Pixar tackles puberty: inappropriate or empowering?

Parents and critics react with strong opinions on whether or not Turning Red is suitable for kids.


Penelope Zickefoose

Main Character: Mei Lee is the hardworking, outgoing, joyful protagonist of Turning Red. Her words very clearly expressed her enthusiasm for her lifestyle and new experiences she was facing. “Not to brag, but being thirteen means I’m officially a grown-up,” Lee says.

Turning Red, directed by Chinese-Canadian animator, director and screenwriter Domee Shi, was released Feb. 22, 2022 on Disney+. The movie tells the story of a newly 13-year old girl, named Mei Lee, learning what it means to become a woman. In the story, Domee Shi represents puberty with a giant red panda. The idea of using puberty and menstruation in a children’s movie has created an uproar among Pixar fans.

In Turning Red, the main character breaks many rules as she tries to find herself and understand her changing body. Her mother is against Mei’s wishes and tries to make her hide her inner “panda. At the end of the story, Mei says, “My panda, my choice.” This is where most of the criticism comes from – what they view as the portrayal of justifying rule breaking and teaching young kids about a growing girl’s body.

Domee Shi took many risks in the creation of Turning Red. The movie has been met with fierce opinions arguing for and against the ideals discussed throughout the film. Shi has said the movie was supposed to be, “a celebration of teenage girls, their experiences, and their interests.”

To do this, she started off the film with subtle depictions of the main character getting symptoms of her first period. While the secret in Mei’s life happened to be that she was secretly a shapeshifting panda, Domee manages to make it clear that the panda is a metaphor for puberty, while also making the storyline fun and enjoyable for kids.

Despite the attempt to make the film a carefree child-friendly film, however, Turning Red was not received well by everyone. Critics took to very harsh opinions, pointing out the far too outgoing personality of the main character, the misrepresented message of the film, and the depiction of teenagedom. The movie has been called “super uncomfortable,” “irritatingly obnoxious,” and “less than thrilling.”

“We got about 10 [minutes into it] and turned it off because of the subject matter. Kids are having to grow up fast enough as it is, I don’t need Pixar joining the crowd forcing me to explain periods to my 8 year old,” one critic said.

Most criticism that Turning Red received has been focused around the movie’s topic, theme, and overall feel. Many have said it had a lot of potential, but was too childish. Some say it’s not appropriate to include such topics in a movie meant for young kids. Others say the message that the movie tried to portray was more problematic than inspiring.

Puberty is something few, if any, children’s movies have tried to talk about. So naturally, Turning Red was bound to have a very passionate reaction among society. But while there was backlash against it, the movie also received plenty of good reviews, both by online critics and people in Lake Stevens.
“I think [including puberty metaphors] was fine. I mean, the mom was a little overprotective, but that was it. I mean, I did half those things when I was her age too. It really shouldn’t be controversial,” sophomore Alexei Roberts said.

Feedback on Turning Red is unique compared to feedback on other types of animated films. While most others get judged based on graphics, sound quality, character personalities, plot lines and story progression, Turning Red has almost solely been judged on its concept. Many parents think it’s inappropriate for a movie to teach young kids about puberty.

“I think it’s empowering. For girls, but for boys too, to have a way to talk about puberty, and not feel alone. I would absolutely let my kids see it. I think it’s an exciting topic,” English teacher Kelly Guilfoil said.

Online critics also say it’s an important topic for kids to learn about. Josh Larson, writer on the Larsen On Film website, says puberty, menstruation, and repression truly are all “kids stuff” and that the red panda metaphor was a perfect way to represent it.

In the end, Turning Red has received many fiery and passionate reviews arguing it’s immature, inappropriate, empowering, interesting, annoying, and everything in between, but scored a 94% on rotten tomatoes.