Turning Red Made Me Cherish My Family

Article by William Beddick
Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copyedited and Posted
by Shannon Seidel

Mei (Rosalie Chiang) in her red panda shocked that she is suddenly an animal.

My parents divorced back in 2020, leaving my relationship with my father estranged. Then again, my father and I never really had a substantial relationship, but that does not mean my father wasn’t affectionate. He very much was, but he would only do so in bursts. It was easier for my father to get along with my younger brother who shared his interests in hockey and other sports. Yet, I tried to like the things my father did and to put myself out there for him. I trudged through hockey games and played on travel teams for seven years before telling my father I just couldn’t do it anymore. He was not pleased to say the least. Since I could not fit my father’s implicit demands of me to be like my brother, I turned to other relatives to see if I fit into their worlds. Lucky for me, my paternal grandmother saw me (and appreciated me) for who I was. Having such an open relationship with my grandmother reassured me that it was not just me who was steering my father away. He was partly to blame. My grandmother and I used to go on shopping dates and buy as much ice cream as we could eat, but my father never wanted to enjoy the little things. As I grew up, I slowly figured out  that I did not have to fit into my father’s demands to be the “perfect” son and agree to like things simply because he did. It is this lesson that made me see myself so clearly in Turning Red

In 2017, Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios began developing a film about a girl going through a “magical puberty.” For the first time in Pixar’s history, they had a woman director working on her own. Domee Shi wrote and directed the critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning animated short Bao in 2018. A Chinese-Canadian like her protagonist Mei, Shi wrote and directed Turning Red in reference to her own Chinese heritage and experiences growing up in the early 2000’s. It stars newcomer, Rosalie Chiang, in the role of 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee, who lives with her overprotective mother, Ming Lee (Sandra Oh), and quiet father, Jin Lee (Orion Lee). Faced with the beginnings of puberty, Mei struggles to navigate her new world of maturity and fitting in with her dynamic family’s demands.

Mei (Rosalie Chiang) in school after she turned into a red panda for the first time with Ming (Sandra Oh) coming to the school to take her out of class, embarrassing Mei in front of her whole school.

Besides the obvious differences (me being a white man), I found plenty of my own familial experiences reflected in Mei. Almost halfway into the film, we get introduced to Ming’s mother and Mei’s grandmother, Wu (Wai Ching Ho), and we finally realize where Ming’s overprotectiveness comes from. For Ming is as scared of her mother as Mei is of Ming, a generational trend I can tremendously relate to. My father similarly related to and found comfort in his grandmother although he had plenty of differences with his mother. It seems like familial comfort skips a generation in my family, as it does in Turning Red. Like Mei, I used to (and frankly still do) do everything I could to please others, my father in particular. I wanted to connect with my father like my great grandmother did. On the other hand, I see the pressure my great grandmother put on my grandmother as a child. Having felt the same pressure from my father, I have bonded with her. I played hockey in order to please my father, not myself. His joy for hockey is something he has always carried with him and when I did not fit into that box, our relationship began to fall apart. Upon arriving at college, I worked on my studies and started ignoring the texts from my father, figuring I was moving on from the man who’d always made me feel constrained.

Ming (Sandra Oh) finds Mei’s (Rosalie Chiang) diary detailing all of her private information for her eyes only!

Yet, a conversation with my mother changed my opinion like the conversation Mei has with her dad changed her perspectives on her mother. Mei and her mother are different on the surface, yet similar traits lie underneath. Mei and Ming love structure, but Ming’s structure seems to consume her family’s livelihood and create a barrier between her and her daughter. Mei uses these barriers to try and conform to the perfect daughter that Ming wants until she breaks the mold. As the film opens, Mei is a  workaholic, a do-it-all straight-A student. Then she confronts the red panda and realizes all she’s been working toward is pleasing her mother. Mei’s father tells her that “people have all different sides to them and some sides of them are messy.” That is something my mother helped me see in our conversation about my father. My mom told me that even though I might not be able to change who my father is, we are more alike than different.

My father and I both enjoy different things. He likes sports and I like art. Having performed in many musicals, I found my passion even though I couldn’t share it with my father who is in no way a Broadway fan. Like Mei and her mother, my dad and I are alike in many ways. We both like structure and have a specific way in which we do things. Thus, making us close-minded and against the idea of conforming to another’s beliefs. We both know what we want and we do not want to be stopped from going after it. Accepting the differences between us is the hard part, but finding a new appreciation for each other like Mei and her mother have is the beginning to understanding who we really are. The film ends with Mei and Ming letting out their red pandas together.

Ming (Sandra Oh) and Mei (Rosalie Chiang) share an embrace after Mei chooses to embrace her red panda.

One of the biggest realizations from Turning Red I find to be the most impactful is her decision (spoiler alert!) to not let go of her red panda. Much to her mother’s disapproval, she decides to keep her red panda as part of her identity, rather than trying to conceal it like her ancestors. Quite literally did I take this as me no longer hiding who I really am from my father. Mei helped me realize I do not have to keep appealing to my father’s unspoken demands. Simply, being myself is what I owe to my character.

But, if Mei had to go through months of transforming into a red panda and discovering who she really is in the middle of a red panda throwdown with her mother inside a Toronto concert stadium, I can survive a conversation with my father, right?

Turning Red is available to stream on Disney+ or rent/buy on a number of other platforms (i.e. Apple TV, Amazon Prime, etc.)