What “Encanto” and “Turning Red” teach us about #GrowingUpEthnic
My honest review of two Disney classics.
Mirabel Madrigal and Meilin Lee are a testament to ethnic girlhood.
While watching Encanto, I got emotional as Mirabel’s imposter syndrome set in. It reminded me of my 15-year-old self being in competition with my older sister, not knowing what my gifts were, and having constant tiffs with my Grand-mère.
Like Mei in Turning Red, I was an emotional, artsy tween trying to meet my matriarch’s (my grandma’s) expectations. While there’s no Red Panda living inside of me, I still can relate to the cinematography and symbolism from Domee Shi.
Really, the emotional baggage that girls of color inherit from the matriarchs in our families was touched upon in both movies, but let critics tell it, Disney and Pixar are becoming too woke.
Given Disney’s history of blackface, Walt Disney’s racism, these movies are the least they can do. After all, Disney World just apologized for a red-face incident in 2022, so it would seem they have a long way to go before getting it right.
In the meantime, we can enjoy films like Encanto and Turning Red as a necessary first step to Disney repairing its fragmented relationships with BIPOC. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. At the very least, Disney’s latest depictions can spark necessary conversations about what it’s like #GrowingUpEthnic.
For me personally, it was always a struggle. I was overweight by my Grand-mère’s standards, which were rooted in respectability and thinness, my hair was short, and I was socially awkward. Although I eventually blossomed into a more confident full-figured woman, there are times when I question if I ever truly healed from my childhood traumas.
So, when I see Mirabel and Mei on screen, a part of me feels represented. Seeing full-figured ethnic girls get their stories told on the big screen helps me normalize my inner child who hated her thunder thighs and kinky hair.
As José María Luna eloquently puts in his review of Encanto, “[T]here’s no denying that there is power in seeing your own world elevated to the ranks of iconic fairytales and animated blockbusters.” But I should issue a note of caution. Being that the Madrigals are a racially blended Colombian family, this story is not fully *my* story. Yet, I was still able to relate to it.
Mirabel’s feelings of otherness are both specific and universal; they have everything and nothing to do with her being a Brown girl in Colombia. Moreover, when she does not receive her “gifts” at age 5, it narrates the story of the model minority.
The model minority trope describes a phenomenon where certain members of an ethnic minority are pedestalized for their special talents, which isolates those who do not fit into these narrow views of minority excellence. This can lead to things like respectability politics and perfectionist syndrome.
In the corporate world, model minorities “have to overcompensate to ensure that they don’t project negative stereotypes,” Janica Omadeke wrote for Harvard Business Review. To quote Olivia Rodrigo, a fellow angsty POC teen, “co-comparisons are killing me slowly.”
The Madrigal family was no exception to this rule. Throughout the movie, we saw Mirabel comparing herself to sisters Luisa and Isabela, who were both bestowed with gifts. Additionally, we saw tiffs between Mirabel and her Abuela.
From Mirabel’s view, her Abuela was harder on her because she did not have the gifts her other family members had. This caused them to have a strained relationship, especially following Antonio’s ceremony. Antonio is Mirabel’s younger cousin whose gifts are bestowed upon him during his ceremony, a luxury Mirabel did not receive.
Although he and Mirabel have a strong relationship, Mirabel cannot help feeling iced out when she watches her family praise Antonio’s new gifts after instructing her to stay out of the way. When I watched that, it brought back childhood memories of my own Abuela wondering why I wasn’t as skinny, athletic or high achieving as my older sister.
The riff between Isabela and Mirabel felt all too real as I reflected on the sibling rivalry my sister and I had to overcome. In the same way that Mirabel felt jealous about Isabel’s life seeming perfect, I too had to grapple with my own feelings of inadequacy. Yet, when they finally address these issues, Mirabel learns that Isabela’s life is not perfect, and it’s all perception. Similarly, when my sister went through mental health trials, I learned that all that glittered was never gold.
By the end of the movie, Mirabel must learn to trust herself and believe in her own gift, which is supporting her family. To some, she is next in line to be a Madrigal Matriarch, which is why Abuela is so hard on her.
I remember when I “turned red.” I was 13, and it was overwhelming. While watching the movie, I resonated with Mei’s shock, anger, discomfort, and sadness. To me, this film perfectly encapsulated the anxiety of experiencing puberty.
As a Black woman, there are parts of the film I cannot relate to, but I don’t take offense in that because I understand that this movie was written primarily for East Asian girls growing up in Toronto. At the same time, I can appreciate the film as what director Domee Shi calls “a love letter to puberty.”
For an ethnic girl, puberty is a trying time.
Not only are we experiencing new hormones and changes in our bodies, but we also experience changes in our responsibilities. Since we are getting older, there are new expectations for us. In the words of my own grandma, there is a certain way that a lady is supposed to behave. As a young lady, we have to be cognizant of the way we dress – so that we’re not “putting ourselves in danger” (from an apologists’ perspective), we have to be mindful of the way we eat, the books we read, the shows we watch, etc.
For Mei Lee, this was controlling the music she listened to. In “Turning Red,” all Mei wanted was to attend a 4*Town concert. 4*Town is a fictional boy band making its rounds to Toronto when the movie takes place, but Ming Lee, Mei’s mom, regards the music as smut.
In Ming’s view, it would be more proper for Mei to help with the temple, get straights As, and follow the dreams Ming set for her. While this is fine for Mei at first, this all changes when she discovers her inner Panda, a metaphysical symbol of menstruation.
She begins wanting things that her mom does not, which causes her to be defiant. While some pushed back on this idea of a child defying their parent, this is a natural part of adolescence – wanting to set your own path. Yet, in ethnic families, this becomes a point of contention.
In an article for Vice, Doris Lam stated, “Filial piety is a concept common to many Asian households, wherein children are expected to honour [sic] their parents in all their actions. Experts say it’s not always healthy.”
For Black households, there are similar issues. “It has been suggested that within African American families, an extremely high value is placed on respecting, obeying, and learning from elders in the kinship network and community,” wrote Sara Villanueva Dixon, Julia A. Graber, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn.
To Peter Pischke, “[t]he fear of offending woke creators means [Disney’s] production leaders cannot say ‘no’ to bad ideas.”
Was it a bad idea to talk about a young girl experiencing puberty at a time when women’s reproductive organs are being politicized and weaponized? I don’t think so. Similarly, was it a bad idea to make a movie about violence and intergenerational trauma as it affects a Colombian family? Given the issues that people of Latine descent have faced in the Trump and post-Trump era, this is not a bad idea.
He additionally cites Sean O’Connell’s now-deleted review, where O’Connell calls Turning Red “limiting.” In the article dek, O’Connell notes, “I am not this film’s target audience.”
My thoughts? Everything is not meant to be for everyone.
O’Connell and Pischke villainize the idea of “wokeness,” but, really, representation should not be politicized. That is, POC-centered stories should be told as often as we tell white-centered stories. In an analysis of O’Connell’s review, Jana J. Monji mentions that white-centered franchises were not bogged down by this same ire.
Where was this vitriol for movies like Toy Story, Cars, Monsters, Inc., and The Incredibles and their lack of POC voices? It doesn’t exist. Yet, when POC begin to be represented for the first time ever, it poses a problem for white people who “don’t see ourselves.” Newsflash: maybe you aren’t supposed to. ~ℝ
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