Pixar’s new movie Turning Red centers on a girl who uncontrollably morphs into a giant red panda, and the metaphorical connections to other big red turning point in many girls’ lives do not go overlooked. But director and co-writer Domee Shi doesn’t see the topic as taboo, even for a movie geared toward young audiences. In fact, the movie openly talks about periods, and doesn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty of puberty. No one discusses the anatomical machinations of uteri and blood flow, but after plucky protagonist Mei first changes shape and hides in the bathroom, her mother mistakenly believes she’s gotten her period, and brings her supplies and advice about how her body is changing. (Mei, meanwhile, hides in the shower, more concerned about suddenly having fur.)
“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,” Shi tells Polygon.
Turning Red is Shi’s feature debut, a coming-of-age story following a Chinese-Canadian protagonist in the early 2000s. Her previous Pixar project, the short film Bao, also deals with a complicated first-generation-immigrant mother-child relationship, but she saw Turning Red as a chance to dive into those themes from the child’s perspective.
“[Mei is] growing up caught between two worlds, East and West, but [she’s] also at this time in her life where she’s blossoming into adulthood,” explains Shi. “And all of these changes are happening not just to her body, but to her relationship with her mom and her friends.”
Mei learns that she transforms every time she experiences extreme emotion, and must navigate this new physical quirk while dealing with her rapidly changing relationship with her mother, along with other tumultuous ups and downs of adolescence. And yes, that means mistaken conversations about periods.
“It was always in the very earliest versions of the film. It was the first thing we put into production,” producer Lindsey Collins tells Polygon. “Everybody on the crew was unapologetic in support of having these real conversations about periods and about these moments in girls’ lives.”
While Shi and Collins didn’t have any hesitation about making Mei’s period an ongoing subject in the film, Collins says they were a little wary about how their Pixar higher-ups would respond. Menstruation is still a pretty untouched topic in all-ages entertainment, and even in the larger media landscape, periods are still often associated with shame and disgust.
Adult shows and movies have more leeway to change the conversation, normalizing a common monthly bodily function for half of humanity. But all-ages animation in particular still treats it as a largely forbidden subject. In 2001, the tween animated show Braceface had a pretty dang great episode about periods — after initially being mortified at starting her period, protagonist Sharon learns that she has nothing to be ashamed of. But menstruation is pretty much invisible in children’s cartoons, even the ones featuring female teenage protagonists. Turning Red’s team had good reason to be wary about the studio nixing the scenes where Mei’s mother brings her a supply of pads.
But the studio heads never once brought it up.
“I think they saw it very much in the DNA of the film and the characters,” Collins says. “The hope is with putting it on the screen and having it be something that is cringy, but also funny, and a part of this story, it does normalize it. There’s an appreciation from anybody who’s gone through it for what we put on the screen, but also those who haven’t gone through it.”
Cringe humor is at the heart of Turning Red, in the best way possible. The movie embraces the awkward middle-school parts of pubescence, from the agonizing period talk with Mom to the bright visual style that Shi dubs “Asian Tween Fever Dream.” But Shi and co-writer Julie Cho bring a certain love and understanding to the story. In a pre-release presentation on the movie, Shi spoke about how she encouraged the team to tap into their middle-school selves and embrace those beautifully blundering memories and adolescent obsessions.
With that in mind, one paramount part of Mei’s character is her obsession with 4*Town, the in-universe equivalent of NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, and every other hot boy band from the early-2000s. Mei and her friends love 4*Town, sharing mix CDs and collecting magazines about the band members. (She hides her fandom from her mother, who turns her nose up at a tour announcement she sees on television.) Mei’s passion for 4*Town isn’t just a quirk of the early-2000s setting — it plays an important part in her adolescence.
“I wanted to depict boy bands, pay homage to them, and make them a big part of the story of Mei’s life, because for a lot of teen girls and boys, [a boy band was] their first musical obsession,” Shi says. “It was just a cornerstone in their life, in growing up, developing these feelings, and trying to understand where all these emotions are coming from.”
Shi wanted to do the boy bands justice. So often, boy bands get a bad reputation, maligned by (mostly male) older music fans for being associated with teenage girl obsessions — a strikingly gendered criticism of these types of musical groups that goes way back to Beatlemania. Shi felt it was particularly important to not play into these stereotypes, and to make sure that even if the movie gently laughs with Mei, it should absolutely not laugh at her.
“I remember kicking off shots to animators for the boy-band members, and my one note that I kept repeating was, ‘Don’t make it too over the top, like Chippendales, like they’re doing the Blue Steel thing. Actually try to seduce me with their expressions,” Shi recalls. “Let’s take this seriously: What do bedroom eyes look like? Let’s Google this. Let’s make sure that we can act like we are Mei, and that if we see this shot, we will fall in love with these boys. We have to take this as seriously as possible. It’s a huge deal for me.”
Turning Red hits Disney Plus on March 11.