Pixar has always been a heavy hitter, unafraid to take on important topics and find inspiration from everyday life. With Turning Red, it’s no different.
The film takes on the story of twelve-year-old Meilin Lee, who learns that, thanks to a gift from her ancestor Sun Yee, anytime she experiences an intense emotion, she turns into a giant, fluffy, adorable but ferocious red panda.
You see, turning into a red panda was originally meant to be a gift given to the daughters in the family to protect themselves in times of wars and hardship. But now that they’re in a new world, the women see it as nothing more than an “inconvenience”, as so wonderfully said by Ming, Meilin’s mom.
Meilin’s own panda comes out as she is forced to deal with the pressures burdened on her by her parents, or more specifically, by her mother. Ironically, it’s that exact same feeling that brought out Ming’s panda so many years ago.
As a young woman, Ming’s panda tore apart the relationship between her and her mother (Grand-mére), and now, she is desperate not to let that happen between her and Meilin. In trying to right wrongs done in the past, she becomes too heavily involved in Mei’s life and ends up pushing her away in the process.
To Ming, her daughter is Mei Mei, a perfect little mini-me who honors her parents, gets good grades, and likes the same things she likes. She knows everything about Mei Mei and keeps tabs on her so she can control what happens when the panda finally shows. But Meilin isn’t that Mei Mei anymore. She’s growing up and becoming her own person.
With Turning Red, Pixar shows how the burden of being perfect and not living up to the standards placed on you by your immigrant family can create trauma that can last generations.
Ming hopes to push down that trauma by rejecting the panda. She thinks that, by making it go away, she can make sure that she and her daughter won’t go through the tumultuous relationship that she now has with her mother.
But when Mei refuses to suppress her panda and ignore that part of her, she forces her family to realize the extent of the intergenerational trauma they had a hand in creating. In the end, together, they must embrace their pandas to save Ming.
What’s so great about the movie — and what so many people of color and children of immigrants love — is the acknowledgment of how much pressure is put on the daughters of our families. We bear the brunt of the pressure put on us by our parents for not achieving what they wanted in their own lives. We must deal with our parents’ trauma in which they think they — and us since they view us as an extension of themselves — are not enough. In their attempts to stop us from the pitfalls our parents encounter, they end up like Ming and Grand-mére — passing on the trauma and unrealistic expectations onto their offspring.
In Ming’s case, it was an unconscious thing. In holding on to her daughter too tightly, she pushed her away. Ming so desperately didn’t want to recreate the relationship she had with her mother. But without first healing her inner child and her trauma, it was all but inevitable.
Other times, our parents may not know any other way to parent. They believe they turned out fine (if not with a few quirks), so they willingly continue the cycle of burning emotions and raising traumatized generations.
Either way, the families that raise traumatized children are never fully prepared when a Meilin comes along and challenges what was always done or embraces a part of them that the family so desperately wants to hide, no matter what pain it may cost.
Our parents often have these goals for us to go further than they did. And why wouldn’t they? Immigrant parents left behind all they knew, they were ridiculed for being other, but they still worked hard to put a roof over the heads of their families. They don’t want all the hard work to go to waste.
Children of POC and immigrants are kind of like an investment in a better life. We grow up knowing this and knowing that each time we go out, we represent not only our family but our community as a whole. We are put through such an unimaginable burden to honor our family that we are often like Meilin in the beginning — forgetting to honor ourselves.
It’s 2022 and it’s about time that a story tells the struggles of daughters of POCs and immigrants, finally making us feel seen. The fact that it’s on a Disney platform makes it even better. For the first time, we no longer just talk about this in the confined spaces that we created. We are now forcing others, and maybe even our parents, to acknowledge that they did some things that honestly fucked us up.
It also gives us hope that maybe, just maybe, we can come to a mutual understanding much like the one Mei and her mother came to in the end. It’s up to us to take a stand and decide to face our trauma head-on. We must embrace our own “pandas” and learn to love ourselves in the process.