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Turning Red in the Room Where It Happens

Updated: May 3, 2022

Preface: Turning Red is currently available on Disney+ (as is Hamilton), where a one-month subscription will cost you $7.99 and comes with the bonus of all those beloved childhood movies you had on VHS tapes back in the day, perfect for a trip down memory lane for some serious (and potentially self-reflective) nostalgia.

*Includes movie spoilers*

The latest Disney/Pixar release, Turning Red, is a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor of a 13-year-old girl going through puberty. Except in Meilin’s case, puberty manifests by turning her into a giant fluffy red panda whenever she feels strong emotions. With a female Chinese-Canadian protagonist unapologetically strutting her stuff through Toronto in 2002, the movie is both undeniably unique and remarkably relatable.

But even more important than the many virtues of the movie itself[1] is the team behind it. Disney+ has included the documentary Embrace the Panda: Making Turning Red, and while you should absolutely watch Turning Red first, the Embrace the Panda documentary is also well worth its 48-minute run time to meet the all-female leadership team behind the movie.[2]

The leadership team, and in particular the director Domee Shi, speak candidly about how they based many animated moments (both big and small) in the movie on their own life experiences growing up. They also acknowledge that it is a notable experience working with this leadership team, in a field where they were often one of the few (or only) women in the room. And this combination of leadership and autobiographic elements led to the first Disney movie that directly includes discussion of menstruation and sanitary pads as a normal (if sometimes cringey) part of a 13-year-old girl’s life (actually transforming into a giant fluffy red panda is a little less normal, but hey, it’s a Disney movie, so some creative liberties were taken).

While simple, it’s also revolutionary: who is in the room where it happens (and who is empowered to make decisions) changes the outcome.

And this is why diversity matters so much. People with different life experiences want to tell different stories and will include or emphasize different details. And then different people partaking can see different aspects of themselves and their lives within those different stories. And this is why we need different people in all of the rooms where things happen (like the historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court).

I can’t definitively say how seeing Turning Red as an adolescent girl myself would have impacted me growing up. I can say that, as an adult, I have reflected more than once about how I wish I had had more beloved animation that showed strong female protagonists where their entire story arc and character weren’t fundamentally based around “getting the guy.” Sorry, Ariel and Belle, I loved you deeply… but I’m not sure your stories were actually healthy aspirations for my underdeveloped brain to internalize and pursue. As a quick personal insight aside: lessons of “give up everything for the guy, your love is totally worth it” and “don’t worry if he’s gruff at first, you will make him transform into being nice” did not actually serve me well as I stumbled through relationships in my younger days (and likely contributed to me being divorced by the time I was 26).

Now, I also want to point out that Legally Blonde came out in 2001, two years before I graduated high school. I’m not saying that movie was the reason I wanted to go to law school, but it definitely did more for putting law school as a reasonable academic prospect on my radar than anything high school or college career services ever did. Because what and who we see in movies (and books, and jobs…) matters, and makes more of an impact on us than we probably want to admit. So let’s see animated movies about girls with plots not revolving around “getting the guy” because we can do so much more than that. Let’s see movies directed at tweens and teens that normalize menstruation and needing pads because it is a normal part of life (and sometimes an inconvenience) for anyone with a uterus. Let’s see movies with female protagonists who are loud, and big, and awkward, and weird, because sometimes we are loud and big and awkward and weird. And that’s ok.

But getting back to Turning Red: I understand that I am probably not the target audience age myself (obviously I’m far too old--I was practically done with high school in 2002, and therefore could not hardcore relate to any of the specific references, and now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go listen to my burned-from-a-friend Now That’s What I Call Music 6 CD again [well, the Spotify version of it, the physical one has scratches and I no longer own a Discman], especially the tracks from *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys, as I try not to be bitter about my parents never getting me that Tamagotchi I wanted). So I did the practical thing and utilized my conveniently handy 12-year-old daughter to get a modern-day tween-take on it.

A general inquiry of what do you think about the Turning Red movie elicited the non-committal response of “it’s good, I like it.” A little more probing brought out that it’s funny “and I think it recognizes that a lot of people sometimes have trouble fitting in and stuff.” A good observation for sure. Stepping up my question game, I specifically asked how Turning Red compared to some of the other Disney movies. Her response, “I think it’s definitely different because it’s not just: princess, something happens, prince saves her, happily ever after.” Her favorite parts in Turning Red were the funny moments, especially those involving a large red panda not fitting so well inside a human house (slapstick humor never goes out of style), and her answer to my question about what was the main takeaway message was surprisingly insightful: “like Mei-Mei’s dad said, don’t push the bad stuff away, make room for it.” On a scale of one to ten, she gave it 9 stars.

To conclude, who is in the room where it happens changes the outcome, because we all draw on our personal experiences for our hot takes on the world. And we need to make sure different people are present and have the ability to make the decisions and tell their stories. But also, on a personal level, people have all kinds of sides to them—including some sides that are loud, and big, and awkward, and weird—and you need to make room to live with those sides of yourself too. Or, you need to recruit your posse of aunties and a local family shaman to perform a magical sealing ritual on the next red moon to lock away your inner giant red panda when it’s an inconvenience. But, if you’re lacking access to magical shamans, you should accept and make room for your red panda instead.


[1] Representation is huge in this movie. Beyond the Chinese heritage of the protagonist and the ethnic diversity of her besties, there are subtle but important diversity details like visible blood-sugar monitor patches and characters wearing religious head-coverings while just going about their normal lives. [2]


Marty Whalen Brown is a Staff Adjudicator at the Office of Appeals in the Colorado Department of Human Services. She holds a J.D. degree from the University of Colorado Law School and clerked at the Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge under the Colorado Supreme Court after graduating.

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