What Turning Red means to me as an AAPI parent
Maybe real revolution happens in everyday suburbia. There's a scene in Pixar's Turning Red (Disney+ out today) where the main character's mother invites her daughter's bestie over for dinner. She enthusiastically accepts: "For Mr. Lee's cooking? Uh, yeah!"
It's a small moment, but the normalcy of a white tween enjoying her Chinese friend's native dishes wasn't lost on me. Growing up in Florida in the '80s, it never occurred to me or my parents to serve Filipino food when my friends came over. We reflexively ordered Dominos, sure that our guests wouldn't want to eat our typical family dinner, which was fragrant and funky, redolent with stewed pork and fish sauce and vinegary condiments. So, cheese pizza and cinnamon twists it was.
Flash forward 30 years, and I'm watching Turning Red with my preschool-age daughter. (Yes, I know she's probably too young, but it couldn't be worse than the time she accidentally took in Scarface; an occupational hazard when you work at EW.) I found myself welling up multiple times during Pixar's latest, which centers on Mei (Rosalie Chiang), a proudly nerdy Chinese Canadian 13-year-old, her traditional parents, and her gang of supportive friends.
I couldn't get over how confident Mei was, how easily she moved between cultures, how there was a movie — a huge studio movie, no less — starring a family that looked and acted a lot like the one I grew up in. As EW critic Leah Greenblatt writes, Turning Red is "most notable for how naturally it forefronts and celebrates Asian culture, and the easy equality with which it treats its female characters."
It's a sentiment I've felt more often in the last couple of years: Disney has released a string of films featuring powerful Asian females, whether it's Mulan's stoic, graceful heroine (Yifei Liu), Raya and the Last Dragon's warrior princess (Kelly Marie Tran) and her sidekick Sisu (Awkwafina), or the women of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Awkwafina again, as Katy, but also, Meng'er Zhang as Shang-Chi's sister Xialing, who I found way more intimidating and capable than her titular brother). And not one of them needs a prince for their happy endings.
Between those movies and Turning Red, my 3-year-old daughter (and her 6-year-old brother) has already seen more Asian role models onscreen than I ever did growing up. For someone who still remembers the hot shame of watching Sixteen Candles at a sleepover — my friends cackling at Long Duk Dong — this is huge. Still, there's plenty more work to be done: According to a 2021 study by USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than 6 percent of speaking roles and less than 4 percent of leads and co-leads in Hollywood films.
Of course, Turning Red is about more than representation; it's also about normalizing the emotional and physical messiness of puberty, including another cinematic boundary that writer-director Domee Shi (the first woman to helm a Pixar film) wants to cross. "I wish I had a film like this when I was Mei's age," Shi, 34, tells EW of the film's references to menstruation. "For a lot of women and girls, this is still not talked about that much. And I think that was part of my motivation for having that scene in the movie; so that these conversations can happen."
That talk is still a few years off for my daughter and me. But when it's time, I'm happy Shi's movie will be around to light the way. What makes me even happier? It won't be the only one.
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