Turning Red is Disney Pixar’s latest theatrical animation, and its focus on life as an Asian middle schooler hits close to home. Like many Asians from North America, I was a kid who took overachieving to heart due to my upbringing. I wasn’t dedicated as some of my peers, mind, but it was enough that getting a B+ used to summon deep and gut-wrenching dread. But when I looked at TV and movies, it was clear that characters who were like me were few and far between, and the ones who did appear were often relegated to support characters even when factoring out physical appearance.
This has changed over time, with the mainstream rise of the “nerd” and protagonists like Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic carrying a similar energy, but that particular cocktail of emotions shared by so many of Asian descent remained a rarity. That’s why I was so taken by the heroine of Turning Red, Meilin Lee. A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian from Toronto, her story is the latest in a line of works addressing generational trauma—and one of those symptoms is the way that Asian kids are expected to get those straight A’s, learn piano and violin, get into a good college, have a successful career, have a family and kids, and on and on.
Yet, the key is that the pressure placed upon us does not come from malice, neglect, or simple fear of ruining family reputation, but rather from what is practically the opposite. For our elders who had to endure unbelievable hardship, they do not want us to suffer as they did, yet the context in which many of us are raised is so fundamentally different that it creates inherent tensions.
The way Turning Red pursues this complex relationship through Meilin is nothing short of brilliant and powerfully relatable. Within her is a turbulent embrace of both 2002 North American pop culture (boy bands!) and the traditional culture of her parents, and the way they merge and split and get thrown into the blender feels so much like what I experienced as a kid and still do today. It’s a film where I instantly saw myself—not simply because it’s about Asians but because it tells a personally familiar story in a way that assumes that such experiences are natural and common.
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