'Turning Red' Is the Universal Coming of Age Story My Kids and I Need
Growing up in Central New York in the 1980s, in one of only three Asian families in my school district, I never saw myself in the movies and novels I loved as a child.
It didn't matter, though; I fell in love with the screen anyway. I didn't care if I was watching a film about a red-haired orphan during the Great Depression, or five boys from Oregon looking for treasure to save their families from foreclosure, or a lumpy brown extraterrestrial trying to find its way home. The stories I was exposed to through film and books allowed me to inhabit the lives of people outside of my small town, expanded my worldview, and shaped me into a person who is now, as a doctor, able to converse and empathize with both Silicon Valley millionaires and homeless people struggling with alcohol withdrawal.
Imagine my confusion when I came across a review of the new Pixar film Turning Red which suggested that the movie was not made for universal audiences, but too "specific and narrow" because it is set in the Asian community of Toronto.
"This was exhausting," tweeted the white, male reviewer.
I had to wonder if he thought it "exhausting" to watch Lord of the Rings, since he didn't fall into the specific and narrow population of Middle Earth. Did he fail to empathize with Gone with the Wind because he just couldn't relate to the Civil War setting?
This limited read on the universal themes of Turning Red is particularly ironic because, in my family, the tween Asian kid was the one who liked the movie the least. They found it unbearably cringy, precisely because it is such an accurate—and often painful to watch—representation of the fraught hormonal rollercoaster of middle school. Turning Red is groundbreaking in countless ways. It's the first major animated film to address the subject of menstruation, quite the universal experience for not only the people who experience it but also for those support people who do.
Everything my tween thought was "too soon" embarrassing, of course, was completely hilarious for the rest of my family, including our eight-year-old. But for decades, the hallmark of Pixar movies has been their ability to make you both laugh and cry. And boy, did Turning Red deliver.
If The Reviewer Who Shall Not Be Named won't take it from me, perhaps he will take it from my white, male spouse: Turning Red is full of universal themes that resonate even if you don't look exactly like its main character. For my husband, in particular, it was a reminder that our children are going to have hopes and dreams (not to mention musical tastes) that are different from ours. For any parent, Turning Red is a cautionary tale against transferring the traumas of one's own childhood onto the next generation.
On an even grander scale, Turning Red is a love letter to anyone who's ever wanted to hide part of themselves, or who has worried that the things that make them unique make them a freak. Namely, it's for any human.
We are, species-wide, struggling with so much divisiveness right now. It's fair to say that many of the conflicts that we read about in the news, and a majority of the "-isms" threatening to tear our world apart, have their root in a lack of understanding and empathy. Art is the best tool we have to transform our world from a group of clans perpetually suspicious of "the other" to a unified collective of humans. Turning Red might not eliminate anti-Asian hate, but it's definitely part of the solution.
If we are to have any hope of raising our kids to become global citizens, we have to actively expose our kids to different world views and experiences. We have to take advantage of a kid's sense of wonder and curiosity and use it as a springboard to expansive compassion.
Why limit ourselves to one story? That would be, in a word, exhausting.