‘Turning Red’ Is Not a Credit to the Asian Race. That’s Why It’s Good.
Last week, I watched “Turning Red,” the new Pixar movie by Domee Shi, with my 5-year-old daughter. It is about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Mei who is trying to navigate adolescence, friendship and the demands of her overbearing mother. There’s not much to spoil about the film, but I’ll just leave it at this: After a moment of extreme humiliation at the hands of her mother, Mei turns into a giant red panda who can perform great acts of athletic prowess. She soon realizes that she can control when she becomes a panda and when she turns back into studious, anxious Mei. Also, there is a boy band that Mei and her friends are obsessed with. The question at the center of the story is one of authenticity and knowing one’s true self: Is Mei the red panda or is she her mother’s cowering daughter?
I am happy to report that my daughter and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. She likes big fluffy things onscreen, and I, for my part, appreciated the intricate detailing that Shi placed in every scene that made “Turning Red,” which takes place in Toronto in 2002, feel immediate and thoroughly lived-in. There is a Tamagotchi plotline (remember those?), a beautifully rendered temple and a horde of meddling aunties that should make a lot of Asian people in North America both smile and recoil with recognition. Mei’s relationship with her mother may read as stereotypical to the untrained eye — here, if ever there was one, is a true Tiger Mom — but Shi has the confidence to render it as the mix of love, immigrant confusion and fear that defines actual Tiger Momming.
Very little of this has been part of the conversation around “Turning Red.” After the film’s release in late February, Sean O’Connell, managing director for the site Cinemablend, wrote: “I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting ‘Turning Red’ very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members.” O’Connell also tweeted (now deleted): “Some Pixar films are made for universal audiences. ‘Turning Red’ is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work very well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.”
This declaration, which seemed to argue that Asian Canadian experiences could not be universal, led to widespread outrage online. The review was ultimately pulled and both O’Connell and Cinemablend’s editor in chief apologized. I am extremely uninterested in the cancel culture ramifications of this particular episode, not that I think that O’Connell’s thoughts are defensible on their own merits. Some Pixar films are about toys that come to life. O’Connell, presumably, is not a toy that comes to life. Does that mean “Toy Story” is not universal?
It’s unfortunate that the review and some subsequent freakouts over the film’s portrayal of puberty were what dominated the commentary about Shi’s film. What’s far more compelling to me is the way Shi weaves back and forth over the line between offensive caricature and cultural truth. Mei’s mother, grandmother and aunts speak with perfect Chinese accents. They pinch and fuss and then turn cold. Shi also seems aware that resisting stereotype for its own sake is actually a profound form of whitewashing.
Many years ago, I recall hearing an immigrant comedian announce that he would never perform a role with an accent. I understood where he was coming from because Hollywood was only offering him acting roles that felt stereotypical and demeaning — the jokes weren’t told by the comedian, but rather were focused entirely on the supposedly funny way his people spoke English.
But if we scrub out every “Asian” detail or accent because we’re so afraid that white people will take them the wrong way, who are we really serving with our work? Not actual Asian people who do often have overbearing mothers who do speak with accents. Are we caring too much about people like Sean O’Connell and their thoughts about “universality”?
Hollywood representation — the idea that people from marginalized communities should have a place in mass pop culture — has never been particularly high up on my list of political priorities. Let me first get the caveats out of the way: I think it’s nice to have an underrepresented name on the marquees. I do believe a person’s stake in this country is tied, in some part, to whether they see themselves in the broader culture. And I agree that it would also be great if awards shows in the past had done a better job celebrating the work of minority artists.
My objection is mostly one of proportion. I just think we probably make too big a deal out of Hollywood representation. Sympathetic as I might be to these concerns, I just can’t make myself believe that it matters all that much who wins an Oscar, nor do I think there’s all that much social good that comes out of turning the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one of those private school brochures that make sure to feature every nonwhite face on campus.
I don’t really care that Sean O’Connell didn’t like Shi’s film. “Turning Red” was a Pixar film with a huge budget and songs written by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas. Shi is not an independent filmmaker who is just trying earnestly to tell her truth to a small festival audience. Shi and the people who want more Asian representation in big Hollywood films have won.
The main beneficiaries of a diversified Hollywood, as far as I can tell, are the minorities who make and star in films and television shows. This is great for them, but I don’t really understand why I, as an Asian American, am expected to cheer for a film like “Crazy Rich Asians,”which is about a wealthy Singaporean family. I’ve never been to Singapore, I did not grow up in luxury and I don’t feel understood because millions of my fellow citizens watched a movie about people who are more or less foreign to me.
There’s also a quant-like quality to the focus on Hollywood representation that has always seemed a bit too clinical for my tastes. Last May, the University of Southern California’s School for Communication and Journalism released a paper about Asians and Pacific Islanders in the film industry. Here’s a quote from a news release about the report: “Across 51,159 speaking characters in 1,300 top-grossing movies, 5.9 percent were A.P.I. This percentage did not meaningfully differ by year and falls short of the 7.1 percent of the U.S. population that identifies as A.P.I.”
One of the report’s authors, Nancy Wang Yuen, whose work I broadly admire, went deeper into the data and noted that many of the jobs Asian and Pacific Islander actors got were in token roles. “In 2019, 30 percent of A.P.I. primary and secondary characters were either the only one or interacted with no other A.P.I. characters onscreen. We need to see more than one A.P.I. character onscreen interacting with one another in meaningful ways.”
There are a lot of assumptions at play here. The first and most obvious is that there is some moral right for a minority group to have a number of film and television roles that falls in line with its percentage of the U.S. population. Perhaps this isn’t Yuen’s intent, but if we follow this logic, films with Black actors should make up only about 12 percent of what Hollywood produces. And only three out of every 500 or so roles should be either of trans characters or given to trans actors.
I’m also not sure what it would accomplish to have Asian American acting roles go from 5.9 percent to 7.1 percent. Do Asian American children suddenly start feeling like they’re more a part of this country when they realize they’re proportionately represented in film and television?
The most confusing part of Yuen’s quote is the pronoun “we.” Who is the “we” that needs to see more than one A.P.I. character onscreen interacting with another in meaningful ways? Is it professional, well-educated Asian Americans like me, or is the “we” just shorthand for America at large? If it’s the former, I can announce that I don’t really need to see Asian people interacting with one another on my television because I already know that Asian people talk to one another. If it’s the latter, then I wonder, again, who our target audience might be: Are we making art for ourselves, or are we turning every film, book and painting into some spectacle that shows everyone else just how human and normal we all can be?
The triumph and, yes, the universality of “Turning Red” is that it seems largely unconcerned with what white people think or what needs to be said about the lives of Asian immigrants in North America. Shi does not tie herself down with all the questions about authenticity that plague a lot of immigrant art. Her concerns are about whether Mei, as a character, can be true to herself. This does not mean “Turning Red” is thoughtless or capricious about questions of representation. I imagine Shi thought through the implications of each choice she made. This is the burden carried by every minority, woman and L.B.G.T.Q. artist in North America. But it is also the responsibility of those same people ultimately to liberate themselves from those neuroses and reject the idea that they, or their work, must be somehow a credit to their people.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”