How Domee Shi’s recent film normalizes womanhood
Tamagotchis, boy bands, and unruly emotions take center stage in Turning Red, Chinese-born Canadian animator Domee Shi’s first feature-length Pixar film.
Set in Toronto in the 90s, the animated film follows 13-year-old Meilin as she navigates the messy, confusing and sometimes scary milestone of reaching puberty. To add to the drama, Mei turns into a giant red panda whenever her emotions become overwhelming.
On Feb. 21, 2021, Turning Red was released exclusively on Disney Plus and generated an overwhelming number of positive reviews. It received a 94 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 83 per cent on Metacritic and 70 per cent on IMDb.
Some critics named it Pixar’s bravest film yet.
Turning the tables
Although the film received praise for its representation of young females and traditionally marginalized groups, it was also met with resistance, mainly from white cisgender men who had difficulty relating to the subject matter.
Sean Chandler, a popular movie reviewer on YouTube, described the movie as “a rare Pixar misfire” and said he “found the characters more annoying than charming, the message and metaphor confused, and the attempts at edgy humor off-putting.”
In his YouTube video, Chandler also mentioned how he felt extremely alienated and uncomfortable watching the film, which he said he believes is for a niche audience.
Ironically, Shi’s purpose behind the panda metaphor was to shine a light on the foreignness many young women feel as they reach puberty and begin experiencing menstruation.
Men have dominated the film industry for years and continue to do so. Most movies are seen through the lens of a male protagonist, including many Pixar films such as Toy Story, Cars, Luca and Soul.
It’s not surprising that a story like the one Turning Red tells has caught mainstream viewers off guard—and this isn’t necessarily bad.
The perception of women as a niche audience highlights the necessity for more women-focused stories in media. In an article for PopSugar, Cristina Escobar wrote, “In Turning Red, the next generation is personified by girls from traditionally marginalized groups. And it isn’t daunting at all. It’s affirming, and I suggest you tune in.”
Let’s talk about puberty
Turning Red delves into the trials and tribulations of puberty from a teenage girl’s perspective.
While storyboarding the film, the all-female leadership team behind the production reflected upon their personal experiences growing up and leaned into the specific and often embarrassing parts of female adolescence, such as getting your first period.
In Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast conversation with Domee Shi, they discuss the importance of normalization when it comes to reducing shame. The story explores complicated emotions, biological yearnings and bodily changes, creating a safe space for young women to feel seen.
“A lot of our story sessions are us sharing memories from our middle school days, and that way, you can find a lot of similarities and overlap,” said Shi.
There remains a lot of stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation. Shi’s film helps destigmatize the natural bodily process by making young women feel seen, reveling in the awkwardness, and finding humour in the whirlwind of emotions.
Ruben Peralta Rigaud, a critic from Rotten Tomatoes, summarizes the effect of the film’s themes: “Touching and entertaining, yet comforting for the young ones who have felt weird, insecure or embarrassed about their bodies.”
Honouring generations of women
The main character Meilin comes from a long line of women who repressed their feelings and emotions, profoundly impacting how the young girl managed her own. Despite the complicated relationship between Meilin and the women in her life, Shi does an excellent job of not judging the older generation but rather exploring their past with curiosity and compassion.
“Our goal was to pay tribute to all of the tough, opinionated women who raised us,” said Shi in her interview with Brown.
Turning Red allows women from all walks of life to feel validated while also encouraging the younger generation to break free from intergenerational expectations and find their own path in life.
When women-identifying individuals share their experiences, women (and their periods) become more excepted, seen, and understood. Below are resources for women in film who want to share their stories and shape the cultural narrative surrounding women.
WIFT Toronto is a member-based, not-for-profit organization that aims to build and advance the careers of its members by providing professional development, peer support, and mentorship in collaboration with industry partners.
Black Women Film! is a not-for-profit organization that provides resources, camps, programs and classes to equip aspiring Black filmmakers who identify as female with the skills and experience necessary to succeed in the film industry.
Film Fatales is a not-for-profit that advocates for parity in the film industry and supports an inclusive community of hundreds of women and non-binary feature film and television directors nationwide. Each month, Film Fatales organizes panels and networking mixers where filmmakers can discuss their projects, share resources, and advance their careers.
Fem Film List is a database of women working in the Toronto film industry. From designers to technicians the goal of the organization is to connect productions to the perfect (non-cis male) person for the role they seek to fill. the List provides links to social media, IMDB profiles, and online portfolios so you can get the best sense of whom you’re hoping to hire and their contact info so you can make connections fast.