health, and spiritual nature, so it’s important to be blunt here: It’s Mei, not her family, not even her parents, who has the right to decide how she handles those things. And at 13, she’s arguably old enough to make such major choices, even if there is, currently, a huge wave of bigoted abuse disguised as legislation across the US arguing otherwise — legislation that attempts to deprive kids of their voice in exactly this kind of situation.

Okay, maybe not exactly this transform-into-a-big-red-panda situation. But Turning Red may be an unintentional litmus test in the larger culture war: How you react to the idea of kids practicing self-acceptance and defining their own identities may say much more about your methods of parenting than about a film whose climax includes a singalong led by an angel-winged boy band.

And that brings us to the final and most ridiculous strand of Turning Red discourse: The argument that the main character is annoying, unrealistic, or “cringe” for reasons I’ve yet to really determine. She’s loud? She likes boys? She’s ... a typical teenage girl? It’s hard to understand what the specific complaints about Mei are, but the typical descriptors from negative audience reviews tend toward “obnoxious,” “silly,” “cringe,” and “unrealistic.”

So many people objected to these kinds of complaints about Mei and her friends that tweets like this one went viral over the weekend.

The hashtag “#at13” also began trending, as people articulated just how over-the-top and embarrassing they were at 13, for anyone out there laboring under the mistaken impression that 13-year-olds are cool.

The idea that Turning Red is “controversial” is hard to stick with. The vast majority of audience members who love the film seem to love it deeply — and I have to admit, as a lifelong embarrassing fangirl, I found it to be completely charming.

In fact, it might be a sign of how special Turning Red is that it’s attracting the kind of criticisms that aren’t really controversies at all, but rather baffled, individualized emotional explosions in response to a film that disobeys the expected rules about what it’s supposed to be.

Mei and her friends are loving, unabashed fans who don’t have to overcome their dorky passions to find self-acceptance and social acceptance. Mei isn’t the “dutiful Asian child” stereotype, nor is her mother the overbearing “tiger mom.” Turning Red gives us a parental figure who doesn’t have an easy route to self-acceptance and doesn’t have all the answers, but who recognizes, in the end, that it’s more important to parent like a team leader than a tyrant.

Perhaps that’s the film’s real offense: It offers lessons for parents, as well as their children. How willing you are to listen might make all the difference in whether it leaves you embracing its idiosyncrasies or ... turning red.