Before the release of pixar’s changing red, director domee shi posed a question she’d heard repeatedly about her animated short bao, a fairy tale about a Chinese mother raising a dumpling . like her son “many people asked 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 a full feature film to unpack that.’”
With her theatrical debut, turning red, shi was finally able to unpack. The film centers on Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chung), a plucky 13-year-old high school student, and her stern mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). The two are very close, but Ming expects perfection and obedience from Mei, who is slowly becoming her own person. As she reaches adolescence, she begins to have difficulty balancing her budding sense of self with her family loyalties. All of this is exacerbated when Ella Mei wakes up one morning to find that she now turns into a giant red panda when she is overwhelmed with emotion, a quirk shared by all the women in Ella’s family. Traditionally, all Lee women have repressed her inner pandas through a magical control ritual, but as the date approaches, Mei begins to wonder if she really needs to get rid of her panda.
[ed. note: this article contains major spoilers for the turning red ending.]
I’ve been told to hide your panda from the world. her mother and her other female relatives see her pandas as a source of shame. they keep it inside the jewelry they continue to wear after their individual rituals. But despite what she’s told about the family legacy, Mei discovers that his classmates think his red panda is cute, exciting, and cool. in fact, she can earn money by letting people see her in panda mode and take photos with her. she starts to like the red panda me of hers. she knows she’s not supposed to do it, and much of the movie revolves around mei’s internal struggle with being true to herself versus trying to please her family. at the end of the movie, she decides not to lock her gang up, even though she knows this means her relationship with her mother will change.
shi spends the entire movie questioning the relationship between mei and her mother. the panda becomes her main source of conflict and ultimately shapes her future together, for better or worse. but what does the panda mean? the movie never directly answers that, but the metaphor subtly shapes the ending of the movie, depending on how you choose to read it. in any case, it becomes a multifaceted symbol of the ways in which mothers and daughters communicate.
the panda is puberty
The most important and obvious answer is that the panda symbolizes puberty. Ming mistakes Mei’s first transformation for her first period, and the awkwardness Mei feels in trying to hide the bright red secret from her translates into the awkwardness many girls feel at having her first period. Mei’s physical transformation happens suddenly and she has to get used to navigating the big emotions that trigger it. you can’t hide the panda when it manifests, which makes it a perfect physical representation for the self-awareness of growing up, and how many teens feel like their bodies are under magnifying glasses, with each strange new change amplified for the whole world to know . watch.
if the panda is in puberty and growing up, then that’s also something ming didn’t prepare me for. that’s a common trope seen across cultures, stemming from a generation gap, where a well-intentioned father doesn’t want to expose his child to the pain and discomfort of adulthood, and would rather they be children for a little longer than weather. From Peggy Hill prolonging the sexual conversation with her son Bobby in King of the Hill to Lady Bridgerton not informing Daphne about the mechanics of making babies before they are married, the trope transcends time and place, often reflecting life experiences. real from the creators.
But children often come of age sooner than parents expect. In this specific example, it is up to Ming to explain the machinations of growing up Mei, particularly since the male members of the family do not share the same condition. (which reflects the way society views changes in most female bodies differently than the way it views most male bodies). Mai’s embarrassment and confusion about her transformations help emphasize the specific burden society places on young women as their bodies change, and the world suddenly begins to see and treat them differently.
this double standard even takes on a metatextual flavor: no one flinched when baymax in big hero 6 tells hiro that his body is going through changes, but mei’s period misunderstanding generated a lot of anger among some viewers, particularly fans. parents who felt the topic was inappropriate for children. ming initially plays on social feelings towards female puberty, when she doesn’t inform me about the nuances of her changing body. Ming’s discomfort isn’t her fault alone: society has instilled in her that certain topics remain taboo. If the panda is going through puberty, Mei is finally realizing how other people perceive her body, and she’s also realizing that she doesn’t have to be like this. At the end of the movie, then, she becomes mei triumphantly reclaiming her body and her puberty, a bit subdued at the end when she tells her mother “my panda, my choice!” Despite what her mother and grandmother were taught, and tried to teach her, Mei has come to realize that there is no inherent shame in existing in a body.
the panda is tradition and culture
Panda transformations given specifically to women are part of the Mei family and have been for centuries. In China, they celebrated their pandas, but as Ming explains, after the family immigrated to Canada, the blessing became something they hid. Mei’s family still celebrates their Chinese heritage through the food they eat and the temple they maintain. But it’s telling that the specific moment the panda became an “inconvenience,” as Ming calls it, is when the feces left its home country.
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 of their new culture that they thought it best to keep it away. pointing to the eyes. Many first- and second-generation children of immigrants will recognize the concept that their parents and grandparents repackage parts of themselves to assimilate into a new culture. the talismans worn by lee women take on a particularly poignant meaning. it would be safer to hide them somewhere, so they could never be broken or damaged. instead, each woman keeps hers on her person, a reminder, however small, of the culture she once came from.
Furthermore, Ming says that the family’s panda transformations were originally designed to help them in times of conflict and war. To me, this is a startling revelation about his own family history. Oftentimes, there are painful aspects of a family’s past that are left untold to younger generations, to save them from trauma. When Mei learns of the pandas’ origins, her sense of betrayal is evident. that response could be interpreted not only as her frustration at being uninformed and unprepared for her own panda transformation, but also as her sadness at being cut off from her family’s culture and her reasonable feeling that she has not been entrusted with important truths. .
mei spends much of the film wrestling between loyalty to her family and her culture, and her newfound sense of self, which comes with a surprise intense interest in children and a deep commitment to the pop culture she loves. particularly the child. band 4*city. hides her fondness from her mother, who openly disapproves of mei’s friends. she also turns her back on those friends when they need her to defend them, because she is afraid of offending her mother. mei’s inner conflict stems largely from trying to live in two different worlds, as she begins to understand how deep and meaningful her relationships outside of her family have become. as shi told polygon, this can be a great source of stress for immigrant children.
“That moment when the most important relationship in our life moves from our family to people outside our family…it’s a great moment,” he says. “That’s a big coming-of-age moment that’s especially tricky and complicated in immigrant families, because family is so important in a lot of these cultures, and [prioritizing people outside the family] shouldn’t happen.”
however, the solution is not for mei to choose entirely between her family and her friends. instead, he finds balance when he realizes that he has a connection to his own unique cultural experience. As a child born and raised in Toronto, Mei’s culture isn’t just Chinese, it’s Chinese-Canadian. the culture of the children of first and second generation immigrants becomes a unique hybrid, an experience of its own that fuses elements of multiple cultures. Nothing exemplifies this cultural fusion better than the film’s climax, where the mystical singing of the family’s panda meets an infectiously catchy 4*town pop song.
by the end of the movie, mei has connected with a culture, but not with that of her mother and grandmother. she was born into a different world, after all, and although her relationship with her mother is changing, she will bring parts of her family and her culture into her teens in the early 2000s.
the panda is emotional self-expression
the panda manifests itself 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, he realizes that while his family views the panda as a source of shame, Mei discovers that it brings her great joy. indulging in those great emotions from which the panda arises is not the burden she has been told it is, and it does not make her peers look down on her. in fact, they support his feelings and she realizes that letting her friends see her completely, even the bad, ugly, and embarrassing sides, is not a weakness.
It is a difference of cultures at stake. Asian cultures often value community over individuality and often prioritize the concept of saving face, the overarching cultural idea of maintaining dignity and control in public to earn the respect of other people. for members of the Asian diaspora, that ideal may clash with the emphasis on vigorous public self-expression in highly individualistic Western societies. Parenting styles and attitudes of Asian immigrant parents can manifest themselves in a way that seems stark compared to the media stereotype of Western parents as more overtly affectionate and emotionally supportive.
shi tells polygon she actively worked to ensure wearing red avoided the “tiger mom” trope, a stereotype about East Asian parents, particularly Chinese, that equates high expectations for their children with nurturing insensitive and severe. but shi explains that as damaging as that specific stereotype is, it comes from a very shallow place of truth. For her, the key was to make sure it wasn’t a single note and that there was a clear reason behind Ming’s behavior.
“You’ll talk to any first-generation Asian kid…they have that experience, but [tiger mom stories] never explore why the parents are the way they are. And a lot of times, it’s from [the creators’] own past experiences ],” says shi. “I know, for my parents, they grew up in China, they dealt with a lot of crazy things that make them the way they are. There are reasons why parents act this way.”
One of the particularly surprising things about this performance is that although Ming and Mei’s older family members eventually understand their feelings for their panda, they still choose to keep theirs under lock and key. they’re not ready for their new mode of emotional expression, which makes sense, considering everything they’ve been through themselves and everything they’ve been taught. They’re also grown-up adult women, who don’t necessarily have the same overwhelmingly huge emotions that Mei is navigating as a 13-year-old. they can support his decisions without following in his footsteps, which feels realistic and touching.
the panda is none of these things, or all
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 only for puberty, but also for what we inherit from our mothers and how we deal with the things we inherit from them,” he tells polygon.
That’s a broad and comprehensive enough statement to cover all of these interpretations at once, even if it doesn’t focus on any one 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 me about the changes in her body and the way she emotes is inextricably tied to ming’s own cultural roots, just as how mei processes those critical changes will be shaped by her own identity multicultural.
the panda gives all these complicated subjects a tangible, fluffy, cute and accessible form. the panda becomes all the things that ming and mei don’t talk about, but maybe they should. the panda is a legacy, passed down from mother to daughter, and the way it is passed down changes subtly with each generation. The ways in which the panda manifests itself 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 is something they must decide for themselves. themselves. at the end of the movie, mei hugs her panda, while her mother still chooses to contain and hide him. both are valid decisions. the important thing is that they have finally talked about it. their relationship won’t be the same, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be strong.