Turning Red is a multivalent title. Red for auspiciousness, in the Chinese culture it depicts. Turning red for blushing, for crushes and hormonal surges. Red for the creature that is a big part of the storyline. Red for the colour of blood. Specifically, menstruation. So it’s right there in the title, the element that has gotten some people upset.
In Pixar/Disney’s latest animated film, a pre-teen Canadian girl named Mei has enough on her plate between her overbearing mother and adolescent life when she turns, without warning, into a red panda. This is because of a matrilineal curse, which her family keeps secret until she looks in the mirror and panda-monium ensues. For generations, the women experience the transformation, then undergo a ritual that tames the wild spiritedness within them and keeps it safe – but locked up in a trinket. Like some curses, what it really is is a superpower – but one that Mei’s family, as a custom, keep in check and under wraps.
In a scene early in the film, Mei’s mother thinks her daughter has gotten her first period and comes to her bathroom, bringing products she may need. They’ve clearly discussed the topic before. For some reason, the mother has talked to the child about the perfectly normal onset of puberty, but not about the highly anomalous onset of red pandahood. Turning Red normalises the first without any awkwardness at all. As those made uncomfortable by this scene have shown, destigmatising like this is still needed. This conservative approach dovetails with a racist one: some have vocalised that they find the Asian protagonist “unrelatable”, clearly not having read the memo that personal disconnection from a work of art is in no way a reflection on that work’s greatness. And Turning Red is, without a doubt, great.
The filmis also a relief to watch given how unsettlingly another recent animated movie about families dealt with intergenerational trauma. In Encanto, abuse is treated as being merely dysfunction, and its perpetrators get away with it because their victims still love them. Its storyline ultimately enables abuse, because mere acknowledgment is simply not enough. There’s a darkness in that film, one that leaves an aftertaste, whereas Turning Red is full of levity in large part because it is so very reparative. What happens in Encanto is arguably more egregious, but then such comparisons when it comes to the deeply subjective effects of such scenarios are, well, relative.
Still, along with 2010’s Tangled – a sheer revelation, one that successfully spins the evil stepmother trope of fairytales into the taboo subject of mothers and mother figures with narcissistic personality disorder – both Encanto and Turning Red expand the genre of animated films that deal with the institution of family in a meaningful way that is supportive of those who have suffered within that institution, and suffered because it is considered sacrosanct.
Considering that Turning Red already deals with a tricky subject, that its creators chose to add another delicate layer of referencing menstruation was a risk, but one that paid off. Can the movie work without it? Sure. Does it make the movie work even better? Definitely, period.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.