Turning Red follows 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian, Meilin Lee (Rosalie Chiang) as she grapples with her changing body — not in the usual ways, but in the form of the giant red panda, which she turns into if she feels any strong emotion. It turns out that the panda problem runs in the family, and that all the women in her family, including Mei’s mother (Sandra Oh), have faced it.
I grew up in an almost overwhelmingly female family (not overwhelming for me, but maybe for the odd boy cousin). My mother has a sister; my grandmother had six. Many of them had daughters, usually in pairs, who went on to have more daughters. When my cousin gave birth to a boy in 2018, the first in 14 years, another cousin told me nervously: “We don’t have boys!”
Even as an only child living far away from my extended family, I always felt close to them — just like Mei. When the awkwardness of my teen years set in, any cousin or aunt was a phone call away, and my mother became a trusted confidante — when most people I knew were running fully in the opposite direction from their parents. I have seen countless shows and movies about teenagers who act out and rebel, but barely any where the kid unironically spends time with her parents or doesn’t do anything more scandalous than lie about going to a concert (Mei and I kept things pretty PG, but I think I speak for us both when I say: No regrets).
When Meilin’s red panda arrives, her mother tells the other women in the family. They share stories of their own pandas and gather to help her expel hers in a ceremony. Mei might want to get out of the house to see her friends and raise money for concert tickets, but she isn’t generally averse to her family. The support isn’t lost on her, nor is her unique circumstance and having people to share it with. As Mei grows reluctant to part with her panda, she never questions the other women’s decision to stifle it, nor questions her place in the family.
Watching Mei gather with her mother and aunts took me instantly back to every big family gathering over the years — birthdays, weddings, and Bengali ceremonies where babies eat solid food for the first time. Wherever we meet suddenly echoes with the voices of sisters and cousins talking, laughing, fighting, and ordering each other around. We fall naturally into the roles we held as children or the last time we were in that home, we share stories that span decades and continents. When Mei’s family squeeze in around the dining table at her Toronto home, I felt a physical pang for the counterparts in my life, all oceans away until we meet next.
How incredible that I grew up thousands of miles away from some of the people I love and trust most in the world.
Turning Red masterfully weaves together many threads; early 2000s nostalgia, boy band fever, the unique horror of being a teenage girl, and female familial relationships. I did not expect it to leave me warmly thinking about distant family members and wanting to call my mom (who would call me within hours asking about our Netflix password). The aunties and grandmother aren’t central to the film, but they struck a chord that will stay with me for a long time.
My mom and her cousins grew up in the same city, no one more than an hour away from each other. I sometimes wonder what they were all thinking when they grew up, dreamt big, and scattered across the world. They can’t have been thinking about the challenges of raising Indian children in unfamiliar countries, of being custodians of an entire culture, or of a generation of cousins that would sometimes not see each other for years. I say this with admiration, not resentment; for how remarkable is it that Ma’s family managed to stay this close despite time and distance? How incredible, that I grew up thousands of miles away from some of the people I love and trust most in the world, and that she made that possible.
In Turning Red, Mei grapples with growing up and growing away from her family, but she realizes that it’s ultimately her own choice. She may spend less time with her mother or share life’s daily gossip with her friends, but there are bonds that can’t be broken. At the end of the day, she shares her roots — including that fluffy red bear — with a core of mighty women who will spring to her aid at any moment, and nothing can take that away from her.