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Our pandas, ourselves

What the panda means in Turning Red’s central mother-daughter relationship 

mei in panda form facing ming, who comforts her Image: Pixar
Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

In the lead up to the release of Pixar’s Turning Red, director Domee Shi brought up a question she’d heard repeatedly about her animated short Bao, a fairy tale about a Chinese mother raising a dumpling as her son. “A lot of people kept asking me: ‘Why is Bao a boy? Why is this little dumpling a boy?’” Shi told reporters in a presentation. “And I was like, ‘Oh, because I only had eight minutes to tell this story. For a mother/daughter story, I’d need an entire feature film to unpack that.’”

With her theatrical debut, Turning Red, Shi finally got to do that unpacking. The movie centers on 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chung), a spunky middle-school student, and her stern mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). The two are very close, but Ming expects perfection and obedience out of Mei, who is slowly growing into her own person. As she hits adolescence, she starts finding it hard to balance her budding sense of self with her familial loyalties. All of this is exacerbated when Mei wakes up one morning and discovers that she now turns into a giant red panda when she’s overcome with emotion — a quirk all the women in her family share. Traditionally, all the Lee women have suppressed their inner pandas through a magical controlling ritual, but as the date approaches, Mei starts to wonder if she really needs to get rid of her panda.

[Ed. note: This article contains major spoilers for the end of Turning Red.]

Turning Red: Mei explodes into red panda form Image: Pixar

Mei has been told to hide her panda from the world. Her mother and her other female relatives see their pandas as a source of shame. They tuck it away inside jewelry they continue to wear after their individual rituals. But in spite of what they tell her about the family legacy, Mei finds that her peers think her red panda is cute, exciting, and cool. In fact, she’s able to make money by letting people see her in panda mode, and take pictures with her. She begins to actually like her red-panda self. She knows she isn’t supposed to, and much of the movie revolves around Mei’s internal struggle over being true to herself vs. trying to please her family. At the end of the movie, she decides not to lock her panda away, even though she knows this means her relationship with her mother is going to change.

Shi spends the whole film interrogating the relationship between Mei and her mother. The panda becomes their main source of conflict, and ultimately shapes their future together, for better and for worse. But what does the panda mean? The movie never directly answers that, but the metaphor subtly shapes the movie’s ending, depending on how you choose to read it. Whatever the case, it becomes a multifaceted symbol of the ways mothers and daughters communicate.

The panda is puberty

a giant red panda hiding in a shower, with a chinese woman standing on the other side of the curtain; boxes of pads rests on the sink Image: Pixar

The biggest, most obvious answer is that the panda symbolizes puberty. Ming mistakes Mei’s first transformation for her first period, and the sheer awkwardness Mei feels while trying to hide her bright red secret translates to the sheer awkwardness many girls feel about getting their first period. Mei’s physical transformation happens suddenly, and she has to get used to navigating the big emotions that trigger it. There is no hiding the panda when it manifests, which makes it a perfect physical representation for the self-consciousness of growing up, and how many adolescents feel like their bodies are under magnifying glasses, with every strange new change amplified for the entire world to see.

If the panda is puberty and growing up, then it’s also something Ming didn’t prepare Mei for. That’s a common trope seen across cultures, stemming from a generational gap, where a well-meaning parent doesn’t want to expose their child to the pain and discomfort of adulthood, and would prefer if they were kids for just a little longer. From Peggy Hill prolonging the sex talk with her son Bobby in King of the Hill to Lady Bridgerton not informing Daphne about the mechanics of baby-making before she gets married, the trope transcends time and place, and often reflects creators’ real-life experiences.

Turning Red: Mei (Rosalie Chiang) shows her red panda self off to her friends Image: Pixar

But kids often come of age sooner than parents expect. In this specific example, it falls on Ming to explain the machinations of growing up to Mei, particularly since the male members of the family don’t share the same condition. (Which reflects the way society views the changes in most female bodies differently than the way it views most male bodies.) Mai’s embarrassment and confusion about her transformations helps emphasize the specific burden society places on young women as their bodies change, and the world suddenly starts to see and treat them differently.

This double standard even takes on a metatextual flavor: No one batted an eye when Baymax in Big Hero 6 tells Hiro that his body is going through changes, but Mei’s period misunderstanding drew a lot of ire from some viewers, particularly parents who felt the topic was inappropriate for children. Ming initially plays into the societal feelings towards female puberty, when she fails to inform Mei about the nuances of her changing body. Ming’s discomfort isn’t solely her fault — society has ingrained into her that certain topics remain taboo. If the panda is puberty, Mei is finally realizing how other people perceive her body — and she also realizes that it doesn’t have to be that way. The end of the film, then, turns into Mei triumphantly reclaiming her body and her puberty — lampshaded a bit at the end when she tells her mom “My panda, my choice!” In spite of what her mother and grandmother were taught, and what they tried to teach her, Mei has realized there is no inherent shame in existing in a body.

The panda is tradition and culture

a painting of a giant red panda holding two figures Image: Pixar

The panda transformations given to women specifically are a part of Mei’s family, and have been for centuries. Back in China, they celebrated their pandas, but as Ming explains, after the family immigrated to Canada, the blessing became something they hid away. Mei’s family still celebrates their Chinese heritage through the food they eat and the temple they maintain. But it is telling that the specific moment the panda became an “inconvenience,” as Ming calls it, is when the Lees left their country of origin.

Ming doesn’t go into detail about why the panda became something the family had to hide, but it could be that it was such a jarringly different quirk from their new culture that they thought it would be best to keep it away from targeting eyes. Many children of first- and second-generation immigrants will recognize the concept of their parents and grandparents packaging up parts of themselves in order to assimilate into a new culture. The talismans the Lee women carry take on a particularly poignant meaning. It would be safer to hide them away somewhere, so they could never be broken or harmed. Instead, each woman keeps hers on her person — a reminder, no matter how small, of the culture she once came from.

Additionally, Ming says the family’s panda transformations were originally designed to help them in a time of strife and war. For Mei, this is a surprising revelation about her own family history. Often, there are painful aspects about a family’s past that go untold to younger generations, in order to save them from trauma. When Mei learns about the pandas’ origins, her feeling of betrayal is evident. That response could be read not just as her frustration about being uninformed and unprepared for her own panda transformation, but also at her sadness over being separated from her family’s culture, and her reasonable feeling that she hasn’t been trusted with important truths.

mei, ming, and jin at the family temple as ming tells mei about the family history in turning red Image: Pixar

Mei spends a lot of the movie struggling between loyalty to her family and culture, and her own newfound sense of self, which comes with an intense surprise interest in boys and a deep commitment to the pop culture she loves, particularly the boy band 4*Town. She hides her fandom from her mother, who openly disapproves of Mei’s friends. She also turns her back on those friends when they need her to stand up for them, because she’s afraid of offending her mother. Mei’s internal conflict largely stems between trying to live in two different worlds, as she starts to understand how deep and meaningful her relationships outside of her family have become. As Shi told Polygon, this can be a huge source of tension for immigrant children.

“That moment where the most important relationship in our life shifts from our family to people outside of our family… that’s a big moment,” she says. “That’s a big coming-of-age moment that is especially tricky and messy in immigrant families, because family is so important in a lot of these cultures, and [prioritizing people outside the family] should not be happening.”

The solution, however, isn’t for Mei to entirely choose between her family and her friends. She instead finds balance when she realizes she has a connection to her own unique cultural experience. As a kid born and raised in Toronto, Mei’s culture isn’t just Chinese, it’s Chinese-Canadian. The culture of first- and second-generation children of immigrants turns into a unique hybrid, an experience of its own that fuses elements of multiple cultures. Nothing exemplifies this cultural fusion more than the movie’s climax, where the family’s mystical panda chant combines with an infectiously catchy 4*Town pop song.

By the end of the movie, Mei has connected with a culture — but not the one her mother and grandmother came from. She was born in a different world, after all, and though her relationship with her mother is changing, she will bring parts of her family and her culture to her teenhood in the early 2000s.

The panda is emotional self-expression

mei and her friends cheering on priya at a party. mei is in red panda form Image: Pixar

The panda manifests when Mei is overwhelmed by strong emotions. At first, this is a burden, and she tries to suppress her powerful feelings instead of embracing them — just like all the women in her family. But eventually, she realizes that while her family views the panda as a source of shame, Mei finds that it brings her great joy. Indulging in those big emotions that the panda springs from isn’t the burden she’s been told it is, and it doesn’t make her peers look down on her. In fact, they support her feelings and she realizes that letting her friends see her full self — even the bad, ugly, and cringy sides — is not a weakness.

It’s a difference in cultures at play. Asian cultures often value community over individuality, and often prioritize the concept of saving face, the general cultural idea of maintaining dignity and control in public in order to gain other people’s respect. For members of the Asian diaspora, that ideal can clash with the emphasis on vigorous public self-expression in highly individualistic Western societies. The parenting styles and attitudes of Asian immigrant parents can manifest in a manner that seems stern when compared to the media stereotype of Western parents as more openly affectionate and emotionally supportive.

mei and her mother on opposite sides of a portal Image: Pixar

Shi tells Polygon she actively worked to ensure that Turning Red avoided the “Tiger Mom” trope — a stereotype about East Asian, particularly Chinese, parents that equates high expectations for their children with unfeeling, stern parenting. But Shi explains that as harmful as that specific stereotype is, it comes from a very surface-level place of truth. For her, the key was to make sure it wasn’t one-note, and that there was a clear reason behind Ming’s behavior.

“You’ll talk to any first-generation Asian kids … they do have that experience with it, but [stories about Tiger moms] never explore why the parents are that way. And a lot of the time, it’s from [the creators’] own past experiences,” Shi says. “I know, for my parents, they grew up in China, they dealt with a lot of crazy stuff that makes them the way they are. There are reasons why parents act this way.”

One of the particularly striking things about this interpretation is that even though Ming and Mei’s older family members eventually understand her feelings about her panda, they still chose to keep theirs locked away. They aren’t ready for her newfound mode of emotional expression, which makes sense, considering everything they’ve gone through themselves, and everything they’ve been taught. They are also grown adult women, who do not necessarily have the same overwhelmingly huge emotions Mei is navigating as a 13-year-old. They can support her decisions without following in her footsteps, which feels realistic and poignant.

The panda is none of these things, or all of them

red panda mei floating in the sky with red panda queen Image: Pixar

We can theorize all we want about what exactly the panda can or should represent, but at the end of the day, Shi boiled it down to a very simple statement.

“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,” she tells Polygon.

That’s enough of a broad, all-encompassing statement to cover all these interpretations at once, even if it doesn’t focus in on any of them specifically. And that’s reasonable, considering the difficulty of separating any one aspect of Mei’s experience from the others. The way Ming teaches Mei about the changes to her body and the way she emotes is intrinsically tied to Ming’s own cultural roots, just as the way Mei processes those critical changes will be shaped by her own multicultural identity.

The panda gives all these complicated themes a tangible form — and a fluffy, cute, accessible one at that. The panda becomes all the things Ming and Mei do not talk about, but perhaps should. The panda is a legacy, handed from mother to daughter, and the manner in which it is passed down subtly changes with every generation. The ways the panda manifests in Mei, Ming, and the rest of the women in the family is a personal experience for each of them, which means that the choice to keep the panda or hide it away is something that they must decide for themselves. At the end of the movie, Mei embraces her panda, while her mother still chooses to contain and conceal it. Both are valid decisions. The important thing is that they’ve finally talked about it. Their relationship won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t strong.

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