Puberty in ‘Turning Red’: Pandas and Periods

Turning Red is an animated Pixar film directed by Domee Shi, which was released on Disney Plus on March 11th, 2022. It follows a thirteen-year-old Chinese Canadian girl named Mei, who finds out one day that she turns into a giant red panda when overcome by emotion. The parallel to going through puberty and experiencing your period for the first time is clear.

Turning Red – a movie about periods and puberty

Turning Red is unique in that its allegory for periods is something that the main character grows into and embraces, rather than treating it as something to be ashamed of. The film is humorous, but it laughs with menstruators, not at them, as Mei figures out how to navigate these changes to her body. Director Shi has said it was always intended to be unflinching in exploring that experience, and how teenagers deal with the changes they’re going through. It handles teenage crushes, embarrassing and confrontational interactions with parents, and the emotional changes that happen during puberty. Shi based it on her own experiences as a Chinese Canadian teenager growing up in Toronto in the early 2000s, which makes the representation of puberty in Turning Red feel so sincere. There are other examples of such positive exploration of periods in media, but there are by no means enough.

Photo Credits: © 2022 Disney/Pixar

How is puberty represented in Turning Red?

Even outside of the allegory of the giant red panda, Turning Red mentions periods directly. In a scene where Mei is trying to understand her transformation, her mother assumes she’s panicking because she got her period for the first time. Hesitantly, she asks, “Has the red peony bloomed?” She then springs into action: “I have ibuprofen, vitamin B, a hot water bottle, and pads.” She reassures Mei that this is what happens as she grows older. The movie doesn’t go into technical details, but it uses clear language to describe what is happening, with words like ‘flow’, ‘blood’, and ‘time of the month’.

The discussions of periods and puberty in Turning Red were always going to be included. Producer Lindsey Collins said that the creatives on the project were concerned about the reaction from Pixar. There was a risk that they would be told to tone it down. But the issue never came up. Collins attributes this to how puberty is “very much in the DNA of the film and its characters”

A powerful all-female Leadership Team

This is a testament to Turning Red’s all-female leadership team. It had Domee Shi as its director, Lindsay Collins as producer, Danielle Feinberg as visual effects supervisor, Rona Liu as production designer, and Sabine Koch O’Sullivan as associate producer. This all-female leadership team was Pixar’s first. And they brought their own experiences to the story: Liu has said that photographs of her and her own mother inspired the opening of the film. Collins believes this is what enabled the “spirit of pride, excitement and fun shines throughout the whole movie”. Puberty in Turning Red is a vital part of the story, and they do not shy away from exploring it.

Auch außerhalb der Menstruation erkundet der Film auf sanfte und humorvolle Weise andere wesentliche Aspekte der Pubertät. Und viele Menstruierende können sich gerade damit identifizieren. Das Setting der frühen 2000er Jahre bietet beispielsweise Boybands als eine Möglichkeit, die frühen Schwärmereien von Teenager:innen zu erforschen und wie sie mit diesen neuen Gefühlen umgehen. Shi hat darauf geachtet, diese Verliebtheit nicht ins Lächerliche zu ziehen, sondern die Situation, lustig zu gestalten, ohne Mei und ihre Freund:innen zu verspotten. Mei verwandelt sich in einen riesigen roten Panda, wenn sie zu emotional wird, so dass die Art und Weise, wie sie mit ihren neuen Gefühlen umgeht, ernst genommen wird. Viele pubertierende Jugendliche, die mit Hormonen zu kämpfen haben, kennen dieses Problem. Der Film Rot unterstreicht, dass dies ganz natürlich ist, auch wenn Veränderungen beängstigend sein können.

Outside of periods, as well, the movie gently and humorously explores other quintessential aspects of puberty. Many menstruators will relate to it. The early 2000s setting provides boy bands to serve as a way of exploring teenagers’ early crushes and how they navigate these new feelings. Shi made sure never to make fun of this infatuation, bringing comedy out of the situation without mocking it. Mei turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too emotional, so how she navigates the new emotions she’s experiencing is taken seriously. Many teenagers struggling with hormones have the same issue. Turning Red emphasises that this is natural, even as the changes are scary.

The backlash to the puberty in Turning Red

Not all watchers were happy with the movie, however. There has been a significant backlash. Some criticisms include that it didn’t appeal to a wide enough audience for a Disney Pixar animated movie. Others include outrage from mothers that it taught their children what periods are. Plenty of people have complained that it should not have been rated PG. The implication that periods are an inappropriate subject for children is ridiculous in my opinion. Children can have periods from the age of eight, and they should be informed. There are nice ways to ease young menstruators into their periods after it has happened, but understanding what will happen beforehand is crucial. OB-GYN Diane Horvath recommended that the presentation of puberty in Turning Red would be a sensible way to introduce children to the idea of puberty. Its gentle humour makes it less scary than it would otherwise be.

Photo Credits: © 2022 Disney/Pixar

Is Turning Red sexist?

Not everyone connected with the film so deeply, either. There are arguments that the fact that the red panda makes her lose control of her emotions is sexist. This would be because it feeds into the prejudice that menstruators are more emotional and irrational while menstruating. However in my personal opinion, this misses the point of the movie. Mei is already struggling with the new emotions that puberty is giving her. The red panda comes out when they are too intense for her to control. By the end of the movie, she comes to love her panda and her body. 

Turning Red does not claim that menstruators are too emotional when on their period — far from it. It recognises the emotional rollercoaster puberty puts you through, while still showing that your body is something to be loved, not ignored. Puberty in Turning Red is shown to be scary and overwhelming, but not a bad thing. It is something to be embraced, rather than rejected.

The red panda as a metaphor

“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,” says director Shi. It normalises and pokes fun at common struggles, from how Mei’s mother changes Mei’s bed so “we won’t have any more … accidents” to Mei trying to hide her pads when she’s in school. The openness about puberty in Turning Red, with all the details it includes, is refreshing and sorely needed.

Photo Credits: © 2022 Disney/Pixar

Director Shi admitted, “I mean, this movie is actually for thirteen-year-old Domee that was in a bathroom, horrified thinking that she had crapped her pants.” It’s also for all the young people confused and concerned about the changes in their bodies they’re going through now. I know it will make a world of difference to them.

You are about to get your first period? Then hear is our best advice for you! Vulvani also tells you what you should know before your first period.

Or do you struggle with talking openly about your periods? Don’t worry and read Ailsa’s article on How to talk about your period: replacing stigma with openness and start breaking the menstrual taboo together! Also, let us know if you have other movie recomendations on the topic of menstruation or puberty in the comments!

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August 2, 2022
Ailsa wohnt in England und studiert Geschichte und Politik in Schottland. Sie verbringt ihre Zeit gerne mit Schreiben, Tagträumen und Gedanken über die Zukunft – insbesondere über Frauen und LGBT-Menschen in allen drei.

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