Turning Red is a fantastic coming-of-age story, largely because it’s unafraid to dive into the messier parts of being a young teen. Periods, peer pressure, and confusing, lustful feelings are all fair game, and the film handles them with aplomb. It’s a phase of life that doesn’t often get celebrated in film, and it’s a story that’s resonated with a number of fans. Since the film was released, artists of all ages have been learning from protagonist and occasional red panda Mei to indulge themselves in their work and embrace the cringe. Many of these artists have also reflected on how the art they created during their younger years inspired their art today.
“I knew something was up the moment my best friend from middle school texted me and said that Mei ‘reminded her of me,’ and that the movie had brought back a lot of really good memories about us as impossibly chaotic, confused teenagers,” said Devon Giehl, a producer and lead writer on Netflix’s The Dragon Prince, in a conversation with Polygon.
Turning Red is unapologetically invested in the messier aspects of its characters’ lives, taking things often seen as cringe or best hidden away, and pulling them right into the spotlight. This includes 13-year-old Mei’s doodles of her secret crush, a 17-year-old boy named Devon who is a cute clerk at the local Daisy Mart. In one of the film’s early scenes, she draws the two of them embracing; she also depicts Devon as a merman, and herself as an anime protagonist along with her friends. It all feels very genuine to a young teen girl’s notebook. And it has inspired conversations between people who deeply relate to moments like Mei sweating and scribbling out depictions of her teen lust. Folks have also celebrated these moments, rather than finding them inappropriate or embarrassing.
“I grew up when the internet was still a wild fandom frontier, and we gathered in places almost by accident: my most meaningful hub for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom was, for example, the Neopets roleplaying boards,” said Giehl. “Like a ton of other folks from any sort of marginalized background at all, I had a pretty rough start to my creative career, and I felt that some of my more heartfelt creative instincts were too easily stifled by leaders who saw the vulnerability in them – and seemed to see it as something that needed to be stamped out. ‘Kill that, it’s cringe!’”
For a number of artists, this phase of creation was key to developing their voice and identity. Scrawling in a notebook was more than just an idle fantasy; it was a way for some creators to discover key parts about themselves.
“When I saw Turning Red, I thought Mei’s drawings were cute ... and really tame! I was definitely drawing more racy stuff by that age, and within a couple more years, I was making full-on erotica as I discovered my queerness,” said Ro Salarian, a comic artist who publishes comic projects like Spectacle or the very NSFW Hexual Fantasy. “I watched the movie and I never even imagined someone could have a problem with that. I truly don’t understand how it looks anything other than innocent to people. Have they met a thirteen year old before?”
Salarian’s long history in self-publishing comics online began after they started out as a hobbyist artist. “I figured out I was queer as a young teen when a very tame girl-meets-girl comic I was drawing took a turn for the erotic.” But the pivotal moment culminated in them burning the art and flushing the ashes. “My parents weren’t even shaming me. They didn’t need to, because I grew up surrounded by messages that sex was wrong and dirty. As an adult, I now know how many of my peers were also making similar art at the time.”
Now, it feels as though culture is shifting more towards celebrating this kind of young, earnest interest in art and fandom. Shows like Bob’s Burgers give space to Tina Belcher’s fantastical erotic fanfic and friend fic. This is also true of shows portraying millennial women, with an episode of Tuca & Bertie digging into Bertie’s love of English period pieces. And Turning Red is, of course, a very visible example. While Turning Red did receive some negative pushback, the excited, positive reactions to the film show that many fans are learning to love what they love with no shame.
For Giehl, learning to embrace this was an important part of her growth as an artist and creative. Now, she is unabashedly in love with her fandoms, sharing them with friends readily. “‘Here,’ people say, ‘This feels like your bullshit.’ They send me pictures of sad boys with no shirts, and blacksmith women with huge swords. I ascend immediately, lovingly roasted.”
Even though Giehl and Salarian both work as professional creatives, both stressed that some kinds of art should be made for the artist’s sake, not just as a pursuit of capitalism. Giehl is lovingly crafting stories in the Warcraft universe, enjoying the time with her original characters.
“Are these perfect stories I’d pitch professionally? NO!” Giehl said. “Are they full of indulgent, messy, romantic bleeding-heart stuff that might turn off a ton of people? ABSOLUTELY! Do I froth at the mouth and cackle with power at getting to do whatever I want in them, especially when I know I might make a different choice for my professional work? HELL YEAH.”
While hustle culture and social media may encourage people to focus on posting more polished art, in hopes of funding a Patreon or merch shop, there’s something pure and untarnished about sweatily doodling sexy crushes in a lined paper notebook. Turning Red captures that innocent, messy joy and treats it as a mode of communication and self-discovery that is important for its own sake.
“Not everyone who draws is a capital-A Artist who wants to make it their passion and/or job someday. A lot of kids do it because they like to, because they’re visual communicators who are gaining insight into themselves through drawing,” said Salarian. “I’m worried a lot of kids are going to see the discourse and think it’s not worth it to try, that they’ll give up on something valuable before they ever start. I worry the shame will seep into their subconscious if we don’t make a deliberate effort to counter it. And I think that’s the point of the people who bring this stuff up. They don’t want their kids to have a sexuality, let alone explore it. But kids do. Kids younger than Mei.”
They added, “I hope kids can see people defending all their wacky fantasies. I never got to kiss Tuxedo Mask for real, but I’m glad I spent so much time drawing it.”