I had the distinct pleasure the other day of sitting down to watch Pixar/Disney's new feature called Turning Red. Now why was it a distinct pleasure? Because my guest for the screening was my 8-year-old godchild. She happens to be the daughter of Moroccan and Arabic parents. She has a very outsized personality and a vocabulary to match. She had seen the film once before me and convinced me that I MUST watch it. From the opening credits, I realized it was based in Toronto since I had spent so much time there as a child. The city is just north of my hometown of Buffalo NY. Well, my little friend was very impressed that I had been to the same town as our protagonist- Mei-Mei.
As the film unfolded, she was very eager to spoil every upcoming plot point, so I tried to teach her a little bit about film viewing etiquette. And in turn, she tried to teach me the lyrics to all the songs. And remember, she had only seen this film once and had it down.
Our protagonist Mei-Mei is a young, prepubescent girl of Chinese descent. Her parents seem to be second generation Canadians and Mei-Mei's friend group is a cross section of the Canadian population. The ensemble cast reminded me a bit of Big Hero 6, minus the superpowers. Well, I don't want to spoil it, but Mei-Mei does indeed have a superpower which was the unexpected twist. Just when you think you've figured out what the movie is, it becomes something else entirely.
Head-snapping twist aside, what fascinated me most about this film was my little 8-year-old companion's obliviousness to the subtext of the story. Considering her age, she was probably not in any way following the inferences to Mei-Mei actually hitting puberty. Pixar's success, in my estimation, has always been that it's able to create stories that read on multiple levels. Children enjoy them just as much as adults but for different reasons.
After I watched the film and marveled in the uniqueness of the story, I looked online and saw that a critic had called it "unrelatable" (He later apologized for the charge). I was mystified by that. The setting and characters were just a little off from Disney's old mainstream ways and maybe the hostility comes from a bias of familiarity. Is different bad? Should media only be about dudes? Because it already feels like that. Should media only be set in New York City? Is Canada a (Peace) bridge too far?
As I mentioned before, I'm from Buffalo New York and when I, as a child, saw any representation of Buffalo in the mass media it was always shocking to me (and usually related to snow). It was exciting. I felt like somebody was paying attention to my existence by mentioning my city. Now, considering that I'm a white male, representation was never an issue when it came to the possibilities in my life. I grew up seeing representations of whiteness and cis male masculinity at every turn. I could truly imagine being anything I put my mind to. But something was different about place for me. My first visit to New York City was when I was 26 years old. Toronto was always our family's first choice for a metropolitan visit as NYC was over 400 miles away. But actually visiting New York City for the first time blew me away. New York City was familiar to me from all its depictions. It felt like every movie, sitcom, play, graphic novel and rom-com was set here. Everywhere I turned I saw something I recognized. I felt like TV and movie writers never left the 5 boroughs.
So, for Turning Red, setting a movie in Toronto felt kind of bold. And then telling the story about a tiger mom, who turns out to actually be a red panda mom, was superbly amusing and I can only imagine, empowering for young women seeing themselves in these characters, situations, and places.
Several YouTube videos have gone viral thanks to Good Morning America running these reactions of little kids seeing themselves in recent movies. Films like Encanto are filled with representations of children of color. As someone who's never really felt 'outside' of the mass media, I think it's important to reflect on that empowerment. It's important to look at that privilege and say, EVERYBODY needs to feel that specialness of representation. And those who are constantly represented need to acknowledge it and behold its power. (I'm looking at you review dude).
The more racial, gender and sexual representation, the more people feel seen and humanized.
Mei-Mei normalizes the awkwardness of falling in love for the first time. We relate to the unfathomable shame of your parents trying to talk to you about puberty and the bottomless embarrassment of your parents airing your innermost desires to the world. This film sets up a world in which the parent's authority is supreme and the child's aspiration structure is based on pleasing them. And, in another finely tuned turn of the narrative, reveals how to assert independence from a (literally) monstrously oversized and overprotective mother to become your own person. Seeing a film like this can guide children to understand their bodies, connect to their communities, deal with their families, choose their friends and control their autonomy without having to make all of Mei-Mei's mistakes for themselves.
I hope my little screening partner will grow up seeing herself represented many times over and I hope that builds her confidence that she belongs, and this world is hers to explore and thrive within
Clinical instructor Gregory Golda has been teaching at Sacred heart University since 1999. His master's degree in art education from Penn State and another in broadcast journalism from Sacred heart University. He teaches history theory classes as well as production. He is the owner and designer of Construkt Media Studios, a multimedia production company specializing in audio and video production as well as graphic web and theater design. He is also a husband, dad, musician, producer, sculptor and dog lover.