What the Controversy Over Turning Red Misses

Some parents are condemning the new Pixar movie for depicting teenage lust. But young viewers deserve more films like it.

Mei covers her face in embarrassment at her school desk
Disney / Pixar

One of the funniest moments in Turning Red lasts about a second at most. Mei, the 13-year-old heroine who shape-shifts into a giant red panda whenever her emotions escape her control, has once again morphed into a flustered fuzz ball when—oh no oh no oh no—she spots her crush. She tries to contain herself, of course. She stomps her feet. She holds her breath. But then: “Awooga!” she cries, and for that split second she looks feral—her fangs bared, her eyes bugged out, her tongue lolling out of her mouth. The framing makes the shot even funnier: Mei’s crush, looking bored, is in the foreground, unaware of how wild her reaction is behind his back.

Animated films are made for such exaggerated moments, and Pixar has built a reputation for telling coming-of-age stories in inventive ways. Inside Out explored a preteen’s mood swings by anthropomorphizing her emotions. Finding Nemo grappled with a child’s need for autonomy through the eyes of clown fish. In Turning Red, Mei’s transformations serve as obvious metaphors for puberty—she’s touchy, she’s stinky, she’s got hair everywhere—but though the film has been met with critical acclaim since it landed on Disney+ earlier this month, parents’ reactions have been slightly more mixed. Among the complaints, many of which are too unreasonable to warrant much further analysis, one objection has repeatedly surfaced: that Mei is too “boy crazy.” Sure, Mei is indeed nutty about them; she’s obsessed with a boy band called 4*Town, gyrates to their music, and doodles pictures of her crushes. But her story should be celebrated and watched by parents and children alike, not set aside because Mei is exploring her nascent sexuality.

After all, Turning Red is the rare project geared toward younger audiences that authentically captures the intensity of a teenage girl’s first experience with lust. Hollywood has often been prudish about portraying the messy, bewildering, and yes, cringeworthy reality of girlhood for children. Infatuation has made it to the big screen in films such as Eighth Grade and Thirteen, but these movies are rated R, which prevents them from being easily seen by the age group they depict. Pen15 and Big Mouth dive into the overpowering horniness of puberty, but those shows aren’t made with young audiences in mind.

Thirteen-year-old girls are usually seen, in children’s entertainment, dealing with love interests in completely innocent ways—a glance here, a blush there. Just look at Lizzie McGuire, the beloved Disney Channel show about a 13-year-old that Turning Red director Domee Shi cites as an influence for her film: Over the course of 65 episodes, the titular teen has crushes, and her panicked inner thoughts sometimes come to life through an animated version of her—but not once does the show mention menstruation or let Lizzie venture anywhere close to having a truly untamed moment of attraction.

Rather than ignoring the topic, Turning Red handles the more mature elements of Mei’s coming-of-age with a refreshing playfulness. Mei is passionate about her newfound desires, sketching her crush over and over in her notebook while at the same time being utterly confused about this habit. When she finishes a drawing, she lets out a cackle that radiates a mix of utter delight and deep shame. When she finally sees 4*Town onstage, her eyes widen and glitter like those of an anime character, and she cries waterfalls, not droplets, of tears. These are outsize, cartoonish reactions, and in their outrageousness they depict the overwhelming emotional reality of young teens. Being 13 is an agonizing experience, an age as far away from juvenile innocence as it is from outright adulthood, when an awareness begins to develop about grown-up dynamics but everything feels like a fever dream because so much is changing. No encounter is casual. No feeling is small.

At the same time, Turning Red understands the sensitivity of the story that it’s telling. In spite of some parents’ complaints about the film being “inappropriate,” the movie is quite gentle in its exploration of Mei’s sexuality. Mei draws her crush as a merman—a fantasy more risible than racy. She longs for the attention of a boy band, perhaps the most wholesome of celebrity idols to have. Menstrual pads are seen on-screen, but the word period is never uttered. Mei’s interest in boys is presented as a part of growing up, a part that can be just as disconcerting, stormy, and meaningful as, say, dealing with bullies or navigating parental expectations. Most important, she’s not the only one who’s “boy crazy”; she has friends with whom she can express her anxieties, and Turning Red emphasizes the value of communicating about and embracing vulnerabilities. That leaves room for parents to join the conversation, to fill in the blanks for children curious to understand more about Mei’s complicated feelings.

In other words, Turning Red is a gift. It is a film that takes its young audience seriously, trusting that they’ll see in Mei a character whose emotions are normal for her age. Just because she’s “cringe” doesn’t make her inappropriate or offensive; her clumsiness with her desires only makes her even more well-suited to introducing preteen viewers to an inevitable (and unenviable) time to come. Parents should have a say in what their children watch, but to deny them movies like this one is to give them the false impression that lust is aberrant, even nonexistent. Try as they might, though, an “awooga” moment like Mei’s is a force too powerful to discipline.

Related Podcast

Listen to Shirley Li discuss Turning Red on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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