Critic: Some of Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ reviews could stem from API unconscious bias

The new Pixar film Turning Red has fed into an online debate over what is “appropriate” for a children’s film.

Turning Red is the first feature-length Pixar film to be directed by a woman — Academy Award winner Domee Shi — and to follow the coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian named Meilin Lee. While the movie has overall received favorable reviews, there is a discrepancy between the Rotten Tomatoes critics score and audience score that points to larger complaints from parents about the movie being “totally inappropriate for children.”

The argument from some users, based on Rotten Tomatoes reviews, appears to be that the story is “very targeted to a specific audience” and “glorifies ‘finding yourself’ and following friends at the expense of listening to your parents.”

Christie Cronan, a mother of two and the author and CEO of RaisingWhasians.com, went viral on Twitter for her response to the audience reviews condemning the movie.

“I felt it was my duty not only as an Asian mom but as a parent movie critic who had a positive experience with the film,” Cronan told In The Know. “I think it’s easy to overlook all of the Disney coming-of-age movies where the heroine disobeys their parents. So I made a thread listing some of the obvious ones off the top of my head.”

Examples Cronan listed included Riley from Inside Out, Mulan from Mulan, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine from Aladdin and Cinderella.

“My biggest fear as a mom and a Korean is that projecting this anger and hatred toward Turning Red has nothing to do with Meilin disrespecting her parents,” Cronan continued, “but an unconscious bias toward Asian people and their experiences.”

Cronan, who is also an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic, said she also encouraged both of her children to watch Turning Red after she prescreened it. Her 9-year-old daughter has watched the movie multiple times.

“Meilin is a child she can relate to, as a half Korean girl with glasses,” Cronan said. “And dealing with emotions and having open conversations about changes in her life — I couldn’t hope for more as her mom.”

To parents who still feel like Turning Red is “inappropriate” for its discussions about puberty and fighting back against your parents’ wishes, Cronan argued that it’s not Pixar’s job to produce “safe movies” for kids.

“It’s our job as parents to create a ‘safe place’ for them to grow,” she said. “Not every movie will 100% align with our own thoughts, experiences and views. And that’s OK. But there’s no reason to shame and belittle a movie for those who can relate, who do identify with and who love this film.”

A CinemaBlend review by managing director Sean O’Connell was pulled offline after being called “sexist” and “racist” — further exposing double standards in film criticism. In it, O’Connell claimed that by “rooting Turning Red specifically in the Asian community of Toronto,” it was “limiting in its scope.”

Twitter users joked about how ridiculous it was to claim to not be able to “relate to the experiences of an Asian teenager” in an animated movie but apparently relate to other Pixar plots like Ratatouille or Wall-E.

In 2021, USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative looked at 1,300 popular films from 2007 to 2019 and not only found that mainstream movies continue to use harmful stereotypes of the Asian Pacific Island community (API), but API actors account for less than 6% of speaking roles. Out of the top 1,300 films from that timeframe, only 44 movies had an API lead or co-lead character — 14 of those were films that starred Dwayne Johnson.

API women, in particular, have been historically portrayed as either overtly sexualized or dangerous in films. Studies, like UCLA’s 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report, have found that this is changing for the better, but there’s still plenty of room for growth when it comes to API depictions in media.

Voice actor Rosalie Chiang, who played Meilin, told CBC that despite Turning Red following a Canadian-Chinese 13-year-old, the storyline is not limited in its appeal as some reviewers — like CinemaBlend’s O’Connell — suggest.

“This is a coming-of-age film, everyone goes through this change,” Chiang said. “At the end of the day, the core messiness and change is something everyone can relate to.”

But for viewers who finally do see themselves reflected in a mainstream Pixar movie, Turning Red means a lot.

“It’s never felt so good to see my Asian teen self become the hero, and learn to forgive her too,” Cronan wrote in her review.

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