Posted on March 23, 2022
An Op-Ed On Domee Shi's TURNING RED
Gaby Aguilar // Marketing Content Coordinator
Last Sunday my family was settling in for a movie night when my mother suggested we watch “the new Pixar film”. For 20 years this has been a common sentiment, families, trailers unseen and synopsis unread, blindly wandered into theatres for “the new Pixar”. Time after time they were met with the same experience: a fun, family-friendly film that the kids can rewatch 100 times.
As Twitter user Kyle Smealie put it, Pixar was a studio that made films “by dads, for dads.” This was the formula for the blockbuster animations we know and love, like FINDING NEMO, UP and TOY STORY. It is for this reason that, with the odd exception, Pixar films were universal by design; speaking to themes surrounding love, family, friendship and, Disney's favourite, dreams coming true. Indeed, all Pixar films must devoutly follow the 22 commandments, with all accepted scripts being stripped down to the studs and built up based on this doctrine. This was a task usually taken on by The Braintrust, a group of trusted colleagues that included John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Brad Bird and other white dads, who upheld Pixar's 3 core principles “story, believability and appeal.” Appeal to who, you ask, every possible viewer.
Domee Shi’s TURNING RED felt immediately different from the start. If you’ve yet to watch “the new Pixar”, TURNING RED tells the story of Meilin Lee, a 13-year-old Chinese girl growing up in Toronto in the early 2000s. As puberty knocks down her door, Meilin suddenly finds herself obsessed with boybands and the older gas station cashier boy, which proves to be most troubling for her strict mother. As Mei geeks out in the way all 13-year-olds do, her relationship with her mother strains, leading to many a disobedient, hormonal outburst. The latter is particularly inconvenient, seeing as Mei’s outbursts manifest themselves in the form of a Giant Red Panda. It becomes clear to a more mature viewer that the panda is a metaphor not only for puberty but specifically periods.
I had never felt more seen in my entire life. I too grew up a boyband-obsessed ethnic girl in a Canadian city. Swap Toronto for Calgary and Mei’s beloved 4*Town with One Direction and you’re there. I cackled watching Mei’s secret stash of gas-station-boy fanart get busted, sparing a thought for the identically drawn, Harry Styles sketches that littered my Jr.High notebooks. My brother who grew up watching my sister and I sob at TV performances of "What Makes You Beautiful" pointed at me with glee as if to say “you nerd, this was exactly you.” I outwardly screamed when characters in the film directly mirrored people I had met in my own life; the mean blonde girl in the ugg boots, the braced-up best friend who doesn’t understand your strict ethnic parents, the shit-headed little boy who can’t let people enjoy things. Also for the first time in my life, I watched a Hollywood film be unapologetically Canadian. Loonies were falling from the sky in a glittering montage, the CN tower dangerously looming over the Scotiabank Arena, Mei eating Timbits and wearing the too-big maple leaf t-shirt that mysteriously ends up in every home.
I felt about this film the way I assume Lin-Manuel Miranda wanted me to feel about ENCANTO. Instead of some washed down, out of time, vague portrayal of an incredibly nuanced culture that ultimately ends up truly representing nobody, here was TURNING RED speaking directly to me. This is something that so many films that claim to be representative fail to do, something that no amount of focus groups, diversity hires or hit-factory Braintrusts have ever or will ever achieve. It was the multicolour, palpable emotion of an honest lived experience.
But, as is always the case with representative films- yes, even the bad ones -there has been blowback from communities that do not feel identified. For those of us that have scarcely seen ourselves in films, even the ones meant to represent us, it is routine to find things to enjoy about a movie, even if it doesn’t necessarily reflect your own experiences. Some would argue that is the whole point of storytelling, to transport the viewer into another world and make them experience things they never would. It is routine for marginalized groups to recognize when a film you haven’t enjoyed, isn’t objectively bad, but just wasn’t made for you.
These are tasks that seem particularly difficult for those that have always seen themselves in everything. Viewers who just don’t understand the world as seen through the lens of a woman, minority or otherwise marginalized person, often come to the conclusion that such a world must not exist and that the film they have just watched portrayed something exaggerated or outlandish, asking:
“If not for me, who was this for?”
Such a question was asked by Cinemablend film critic, Sean O’Connell, who said this in his now viral review:
“While TURNING RED tries to lose itself in Meilin’s creative process, celebrating her drawings and exploding with visual flares inspired by her work, it just reminded me of the far superior THE MITCHELLS VS. THE MACHINES another film that focused on a female character experiencing a major life change (but one that also remembered that a broader audience will be checking the film out, so it bothered to include plot elements that everyone could find engaging)”
While he has been widely ridiculed online for his comments, O’Connell’s take was not far off from the overall initial response to TURNING RED, which has performed well critically but has been criticized by audiences for its “hyper specificity” and “narrow focus.” This response has rightfully been retaliated against by, you guessed it, the millions of people who saw themselves in a film for perhaps the very first time. You know, hyper-specific, niche communities such as women, Asian people, Pop fans, Twitter/Tumblr stans, people alive in 2002, a super narrow group of folks.
I found it interesting that a film about a young girl getting her period, an experience common to about 60% of the human population, was a bridge too far for viewers, and yet the world had no trouble at all enjoying films about talking toys, employed monsters, fish with daddy issues and carnie insects. We were all fine when Pixar made a one-hour and 47-minute opus about a rat chef performing human puppetry.
Despite the fact that all of these plots sound like they were made up by SNL’s Stephon, people all around the world paid to take their families into the theatres to watch them on the big screen. Why? Because as specific and kooky as these plots sound, these films were genetically engineered to be painfully generic in sentiment, delivering a watchable product for all. However, Pixar failed to realize that their version of generic, their default, always meant white and male. In making their films devoid of gender or race, they created a world in which these things simply don’t exist. The only people who could possibly sympathize with a world in which race and gender don’t exist are white cishet men. Every white boy could be an action hero and even with their coded misogyny, every white girl could be a princess. The great rest of us learned to enjoy films that weren’t really for us because nothing was.
If you felt incapable of connecting with this film, I have good news; every other film is for you. With the release of this film, and SOUL before it, it is clear that Pixar is heading in a direction that puts the story at the forefront. I can feel them leaning away from generic filmmaking, entering a territory that is just as pure in its messaging but feels much more realistic for a much larger group of people. It's about time big studios realized that non-white people are not fringe minorities, that our lives are not outlandish or niche and are in fact common and rich with material for movies of all kinds. Don’t get me wrong, I love RATATOUILLE and MONSTERS INC. and even humble BUG'S LIFE, but I am glad to be finally living in a world where a Pixar film can be about something as ridiculous as being me.
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