Puberty is perhaps the most relevant human experience we go through.
But in the case of Meilin Lee’s character in Disney and Pixar’s latest film, “Turning Red,” her teenage angst is marred by the slight complication of turning into a red panda.
The film, directed by Domee Shi, tells the story of Meilin (played by Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian, who weathered the highs and lows of the early 2000s with her friends, trying to please his mother (played by Sandra Oh) and a crush on his favorite boy band.
The coming-of-age story also breaks down some barriers in the industry; Shi is Pixar’s first female solo director, and this is the studio’s first film made in Asia. The film, which premiered Friday on Disney+, has been widely hailed as a refreshingcreative look at adolescence and the awkwardness of growing up.
But a review posted online earlier this week sparked an outcry.
CinemaBlend general manager Sean O’Connell wrote that he couldn’t connect with the film, calling it “limiting.”
“By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in Toronto’s Asian community, the film rightfully feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is good, but also somewhat limited in scope,” O’Connell wrote.
In a since-deleted tweet, he also called the film “exhausting.”
The review has since been taken down, and O’Connell and the CinemaBlend editor have apologized.
Calling the film ‘limiting’ is a white-centric perspective, says expert
For many in the Asian community, O’Connell’s criticism seemed all too familiar and still deeply frustrating.
Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociology professor at Biola University and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” said the review didn’t match her perception of the film at all.
“It’s just this average 13-year-old girl who has this puberty problem, so I think it’s funny, isn’t it? Because that’s probably the closest representation of Asians, the version most humanized,” Wang Yuen said.
For O’Connell to say the film was made for a select group of people is “the centering of whiteness,” Wang Yuen said.
“If it’s not white, it’s kind of fringe,” she said, “the global majority is Asian, so there’s a lot of people who can relate to that.”
She also points out that most animated movies are “weird” in some way, and that a movie doesn’t have to reflect her personally, as a straight Asian woman, for her to connect.
“It’s not like I could relate to Ratatouille…I didn’t even know Ratatouille was a dish,” she said. “It’s not like we aren’t exposed to things that don’t speak to us personally.”
“It’s uncomfortable for people used to a white male-centric perspective, who don’t understand that there are other ways to tell stories… There are emotions in ‘Turning Red’ that are absolutely part of a human story,” she said.
Asian representation on screen doesn’t just impact the film industry
Phil Yu, who blogs as “Angry Asian Man” and co-authored the book “Rise,” says the review reflects the scarcity of stories centered on Asian characters.
“A lot of it is based on the fact that people have no point of reference when it comes to Asian history because there are so few…so when something like that happens, it feels like some kind of aberration because you’re forced to consider something that you rarely encounter in a movie,” Yu said.
The relatively invisible nature of Asians in movies also affects the “dehumanization” of Asians off-screen, Yu said: “Everything from random street attacks to racist politics.”
“There’s just that level of empathy that’s not there, the kind of empathy that comes from being able to relate to someone’s stories, someone you have no connection to,” Yu said.
Wang Yuen also added that the examination was dehumanizing, especially at a time when East and Southeast Asian women are being targeted by violence.
“Even when you’re the center of a story, I can’t relate to you because you’re not human. That’s how I felt,” Wang Yuen said.
Cast members, the director responded to the criticism
Despite all the backlash created by O’Connell’s criticism, the cast of the film responded by emphasizing how much the film is for everyone.
“The story of all these friends and family is so universal…so many critics will say otherwise, that so many people can relate to Meilin’s story, whether or not you’re a young Chinese girl. of Canada, or not,” Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who voices the character Pray, noted this week.
Shi, the director, might have had the best response when she was asked by CBC to respond to Sean’s review calling the film “exhausting.”
“Wasn’t his puberty exhausting?” man.”
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