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Some Thoughts on “Turning Red”

Anyways, for my birthday last month I belatedly got around to seeing Turning Red, the Pixar movie that got everyone on the timeline discussing their own middle school cringe and nostalgia, as well as the empowering benefits of representation for young teen girls and Asian diaspora folk. I had really enjoyed Domee Shi’s short “Bao” back when I first saw it before Incredibles 2, so I was curious to see how the movie would play out. It is certainly interesting to watch a movie like Turning Red at this time, when many other more mainstream works of “Asian Representation” have been released in the past few years, with all the subsequent discussion and discourse. As per usual, I have some Thoughts™ about this movie, especially how it resolves its central theme of “remaining true to one’s self and culture/family. It delivered a very well executed story about its intergenerational trauma and personal choice in expression and identity, but there were definitely areas of the story that felt interesting that it was touched on, but felt very much restrained by its dedication to being A Disney Production. Of course anything I watch, I can’t help but filter and interpret things through the lens of both my own thoughts and my own experiences, so I will do my best to put them down here.

First of all, I really enjoyed Turning Red–the tone is fun and humorous, with a level of crass, adolescent charm. The visual style of the characters feel a lot more stretchy and cartoony which lends itself to very fun moments and expressions, in ways that feel reminiscent of 2D animation. The little details that set the story in its early 2000s era Toronto also give it a lot of character and specificity, and you can really feel the love and warmth in the way everything is designed, especially in the colors. Story and style-wise, it reminded me of similar early 2000s girly fantastical coming of age movies, like the 2003 Freaky Friday, although in this case it centers the funky Chinese magic rather than having it be more a weirdly racist contrivance. I had already seen the clip of the scene that made the memetic rounds on the internet, when Mei’s mom finds her amorous doodles, but seeing the scene in its whole context with Ming dragging Mei along to yell at Devon was a lot more terrifying and second-hand embarrassing than I had even expected. Mei’s surreal nightmare before her transformation was especially unnerving and scary in a fun way as well. I am also happy for this movie delivering in regards to Scary Hot Grandma looks, which are always welcome, as well as for the fact that THEY ACTUALLY USED CANTONESE and had it play a central role in this movie (As you can tell, I am still bitter about Shang-Chi featuring NO Canto whatsoever!!! In SAN FRANCISCO???). 

Anyways, back to my Thoughts™ from earlier, of which I have a couple. The first being that, the resolution of the story kind of reminds me of the experience of many folks in that a lot of Diaspora Asians end up needing to capitalize on their identity and turn it into a consumable brand. This isn’t always a completely negative thing, and there are certainly skilled artists, writers, speakers, slam poets etc who’ve made good work around exploring their identity and sharing aspects with people around them. Mei’s act of “defiance” and independence is choosing to sell panda-themed merch and appearances, something that enrages Ming, but Ming and her family are also of course, making their living by marketing their family temple as a tourism location in Toronto. The connection between marginalized/immigrants, especially Chinese people, protecting their existence through clever self-marketing and branding feels pretty close to home. I am not familiar with the specific Chinese community history in Toronto specifically, so to be clear I will not comment on that specific cultural aspect.  But in my personal reflections and personal connections,  I do know in San Francisco the iconic decorative Chinatown buildings were commissioned specifically to justify Chinatown’s existence as a tourist location as a way of allowing the already discriminated-against Chinese people to continue having a place to live after Chinatown was leveled in the 1906 earthquake. “In constructing “Oriental” style architecture, the area gratified Western fascination with and perception of a stereotyped Chinese identity. Opportunistic individuals from within the Chinese community and from outside the Chinese community made entrepreneurial gains from this “ethnic tourism” as it emerged in the early 1900s and boosted local business.” It’s interesting that this does feel like part of the age old tradition of appealing to the desire and gaze of the dominant culture, to find what is “desirable” about one’s self and one’s identity in order to justify its existence. 

 In my own present-day observations, especially as an artist, I constantly see Asian diaspora writers and artists struggle between defying having their work pigeonholed as Asian themed, or leaning into it and developing a brand based around Asian-ness, only to have their “authenticity” questioned if they don’t live up to expectations and stereotypes. Whether we like it or not, our identities become part of our marketing. At the same time, it is not as if our identities are static and should only remain the way they were “traditionally.” It is very much a fun and important exercise in finding methods of self expression and exploration that are unique and reflective of your own personality and interests and values, not just a regurgitation of a single impression of a culture. In the movie, Mei’s panda hustling is a way to make money, but it is also a way for her to goof around, make memories with her friends, and become comfortable with herself. The line between the capitalizing and marketing of identity, and simply “having fun” is a tough one, though I certainly don’t think it’s wrong for teens to have fun doing teenage things, especially in a story that is based off the personal experiences of Shi and her own life. Still, beyond the individual evaluation, I can’t help but think of things beyond it.

That was one thing that stood out to me about the “panda hustling” arc. Mei becomes super popular and beloved as long as she remains a cute, fluffy, harmless creature for her schoolmates to hug and gush over. However once she does try to retaliate against personal and familial insult, the perception of the panda becomes too much, too dangerous and othering to tolerate. This is framed through the lens of Mei’s personal self-loathing and lack of self control and confidence, but I definitely felt like it definitely added to the level of text and subtext about her, and her family, and that meta-fear of being seen as monstrous outsiders. Ming calls the panda an ancestral warrior and protector, but in the New World of Canada, it is an embarrassment and an “inconvenience.” Mei and Ming’s big showdown is the result and expression of the buildup of monstrousness, but it is interesting to me that their conflict is very much focused on it being more of an interpersonal conflict between each other, rather than necessarily a fear for the safety of the family. There is text, about that fear of “misrepresenting the family” that Ming experiences when she is chastised by her own mother for letting Mei cause trouble, but to me that aspect felt interestingly more muted. This makes sense given the story that Shi and Collins wanted to create, one that focuses more on the interpersonal choices that Mei makes between her communities rather than struggling with external pressures like stereotypical school cliques or the quest for popularity. The world of Turning Red is ultimately a beautiful, warm, and comforting one, where the anxieties and fears of teenagehood and changes is countered with the power of friendship and love and cool beats. I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way! But I think even with that understandable and effective creative choice, that particular gap in the story then allows it to be filled with the viewer’s own experiences and observations. 

One thing I disliked about the Turning Red discourse on twitter when it first came out, was that while a lot of people did praise its great qualities while dunking on that one guy who wrote the shitty review about not being able to relate to Asian characters, it was kind of weird that some of it discussed Turning Red as the ONLY piece of media that ever addressed these types of coming of age, Asian-Diaspora, child versus traditional-parent  themes. As if this is not it’s own ENTIRE common experience and storyline of Stories By And About Asian People. That was one thing that pissed me off a lot, was giving credit to Disney, The Corporation specifically for upholding this Singular Progressive Story rather than being specific and talking about Domee Shi and Co. themselves  It’s true that Shi was able to make Turning Red, and Bao, through the resources and organization of Disney itself, but the vision and personality of the story is something that came from her and from the artists and creators who put the effort and details creating it, knowing that they would connect with people. 

I guess because of this, the one thing I would like people to take away, from the movie or from me and in general, is that… whenever there is a movie that is doing a Great Representation, to enjoy it, first of all,  for the fun and good work that it is, but also to realize that it is never just the sole story or sole experience. There are almost always other stories that have existed, as well as the real history and lives of people who inspired it, that exist beyond what is already presented to you by Disney itself. Lots of Asian and Asian-Diaspora folks are creating lots of really interesting work these days, and I’ve even written about a few of them I read last year. Overall, I’m glad that there are more stories being published and adapted, but I definitely hope that people who do enjoy these large, mainstream stories will also continue to think and be curious beyond them as well. 

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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