Who remembers feeling like everything you did was the single most life-altering moment in your life? That somehow everything you did was embarrassing and would follow you forever? That’s puberty. It’s also an awakening: a mixture of hormones and confusion that sets your body and mind into overdrive. Domee Shi’s Turning Red captures the wondrous, horrific, and often life-affirming experience of being a young girl amid so much change. It is a color-filled journey that encapsulates so much of the joy often met with resistance when it comes to teenage girls.
Shame is all too prevalent in the experience of growing up. Everything becomes heightened and uncomfortable, whether it’s your body changing faster than your mind can conceive (and get used to) or your growing awareness of the hormones coursing through your body. Turning Red is the film I wish I had growing up. Not just because its cartoonish style and use of music charm even the weariest of souls, but because it affirmed that shame. It doesn’t try to hide it. And it doesn’t dwell in it. It gives the concept new meaning for young girls watching this film about the drastic changes of someone like them.
Mei Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, is the exuberant and confident 13-year old I wish I’d been. She’s not without flaws or complexities, but that’s what makes for an enchanting lead to follow. All her little quirks and bits make Mei Lee feel as authentic as any live-action 13-year-old character; I’d argue she’s even more so. The attention to detail in characterization was simply touching. From Mei’s character drawings of her crush to the idolization of young boy bands, she is a mirror in which I saw myself at that age. I was transported to my friends and I reenacting Cheetah Girl choreography in monochrome outfits. Or the time I had my first crush, and I counted the hours until I would see him again in class the next day.
The film’s release has resulted in some criticism regarding the sexualization of young girls. “Exaggeration” would be too kind of a word to describe the reactions by some critics of the film, as though they’ve never encountered a girl during puberty themselves. Turning Red is just as “sexy” as Finding Nemo (Gil voiced by Willem Dafoe notwithstanding). The film treats its characters with care and respect. This means that Mei Lee and her friends engage in activities like expressing newfound crushes and drawing endless caricatures of them. Who hasn’t daydreamed about the friend of an older sibling? Or the cute person who runs the cash register at the local grocery store? Most of us have spent countless hours fantasizing about our latest crush. Turning Red doesn’t indulge in what adults think teens should say or act. It gives us a direct window into the most complex, fun, and messy parts of someone in the process of finding their balance during the in-between period of being a child and being a young adult.
There is also a more specific and culturally significant narrative here that spoke to my own upbringing. I grew up in a Latinx household where the entire family revolved around our mom, and it was poignant to see Turning Red bring that to life on screen. The film is a reminder of just how much mothers in minority communities sacrifice to survive. Mei Lee’s mom Ming Lee, voiced by the incredible Sandra Oh, felt so real in her pursuit of preparing her daughter for a world that isn’t so welcoming to women. The idea of not being enough for our mothers isn’t necessarily due to the high standards these women seek. It comes from cloaking their daughters in a protective sphere outside the comfort of homes. While misguided in her efforts, Ming Lee’s traumas manifest in her daughter in ways too common for women in minority communities.
The scene in the forest, where Mei Lee coaxes a younger version of her mom back into herself, felt like a memory to me, unlocking something deeper and similar to my relationship with my own mom. It helped me better understand my mom and the generational trauma she’s endured. It also validated my experience as her daughter – that it’s okay to be angry, frustrated, and sad at the circumstances out of either of our control. What matters, in the end, is lending a hand. Reaching out to the women in our lives and showing them there is another way of existing in this world.
Turning Red isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Not every single piece of media can cater to a broad audience, nor should every single piece try. That doesn’t mean those who don’t relate can’t try to understand the merits of this film and the infinite value it holds for so many women – especially those who see themselves in the three generations of Lee women whose ancestral burden became, in the end, a gift to celebrate. Seeing the women in my family and their personal experiences represented in ways I thought only existed in my head felt life-affirming. Not in some grand gesture of representation, but in simply letting these characters exist. Mei Lee lives very close to my heart. Her confidence gave me a newfound confidence in myself and the shy, withdrawn 13-year-old I once was.
“Turning Red captures the wondrous, horrific, and often life-affirming experience of being a young girl amid so much change.”
Dir: Domee Shi
Prod: Rona Liu
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Hyein Park, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Tristan Allerick Chen, James Hong
Available On: Disney +