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‘Turning Red’ creators and actors talk girl gangs, boy bands, and normalizing puberty

by Chelsea Tatham Zukowski
Turning Red
Photos courtesy of Disney

“Turning Red” is one of the most vibrant and charming films Pixar has put out in years. As the studios’ 25th animated feature, “Turning Red” is also Pixar’s first to spotlight an Asian family and to be solo-directed by a woman.

The film, streaming now on Disney+, also showcases the messy chaos of puberty in a way that’s authentic, relatable, and at times even celebratory.

Turning Red Mei and Mother

In a virtual press junket earlier this month, the actors and creators behind “Turning Red” discussed the importance of authentic portrayals of puberty, female friendships, and the evolving relationships between mothers and daughters. Director Domee Shi, who helmed Pixar short “Bao” in 2018, also delved into the autobiographical inspiration behind the film, which centers on a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Toronto.

“The inspiration behind ‘Turning Red’ just came from my own life growing up in the early aughts. Chinese-Canadian, dorky, sassy, nerdy girl who thought she had everything under control,” Shi said. “She was her mom’s good little girl, and then boom, puberty hit, and I was bigger. I was hairier. I was hungry all the time. I was a hormonal mess. And I was fighting with my mom, like, every other day.”

The sound behind “Turning Red’s” boy band 4*Town

That hormonal mess is brought to life in “Turning Red’s” Mei (Rosalie Chiang), who finds herself turning into a giant red panda whenever her emotions run too high. Mei is an overachiever at school and at home helping her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), with their family’s temple. She also has the best girl gang anyone could ask for, and all four of them are equally obsessed with seeing the boy band 4*Town in concert.

“Remembering our 13-year-old selves, going to a concert was life or death,” producer Lindsay Collins said. “It started to feel like this really great way to kind of ground this kind of fantastical movie in a very real world, 13-year-old stake. So, we got to create our own boy band.”

The sound of “Turning Red” and 4*Town was created by composer Ludwig Göransson along with original songs written by sibling duo Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell.

Collins said there was a bit of a “selfish desire” to create an animated Pixar boy band, but also used the musical tastes of her own teenage children to figure out who should write the 4*Town songs.

“I have three teens at home, and they’re listening to music constantly,” she said. “And Billie and Finneas’s music was being played all the time in my house. And they were clearly people who were speaking to this generation, and in a way that felt like those songs…were written for them.”

Turning Red Mei and her friends

“Turning Red” has “the kind of girl gang you want”

As for the importance of female friendships, Oh said “Turning Red” is an “extremely good representation of deep friendships, and the highs and the lows of them.”

Mei’s closest friends are Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park). Together, they cook up a plan to make money for concert tickets by turning Mei’s red panda form into a beloved local celebrity who poses for photos and makes appearances at birthday parties.

“This is the kind of girl gang you want,” Ramakrishnan said. “Life is chill, you get to be your goofy self…to just be who you are. But you also have those crying moments where it’s like, hey, I really need support. I need someone who just understands me without having to explain myself. You’re already feeling valid.”

“Turning Red” stands out in its portrayal of adolescence, forgoing cliches and stereotypes about female friendships and educational excellence.

“They’re not afraid to be smart; they’re not afraid to like, like their work. They’re extremely entrepreneurial in this,” Oh said. “I just really appreciated how it’s like, all these girls, even in their young womanhood, are in charge of their lives and making their decisions.”

“Turning Red” speaks to multiple generations through themes that are both deeply personal and universally relevant. The film feels as if it’s made just as much for current 13-year-olds as for women who became teens in the early 2000s. No matter what era, female adolescence is an experience fraught with hormonal chaos and self-discovery.

“What I love about this film, through friendship and also music, it’s that precious time when you’re starting to figure out who you are,” Oh said.

For actress Rosalie Chiang, her character Mei is someone she thinks girls should look up to.

“I feel like she has such a drive; once she sets her mind on something, she goes for it,” Chiang said. “The fact that she goes through change is something that everyone goes through in their life, especially puberty. It’s such a messy and weird and awkward time that I literally went through during the duration of recording for Pixar.”

Mei as herself and her red panda

How “Turning Red” normalizes puberty and periods

One of the signature pieces of “Turning Red” is its normalization and celebration of female puberty. When asked how it feels to helm a Pixar film centering on the changes wrought by puberty, Shi said “why was it ever not normal?”

“It didn’t feel like a big deal,” Shi said.

“It feels very timely because I think we are living in this cultural shift,” co-writer Julia Cho said. “Where it has gone from being something to be embarrassed and ashamed of, to being really embraced.”

Collins also said there are moments in “Turning Red” that will “have you cringe in a way that, you know, collectively, we’re all like, ‘oh my God, yes I remember that.’”

One of those moments is a poignant scene that many women can relate to – Mei, who has turned into a giant red panda for the first time, locks herself in the bathroom and yells to her mom that she’s a “big red monster.” Not yet knowing Mei is actually referring to her panda status, Ming asks “did the…did the red peony bloom?”

Ming then rushes into the bathroom with period essentials: pads, ibuprofen, a hot water bottle, and vitamins. Before panda Mei reveals herself, she listens to her mother talk about how her body is changing and she’s becoming a woman.

“It just feels like this whole new generation, for them it just is normal,” Cho said. “And so to write a film that reflects that is…I love it.”

Turning Red Mei and her friends at school
Mei tries to keep her emotions under control so she doesn’t turn into a giant red panda at school.

Collins also said one of the biggest takeaways audiences get from “Turning Red” is how isolating puberty and adolescent emotions can be despite so many others going through the exact same turbulent changes.

“It feels so foreign, and so sudden, and so personal. Like, a little out of control,” Collins said. “And so, hopefully, this movie will kind of dispel that and be like, ‘No…everybody’s feeling this way when they’re going through it’… and it’s actually super normal. All of these weird feelings are actually good; it’s a huge evolutionary growth moment in your life, and it’s really okay. And hopefully, they look to it for comfort.”

“I think the thing that I’m proudest of is that we created, we hope, a film that makes anyone watching it, girl or not girl, kid or parent, feel seen and understood,” Cho said.

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