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Turning Red’s version of teen lust is refreshingly weird

Long live the merman crush

Mei furiously doodling, under her bed, in Turning Red. Image: Disney

There’s a scene in Pixar’s Turning Red that made me want to sink right through the carpet and into the afterlife. The protagonist, 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl Mei, has started doodling fantasy images of her crush, 17-year-old Daisy Mart clerk Devon. Her mother finds that fan art, and goes to chew out Devon for corrupting Mei. Mei’s mom has no idea these doodles were all the product of imagination, rather than reality — of a crush running free across the pages of a notebook.

Since the advent of television and movies, media have dictated the terms of being considered attractive, and most screen media in particular has left out the broader, messier spectrum of desire. This is true for onscreen girls and women, who for decades mostly conformed to a set look — white, thin, and able-bodied — and were attracted to boys and men who conformed to a similar set of norms. But that homogeneous idea of attractiveness left out how completely one-sided, truly fictitious, and often pretty weird so much young pining is, when crushes are first being formed. Only in the past few years has girlhood lust made its way onscreen, complicating the media landscape with wild, imaginative, and often cringy scenes that make for much more human storytelling.

Mei’s mom discovering her doodles of corner shop clerk Devon Image: Disney

Puberty is when many of us first start to think about what it means to be attracted to other people. Being horny for the first time is confusing and overwhelming, and Turning Red’s frankness and exaggerated lust captures this moment of life with hilarious finesse. When Mei Lee doodles the cute boy who works at the corner store, she begins with some fairly standard ideas: his muscled arms, his endearing bucket hat. But the doodling intensifies. And soon she draws him as a merman, melding fantasy and reality. This desire to keep drawing comes unbidden. Her self-reproaching over her fantasies only makes her doodle more urgently. The merman’s existence weaves neatly into other doodles, like ones with her and Devon embracing.

At 13, she already feels these kinds of crushes are inappropriate for her — whether due to her parents’ reactions, the societal norming around how she’s supposed to act, or just how overwhelming these emotions are. She also hides her interest in boy band 4*Town from her parents, claiming one of her friends is the real fan, which is an absolute lie. The film’s scene of the friends absolutely bawling over a 4*Town concert — and discovering school bully Tyler is also a fan — is the incredible culmination of this messy fangirling. Turning Red never makes fun of these moments, or goes for cheap laughs at the girls’ expense. Instead, it invites viewers to empathize — and maybe remember their own fervent adolescent obsessions.

Mei’s doodle of Devon as a merman. Image: Disney

This isn’t far from the way tweens and young teen girls in other recent media have their own offbeat desires depicted and validated. There’s Pen15’s Maya, whose “porn” stash includes a headshot of her crush, along with a photo of smooth-looking sand dunes. Obviously, this stash stays hidden from prying eyes. And no list of horny teen-girl characters would be complete without Tina Belcher of Bob’s Burgers, who writes erotic fanfic of fantasy series as well as erotic friendfic about her crushes — most of which involve lots of boys’ butts. (And also zombies.) These all stay in collected diary volumes, though her family knows about her writing — as well as her love of Boyz 4 Now, the fictitious boy band that her younger sister, Louise, pretends to be disinterested in.

It’s all a great reminder that a lot of us went through a deeply cringy phase that involved a grab bag of references and a lot of imagination. My own first crushes were an embarrassing mix of fictional characters, teen celebrities, and of course, some of my classmates. I spent an intense amount of time deliberating over Twilight’s Edward or Jacob, titans of Y2K teen-girl lust. This internal debate was less about whether Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner were hot — though Lautner’s many shirtless appearances helped — but about whether I would truly prefer to date a vampire or a werewolf. I contemplated coldness and immortality vs. warmblooded community. The fact that they were both dangerous was a firmly “pro” column item. Soon, I wondered: Was my 6th-grade math partner more of a vampire or a werewolf type, and did this impact my crush on them?

Then again, I didn’t like Edward or Jacob as much as I fantasized about Danny Fenton from Danny Phantom, or villains like Kim Possible’s Shego. I spent a lot of time imagining how chill (and hot) I would be if a celebrity met me (specifically, any of the members of the band Paramore). I also have a strong memory of a Cosmopolitan magazine feature centerfold with images of curved bananas — you can imagine what the story was about. My version of Maya’s Pen15 porn stash (if I wasn’t too scared to have one) probably would have included a color printed image of a banana.

I’m elated to see that these kinds of wild girlhood expressions of being hornt have finally made it into our media. I excitedly cringed through Mei’s mermen fantasies, and her crying — with forceful snot — over every member of 4*Town (but especially Robaire). We were all little freaks at that age. And we were all so different — Mei’s fantasies are pretty buttoned–up, even though her mom reacts so aggressively to them. Maya spends most of 7th grade hoping for someone to kiss, and working through her internalized shame over masturbation. Tina’s fantasies are outlandish and completely disconnected from how her crush Jimmy Jr. actually treats her.

We’re finally in an era of media where girls’ fumbling early desires aren’t the subject of derision, but rather a source of comedy, thanks to the embarrassed solidarity many of us feel, looking back at that time. Having weird crushes is a rite of passage. What we did then was objectively funny, and we should all get to laugh together about it.

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