Did You Hear? Only Stories About White People Can Be Relatable

According to a recent review, "Turning Red" is limited, unrealistic and difficult to connect with. Not because of the panda thing, mind you. Because it's about a Chinese-Canadian girl.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Mar 11 2022

12 mins read

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Image: Disney

‎I spent a lot of time this week thinking about the times I've been touched by a story, even if I didn’t share the main character’s identity: If You Come Softly, about a Jewish girl and Black boy who fall in love only to be torn apart by police violence, which not only made 13-year-old me ugly cry, but also stands out as one of the first times I saw how art could tackle big, important themes. Born Confused, a South Asian YA novel about a New Jersey teenager trying to find her place, and herself. (Did I ever relate.) Encanto—especially Louisa singing “Under Pressure.” Into the Spider Verse (anyone can be Spider-Man 😭). Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Selena. Pride & Prejudice. Harry Potter. Anne of Green Gables. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Road. Kite Runner

Like so many people from marginalized groups, I learned very early that I didn’t need to experience the world in the exact same way someone else did to empathize with them, much less relate to them. I didn’t need to be Indian-American to understand Born Confused’s Dimple Lala, who’s torn between two cultures, unsure where she fit, but desperate to fit somewhere. Nor did I need to be a white man trying to keep his child alive in a post-apocalyptic world to sob at the end of The Road. (On the train, while commuting. It was… not the best.)

But I guess not everyone has had to do this from a young age. Or at least, film critic Sean O'Connell, managing director at CinemaBlend, certainly didn’t. I know because this week, he published a terrible review of Turning Red, Disney and Pixar’s newest offering, that promptly went viral for its racism and sexism.

O’Connell’s review was distinctly lacking in critical thinking

A little background: Turning Red, which is out on Disney+ today, is the (otherwise very well-reviewed) story of a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Meilin Lee who lives in Toronto circa 2002 and is, like most 13-year-olds, going through it. Think, an overprotective mom, school obligations, the hormonal hellscape that is puberty—oh, and also, she turns into a giant red panda when she gets too excited.

‎But while most of those things seem pretty universal to me, (I’ll give him a pass on the panda thing) O’Connell instead found them—and yes, he explicitly says this—limited, unoriginal, overly specific, unrealistic and difficult to connect with. And… that was basically the whole review. He had very little to say about the animation, writing, voice acting, art direction, cinematography or any other aspect of filmmaking. He mostly just bemoaned director (and Torontonian) Domee Shi’s decision not to centre a white person in her movie about being Asian in Canada before concluding that the movie was not very good and also only for Asians, with the implication that those things were connected.

After a swift backlash, the review was taken down and both O’Connell and CinemaBlend’s editor-in-chief, Mack Rawden, apologized on Twitter. But the Wayback Machine sees all, so here are a few choice excerpts for illustrative purposes (emphasis mine):

“Throughout Turning Red, Domee Shi and her co-screenwriter Julia Cho pepper in jokes and references that will speak directly to teenage girls, be it their bonds over sappy pop songs, or their heated lust for older teen dudes. Without question, Turning Red is the horniest movie in Pixar history, which parents no doubt will find surprising. I recognized the humor in the film, but connected with none of it. By rooting Turning Red very specifically in the Asian community of Toronto, the film legitimately feels like it was made for Domee Shi’s friends and immediate family members. Which is fine… but also, a tad limiting in its scope.”

“By design, Turning Red needs to ramp up its nervous system and plug directly into the mindset of a young woman. It’s … a lot. It demands Turning Red to ramp up to an “11” and stay there. It wore me out.”

‎“There’s an audience out there for Turning Red. And when that audience finds the movie, I’ve no doubt they will celebrate it for the unique animal that it is. In my opinion, however, that audience is relatively small, and I’m not part of it.”

He also accuses Shi of plagiarism, saying, "Turning Red plays like Pixar’s version of Teen Wolf, only with a female protagonist turning into a red panda instead of a wolf. Complete sequences are lifted directly from Michael J. Fox’s underappreciated comedy and translated into animation here." As if the 1985 movie is the only time we've ever seen the 'transforms into a creature when emotional' trope?! Even Monster By Mistake would be a better comparison. (At least it's Canadian.)

Imagine just… admitting you can’t empathize with women or people of colour

O’Connell’s now-deleted tweet promoting his review was equally embarrassing: “Some Pixar films are made for a universal audience,” he wrote. “#TurningRed is not. The target audience for this one feels very specific, and very narrow. If you are in it, this might work well for you. I am not in it. This was exhausting.”

‎Interestingly though, and by his own admission, O’Connell can empathize with non-verbal robots, toys that come to life after children go to sleep, French rats that want to be chefs, monsters of all shapes and sizes and fish. (And, in a bizarre twist, Mexican families.) All of which all says a lot more about O’Connell than it does about the movie. Both his tweet and his review reveal his inability to credibly evaluate stories that don’t centre him. Worse, they hint that IRL, he’s not interested in trying to understand what it’s like to move through the world as a non-white, non-male person, and in fact that he thinks those experiences (and by extension those people) are inherently less valuable than the ones he can relate to. I mean… could he more clearly communicate that he doesn’t think women are funny, or that Asian people’s experiences are important? Annoyingly, he also makes it clear that he thinks teen girls are ‘too much,’ a charge that has been levied at young women for practically ever and is only ever intended to make them stay quiet and take up less space.

‎This is all infuriating and deeply problematic, but I keep getting stuck on the unfairness of it all. Racialized people have to empathize with people who don't look like us, people who don't have the same experiences that we do, often people who actively oppress us—in school and at work and even in our entertainment, but this guy, who can relate to all sorts of non-human things, can’t apply that same compassion to a young Asian girl? Really?

The movie’s cast agrees; O’Connell’s review dropped on the same day that the movie premiered in Toronto, and when asked about it, they made powerful points about just how wrong he was. "This is a coming-of-age film; everyone goes through this change,” Rosalie Chiang (Meilin) told CBC. “I think different people of different cultures are going to go through it differently, but at the end of the day, the core messiness and change is something everyone can relate to." Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Priya) also weighed in, describing “the story of Lee's friends and family as ‘universal,’ and [stressing that] many people will be able ‘to relate to Meilin's story, regardless of whether you are a young Chinese girl from Canada or not.’”

This goes beyond one review—and one critic

O’Connell’s review also raises questions about the power of critics in general. CinemaBlend’s editor-in-chief claimed that the piece hadn’t been properly edited before publication. Putting aside the flawed idea that an edit could have fixed its sexist and racist premise, I find it striking that he had the influence to post an unedited review in the first place. How many racialized critics even have full-time jobs, much less the institutional power to publish pieces that aren’t edited, even for spelling and grammar, by another editor?

‎That is a rhetorical question, because we already know the answer: very few. A 2020 study out of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found there are almost twice as many male reviewers as there are female ones and that racialized people remain drastically underrepresented. “Some 70% of female reviewers are white, 23% are women of color, and 7% have an unknown racial/ethnic identity, while 73% of male reviewers are white, 18% are men of color and 9% have an unknown racial/ethnic identity,” according to a USA Today article about the study.

That has real consequences. Implicit bias exists, and critique and curation are especially vulnerable to its effects. In fact, “the over-representation of men as film reviewers, coupled with the fact that a higher proportion of their reviews focus on male-driven stories and films directed by men, advantage those films by giving them greater visibility in the critical marketplace," study author Martha Lauzen told the paper at the time.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say that racialized or female critics would go easier on movies by and about racialized and female people. I’m saying a more diverse pool of critics would be better equipped to fairly and credibly critique these films—and more likely to shape interesting and important conversations about them. As Chicago Tribune TV and film critic Nina Metz argued in 2018, after another study found 82% of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes appeared to be written by white people and 78% by men, “good reviews don’t guarantee box office or Oscars, but they can influence whether audiences even consider seeing a film in the first place—and what they’re talking about afterward.” She gives the example of a 2017 screening of Blade Runner 2049, where she was struck by two things: the way the movie objectified women and how few non-white people existed in this vision of the future. “I was curious to see how critics digested this imagery—what they had to say about it,” she wrote. “Turns out, not much. At least among the first reviews that went up from prominent outlets. If you Google the film’s title and ‘sexism,’ you’ll find a number of stories that actually talk about this aspect of the film. They’re primarily written by women.”

‎“When we talk about the need for a more diverse corps of film writers, we’re talking about impact,” she goes on. “And white men are over-represented in their impact—when in truth, a multiplicity of viewpoints makes for a more vibrant conversation overall.”

And btw, these conversations really matter—especially right now

Clearly, ‘representation’ doesn’t just mean who’s on-screen or even behind the scenes. It also extends to who shapes our ideas and reactions to stories. At their best, reviews offer important context and prompt insightful questions.

That's absolutely the case here; I found culture journalist Diep Tran's review of the movie, which focuses on Asian kids' relationships with their parents and how the movie tackles the Tiger Mom trope, so insightful. Ron Seoul-Oh's review gives great context about the movie's anime-inspired aesthetic and argues that some characters, including Meilin's dad, are disappointingly one-note. And New York Times critic-at-large Maya Phillips' review thoughtfully questions whether Turning Red tackles or fulfills problematic stereotypes about Asian women.

There’s another important piece of context that I’m sure O’Connell didn’t even think about: Turning Red is a joyful story about a Chinese-Canadian girl that is being released at a really difficult time for Asian people, and especially Asian women. This year has already seen a tide of hate crimes against Asian women: in January, Michelle Alyssa Go was pushed to her death at Times Square subway station. In February, Christina Yuna Lee was followed to her apartment in New York City’s Chinatown and fatally stabbed more than 40 times. The same month, a man attacked seven women in two hours in Manhattan. And anti-Asian hate crimes continue to rise across North America (San Francisco alone has seen a 567% increase).

As AV Club’s review of the movie points out, “in a time when Asian women in North America have endured so much hate and trauma, Turning Red is a little respite that celebrates them and their culture, resilience, intelligence, perfectionism, insecurities, anxieties, quirkiness, feistiness, ingenuity, sisterhood, love of food, etc. We all need a little reassurance once in a while to stay true to ourselves, and Turning Red is speaking directly to generations of Asian women in the diaspora when they need to hear this the most.” 

‎But I’d argue it’s not only important for Asian women in the diaspora to see their humanity celebrated; it’s important for everyone to connect with other human stories, regardless of their own identity. That’s why I take issue with O’Connell’s assertion that the audience for Turning Red is small. As so many of us learned as kids, if we only watch movies about people who look like us, we'd miss out on so many great stories.


And Did You Hear About…

New York Times’ chief television critic James Poniewozik on Putin, Zelensky and the performance of leadership (not to mention masculinity).

Kim K’s, um, ‘advice’ for women who want to get ahead.

This incisive piece by Kelli María Korducki on the particular brand of burnout women without kids face during COVID.

Vogue's decision to edit out—then reinstate—references to Palestine in an Instagram post and article about Gigi Hadid's charitable donations.

This smart analysis of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia, what the league’s shockingly low salaries have to do with it.

Bonus: Naima Cochrane’s extremely long, extremely entertaining Twitter threads breaking down the two things taking over my TikTok feed this week: a conspiracy theory about a cult that targets dance influencers and the relationship drama between Chelsea Hart and Lance Tsosie, TikTokers who built their brands on activism and are now being messy on everyone's For You page.

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Turning Red
Sean O'Connell
Domee Shi