Turning Red’ Is a Good Conversation Starter — and Not Just for Girls
Some parents don’t like its depictions of adolescent rebellion, periods and sexuality, but experts say those topics are appropriate for family discussion.
Published March 16, 2022Updated March 18, 2022
Disney’s newest animated film, “Turning Red,” in which an adolescent girl contends with puberty, cultural expectations and her newfound tendency to turn into a giant red panda when overtaken by emotion, has viewers buzzing.
Although critical reviews of the film have been largely positive, some viewers — especially parents — have had a rather different take. Some have been aghast that the movie discusses menstruation; others dislike its exploration of romantic crushes and sexuality; and still others are upset that the main character, 13-year-old Mei Lee, rebels against her parents by repeatedly lying and sneaking out.
One amateur reviewer wrote on the website Rotten Tomatoes that the movie “suggests being rude to your parents and family is OK if you are an adolescent hitting puberty.”
Yet child psychologists say it’s unlikely that the movie will promote bad or salacious behavior, or cause harm to younger children who may not understand its mature themes. If anything, they note, the movie could bring families together by sparking age-appropriate conversations about key issues and values, and by validating the struggles that teens often experience.
The film provides “a really good representation of adolescent-parent relationships and adolescent development,” said Judith Smetana, a psychologist at the University of Rochester who studies the relationships between parents and adolescents. The issues are real and open up “an opportunity for discussion.”
We interviewed child and adolescent psychologists, a sex educator and a handful of parents to understand more about how parents could use the movie as a jumping-off point for constructive family talks.
Guide your child through the movie’s themes
Before watching “Turning Red” with her 5-year-old and 9-year-old, Jenny Wang, a psychologist based in Texas, explained to her kids that they may see scenes depicting situations or experiences they are not familiar with — and that she would be there to help make sense of them.
Explore the Pixar Universe
- ‘Turning Red’: Pixar has a reputation for putting together mostly men-led productions. Could things be changing with its latest feature?
- ‘Luca’: The charming sea-monster story, set on the Italian coast, is nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature.
- ‘Soul’: This celebration of jazz culture broke important new ground, featuring Pixar’s first Black protagonist.
- ‘Monsters at Work’: Twenty years after “Monsters, Inc.,” Disney+ is taking Mike and Sulley to the small screen for more antics.
Conversations like this “allow our kids to feel confident and empowered to navigate the world no matter what types of issues may arise,” Dr. Wang said. They send “the message that there is nothing we can’t explore or understand deeper when we work together as a family.”
Parents don’t necessarily need to explain everything in detail — they should share information they deem appropriate for their children’s maturity level, said Charissa Cheah, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who studies adolescent social-emotional development. For instance, parents could frame Mei’s strange behavior around the teenage store clerk as being rooted in fear or uncertainty over how to talk to him after realizing she likes him.
“The reality is that our children are exposed to these themes, to a certain extent, with or without our control,” Dr. Wang said. Watching a movie like “Turning Red” together as a family, and checking in with kids during and after, can help children develop a “willingness and openness to share their confusion with us. I think that’s where the transformative conversations can happen.”
Talk about bodies, periods and puberty
When Mei first turns into a red panda, she hides in the bathroom, and her mother brings in boxes of menstrual pads, assuming she had gotten her first period. While some parents are upset at the nod to menstruation, experts say it’s good for both girls and boys — even young ones — to learn about body parts and normal body processes.
“Of all the things parents have to be concerned about when it comes to raising children, a normal body function like menstruation should not be one of them,” said Elizabeth Schroeder, a New York-based sex educator. “There is so much shame wrapped up in how bodies work, when instead we should be celebrating them.”
The movie normalizes periods, and “that kind of openness can make girls feel so much more confident and accepted while going through adolescence,” said Annie Tao, a clinical psychologist who treats children and teens at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
If your child watches “Turning Red” before having learned what periods are, you could use the scene as an opportunity to explain the concept to them, Dr. Smetana said. Lauren Tetenbaum, a social worker based in Westchester, N.Y., said she explained to her 5-year-old son that Mei got her period “because that’s what happens to girls when they become teenagers. He was like ‘OK, cool.’”
Parents can also share their perspective on how other characters in the movie reacted to the idea of Mei’s menstruation. “I talked to my 8-year-old about how the dad seemed embarrassed about periods and that isn’t OK,” said Terrae Weatherman of Saint Paul, Minn. “My husband was there during the discussion and helped reinforce that men should know about periods because that is how some bodies work.”
The period scene also creates an opportunity for parents to talk about their own experiences. Chloe Caldwell, a writer based in Hudson, N.Y., talked about her struggle with premenstrual dysphoric disorder with her 11-year-old stepdaughter when they watched the movie.
“I’ve never completely known how to describe P.M.D.D. to her, but now, with this fluffy red panda, fully experiencing some of the same symptoms like rage, paranoia, depression, it gave us a common language, and something concrete for me to point to,” said Ms. Caldwell, whose upcoming book “The Red Zone” is about menstruation.
Ask questions about the characters’ choices and relationships
After we finished watching the movie, I asked my 7-year-old daughter what stuck with her. She pointed out that although Mei and her mother loved each other, they didn’t always get along. This prompted a conversation about the fact that it’s normal to disagree with family members — and that fights don’t undermine unconditional love.
Dr. Wang said that asking questions about the characters’ interpersonal choices is a powerful way to engage with kids about our values. “We could ask our kids, ‘What do you think prompted her to lie to her mom? And what did you think about what happened after she had lied? What were some of the consequences?’” she suggested.
Experts also said that parents’ concerns that the movie will inspire bad behavior in their kids are overblown. “Is this movie going to teach your kids to lie and sneak out? Absolutely not,” Dr. Tao said. Defiance is typical during adolescence, she said — but serious defiance often stems from problems within the parent-child relationship, and it’s not something kids will start doing just because they saw it in a movie.
If parents really don’t like the movie or its plot, that, too, “is an opportunity to have a conversation with your children,” Dr. Cheah said, about what you didn’t like. Parents may find that their kids have reservations about Mei’s behavior, too — Dr. Cheah’s 9-year-old shared that he didn’t think Mei should have hidden so much from her mother.
No matter what parents think about the movie, the plot validates the kinds of struggles kids often face during adolescence and provides fodder for meaningful conversations. “It can speak to many children in many different family circumstances,” Dr. Cheah said. “And using it as a point of discussion to cover a whole range of topics — I think that’s really useful.”