The Disney movie Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi, unpacks the effects of social norms through its Canadian-Chinese protagonist who unexpectedly turns into a red panda. To deal with this discovery, she leaves no stone unturned.
By Tripti Sharma
The themes of Disney usually revolve around a fantasy world. But some Disney directors take delight in the roads less travelled. In the movie Turning Red, Domee Shi disentangles the complex norms of society. She motivates viewers to cherish their flaws instead of disliking them. She challenges social dogmas through the characteristics and features of her characters who transgress social boundaries and have a carefree attitude toward life.
The 13-year-old protagonist Mei Lee, a Canadian-Chinese girl, inherits the trait of turning into a red panda at the onset of puberty. In her case, emotions turn her into an animal, which is a new idea in the world of Disney which usually features either humans or fantasy animals.
Kick Off the Action
Mei’s happy-go-lucky attitude sets her apart from her friends. She is an amenable daughter who would never breach her mom’s code of conduct. However, Mei admires the prominent Canadian rock band 4-Town. The band consists of four boys who are disliked by Mei’s mother because of their looks and premature behaviour. Mei subsides and hides her admiration for the band in front of her mother.
These constraints on Mei and her suppression of feelings lead to an unbelievable change in her life. One morning, she discovers that she has turned into a giant red panda. From this point, the coming-of-age story accelerates when Mei’s uncontrolled emotions keep turning her into an animal. She feels betrayed upon learning that she has inherited this magical and mystical phenomenon from her mother who has always hidden this fact of her ancestral lineage.
At first, Mei finds that this is a one-of-a-kind family curse from their Chinese deity and forefathers, bestowed upon the women of Mei’s maternal family. But in reality, giving the power of a giant panda to women on the verge of adolescence is a means of self-protection against an immoral society, not a curse. The giant red panda symbolizes her suppressed emotions and her changing body in puberty. But for a girl of the 21st century, it is less a curse than an embarrassment to turn into a panda whenever she is enraged.
Thus, the movie plays with societal norms by bringing up the idea of matriarchy. The heredity through the maternal line shows that women are an integral part of society and capable of carrying forward their family legacy. Furthermore, through the image of a red panda, Domee Shi evokes the taboo subject of menstruation, and makes children aware of it through Disney. She encourages her female audience to accept the pubertal challenges, and successfully portrays the psychological development of the protagonist. As Mei learns to accept the panda as part of her identity rather than getting rid of it, she defies the set rules of society.
Journey to Self-Discovery
Mei’s journey of acceptance is depicted as terrifying and inspiring at the same time. It is reminiscent of the experience of queer people, who cannot always fully express their identity on a social level. This makes Turning Red a Disney movie unlike Cinderella or The Beauty and the Beast.
All in all, Turning Red is a much-needed depiction of how one’s true identity is overshadowed by societal norms. This action-packed movie thus breaks many norms of society, such as patriarchal ones, and delivers a message to accept and embrace bodily changes. In this way, Turning Red is an inspiring movie for every age group.