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  • Gem Kirwan

What the response to Turning Red reveals about attitudes towards women

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

Pixar’s latest film Turning Red is an exploration of periods, puberty and growing up, depicted through the witty metaphor of its 13-year-old protagonist Meilin transforming into a giant red panda every time she loses control of her emotions. Fans of the film have praised its honesty and relatability — after all, who hasn’t felt like a giant red panda on occasion? The explicit mention of periods, while brief, has opened the door for conversations about puberty between parents and children. However, it is for this very reason that Turning Red has received sadly predictable backlash, revealing that attitudes towards such topics are ridiculously behind the times.

Despite a flurry of positive reviews celebrating the film’s boldness, relatability, and honesty, those that have attracted the most attention take a different approach. A browse of comments on Rotten Tomatoes quickly reveals viewers’ main qualms with the story: critics say the references to periods and childhood crushes are inappropriate for children; the story only appeals to young girls; and even that it promotes witchcraft, presumably due to the “ritual” at the end of the film that plays on Chinese traditions.

The review that attracted the most attention, however, was written by Sean O’Connell on CinemaBlend. Despite the author having since apologised for his stance, the piece highlights the misogyny and racism behind the backlash against Turning Red. O’Connell’s article, which has now been archived, effectively suggests the story is inconceivable and impossible to relate to. Astonishingly, it’s not the shape-shifting between human and red panda he struggled to get on board with; O’Connell was quick to praise other Pixar films like Toy Story for their relatability, though I wouldn’t guess that many children’s real-life toys are known for their conversational skills. Instead, he struggled to wrap his head around the idea that the story of a Chinese-Canadian tween going through the essentially universal experience of puberty might be worth telling. Surely it raises questions when audiences have no issue getting on board with the idea of sentient toys, friendly talking monsters, and rats who moonlight as chefs, but kick up a fuss at the sight of an animated period product.

The negative responses reveal the need for diverse media representation: while most Pixar audiences can happily suspend their understanding of reality for stories about flying houses and robot romances, they lose interest as soon as the look and experiences of a main character don’t match their own. It’s revealing that O’Connell believed Turning Red risked alienating or upsetting viewers who weren’t the “friends and immediate family members”of its creators. Additionally, it suggests people from marginalised backgrounds can’t tell their stories without them being seen as divisive or inherently political because they don’t completely fit the norm. This undoubtedly ties into a growing culture of suppression in the US. With the banning of books being rife; recent laws prohibiting discussions surrounding racism, misogyny and privilege in schools; and Florida’s House of Representatives having just passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill to prevent “age inappropriate” conversations about queer identities, it is no wonder that Turning Red faced so much criticism for its refusal to self-censor.

In short, Turning Red is at once fantastical, entertaining and authentic, and it provides vital representation — particularly for young women of colour. It shouldn’t be controversial to talk about different cultures, periods, or puberty, but it is clear that much of the criticism the creators faced is borne out of discomfort sparked by people seeing them honestly discussed for the first time. At the end of the day, Turning Red was never meant as political propaganda or a threat to children’s innocence, and it’s ridiculous so many have seen it that way. It is simply a film about a girl who happens to be Chinese, going through puberty, and able to transform into a huge red panda from time to time. What’s not to love about that?

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