The meaning behind Turning Red: Four key lessons teens and parents can learn in this coming of age film

By Feron Jayawardene — ON Mar 18, 2022
turning red

The inaugural 2022 film of Disney may seem like a wacky comedy with a big red panda at face value, but the film has deep layers of meaning behind the plot twists and characters. The film revolves around the changes happening to Meilin (also known as Mei), an 8th-grade tween stuck between puberty and pleasing her parents.

This timely animation shows the complexities of relationships, representations, and acceptance while this article explores these facets of hidden meanings in this coming of age film.

If you haven’t watched this film, please proceed with caution as there are major spoilers ahead!

The Red Panda Teaches Acceptance 

The Red Panda Turning Red

The major storyline of the film revolves around Meilin as she turns into a big red panda whenever she cannot control her emotions. The film also shows Meilin battling with new emotions that she hasn’t felt before; namely strong feelings for a boy named Devon. After Mei’s mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) finds out about this, she goes into a frantic rage which sets out the red panda in Mei for the first time.

The panda comes out whenever Mei gets emotional and cannot control her feelings. However, Mei learns to control her feelings with time and controls her red panda to everyone’s astonishment.

The red panda in this context is a reference to the changes happening through puberty and shows the importance of accepting these changes and coming into terms with them.

Director and co-writer of the film, Domee Shi, opened up to Polygon about the meaning and message behind the film.

She told the publication: “The red panda is a metaphor not just for puberty, but also what we inherit from our moms, and how we deal with the things that we inherit from them. “[Mei is] growing up caught between two worlds, East and West, but [she’s] also at this time in her life where she’s blossoming into adulthood. And all of these changes are happening not just to her body, but to her relationship with her mom and her friends.”

The film peaks when Mei refuses to go through the ritual where the panda is removed from the body and bound to an inanimate object, opting to live with it and encouraging the viewers to use every strong emotion as a positive force.

The film also shows the repercussions of suppressing the changing emotions through the giant panda of Ming. The way Ming had dealt with her feelings through puberty had caused her panda to grow large. When her amulet breaks during the ritual, this Panda is unleashed and wreaks havoc on the city. The film teaches teens to accept the changes going through their lives and use them as an advantage.

An Eye-Opener for Parent-Child Relationships

Ming and Meilin turning red

Meilin is torn between pleasing the expectations of the mother and adapting to the changes happening around her. The film shows Ming as a very overprotective mother which was derived from Domee Shi’s personal experiences. Speaking to Vanity Fair, she said,

“My mom did follow me on my first day of middle school. I walked out of the building—I thought I made some new friends! —and then one of them goes, “Domee, who’s that lady staring at you from behind the tree?” And then I look up, and it’s my mom, and she has sunglasses on. she hid back behind the tree. I was like, “Mom? What are you doing here?” She was worried about me and she just wanted to make sure I was okay. But that was definitely the inspiration for the scene in the movie.”

The film constantly shows high friction between Mei and Ming where the latter fails to accept the changes happening to her daughter. The film also shows how Ming’s mother had failed to understand Ming when she was going through the same crisis. This cycle is finally broken when Ming accepts Mei’s decision to keep the panda which sends a strong message to parents about accepting their child.

Importance Of Quality Friendships and Representation

Abby, Miriam & Priya

Mei’s friends Priya, Miriam, and Abby are constantly there for her while she goes through anger tantrums and strong emotions. The film shows a very moving scene where the three friends jump and cuddle the red panda while Mei cries, turning Mei back to human form.

The understanding shown by the three friends helps Mei to control her panda. Mei also pictures her friends being there with her when her parents test her ability to stay calm. Therefore, the film shows the importance of having true and accepting friends through tough times.

The film also shows a very strong community representation filled with characters from many backgrounds. Priya comes from an Indian background, Abby from a Japanese community while Miriam is a white girl from Toronto. The film shows a powerful community and teaches the audience to live in harmony while accepting the diverse beliefs and cultures.

Speaking about the representation and acceptance of the Asian community to Vanity Fair, Sandra Oh said,

“I think there’s something really bittersweet about that. I’m sure many of us—if you happen to have an Asian mother or a mother with an immigrant background—there are a lot of things you cannot change. They made their choices based on survival. There’s a bittersweetness to that. I really do feel that from the point of view of Mei, and not necessarily Ming, because I feel like both of us here absolutely embraced our inner panda and then made fully fleshed careers out of it. That’s a nice touch because it makes me a little bit sad.”

Turning Red gives a set of valuable insights for both parents and children about acceptance, friendships, and relationships. The cast delivers a very strong performance with a 95% rating on rotten tomatoes and a 72% audience score. There are many things to learn in this heart-warming tale and the film openly gives deeper messages about puberty, acceptance, and representation.