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Parents react to ‘Turning Red’: ‘What she experiences is universal’

Parents and their children agree that the latest Pixar movie — which grapples with puberty and feelings — is relatable and much needed.
Some reviewers and viewers dislike the themes covered in 'Turning Red,' but many parents says it addresses topics in a relatable and much needed way.
Some reviewers and viewers dislike the themes covered in 'Turning Red,' but many parents says it addresses topics in a relatable and much needed way.Disney+

When Nikki Lewis’ 10-year-old son Adyn wanted to watch “Encanto” again, she wasn't enthusiastic about it. When he suggested “Turning Red,” she agreed. She had noticed it on Disney + but had no idea what it was about. She was surprised that Adyn sat through the whole movie —he has ADHD and often plays and fidgets while watching movies. And she was impressed he also learned something from it.

“For it to hold his attention was amazing in itself and then he got it,” the 45-year-old from Everson, Pennsylvania, told TODAY Parents. “He goes, ‘So let me get this right. Was that movie about big feelings and that it’s OK to have them?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’”

“Turning Red” is the latest Pixar movie and it focuses on 13-year-old Meilin “Mei” Lee, a Chinese Canadian girl who becomes a giant red panda when she experiences overwhelming emotions. Mei grapples with family expectations, crushes, friendship, puberty and periods. While many have praised the coming of age story, directed by Domee Shi, some have bristled at some of the themes, including rebellion and periods.  

One star Rotten Tomato reviews from viewers include criticism such as “Don’t watch if you don’t want your kids learning about menstruation from a Disney movie,” and, “It encourages rebellion, discourages the idea that parents are often wise and caring and seems kinda anti-family.” Social media reactions haven’t been any better.

“I find the criticisms surprising because Meilin's experience is rooted through the very specific lens of her Asian-Canadian family,” Misa Sugiura, 52, a young adult author from Los Altos, California, told TODAY Parents. “But so much of what she experiences is universal.”

Sugiura, whose recent novel is "Love & Other Natural Disasters," adds a caveat.

“People talk about how cringy it is and it’s not surprising because we live in society that has a fundamental disrespect for teenage girls and the things they love,” she said. “It speaks to the way we see teenagers and teenage girls ... and their experience is undervalued.”

Aida Salazar includes mentions of menstruation in all of her young adult novels, including “The Moon Within,” a coming of age story about a girl grappling with her first period. She said she hopes more movies and books tackle menstruation in such a relatable way.

“They did a pretty good job of depicting that balancing act that a child goes through,” the 49-year-old from Oakland, California, told TODAY Parents. “I think there should be casual mentions (about menstruation) but then also these deeper discussion about it just to dispel all of these negative notions."

Parents found the movie sparked conversation between them and their children. Lewis said she believes the characters are more relatable to children than princesses or cars, for example, and that it teaches girls they can be empowered.

“When these kids watch these movies now, girls are not pigeonholed into you need a man, you can’t run a kingdom because you have to have a man,” she said.

Laura Rihn’s children Cameron, 10, and Olivia, 4, loved “Turning Red.” While Cameron knows about periods, Olivia doesn’t. Still, neither noticed the scenes mentioning pads or periods. Like Adyn, the movie helped Cameron address the feelings he has been experiencing lately.

“He’s been very interested in learning how to manage his emotions,” Rihn, 39, of Pittsburgh, told TODAY Parents. “I was like, ‘Hey do you guys want to watch this new Pixar movie that’s coming out on Friday?’ My son was like, ‘Absolutely. I saw it’s about a girl who has big emotions.’”

Cameron appreciated that Mei used some of the same techniques, such as deep breathing, that he does to help soothe himself. The family laughed out loud and thoroughly enjoyed it, which is why Rihn felt surprised by some of the criticism.

“The next day my aunt sent me this Facebook past that was like, ‘Oh my gosh you don’t love your children if you let them watch this movie,’” she said. “It was so crazy.”

Some of the critiques focused on how the movie encouraged rebellion, which many parents note is a common theme.

“I was thinking about other Disney films and Pixar films and the initial rebellion is against the parent,” Sugiura said. “Every teenager sees their parent as a villain a lot of the time.”

But it was that mother-daughter relationship that made the movie feel even more retable to Rihn.

“The depiction of the mom and how overbearing she is — I remember feeling so embarrassed about everything that my mom did or said in front of my friends,” she said. “I was in a constant state of embarrassment at that age.”