Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A "Turning Red" review: Is there a bad way to do representation?

March 31, 2022
<p>Culture reporter Quynh Anh Tong analyses the new Pixar movie, &quot;Turning Red&quot; and its representation. </p>

Culture reporter Quynh Anh Tong analyses the new Pixar movie, "Turning Red" and its representation.

Warning: This article may contain spoilers.

First, the nostalgia is undeniably strong in “Turning Red”. The music, written and produced by the duo Billie Eilish and FINNEAS , evoked the soundscape of the late 90s - early 2000s. Music also became a major plot driver of the movie, with a fictional boy band becoming the forces that unite Mei and her friends at the same time as creating conflict between the mother and daughter duo. Some cultural relics also appear in the movie, apparent in the dialogue of the characters to the books they were holding. Mei Mei and her friends are 90s babies and the movie made sure to let us know that. 

Of course, with its protagonist being a Chinese-Canadian girl, the film also devoted substantial efforts to representing Chinese heritage. The cooking scene feels like a choreographed dance, with sizzling oil and rhythmic chopping for background music. Director Domee Shi, who has previously won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short for “Bao”, took heavy inspiration from her own background as a Chinese-Canadian for the movie. Your aunts probably dress and pamper you just like Mei Mei’s, sans the turning into red pandas part.  

The conflict of the movie, then, is when we see these cultural forces collide with each other. How will Mei Mei choose to transition into her adulthood: like all the women in her family have chosen to, or choosing to go along with her friends into uncharted territory? What, then, will be the consequences and implications for her respective decisions if choosing one might mean alienating the also very other part? For Lyman Briggs freshman Melinda Chong, that conflict was her favorite part.

“She is trying to split away from the panda, but the panda looks back. I thought it was important and symbolic of how much it hurts to separate an integral part of yourself just for the sake of fitting in. I thought that was a very emotional scene, and the symbolism was very strong. So I really like it.”

Like all films, “Turning Red” has its mistakes. There are valid criticisms of the movie, such as how menstruation was deemed essential womanhood, this rite of passage so important it became the main metaphor of a Pixar film. But menstruation is not only experienced by girls, but also by trans men and non-binary people. Some women also do not experience menstruation at all, and deeming it to be the requirement to womanhood invalidates the experience of non-menstruating women. Many people have also pointed out the omnipresence of Black culture in the movie, without actual concrete representation beyond some supporting characters. It has always been a point made by Black creators that their voices are never as amplified as their non-black counterparts, despite black creators being responsible for many viral trends. For a movie striving to be inclusive for marginalized communities, “Turning Red”, and Pixar as well,  still has a long way to go. 

Yet, somehow, those are not points critics are actually concerned with. People criticized the movie for being highly specific and un-relatable. Among other taboo subjects, parents reprimanded the movie for exposing their sons to periods, something that a substantial amount of the population experiences. In the beginning, when the trailer just came out, the premise of a Chinese-Canadian girl living in Toronto drew intense backlash. People were bemoaning about how Pixar is forgoing artistry for clout and money. On the flip side, you have people worried that Pixar is going to put on a mediocre shell of a representation. 

That concern is not unfounded. “Raya and The Last Dragon”, released by Disney in the early 2021, was a movie whose entire marketing strategy was pointing out which Southeast Asian country was represented through this very specific detail, in the hope that the audience will be willing to overlook its major plot holes and how it is still platforming chronic Blaccent exploiter Awkwafina. There are 13 countries in the area, each with its own legacy. Trying to thrust those very different cultures into a fantasy film lasting roughly two hours is not going to help. Southeast Asia remains this fantasy land far far away. Attempts for representation can go badly, especially when it fails to humanize the demographic it wants to empower. 

And that therein lies the heart of the problem. Representation is successful when it can balance universality and specificity. “Turning Red'', and arguably “Encanto” as well, are seen as successful representations because they tell compelling stories for everyone, just with the communities they want to pay tribute to as the characters . Another critically praised example is how Jordan Peele hinged on the almost universal anxiety of meeting your partner’s parents as the premise of “Get Out” to further shed light on what it is like to live through life as a black male in America. Great representation utilizes universally known emotions as leverage to help the audience empathize with the specific, hereby humanizing them in the process. 

The question of choosing between your family and the identity you have cultivated outside of it is not specific to Mei Mei.

“I think that even though I did not grow up with Asian parents, I definitely related to it”, said Declan Nemeth, a Computer Science freshman. Declan, whose favorite character is Mei Mei’s dad, a person who encouraged Mei to trust herself, went on to add: “I think that the criticism is quite baseless, in my opinion. I don’t think that it really makes sense. Everybody has a moment in life when they realize that they have to make a decision for themselves, against their parents.” Men come from all walks of life, but all experience relatively similar stages. The specifics can differ, and sometimes it is life-altering, but we operate under mechanisms more alike than we would think. 

As such, healing from generational trauma is not an exclusively Chinese-Canadian journey. Loving something so much that you will go to war over it is something almost all of us have experienced and can relate to. A tweet in defense of the movie detailed how the poster once wrote a story where Legolas of “Lord of The Rings” fell in love with them at 13. The tweet went viral, attracting more than 13 thousands quote retweets sharing a similar sentiment. 

Relatability, then, does not seem to be what is affected by Pixar wanting to be diverse. “If you can relate to a bunch of talking cars in the Cars Cinematic Universe, I feel like watching a teenage girl going through life - how is that not relatable?” said Melinda. Melinda continues to argue that relatability does not have to be the make or break for enjoying films, saying “I do not relate to cars, or personally relate to Remi [of “Ratatouille”]. But I understand that he wants to be a chef, but from his background, it is hard for him to do that. And the way he does that, and ends up with his restaurant, is really profound”.

Another explanation, then, is that some people have an easier time accepting that they share enough in common with toys, cars, and bugs but not enough with their human counterparts.  Ironically, people struggling to relate to marginalized communities explain why we need better and more representation on screen than ever. It will be a lengthy process, especially knowing how great accessible art is not that easily found or made. But heart strings are there to be tugged on after all, so maybe we will get there. 

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